Philanthropy Must Widen the Lens on Racial Equity Work

Ben Hires

I became CEO of Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC) in June 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in xenophobia and anti-Asian hate, and two weeks after George Floyd was murdered. Within 48 hours of starting my role, I worked with others to write BCNC’s first statement on racial equity, joining many others’ responses to the tragedy.

Like many companies and foundations, I charged our organization to start its own racial equity journey and reflect on the experience of what it means to be Asian, an immigrant, Black, Latinx, or white. The Chinese immigrant and Chinese American experiences came to the fore for us, since a majority of our staff and our constituents identify this way, however, diverse experiences and voices are just as important if equity for Asians is to be truly lifted up. After that moment of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, however, many in our community and across the nation have questioned commitments to racial equity — including philanthropy’s commitment.

Philanthropy must recognize it is part of a more diverse country and that racial equity work extends beyond Black and white. In the United States, racial equity can be white-centric or focused on the white/Black paradigm, in many cases very appropriately. However, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work that is limited to that paradigm ironically may lack a focus on the distinct experience of other minorities because of the background of who is doing the work or asking for the work. As foundations pursue racial equity training and more diverse and equitable funding, the diverse experience of inequity of Filipinos, Hmong, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Chinese and other groups of Asian descent must be a part of that work — work which should also be led by Asians with lived experience of inequities.

During COVID-19, I was struck by the many articles or graphs that never mentioned the impact of the pandemic on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders other than the issue of “hate crimes.” Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP)’s 2021 report Invisible Ink showed that less than 30 percent of news articles from seven large national newspapers mention Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders and only 2 percent of articles discuss AAPI in terms of disparities.

Even though nationally, there was limited attention on the AAPI community, except for the tragic murder in Atlanta of six women who were immigrants from China and South Korea, I was encouraged by the fact that BCNC was receiving increased support. Over the past two years, we been fortunate to have positive experiences with funders and receive support from new foundations and corporate donors, unsolicited, general operation COVID relief grants, and project grants for vaccination education and food and rent relief. This generous support with less strict reporting requirements in many cases has been critical to meeting the needs of the Chinese and other ethnic immigrants we serve.

The extraordinary, generous pandemic funding, however, was unusual. Grants have been on average 22 percent of our revenue mix of government, corporate, foundation, and individual support for the last 10 years. The trend of BCNC’s grant funding mirrors the findings of another AAPIP report: Seeking to Soar: Foundation Funding for Asian American & Pacific Islander Communities. That report found with “some minor fluctuations in foundation funding designated for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities…by and large funding has stagnated.” The AAPIP report also states the flat rate of funding has occurred while domestic foundation funding has increased overall and at a time Asians across the United States recorded a 35.5 percent increase in population, the fastest percentage growth according to the 2020 Census.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP)’s new report, Overlooked (Part 1): Foundation Support for Asian American and Pacific Islander Leaders and Communities, reaffirms this pattern, reporting that, “almost two thirds of foundation leaders say that they provide little or no grant dollars to organizations primarily serving AAPI communities.” If philanthropy is to truly commit to tackling racial inequity, I hope that foundations will interrogate what internal biases or processes that contribute to this perpetuation of AAPI invisibility. Foundations that have never thought about supporting Asian communities until the recent rapid rise in hate crimes should ask themselves why that is. What kind of work do they need to do on themselves as grantmaking institutions to recognize that there is an entire significant percentage of the population that they have never even thought about as having needs?

CEP’s new report also shares advice from AAPI nonprofit leaders, many of whom expressed a hope that foundations will make more of an effort to understand their communities and their work. The special funding BCNC received the last two years is the result of many more years of hard work not only delivering quality programs but helping funders understand the work the organization was doing. The needs of Asian immigrants are not well understood by the mainstream or by white-led foundations. The cultural nuances and needs of the Asian community are masked by the model minority myth as well as the perception of being the perpetual foreigner. Support for translation, cultural brokering, understanding the importance of data disaggregation are all battles organizations serving ethnic communities are fighting today.

I hope the new and increased support we have been fortunate to receive continues even as the limited media attention on the Asian community moves on. I hope funders increase their understanding of Asian needs as they increase their commitment to racial equity by simply listening to Asian serving organizations and their leaders. However, given that these experiences are the exception, not the rule, CEP’s report on the trend of AAPI nonprofit leaders reporting a less positive experience with foundation funders than nonprofit leaders of other races/ethnicities and the finding that foundations continue to overlook nonprofits that serve the Asian community should not come as a surprise.

How do foundations genuinely change those metrics? How does philanthropy truly reach those they want to serve and ensure that new or renewed commitments to racial equity make real-world impact?

First, there needs to be more representation in the ranks of philanthropy. It is easier to connect with someone who has a shared experience. Most of my career, I was the “only.” I rarely met an Asian leader of an organization or someone like me working at a foundation. That is why a few years ago, one of the few Asian leaders I knew and I started an Asian leadership group with me, dubbed the A-Team both to represent “Asian” and after a favorite TV show growing up! My A-Team cofounder is now a senior program officer at a large Boston-based foundation. Foundations need more people like him at the table so he can open doors and inspire others to join him there. He can also share his knowledge of working class Asian and immigrant communities with his colleagues.

His move into philanthropy also gave me the opportunity to join BCNC and to learn more about my own Asian roots and the needs of Asian immigrants today. My mainstream life and education did not teach me much about the history of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Southeast Asian immigrant communities in the United States. But I have been quickly learning. I knew of the model minority myth but did not know the history deeply and how it is used as a wedge against other minorities or how it makes Asians even more invisible. That brings me to my second point:  foundation staff who want to truly invest in a broader understanding of DEI work, inclusive of AAPI communities, should take learning upon themselves. Read Ronald Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore and Ellen D. Wu’s The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority, as a start.

Finally, to return to my first charge to philanthropy, while the sector commits to racial equity, signs pledges, and reflects on evaluations like CEP’s Overlooked report, it should go beyond those steps — go deeper. Make sure your equity work really is inclusive. Understand the Asian ethnic groups in your communities and listen to them.

Ben Hires is the CEO of Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC). You can follow BCNC on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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