Better and Stronger Together: A Conversation About Being Justice Funders

By Laila MehtaPosted under What is a Justice Funder?

The following is a conversation between Alice Y. Hom, Director of the Queer Justice Fund, and Laila Mehta, Director of the Civic Engagement Fund from Asian Americans Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) about what they learned from their programs and as justice funders.


Alice: At AAPIP, we have programs that provide grants and capacity building spaces to community organizations. Whenever we work with community organizations, we highlight the fact that AAPIP isn’t a typical funder; we aim to inform and engage philanthropy (institutions, people) about diverse AAPI and AMEMSA community organizations and about the impact that small but strategic grants can have.  


Laila: Yes, in fact one thread among our programs – what we call incubations – is that they each started based on deep and broad conversations with sets of communities about their challenges and their aspirations for educating and advancing their constituencies. AAPIP’s programs have brought together organizations that use different approaches – such as organizing, policy advocacy, leadership development, arts and culture – as part of their cultural change work, within their own communities and across communities to build a broader base. Foundations do not fund the needed cultural change work that underpins the outcomes they want to see in the form of policy or legislative wins. Philanthropy recognizes that U.S. demographics are rapidly changing, but what are we doing to meet both the emerging issues and the enduring challenges? How are we supporting new leaders that innovate, but who aren’t labeled ‘entrepreneurs’?


Alice: That’s right, and that’s the continual challenge. There does seem to be more conversation around movement building, which is a step in the right direction. But it seems to be bound by what funders want to achieve as an end goal – the policy win for example – instead of being based on what the organizations see as advancements in their communities. Through the Queer Justice Fund, I work closely with LGBTQ AAPI groups and I’ve learned that the impact an organization makes through community organizing and leadership development isn’t always the kind of impact a funder might desire. Justice funding pays attention to and values cultural transformation and sees it just as important as policy advocacy.


Laila: I think the field gets stuck in semantics. I run the Civic Engagement Fund, so named because not all the organizations focus on political participation. It was because each organization, no matter what their issue or approach, creates opportunities for communities they work with to provide spaces they feel safe in, to volunteer, to become informed about their rights, to learn about the political process, or to understand their struggle as part of a larger system that they can then find solutions for their issues. The organizations framed and articulated what they saw as ‘wins’ along a long continuum. That’s a justice-oriented way to fund. That should be as relevant to an immigration funder, as it is to an education funder or an arts and culture funder.  A justice funder is one that has an understanding of an intersectional framework and not one that is siloed or separate.  There are connections to be made.


Alice: That’s why we decided to bring our respective LGBTQ AAPI and AMEMSA cohorts together – to learn about each other’s strategies, to see how both Islamophobia and homophobia restrict and silence their communities, and to begin discussing avenues for raising the consciousness of the overlaps in issues and needs. Bringing together our cohorts provided our community partners with a space to talk about subject matter that was not always easy to bring up. We learned that creating a space to talk, listen and share is just one part of the process and that there needs to be more than talk. But first you have to build trust and a relationship and that takes time. A justice funder is a partner and will be there for the long haul; not just 12 months and expect big things to happen in a year.  We recognize that community members are the ones to drive the process and are the ones to create the solutions.


Laila: AAPIP does play a unique role in bringing people together to talk about the strategies needed to make impact that’s defined by those who are doing the work. We’ve talked about how we do that in our programs with grantee partners. We would love to continue to do that with our members and philanthropy partners and build a stronger network of justice funders. We need to do this because we are better and stronger together.  


Alice Y. Hom is responsible for philanthropic advocacy for LGBTQ AAPI communities and issues and the implementation of QJF BRIDGE, a capacity building program focusing on LGBTQ and ally AAPI organizations.  Previous to AAPIP, Alice was the founding Director of the Intercultural Community Center at Occidental College, where she focused on issues of diversity and social justice.  In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown appointed her to the Cal Humanities board.  She is the co-editor of “Q & A: Queer in Asian America.”

Laila Mehta is the Director of the Civic Engagement Fund for Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian communities.  She works with funding and community partners to create a learning environment that allows new ideas, energies and leaders to be harnessed.  Her interests lie at the intersections of human rights, social justice and development and has focused on that work for over 15 years both globally and locally.  In the US, she has focused on API groups, women of color, and diverse communities.  In Cambodia, Timor Leste, and Nepal, she centered on governance, gender rights, peace-building and bottom-up policy advocacy.