Vega Subramaniam is a member of the AAPIP-DC chapter and a founding steering committee member of Rainbow Dragon Fund, an AAPIP giving circle that aims to increase social justice philanthropy supporting queer Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities in the D.C. metropolitan area. As a nonprofit consultant with Vega Mala Consulting, she offers strategic program guidance and team-building facilitation for organizations and productivity coaching for individuals.
You know what’s more invigorating than being surrounded by fellow philanthropists of color working toward inclusivity and representation? Pretty much nothing. I, for one, felt the heady energy of our AAPIP family at the AAPIP Network Convening on the eve of the JAG Unity Summit in Washington, DC, on June 6, 2014.
What kept us inside the hotel on a glorious summer afternoon was our shared desire to get real with each other about how dismally few philanthropic dollars go to our communities (still!), and what more we can do to up our game. AAPIP Board Chair Beadsie Woo and Executive Director Peggy Saika framed the conversation by reminding us that, after 20 years of JAG’s existence, the work of democratizing philanthropy has barely begun. With a long journey head, we must continue to create opportunities to bring our experiences and expertise to decision-making tables relevant to our communities.
Why it matters: Interview with Saket Soni (moderated by Shruti Garg)
Saket Soni’s story of organizing South Asian guestworkers in Louisiana was less about their plight, though that was insightful (and harrowing) enough, and more about the necessity, the urgency of uniting across racial and social class lines. Because you know what? There are deliberate, even insidious, forces separating us and stoking our fears and resentments. In this context, with ever-increasing numbers of global workers, so many of whom are guestworkers from Asian countries with unconscionably low wages and even fewer protections, what does responsive philanthropy look like? How do we make sure our lens of “shared prosperity” captures everyone, especially the most vulnerable in our communities, especially when that requires transcending the conflicts within our communities?
What would your answer be to this question: can we be authentic as people of color in philanthropy? After an afternoon of grappling with that very question, we arrived at no clear answer. Maybe there is none. I’m left feeling that each of us does one of two things: we make peace with the inherent contradictions and decide it’s worth it to advance our cause, or we leave.
So then the question becomes: we’re staying, so how do we maintain our sanity and successfully shift more funding from entrenched foundations toward communities of color? One word: stealth. OK, two words: stealth and strategy. First, we wear pearls (no, really. Know which cards to bring out when, and that includes knowing how to dress for the part. So when you want to get things done and are trying to get heard and seen, you sometimes have to bring out your pearls. And yes, that’s a metaphor hashtag wearpearls). Second, we find allies in high places and choose our battles. Foundations claim lofty values of “inclusion” and “diversity,” so then we present undeniably strong proposals from organizations that, oh look, just happen to work in communities of color. Bottom line: you want to be effective? Be strategic.
Also, find a mentor. Someone who’s been there/done that and has managed to hold onto their social justice values. They’re the ones who’ve figured out how to maintain their sanity in the grantmaking world while funneling money toward our communities. If we’re going to do this, we need to learn from them.
Our society is experiencing seismic demographic shifts. It’s high time philanthropy caught up. The wake-up call is how little the needle has moved in 20 years and how much louder our voices need to be. Whether we join a giving circle in our community (holla!), donate more to our organizations of choice, or shake it up at the foundations that employ us, we need to be far more ambitious if we want to see true investment in the dreams and challenges of our beloved communities.