A Letter from Surina: Celebrating Our Past, Catalyzing Our Future

Our movements have achieved powerful gains since 1979. Yet, alongside those gains, the deep, intersecting currents of gender injustice persist.

Surina Khan, CEO speaking at the WPI-State ’18 Class Graduation Dinner

Written by Surina Khan, CEO — The Women’s Foundation of CA

Last month I celebrated my fourth anniversary as CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California. This milestone is particularly exciting as my fifth year as CEO will coincide with the Foundation’s 40th anniversary in 2019. 
 
When we were founded in 1979, our San Francisco-based founders broke new ground by creating one of the first foundations in the country led by and for women and girls. Women were beginning to take control of their personal finances, and critical feminist movement work was overlooked and underfunded by donors and foundations. Their response? We won’t wait; we’ll do it ourselves! Our founders, including Marya Grambs, Roma Guy, Debbie Lee, Ruth McGuire, and Tracy Gary imagined a new “feminist philanthropy”that would put movement leaders in charge of funding decisions and redistribute resources to transform our own communities. 
 
In 1984, with support from our San Francisco Founders, the Los Angeles Women’s Foundation was founded by a group of women that included Belinda Smith Walker, Jai Lee Wong, Laurie Owyang, Pat Ettienne, Elizabeth Bremner, Brenda Funches and many others who had a similar vision: to fund programs for women and girls in the greater Los Angeles area. In 2003, after decades of working collaboratively, the two merged under the leadership of one of our former CEOs, Patti Chang, to become the Women’s Foundation of California, a statewide foundation that would carry on the vision of our southern and northern California founders. Their vision is as true today as it was in 1979 and 1984.

Our movements have achieved powerful gains since 1979. Yet, alongside those gains, the deep, intersecting currents of gender injustice persist. According to the California Women’s Well-being Index, in California Latina women earn just 43 cents on the dollar compared to cisgender, white men. Nearly a quarter of all women experience delayed medical care, a number that jumps to nearly one-third of Pacific Islander women. All women (cisgender women and especially transgender women), particularly those from communities of color, continue to earn less, experience discrimination and gender-based violence, struggle to find adequate health care, and are underrepresented in positions of public and private sector leadership. 
 
As has been made blatantly clear since the 2016 election (and continues to be illuminated through this week’s attack on transgender communities), the systems we live and work in, and the cultures that shape our experience, are dominated by heteronormative, transphobic, white supremacist, patriarchal norms. With four decades of movement building behind us, the Women’s Foundation of California is prepared to continue pursuing the vision of our founders and advance gender justice for the next 40 years. 
 
The unique role of women’s funds is more important than ever. We recognize that today’s political, economic, and social climate presents critical challenges and unprecedented opportunities. We are committed to the same core motivations of our founders: to increase resources to strengthen the movement; to train community leaders to change the systems of power; and to strengthen the connective fabric for allies and co-conspirators across issues, sectors, and generations who will create a stronger and more just California by coming together. 
 
Our Invest | Train | Connect strategies will achieve the greatest results for building community power and position us to fiercely defend progress and relentlessly advance justice in California:
 
INVEST: Our Community Power Fund made a powerful round of grants this summer. Our trust-based funding process models for the philanthropic sector simplified applications and reporting processes that remove burdensome requirements for our partners. It allows our partners to focus on building community power rather than filling out unnecessary forms. This summer we made $440,000 in grants to support 18 new and longtime partners who are advancing community-led gender justice work. Read more.
 
TRAIN: This year we celebrated the 15th year of WPI-State and 500 members of our WPI Alumni Network. This past year, our WPI-State fellows advocated for groundbreaking policies that sought to expand access to abortion and lactation accommodations for college students, reformed the sentencing policies that fuel mass incarceration, increased housing protections for survivors of violence, expanded healthcare accessibility and reduced penalties that drive communities into poverty. This year’s WPI fellows truly stepped into their power and their contributions are rippling throughout the state. Five out of six teams made it to the Governor’s desk and three bills were signed into law, bringing the total number of WPI bills signed into law to 35 over the last 15 years. As Senator Holly J. Mitchell said to the incoming 16th class of WPI fellows, “WPI has been responsible for passing more legislation than any other effort of its kind in Sacramento.” Read more.
 
CONNECT: The Foundation was founded to channel the power of collective change. Throughout the year we brought together community leaders, including WPI fellows and alums, donors and policy leaders, advocates, grant partners and grantmakers in a variety of convenings and learning opportunities all focused on creating the strongest movement for gender, racial, and economic justice in California. Our work with the National Collaborative of Young Women’s Initiatives exemplifies our commitment to connecting movement leaders for greatest effect. Read more.

Surina Khan, CEO speaking at the WPI-State ’18 Class Graduation Dinner

Our founders had a bold and radical vision for feminist philanthropy to move money and build power for cisgender and transgender women, girls, and LGBTQ+ people, particularly those who are people of color. When I became CEO of the Foundation in 2014, I knew that carrying forward that vision would be the greatest honor of my life. Advancing gender justice has been my life’s work, and doing it here in California alongside so many powerful community leaders, funding partners, and colleagues is the greatest privilege of my life. 
 
I will close by lifting up three recent, powerful, examples of our community’s generosity and solidarity in action: first, when we asked you to join us in thanking Dr. Blasey Ford for her courageous testimony on behalf of survivors of sexual violence — and within hours 15,000 of you added your names to our message! Alongside this outpouring of support are two transformational investments in WFC’s mission that are fueling our progress this year: the Foundation’s single largest multi-year gift ever received from an anonymous family foundation; and our Board Chair, Michelle Cale’s $500,000 challenge grant to catalyze new or stretch giving from individuals in our community. This challenge grant will match such gifts dollar for dollar if received by the end of June 2019!
 
Our movements are counting on our unrelenting engagement and support. If you share our sense of purpose, and if you are as inspired as I am by the surge of activism and powerful wins that propel us forward now, I hope you will join us and by investing in the vision of our founders and our enduring stance for gender justice for the next 40 years. 
 
In community,
Surina Khan
CEO
 
PS: Our anniversary campaign will kick off in 2019 with gatherings and special events across the state that will honor our history, increase the visibility of leading voices in our movements now, and raise greater financial assets to ensure the future of this powerful community Foundation. Please be sure to check your inbox and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter so you can join us to celebrate in your area.

Surina Khan is CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California. For almost three decades, Surina has been a leader in the philanthropic and non-profit 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. She is a recognized advocate for gender, racial, and economic justice and a frequent commentator on the power of women’s philanthropy.