Asian American Leaders In A Moment Of Pride And Peril - Featuring Don Chen, Surdna Foundation and Taryn Higashi, Unbound Philanthropy
Growing up in central Georgia during the 70s and 80s afforded limited exposure to Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and cultures beyond cartoons that featured offensive misappropriation of Asian culture and narrow sidekick roles for characters. While today’s popular culture provides a broader and more inclusive slate of images and stories for people of Asian descent, progress remains insufficient and slow.
The false narratives, stereotypes, and divide-and-conquer tactics that have been used to dehumanize Asian Americans are the same used to marginalize Black, Latinx, and Native Americans. They sow seeds of mistrust that grow into weeds of antipathy toward people of color. But in this moment, as some use COVID-19 as an excuse to engage in deplorable anti-Asian bigotry and xenophobia, those of us who know the pains of discrimination and exclusion must support our AAPI colleagues, friends and neighbors. We stand united in celebration of their communities and contributions, and in opposition to those who would see us splintered by hate.
In Solidarity With AAPI Philanthropy Leaders
Many philanthropic organizations are living their values during this health pandemic by funding COVID-19 initiatives that show support for AAPI communities. For example, hundreds of philanthropic organizations and leaders, including the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, co-signed Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy’s letter calling for a philanthropic response to the violence and hate directed at Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Those of us who know the pains of discrimination and exclusion must support our AAPI colleagues, friends and neighbors.”– Loren Harris, Chief Program & Strategy Officer, Kenneth Rainin Foundation
I draw inspiration and insight from the timely leadership and critical voices of the diverse and talented AAPI leaders in this moment; in particular, Kara Inae Carlisle, Vice President of Programs, McKnight Foundation; Cathy Cha, President and CEO Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund; Don Chen, President and CEO, Surdna Foundation; and Taryn Higashi, Executive Director, Unbound Philanthropy. In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I spoke with these four leaders and the following are highlights from our conversations.
How did your career path lead to your current role working to advance equity and opportunity?
Kara Inae Carlisle (KIC): As a young adult, I began to wrestle more consciously with what it meant to be Korean American, eventually leading me to Koreatown, Los Angeles. Working alongside young adults with childhoods altered by the devastating effects of Sa-i-gu, or the Civil Unrest of 1992, I began to see more clearly the impact racism had on communities when built into the economic policies, public narratives, and the social and cultural patterns of a place. I found great purpose there, acting as a bridge across racial and cultural divides—pushing multiracial and multicultural leaders to build deeper relationships with those who looked very different while often aligned on values. After nearly a decade in LA, I joined the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to advance their new civic engagement program. Today, I serve as the VP of Programs at the McKnight Foundation. In 2019, we announced a program called “Vibrant & Equitable Communities” that aims to advance shared power, prosperity, and participation in Minnesota. As an expression of our commitment to equity as a core value, we invited the general public and racially, culturally, and geographically diverse stakeholders across Minnesota and nationally to provide input into program strategies.
Cathy Cha (CC): I appreciate philanthropy’s unique ability to impact changes at the policy and systems-level yet still maintain connections to what’s happening with communities on the ground. My career path to the helm of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund is unusual in that being president is my sixth job here. Over the years, I’ve helped create new organizing, power-building, and voting efforts in African American, Latino, and Vietnamese communities in California. We have found that collaboration across race, issues, and differences can be very powerful and help boost all of our communities. Back in 2014, I worked with Carnegie, Ford, and Coulter to start the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund which fosters a culture of civic engagement in diverse AAPI communities. It’s grown significantly and now supports voter turnout, leadership development, and organizing in 15 states across the country. They’ve also formed a new Anti-Racism Response Network, an exciting and timely effort comprised of 40 AAPI groups combatting racism and xenophobia through services, advocacy, and media and communications work.
Don Chen (DC): My career path didn’t seem linear while I was walking it, but in the end, it all added up. As a teenager, I cut my teeth as an organizer fighting hunger and homelessness, while studying to be an environmentalist, much to my parents’ disappointment. I had an epiphany when I found a copy of Race, Poverty, and the Environment, a journal launched by Carl Anthony. I’ve spent my career focusing on environmental justice ever since. As the third president of the Surdna Foundation, I’ve helped sharpen our social justice mission by focusing on racial equity in America’s communities. I feel incredibly humbled to lead an organization that is entirely focused on achieving racial justice in multiple ways, including its grantmaking, hiring, and spending practices. Plus, we’ve entrusted $100 million of our endowment to fund managers of color, who in turn have invested Surdna’s endowment assets in entrepreneurs of color who otherwise would have difficulty gaining access to traditional forms of capital.
Taryn Higashi (TH): The first professional steps to my current role began with law school internships and pro bono work as a law firm associate, which led to a host of opportunities to serve survivors of violence and abuse along with immigrant and refugee communities. With these experiences, I learned to connect what is happening locally to what is happening nationally, with lessons in both directions. As the Deputy Director of the Human Rights Unit at the Ford Foundation, I co-founded the Four Freedoms Fund, a funding collaborative that has granted over $150 million to state and local immigrant organizations. Since joining Unbound in 2008, I’ve worked to deepen and activate public support for immigrants, to ensure that the immigration system is rooted in justice, and to strengthen communities where all people can fully participate in social, civic, and economic life. The biggest step we’ve taken along these lines was co-founding the Pop Culture Collaborative, which is investing in building and sustaining relationships, programs, organizations and networks that are changing the narrative landscape in America around people of color, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and indigenous peoples; especially those who are women, queer, transgender, and/or disabled.
How has being Asian American shaped your leadership?
KIC: Having grown up in a predominantly white community, and due to harmful notions of “model minority” myths and the invisibility of Asian Americans in our country’s history, I grew up as an observer and listener. Over time, this has enabled me to serve as a “neutral” player within highly racialized contexts characterized as Black/white, Black/brown, or in New Mexico, navigating the complex present-day impacts of colonization on Indo-Hispano-Anglo, Black and Asian relations...