AAPIP Voices

If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?: 2018 National Network Convening Keynote


By: Kiran Ahuja, CEO, Philanthropy Northwest

Below is the transcript of the keynote speech at the AAPIP 2018 National Network Convening, presented by Kiran Ahuja, CEO of Philanthropy Northwest. Immediately prior to her role at Philanthropy Northwest, Kiran served in the Obama Administration as Chief of Staff for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and as Executive Director for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

It’s great to be here, speaking to you, now as a colleague inside the philanthropic sector. I’ve known and been involved with AAPIP for a long time, when I was a nonprofit leader and when I served as a political appointee.  My time with AAPIP probably spans 15 years. Just a big thank you to Cora, AAPIP staff, board, and Bay Area chapter for such an amazing set of tours and discussions.

My Story

You know, I never imagined a lot of my life’s work would be to advocate for the AAPI community.  In many ways, I started as a reluctant advocate for the AAPI community. Not that I didn’t care about the community, I just didn’t know it well.  Growing up in Georgia, there were few Asian Americans, or South Asian Americans, and we were hardly large enough to be a political identity.

I attended an historically black college because Spelman was all girls, focused on leadership and had high expectations of its students, and it was a place that I could live an altered reality in the U.S. – where black culture and people were revered and honored.  At law school, I joined the Black Law Students’ Association, because there were only 2-3 Asian American students in my class. In the South, I was not an ethnicity; I was just brown, and so my identity as a person of color evolved first, then came being an Asian American, and then being South Asian. Totally backwards and flipped from what I imagine our most people’s experiences.

I didn’t know the beauty of the west coast and all its Asian American inhabitants until my early 30s! So, when I got recruited to be a part of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum in my late 20s, I was a little reluctant as I mentioned.  I reluctantly attended an initial chapter meeting because I liked the women who were a part of it. At that first meeting, I was reluctantly elected co-chair of the new DC chapter of NAPAWF, not sure how that happened, but the rest is history.

When I became the first executive director of NAPAWF, I was pretty nervous.  I remember I had this panic attack a few days before I started. I learned very quickly that litigation skills do not prepare you for fundraising, and that fundraising for an AAPI-led organization was much harder than fundraising for a mainstream organization.

You know, I had an idealistic sense of the kind of support I could get from foundations – even when I was approaching Asian Americans in philanthropy.  I thought then if I could get in front of a program officer, and talk about the need for such an organization: 1) that there was no national AAPI women-led advocacy/policy organization; 2) that issues impacting AAPI women were critically important and being ignored by the mainstream women’s organizations, and 3) that you had more than a hundred Asian American founding sisters who were well-respected and from all parts of the country who had founded this organization for these very reasons – that I was on my way to making a compelling case – in addition to the quality of our leadership, our strategies, our proposed impact, etc.

This was back in the early 2000s.  In my pitches, I couldn’t get past the fact that program officers knew little about the AAPI community, or thought we were too small of a population nationally to be of significance.  So, when I got the chance to engage with an Asian American program officer, I thought to myself, awesome, I don’t have to make the case about why this community is important, worthy, etc.

But I was unfortunately wrong.  I got the same questions. And so, at that time, the constant question for me was – does it really make a difference that we have more AAPIs in philanthropy, when it was just as or even more difficult to make the case for support?  

In my case, the difference was an African American woman at the Ford Foundation, Barbara Phillips, who had the audacity back then to look at her portfolio when she arrived as the new program officer, and discover that the 60+ women’s organizations that the foundation supported and had supported for a long time, that only 3 were women of color-led.  She had consultants come in and do extensive reports, one that turned into a book by Lora Jo Foo, on Asian American women’s Issues, because there was no research, case study, understanding about the issues and policies impacting women of color. She even held a series of conversations among her grantees and women’s organizations entitled the New Women’s Movement.  It was a sign of the changing landscape, but we weren’t ready for a wholesale change in how we supported women of color.

Barbara was a distinct anomaly back then.  I would hope less so now. And maybe because she was a former civil rights lawyer – had worked for years on voting rights cases – just gave her the disposition and audacity at the time to make changes to the women’s rights portfolio at the Ford Foundation.

Maybe our population was still pretty insignificant in the minds of funders; maybe we didn’t have enough of us in philanthropy.  Maybe it wasn’t time.

Philanthropy Today & The Obama Administration

I am sure we all have a similar story, of that one individual who went against the tide in your organization, and drove resources to a particular community in need that didn’t have the connections, track record, gravitas, wasn’t the “it” thing for that moment, etc., but if that organization or leader was given the opportunity she/he could make a difference in their community and make a strong case for future funding.  Maybe that person I’m talking about is you, maybe a mentor, or a colleague.

No doubt, that person should be celebrated, but we should ask ourselves the harder question – even with all our affinity groups, growing number of organizations serving diverse communities, our U.S. population becoming more diverse by the minute, and more Asian Americans and people of color in philanthropy, why have we not seen significant increases in funding to communities of color and to people of color led organizations – nationally, across the board.

Even today, at the national level, we have a dismal presence of Asian American organizations with significant infrastructure, leadership and impact.

I saw this when I served in the Obama Administration, leading the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and it was a huge barrier to moving the issues we care about – affecting AAPIs. We had our challenges in making the case for the AAPI community among our federal colleagues, and even in the White House.  

I often had to start a lot of my conversations with an AAPI 101 just to give folks a quick primer on the community, and then move into the actual issues or ask. Which community was worse off, when it should have been couched that there are enough resources to go around.  And my goal was to elevate the issues and needs of AAPI communities. It wasn’t easy. Coming from doing AAPI community work, I didn’t want to be a part of anything that was in name only, fake, or went through the motions but did little for the community.

What helped, to some extent, was having AAPIs in key political positions, and allies, and the gravitas of the White House.

The President went to one major conference focused on AAPIs.  And the rest of his engagement with AAPIs, was when he was out here in California for fundraisers.  So, even when we had high level AAPIs in the White House, it didn’t make a difference.

When we were able to coordinate a couple of meetings during my time while there between AAPI leaders and the President, I realized that when advocates sit at the table, without the support of foundation leaders, philanthropists, business leaders and political donors, all speaking in sync about the issues and impact on AAPI communities, we won’t get very far.

But we were constantly trying to be creative.  To have some influence on the philanthropic sector and taking from my experiences as a former nonprofit leader, we partnered with AAPIP to host a White House Philanthropic Briefing on AAPIs and brought over 150 foundation and government leaders to discuss how to increase resources in AAPI communities.  

At the time, it was a huge lift and at the end of the day, to be honest, I am not sure much came from it.  We had lofty goals to gather commitments from foundations to increase their investments in AAPI communities.  I thought what a great opportunity to leverage the work of the White House Initiative to complement the work we had been doing among federal agencies to increase federal resources to AAPI communities.  But even with the force of the Obama Administration it wasn’t enough. Maybe it wasn’t time.

Are We Ready?  Are There Signs of Change?

The question for us today is – are things changing enough within philanthropy and our society, creating conditions and opportunities to move more money to AAPI and other communities of color?  Are we at a tipping point? I would say yes!

We are seeing more foundation leaders of color at the helm or c-suite, and a commitment by some foundation CEOs to diversify their boards.  And an outward commitment by some leaders around racial equity and DEI. We have the establishment of CHANGE philanthropy – an outgrowth of Joint Affinity Groups – that can be an incredible vehicle for this work.

When I was in the Obama Administration, I always said that time and population growth was on our side.  Just as on the tour, we learned that AAPIs make up 11% of the state population, and about 35% of the population in San Fran – that is pretty damn incredible, especially for someone like me coming from the south.

But we are seeing demographic shifts across the country – beyond just the coasts or major cities.  The challenge has been that we are always 20-30 years or more behind in having the population size reflect the resources that reach these communities.  

Even more so, with data disaggregation taking root in states and localities across the country, it is an important development.  Back in the day, we were challenged when we were listed as “other”, and then all as “Asian”, and it was incredibly hard to show the nuances within AAPI communities – the needs, the challenges, even the assets.  That is why it was the number one issue we worked on at the White House Initiative, and could be an important goal or cause that AAPIP could take on, with the impending 2020 Census.

As we know, we are on a steady march to a majority minority country.

And I do believe those numbers are being reflected in the palpable phenomenon taking place among important movements, from Black Lives Matter to MeToo – these issues are not just social justice movements, but issues taking root in the mainstream.  

We are at a moment in which many people (not just us in this room) are discussing how do we finally tackle structural racism, face our sordid history as a country, heal, and rectify these egregious wrongs.  I’ll be back home in Georgia next month, and I am keen on traveling to Montgomery to see the new lynching memorial, which had extensive articles in the Washington Post earlier this week. I would have never dreamed of such a memorial, growing up as kid in the Deep South.

We’ve also seen over the past few years a growing trend in the sector and beyond to center DEI and racial equity.

What Does This Mean for AAPIP and Us?

So, I left NAPAWF, not because I didn’t deeply care about the work, I was so disillusioned in how hard it was to make the case to funders. I treasured my 7+ years inside the Administration, and we had some key victories, like creating a pathway for a fully recognized nation for Native Hawaiians, among other things.  But I also left frustrated and really tired.

I am now in this role within philanthropy.  I am excited to see the interest and commitment in DEI. I agree there are legitimate doubts regarding whether this growing trend and interest will make a difference for our communities and significantly change the culture within philanthropy.  There are also some lingering sticking points and barriers — not enough c-suite leaders of color in philanthropy; not a significant pipeline or support for that pipeline; not enough diversity on foundation boards. And even the recent Board Source report that shared the disturbing news that many nonprofit and foundation leaders do not see lack of diversity among their boards as a critical issue.   

So the question for AAPIP, its leaders, those of us who care about this work and this organization, what are we willing to do collectively. Here are some quick recommendations from me:

I believe this with my full heart, and I know this will pi** folks off in the room.  But you have to bring your full self to your work, position, and organization. You have to be an unabashed champion for AAPI communities and communities of color, or it doesn’t matter how many of us are in philanthropy or government, it won’t make a damn difference.

How can AAPIP and/or CHANGE mentor all the folks coming into philanthropy?  How are we creating and supporting opportunities to position our colleagues for promotions, and moving into leadership positions?

How are we creating real pipelines? One reason I joined Philanthropy NW was because of its Momentum Fellowship program that was created by CEOs in our region – part of our DEI CEO cohort series – to move people of color into philanthropy.  And you know where those fellows are placed mostly – at the same foundations led by these CEOs.

And I know we are making efforts to cultivate giving in our communities.  A phenomenal giving summit in NY in a couple of weeks. Not only is there great poverty, there is great wealth.  And I’ve been talking with wealthy Asians in Seattle to not only find out what they care about, but also bring them into the sphere of the broader philanthropic sector, so we can learn from them, but that they can also influence our peers.

We also have an opportunity with so many of you here in California, part of the Blue Wall, to influence how we do giving with a social justice mindset.  There is amazing work here in California, and what appears to be great support for AAPI organizations – how can that level of commitment, engagement, best practices, etc. be shared with your colleagues across the country?  I would say what is happening here is not happening elsewhere, and that is sometimes the challenge of living in the west coast bubble!

When I worked closely with AAPIP when I led the White House Initiative, we discussed and toyed with putting out a bold number of the kind of resources collectively within our sector we wanted to move over a period of 5-10 years into the AAPI community.  How could we move the needle, and what # could we put out there? Just to put it out there — 25 million? 50 million? 100 million? More?

We felt then that it would be audacious.  Now is the time, I think to be that audacious!

In my short time, in my role, I’ve realized that unlike government or even the nonprofit sector, philanthropy is less accountable or transparent.  You don’t have as much public scrutiny, having to abide by all the official regulations, like we did in government. There is freedom with that, but also more responsibility!  What can AAPIP, CHANGE, all of us do to hold our sector accountable for the kinds of resources that should reach communities of color across this country, to POC-led organizations, to shifting power, addressing structural racism, all of the above?

Do we create a 10-point pledge?  A public commitment that is shared widely and that asks foundations to sign on? Do we set a number or goal? What is our barometer?  We won’t know success, unless we know how to measure it!

So, I do call upon all of you. There is real opportunity. I truly believe that, despite my many years of doing this work. Just like the theme of this talk — If not us, who?  If not now, when?