Romana Lee-Akiyama is the Director of Grantmaking and Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives at WOMEN’S WAY. WOMEN’S WAY is a powerful voice for women and girls, seeking to create an equitable, just and safe future for all communities in the Greater Philadelphia region. In this dual role, she will be leading all grantmaking efforts of the organization, as well as serving as the chief strategist and advisor in all matters related to diversity and inclusion. Romana is also the co-chair of the Philadelphia Chapter of AAPIP, and played an active role in supporting Hispanics in Philanthropy and other philanthropic leaders of color in the Philadelphia region.
At the beginning of June, I had the privilege of traveling to Washington, D.C. to take part in an AAPIP Convening preceding the Joint Affinity Groups UNITY Summit. One of the very poignant discussions during that meeting was focused on leadership, and what it takes to advance social justice and equity in philanthropy. Since entering philanthropy almost three years ago as a United Way director, I learned many professional and life lessons, particularly about leadership and confidently leading with my own style of leadership.
Prior to entering philanthropy, I spent thirteen years (my entire working life) in the grassroots, community-based nonprofit sector working to empower and advance Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities. I worked at both the local and national levels, and been a voice for vulnerable communities that were disconnected from power and privilege. I entered philanthropy with clear goals and objectives: to advance and empower traditionally underserved communities by connecting them to vital resources.
Imagine my shock and adjustment when entering philanthropy from the advocacy world to discover that there continues to be an egregious amount of underfunding to vulnerable communities – including but not limited to women, Latinos, Asian American, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs), and boys and young men of color.
And imagine my discomfort when I was exposed to the conditions within philanthropy that make these inequities prevalent. I made it my personal mission to raise the reality of these inequities every chance I could. Like clockwork, I continued to ring the bell of alarm to remind colleagues that we were very much missing the mark on making investments that would foster a more just and inclusive society where everyone has a chance to succeed in life.
The challenge for people of color like me – advocates who want to be true to themselves and their social justice values – in a philanthropic setting is that it is very easy to become marginalized and isolated. Thus, one of the reasons why AAPIP as a convener is so valuable – to help us as AANHPI philanthropic professionals crowd-source our issues and help lift up behaviors that are going to get the best results for the communities that we care about, as well as maintain our sanity in the midst of the madness.
I recently left a position at a philanthropic organization to take on a new opportunity, and when I left, I was heartened to receive a card from a close colleague which said the following: “…One of the fundamental things you have imparted on me is the imperative that we all have to remain true and committed to our values and advocate for them whenever possible.” To me, this is the highest honor that I could receive – that my integrity is recognized and admired, and helped others to learn to drive towards that in this world too.
Earlier this month, I started a new position at WOMEN’S WAY as the Director of Grantmaking and Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives. I am thrilled to have found an opportunity where I will be able to focus on the intersectionality of race, gender and other points of difference in our society, all while directing a grantmaking program. Furthermore, I am more than hopeful that I have found an organization that embraces my perspective and my experiences, and believes that I will be an asset. Most importantly, through this journey of searching for my own voice, I now recognize that what I bring truly is a gift, and I can find an organization that will accept it and really value me.