By Dana Kawaoka-Chen and Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano
In the field of philanthropy, perhaps more so than in other fields, we talk a lot about legacy, usually as it relates to money, institutional longevity for purposes of notoriety, or transitions in leadership. Sadly, conversations about legacy and leadership rarely go beyond transition plans, depriving our movement from exponentially strengthening our capacity for, and practice of, shared leadership and self-determination. This is a problem. This is also an opportunity for us to continue moving toward deeper democracy.
This past year marked the 10-year anniversary of Justice Funders’ founding. As we reflected on the prior decade and imagined the journey ahead, we found ourselves with the opportunity to also contemplate our roles as the organization’s Executive Director and Deputy Director. We named the hopes we have for our impact within and outside of Justice Funders and asked ourselves how we could best serve as leaders of this growing decade-old organization. This introspection emerged from a year-long process of dialogue and learning that our team has been engaged in as we continue working to deepen alignment of our organizational culture and structure to reflect the principles of a Just Transition.
As the Justice Funders staff considered organizational structures that would better embody shared values and move us further in the direction of our vision, a co-directorship model arose as the direction toward which our team wished to migrate. Prior to this decision, Dana had served as the founding Executive Director and Lorenzo as Deputy Director, having joined the organization in July 2020. Although we had developed a strong relationship of trust and mutual respect in the first few months working together, understood the ideological importance of the proposed move towards a co-directorship model, and agreed with the team’s decision, accepting the opportunity and — perhaps more importantly, the responsibility to co-lead Justice Funders, required each of us to think deeply about what our individual and collaborative leadership legacy would be.
Admittedly, we both entered this prospective partnership scarred, each of us with our own history of headache and heartache experienced over our years in the field. In executive roles for other non-profit organizations, we experienced first hand the challenge of applying values-aligned practices in non-liberatory systems and often at a great cost to each of us as individual leaders attempting to model and practice a praxis for leading that didn’t require sacrificing our beliefs for resources and wins. But more so, I think we were also cautious about whether we had learned and healed from past disappointments, failures, and losses to be able to take on new roles together.
This evolution of Justice Funders provided us with the opportunity to live into the vision for a Just Transition and actualize the shared values we have held for movement organizations.
Having both become Executive Directors of different organizations at the age of 25, each of us would transition out of those roles, swearing to never be an Executive Director again. Yet, both would find ourselves serving as Executive Directors, again, for different organizations over the next 20 years. Despite the eventual return to the role, we continued to face the same underlying conditions that had made the 27-year-old versions of ourselves crave structures capable of, and committed to, facilitating interdependent and non-extractive feminist leadership praxis. Through the years, this remained an unfulfilled longing.
Although neither of us could fully articulate all the whys we grappled with in our late 20s, we both knew that as young people of color leading community-based organizations working for transformative change, we were set-up to fail — funders, not disinvested in community members’ agency determined priorities; non-profit structures defaulted decision-making power to elder, established leaders to serve as board members, and or lacked the infrastructure to support young people as board members. As young people ourselves, leading a youth and queer people of color organization, respectively, we experienced the irony of what we espoused to the very people we served — belief in their agency and power — while internally we questioned whether there was the same belief and trust in our leadership.
In the successive years, each of us navigated our own learning and continued professional development through credential and graduate studies, granting us the kinds of educational pedigrees that facilitated professional advancement in the non-profit industrial complex, the very field — mired in capitalist, extractive systems — in which we began our careers and came to despise for its cruelty and false solutions.
Serving in subsequent roles leading other organizations, we continued to run against the contradictions between our values and the structures we would squeeze ourselves into.
Facing the irony that we seek to create change while the inherent nature of our positions as “executives” is the byproduct of the extractive systems we seek to change. Every day, trying to make sense of — or make do within — roles that serve as gatekeepers and power-hoarders. We found ourselves othering and being othered by design. This dynamic created an unbearable cognitive dissonance for each of us as we struggled with these contradictions: trying to create systemic change through our roles, while the very systems we operated within were incapable of allowing, much less facilitating, the conditions for us to root our leadership practice in the values that brought us to this work to begin with. Now, understanding the origins of the non-profit and philanthropic industrial complex, we have the tremendous opportunity to co-create what we wished we had many years ago.
Recently, the editors at NonProfit Quarterly wrote, “Local solutions, multiplied worldwide, have brought us closer to answering the hardest questions of fairness, justice, and sustainability. We must also practice democracy in our everyday lives, within our organizations, by recognizing our privileges and embracing the anti-racist, anti-colonial work needed for a deep paradigm change.” This resonated deeply with us as we have been in the planning stages of this partnership for months. While each of us carries multiple traumas, we carry privilege as well.
As stewards of an organization working for a Just Transition for philanthropy by redistributing wealth, democratizing power and shifting economic control to communities, we understand that we, too, must create the organizational conditions to facilitate a Just Transition.
Living into the values of upholding self-determination and deep democracy, we see our purpose as co-directors to cultivate the organizational conditions, culture, and practices for us to create shared analysis and mechanisms to co-govern resources — human and financial. Particularly, to demystify what is typically seen as “executive experience” so that our team, composed primarily of people-of-color have access to information and the know-how by actually engaging in shared decision-making, to not just pursue these kinds of positions if desired, but, more importantly, to understand how these systems work and be a part of co-creating the alternative. This is the leadership legacy that we hope our co-directorship has for Justice Funders.
Dana Kawaoka-Chen & Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano are Co-Directors at Justice Funders.
With special thanks to Pamela Chiang for her coaching and support of the both of us in preparation for our transition into our co-directorship.