All roads lead back home: Connecting community and philanthropy through PLACES fellowship
By Katrina Julien, program officer, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and 2022 The Funders Network PLACES Fellow
For The Funder’s Network, PLACES stands for Professionals Learning about Community, Equity and Sustainability. I’m sure that like me, most decide to apply for PLACES to strengthen their leadership role and progress in their philanthropic careers. But what those who’ve gone through the program know is that this is more than a bullet on your resume; it’s an opportunity to connect what you do with who you are as a person. It’s also a chance to see opportunities in difficult situations and envision a world where philanthropy as a tool does more good than harm. PLACES is both a professional and personal journey.
Our first meeting was virtual but dynamic. We learned a little about each other and broke out into groups to begin to connect with our peers and prepare to head to our first site visit destination, Burlington, Vermont. There, the PLACES team wasted no time getting us talking about ourselves, our work, and how overwhelming it can be to work in a sector that upholds white supremacy culture while trying to dismantle it from the inside. We heard from foundations at different stages of embedding equity into their work. I got to hear what I must have sounded like when I started at the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta—speaking about equity but knowing it hadn’t yet been operationalized within my own organization. That was hard to watch but incredibly informative. I realized that in order to achieve the goals we strive for, philanthropy needs to listen and learn from the examples community and nonprofit partners present.
When I returned to work, I grappled with these questions: What is the role of philanthropy in dismantling broken systems? Do we work in institutions that are really ready to do that? What is my responsibility to ensure equity in my work? The great thing about PLACES is that you work through all of your uncertainties with your peers. By the second site visit in Oklahoma City, fellows were ready to dig deeper into some of those uncertainties.
The Oklahoma City site visit challenged me. We heard the city’s history as told by a person whose life’s work was to record the history of the state, but whose unconscious biases were apparent in every historical fact discussed. We also heard from a PLACES alum who was doing amazing work in philanthropy, yet introduced the idea of strategic complicity: choosing which battles are worth fighting and which to concede in order to do the greatest amount of good. As a person who was born to challenge everything all the time, this concept was and is the hardest for me to accept. Yes, I understood it, but I didn’t like it. The good thing is that the PLACES team knew when to push and when to offer respite. And, we spent just as much time learning about and acknowledging each other as we did learning about the issues and challenges of the City. We also made sure to see and interact with each city and its history, from the somber reflections at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum to the richness of Burlington’s Intervale Center.
Fresno, our last site visit, solidified the idea that no matter the place or issue (housing, food insecurity, etc.) the real work is dismantling the power structures that oppress communities. Oppression may look one way in Burlington and another way in Fresno but the underlying issue and ultimate goal are the same: a gross imbalance of power and privilege heavily steeped in racial inequities and the necessity of returning that power and autonomy to the people and communities that have been disenfranchised to make decisions for their lives.
I don’t think I’ve found the answers to all of my questions. Yet, I am so lucky to have my fellowship family to share it with, to commiserate with, to uplift and cheer on. The best leadership advice I received in this program was, ‘Find your people, the ones that have your back in this challenging work’. PLACES helps leaders in philanthropy connect with and identify who their people are and then challenges us all to get to work.
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