When I entered the field of philanthropy, ten years ago, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. The word “philanthropy” conjured the image of the round elder gentleman with a mustache and top hat who serves as the mascot of the game Monopoly handing out bags of cash as charity.
As a working class Xicana, the practice of philanthropy--of giving and supporting others through the giving of our resources--wasn’t unknown to me, but field and the lexicon were new. I was lucky to land in a progressive philanthropic institution that isn’t shy about explicitly naming the problem it is addressing (structural racism) or about taking direction from those most affected by racism in creating and leading the solutions. The Oakland-based Akonadi Foundation was a very small family foundation when I arrived and I was the first non-family member staff person. I quickly realized that I needed to build a community to learn and grow with if I was going to make meaningful impact.
Several years passed and I attempted to bring together peers of color in the field to provide mutual support, a learning community and a place to share best practices and work through challenges in real time. At the time, my colleague at Akonadi, Leticia Alcantar (who was Akonadi Foundation’s first non-family Executive Director) and Laura Livoti (then at French American Charitable Trust) were inspired by the model of the Social Justice Infrastructure Funders (a national funder formation). Attempting to test the interest of the local philanthropic community for a similar formation at a regional level, I was entrusted with facilitating the first meetings--and found that I needed more help if I was going to be able to keep the momentum going.
On New Year’s Day in 2009, Oakland was shaken to its core when the young Black father, Oscar Grant was killed by Johannes Mehserle, a White BART police officer. Many of us took to the streets calling for swift action to investigate the case and hold Mehserle and the BART police accountable. It was in these days that I saw several of my philanthropic colleagues demonstrating in active engagement against a major crisis of injustice. It was in the Oakland streets that we found each other and the glimmer of a vision for holding a similar space in philanthropy where we could learn from each other, mobilize resources to serve social justice work and be led by movements while doing so began to emerge.
Five of us came together to form the founding Steering Committee of the Bay Area Justice Funders Network: Kazu Haga (who was then at Peace Development Fund), Luke Newton (of Common Counsel Foundation), Carmen Rojas (who was at Mitchell Kapor Foundation) and Vanessa Daniel (of Groundswell Fund).
It has taken me nearly the decade that I have been in philanthropy to help build the kind of community that I wish I had when I started in the field. In the Bay Area Justice Funders Network, I now have a base of colleagues from various kinds of philanthropic institutions that come together to learn from each other, to do better at our work in supporting justice work and to be in a meaningful partnership--in harmony with movement leaders creating beloved communities.
Melanie Cervantes is a Program Officer at the Akonadi Foundation, and a Steering Committee member of the Bay Area Justice Funders Network. Melanie is a graphic artist who creates images that reflect the hopes and dreams of social movements and that catalyze people to action. She is a co-founder of the Dignidad Rebelde, a graphic arts collaborative dedicated to the production of work that translates people’s stories into art that can be put back into the hands of the communities of struggle who inspire it.