AAPIP Voices

Badass women of color will blow sh*t up


By Jennifer Choi, Vice President and Chief Content Officer, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP)

On Tuesday, September 19, 2017, I presented on a panel that was curated in partnership with Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy as part of the CHANGE Philanthropy Unity Summit in New Orleans, LA. My colleague at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Caitlin Duffy, moderated a discussion on how to start conversations on equity grantmaking, with fellow panelists Chao Yang (Medtronic Foundation) and Bianca Alston (at the time of the panel at Arcus Foundation, now at The New York Women’s Foundation).

While the conversation was intended to spark recommendations on how to begin a conversation about race at our respective foundations, for me, it quickly turned into a celebration of authentic leadership for catalytic change. And having three women of color sit on this panel, two of whom were Asian – it was not lost on our audience that we three women have carved out our own voices to show up and grow as leaders, despite the cultural and systemic barriers that we faced.

I’m going to focus more on the end and the conversation and relationships that sparked after the panel. I told the story of my experiences starting up the racial equity committee at the foundation for which I worked, with a former colleague in the room. The story had a “so messed up you have to laugh – so you don’t cry” kind of tone to it. Of course after we shared our stories, the three of us and Caitlin high-fived each other in recognition and acknowledgment of our pain, but also to celebrate our triumphs (Bianca announced at the end of our panel that she was hired to be a program officer at the New York Women’s Foundation).

None of us could walk away from our table. Each of us was flooded by audience members who came up to talk to us, showing relief from sharing lived experiences – knowing that we could find humor and power in our shared anger, but also know that we didn’t have to compromise ourselves to be successful leaders. All of a sudden we had a tribe, and it was a party! Chao, Bianca and I immediately connected via Facebook and the hugs didn’t stop.

I had four intense conversations with six women of color after our session… one after the other. Three of the six women were Asian women. Two belonged to a major foundation. I thought to myself, YES, this is a revolution. There are badass, amazing colleagues embedded in these foundations that are inspired by a greater calling to challenge the status quo. We are going to create change that’s actually going to mean a difference around grantmaking for underrepresented populations because we want to keep it real.

But to do this without getting completely burned out (or fired), we not only have to model authenticity and not compromise who we are in our work, but we must also stand up for each other.  As a petite Asian woman in a context where power dynamics are especially prevalent (like at a foundation, for example), it’s easy for my colleagues and bosses to expect me to just get along. I’ve often grappled with choosing between continuing to advance my career without making any waves versus doing the right thing for the right reason.  But while the only times I was able to achieve extraordinary change was by being my authentic self, that road was always fraught with traumatic experiences.  I counted on the advocacy of others to continue to have the energy to stand my ground and be successful. After this session, I was particularly inspired and hopeful that I would not have to continue this critical journey alone.

Jennifer Choi oversees the research and communications work at NCRP, based in Washington DC. Previously, she managed the journalism grants portfolio under the Democracy program, at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation in Chicago, where she also served as co-chair of the Chicago chapter of AAPIP.

Panel photo (Caitlin Duffy, Chao Yang, Bianca Alston, Jenny Choi) courtesy of Tamir Novotny (EPIP)