AAPIP Voices

Conversation with 25 Leaders in Action: Surina Khan


To commemorate AAPIP’s 25 years of building a more democratic philanthropic sector, we asked you to help us identify 25 leaders who are making a difference in your local community and/or nationally. The 25 Leaders in Action honorees represent a diverse group spanning a wide range of organizations, years of experiences, roles and sectors.  We invite you to learn about these outstanding leaders, their inspiring work and what keeps them going in our blog post series.


Surina Khan, CEO, Women’s Foundation of California

1. Why are you passionate about advocating for AAPI communities?

I have dedicated my life to working for social justice and social change. I believe that real change always happens in community; no one individual, no matter how brilliant, can create change on their own. I’ve learned this from personal experience. As with many watershed moments in an Asian woman’s life, mine begins with my mother. When I was in college, I went home to Pakistan for a visit and was greeted by 50 school children sitting and eating lunch in our driveway. My mother had been feeding schoolchildren every day because she noticed that the kids who passed by our house on their way to school were hungry, their noses were runny and some had sores covering their bodies. With time other neighbors joined her. Ultimately, they advocated with the World Food Bank and the World Health Organization asking them to provide free lunches for every schoolchild in Pakistan.

I was so incredibly proud of and inspired by my mother, but it’s something simple she said that set me on this path of social change and social justice. She said: “See how little it takes to give someone a chance in the world?” I learned from my mother that standing by and witnessing suffering, poverty and inequity is not an option. I learned that poverty and inequity are not somebody else’s problem. I learned that I can and must do whatever I can to change things for the better. And I learned that I can’t do it alone. 

2. What do you believe are the most critical issues facing AAPI communities today?

I think the issues that affect AAPI communities are similar to the issues that affect most people: stable employment and economic security, education, safety and health. I think we need to continue increasing civic engagement and participation among AAPI communities. AAPI communities are some of the fastest growing communities in the US and we are growing in influence. Meanwhile, we are also incredibly diverse in our experiences, our languages and our cultures. For me it is extremely enriching to advocate for AAPI communities because I know that by working in our own communities, we can offer more to the broader social justice movement. I see great promise in working across communities and issues to find common values and visions for improving the lives of AAPI communities as well as the lives of the friends, families and communities who support us.

3. In what ways do you strive to address the unmet needs for AAPI communities?

Through my work at the Women’s Foundation of California I strive to address the unmet needs of AAPI communities in two ways: philanthropy and policy. We are investing in and training women to be effective policy advocates and philanthropic leaders to address the most pressing issues affecting women, girls and communities in California. California is an important state for AAPI communities because one third of all Asian American adults live in our state, by far the largest AAPI population in the country.

4. What keeps you inspired?

The next generation of AAPI activists is a true inspiration for me. This summer we were fortunate to host Ally Ang, a Wellesley College junior who interned with us. Ally is an example of the passion that I see in the next generation. She is a proud feminist and queer activist who is always careful to make the connections across issues that affect women and in particular women of color. I know there are many more young AAPI women and men who are looking at issues through an intersectional lens and are motivated and inspired to continue working for social justice—and that is an inspiration for me.

Surina Khan is CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California. For more than two decades, Surina has been a leader in the philanthropic and nonprofit social justice sector starting with local community-based publishing in New England and then shifting to national and global work on an array of social justice issues including women’s rights, LGBT rights, human rights and more.

Before her 2014 CEO appointment, Surina served as a Director in the Democracy Rights and Justice Program at the Ford Foundation where she shaped more than $30 million in annual grantmaking around the world to expand rights for women, LGBT people, people living with HIV/AIDS, and in the area of strengthening democratic participation and governance. Previous positions include Vice President of Programs at the Women’s Foundation of California and Executive Director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. 

She currently serves on the Boards of Alliance for Justice, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Surina is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Campaign for College Opportunity, the Ambassador Council for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and a member of the Public Policy Committee for Southern California Grantmakers.