Thomas C. Layton, President and Stacie Ma’a, Vice President of the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation received AAPIP’s second annual Banyan Tree Award.
The Banyan Tree Award is presented to an individual or institution within philanthropy with a demonstrated commitment to Building Democratic Philanthropy. In Tom’s acceptance speech, he shares his personal journey and commitment to values that we admire.
Thank you Peggy for your more than generous words and your wonderful friendship and support over all these years. There is simply no way I can overstate how fortunate and appreciative I am to have you in my life. I am also beyond delighted to share this honor with Stacie Ma’a who really has been my partner at the Gerbode Foundation for the past 14 years. The foundation couldn’t be more fortunate to have Stacie as its new leader when I retire at the end of the year. Stacie will have plenty of challenges, not the least of which will be bringing along some new board members and trying to deal with the consequences of what might most generously be called my thirty-eight years of an ad hoc management style.
I thought in my few minutes, if you will forgive me for being a bit personal, I would make some very brief comments on my experience… and my feelings… about the world of identity affinity groups in the field of philanthropy generally and AAPIP specifically.
I am a guy who grew up on the rough tough streets of Carmel, California with all the diversity that suggests. I went to a boarding school that was all boys and all white. I started college in 1961 with my sort- of roommate, Henry. Henry was the son of a Ugandan diplomat and was the first black person with whom I had ever had a personal friendship. At that time there were more African students than there were African American students in my college. That was the year that Ugandan got its independence from Great Britain and it was the year that the freedom riders were returning to college and university campuses from the South. I, and many of my friends, were immediately bitten by the Civil Rights bug, the social justice bug, later the anti Viet Nam war bug… and so it went. I will spare you any of the many stories I enjoy telling about the time. It is enough just to say that while I had the chance to meet and know many different sorts of people my actual work colleagues remained overwhelmingly white and male. After my last job, working on the attempted impeached of Richard Nixon, I was recruited to the Gerbode Foundation in early 1975. Little did I know that impeachment would turn out to be a growth industry in America.
In 1975 the foundation world was tiny. In the Bay Area when the so called “professional staff” of funders convened we were a group of about 15 if everyone showed up. Almost all were male and certainly almost all were white. There were no Asians or Pacific Islanders in sight. Even in Hawaii, the source of the Foundation’s wealth, the four or five foundation staff worked out of banks and trust companies and all were white.
In 1976 I attended my first Council on Foundations conference. It was here in Chicago at the Hyatt. There were no more than a few hundred in attendance and it was a sea of white male faces…faces that looked pretty old from a 33 year old’s perspective. As I wandered around I saw a table with a sign on it that said “ABFE” Association of Black Foundation Executives. I learned that it had been started a couple of years prior by Jim Joseph the head of the Cummings Engine Foundation. It would later be recognized as the first affinity group of the Council and Jim, who became a good friend, would later become the Council’s President and later still, after Nelson Mandela was released from Robin Island and elected president, the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa.
Well, ABFE looked like the most interesting thing going on at the Council meeting so I sat down at the table and said I wanted to join. I got the kind of questioning look that only a boy from Carmel couldn’t quite interpret, paid my $25, and joined. Now I will admit that I was naive… but not so naive that I thought I was a Black Foundation Executive. ABFE was strictly an organization of members. There were no institutional supporters or affiliates so there was really no other way to get on the mailing list. The internet wouldn’t show up for another 15 or 20 years. I wanted to find some way of building relationships with black colleagues that wasn’t restricted to the applicant and grantee world. And I wanted to attend a few events… if it didn’t appear inappropriate. Beyond that it seemed to me that the ABFE agenda was our own agenda even if neither of our staff of two were black nor did we have any black board members.
The next day I saw some signs pinned up on the walls saying “Women… come to room so and so at such and such a time to discuss organizing”. Well, clearly these Council on Foundation’s meetings were looking much more interesting than I had anticipated. The women’s agenda would be our agenda too. Of course I showed up at the appointed room at the appointed time and was surprised to be told that I couldn’t enter. Women only. That was a definite learning moment for me. And that was the beginning of Women& Philanthropy which became by far the largest of the affinity groups. It produced an important body of research, published articles, recruited and trained advocates, and had a real impact on the field. It is hard to appreciate now how few and far between women involved with organized philanthropy were let alone women of color. The irony was that some years later I joined the board of Woman & Philanthropy. For my first 3 year term I was the only man on the 24 person board. I am embarrassed to admit that, during my 2nd term, when we elected a second man, I was a little ambivalent about it. As other identity affinity groups came on the scene and women’s numbers began to grow on foundation’s staffs and boards the Woman & Philanthropy agenda became incorporated into the agendas of other affinity groups and Women & decided to close its doors rather than compete…
And so it went. I joined AAPIP, I joined HIP, I joined Native Americans in Philanthropy, and I joined Gays and Lesbians in Philanthropy. Some thought that I was I was a guy who was hopelessly confused about his identity at best and perhaps insensitive at worst. Most foundations wouldn’t support identity affinity groups, or any other affinity groups, unless they had staff members who shared the identity or worked in the relevant program area. It always seemed to us that sharing values was enough of a reason to support good work even if we didn’t share an identity. We also got involved with some of the new affinity groups that focused on programmatic areas with which Gerbode was involved. One day one of our board members asked me if I had ever met an affinity group that I didn’t like. “well”, I responded, “not really”. When JAG came along… Joint Affinity Group…an affinity group of affinity groups… I thought “Great…sign me up!” Well, since then we have backed off a bit from some of our support of affinity groups but the affinity group addiction has been tough for me to kick. And I know for sure that, in spite of my many involvements over the years, it has been thanks to the identity affinity groups that much of my learning and professional development has taken place. Especially thanks to AAPIP.
I had the good fortune of being at a foundation whose work was focused in the SF Bay Area and Hawaii in the mid 1970’s, just as the nonprofit world was beginning explosive growth. The Asian American community was organizing on all fronts and nowhere more so than in the Bay Area. In Hawaii the Native Hawaiian Sovereignty movement was beginning to find powerful leaders and new voices. It was all very exciting and held great promise. But there were still really almost no Asian Americans… let alone Pacific Islanders, working in organized philanthropy. I know this not just from my observations but because we funded some research looking for them. My learning about these communities and their struggles was thanks first to many of the early organizers and activists… none of whom, by the way, were more important than hopelessly modest Peggy Saika. Finally, as a few AAPI grant- making colleagues emerged, my horizons broadened… and AAPIP was founded in 1990. Since then AAPIP has given me, and the foundation… an important vehicle through which to develop colleagues, friends and mentors from whom to learn and with whom to work and plot. I have even had opportunities to be an AAPIP mentor myself (really more of a mentee masquerading as a mentor in my case). And, by the way the food at AAPIP events wasn’t bad either.
It goes without saying but I will say it anyway… trusting, supportive, authentic relationships are as critical to our work as they are to our lives. AAPIP helps develop, nurture and support those relationships. AAPIP also has given the Foundation an important vehicle through which to promote our own deeply held and shared values. AAPIP’s extraordinary diversity, inclusion and reach were and are a perfect fit for us. Wide participation, democratic values, inclusion and a broad world view. That sounds pretty good to us.