For this issue of the StoryLetter, the Racial Equity in Philanthropy (REP) Fund team reflects on the first three years of the REP Fund, 2020 learnings, and how our commitment to racial equity values and practice shows up beyond the job.


Maya (she/hers) is currently the Co-Interim Director of Borealis Philanthropy as well as the Director of the Racial Equity Initiatives. Maya has worked in philanthropy for more than 20 years. She credits her early years at the Women’s Foundation of California as foundational to her valuing the importance of centering BIPOC-led and serving communities in any grantmaking and program strategy. 

“I do this work because for me the key to realizing the dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone is investing in the leadership of those who historically have been denied that dream through systemic and institutionalized racism.”  [Image description: Maya smiling wearing a maroon-colored shirt. She is standing beside a colorful painting and a leafy plant in the background.]


Kristell (she/hers) is the Program Officer for the Racial Equity in Philanthropy Fund at Borealis Philanthropy. She is committed to social justice work that puts anti-racism with an intersectional analysis at its nexus. Kristell led and curated a racial equity toolkit and learning curriculum for grantmakers at Northside Funders Group. She holds a Change Management certification from Cornell University and is a Fulbright Scholar alumna.

“I see the philanthropic sector as a means to an end, a tool to leverage as I work collectively toward a clear purpose—the liberation of victims of systemic violence. I am committed to racial justice and liberatory work because I have to be and I need to be. I have a responsibility as a descendant of those who have fought to provide me with the possibility to live in my full humanity to do this work.”  [Image description: Kristell smiling against a turquoise and white background in a black sleeveless turtleneck] Photo credit to Angelica Ekeke.

It’s Year 3 of the REP Fund. Looking back, what are you most proud of? What are one to two lessons you are taking forward? What do you wish to see from the REP Fund as we approach the next three years of investment?

Kristell: I’m really proud of our team for actively committing to exploring what it means to be a racially equitable grantmaker. We’ve done this by trying out different ways to collect grantee partner reporting or the way that we communicate or engage with grantee partners via an advisory committee so that they can give us feedback. I am also proud that in the earlier months of COVID-19, the REP team and donor committee gave general operating grants to our current grantee partners without an application because we trust the REP network and because we knew they really needed support. When we heard that our grantees needed support for their leaders, we developed an offering that provides a combination of one-on-one executive coaching support and executive peer learning meetings. We then extended this offering to the organizations who had just experienced a leadership transition. Our team understands that people are what drives the work, so we want to make sure they are set up for success. And the last thing that I’m really proud of is that I feel like the team has learned how to be humble and recognize the times we’re being defensive while receiving feedback, and actually figuring out how to engage with that feedback while also recognizing the power that we have as grantmakers. That’s one of the lessons I would love to bring into the next years of the fund. 

Maya: What I would add is thinking about holding this balance between meeting folks where they are and pushing them to where they need to go, in particular with our relationship with funders. So while I feel like we’ve made—to Kristell’s point—some substantive strides in our own practice as a racial equity grantmaker and in how we operate as an institution, we’re still learning, but learning through doing. So not waiting until we have, you know perfection, but really trying some stuff on like verbal reporting and verbal applications. I think those experiments have been largely successful and help to foster a different level of trust with our partners, donors, and grantees because it’s more relational; it’s not transactional. I would say that is a win.

2020 was a huge year for conversations about racial equity following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the subsequent uprisings. What did you notice about how philanthropy in general responded to those incidents? Did it feel like the REP fund was uniquely equipped to communicate to the sector? If so, why?

Kristell: The first thing that came to my mind was, “oh, suddenly, there are no no’s, but’s, or excuses to give general operating support, and we’ll tie your grant to small Black-led organizations now.” Suddenly there are no excuses, there’s no push back and there’s a willingness to apply pressure internally. I also have this kind of curiosity around whether or not the new support is genuine or disingenuous because of the way philanthropy has historically behaved before all of this happened. 

I feel that the REP Fund has been able to show by doing that things are possible, that behaving differently is possible, that all you have to do is try. No, you will not be perfect, like Maya said before. Sometimes you won’t get it right, but as long as you recognize that you’ve made those mistakes and figure out ways to be accountable and repair whatever negative impact you had, that’s what’s most important. There’s space to do that, and Borealis has been able to show by doing that all you need is a genuine desire to be an effective grantmaker. 

Maya: I think with maybe a handful of exceptions the response still feels largely superficial to me. And sort of like the easy road which is, we’re just gonna throw more money out there. Clearly, there was a shift in who was getting that money, but it doesn’t really get to the more transformative change that we need to see across the field. It doesn’t get to what’s underneath BIPOC-led organizations historically being underfunded. 

I still see resistance, for example, on things like sharing power—so participatory grantmaking as an approach to do racial equity grantmaking. I still see folks describing BIPOC-led organizations as “risky.” I still see folks having a very deficit-based approach to how they fund or how they perceive BIPOC-led organizations.

To me what this all says is—I guess what we already knew—that three years is not enough time to really reach the transformative goals that we set out for the REP Fund. But it’s a start and we have seen, at least in the priority outcomes of REP, some significant traction.Three years ago people would never utter the words “white supremacy” in a philanthropic setting. Three years ago the focus was still in large part about diversity not racial equity. The conversations are happening in a much more explicit way, and so I think our intention now is to build on that momentum as much as we can. 

What did you learn in 2020 about racial equity and philanthropy?

Kristell: For me, one of the bigger lessons is—and I think it’s been an observation throughout the three years—but it just feels like a lot of the racial equity work tends to center white people’s learning and not recognize that Black and Indigenous people, people of color, in the sector also need to continue their own political education. Just because we are BIPOC and hold different historically marginalized identities doesn’t mean that we understand or know each other’s history, each other’s experience. And I feel like even the most progressive of us sometimes do practice elements of white supremacy without even being aware that we’re doing that.

Maya: So much learning. I think one thing that I am continuing to try to keep an eye on is the intersectional lens. It’s so easy to lose sight of particular identities and experiences that are not as visible, and so really trying to pay attention to the intersections of all identities, even when they’re not right in our face.

After the REP convening in particular, I had this like “Aha” moment around how strong our critiquing muscle is—not just us individually, but collectively—how it comes easy to us to critique a thing, to point out all the things that we think are wrong with the situation and all things that are problematic or need to be fixed from our own point of view. And where we need to have some balance is around the what’s possible muscle, like, how can we be bolder, innovative, creative, in partnership, because I think spending so much time in this critical space actually can shut down the other side of the brain, which is more like, “how can we solve this problem in creative ways,” or “where are there opportunities for us to build or learn?” I realize I’m saying as a person who is more motivated by ideas than process. What I learned this year is I’m often trying to find the sweet spot between ideas and process, because that’s where I believe the real disruption and transformative change in our sector will happen.

What would you say to funders who are new to racial equity work. What should they do to lean into at this moment? 

Maya: I would say, really, really interrogate your practices. None of it’s rocket science.  Folks have been saying the same things from year to year. And suddenly we know it’s possible that you can release more of your endowment, suddenly you can do general operating grants, suddenly that 30-page report is not a necessity. And I look around and think it could have been this way along.

Taking a hard look at your practices, your culture, and instead of doing the platitudes around putting out a statement, or throwing a bunch of money out without doing it in a responsible way, to understand you’re now giving money to an organization for whom that has been historically their entire budget, and you’re wanting them to pivot quickly to give you all the outcomes in the world, or like fix racism. 

Bottom line, I’d say right-sizing expectations about what’s possible with the amount of resources you’re giving, and then interrogating your own practices. 

Kristell: What I would say, is that it is important to recognize that racial equity work is people work, that it is about behavioral change, that it is about developing new habits, that it is a lifestyle. It’s not something that you do 9 to 5. So you can’t expect the one training alone, or a few workshops here and there. Maya wrote this piece about how book clubs are not going to save you. That a book club or a one-year investment are not the thing that’s going to change the way that people operate—it is certainly necessary but that’s not enough. It requires folks to practice over and over and over again with years of investment in political education. And some days you’ll experience tension, and you’ll have to navigate through that. Sometimes you won’t get things right, but it’s important that you take time to repair and reconcile and then try again. And again, racial equity is a practice that you not only engage with at work, but that you also do in public and private spaces.

Maya: One more thing for new folks is to not reinvent the wheel. It’s not always necessary to build the in-house expertise to fix all the things; invest in the people and organizations that have been doing this work for decades. Many of them are in REP and REACH (Racial Equity to Accelerate Change Fund). 

The Racial Equity in Philanthropy Fund is looking forward to building on the momentum of REP’s first three years with REP 2, an additional three years of investment in the current REP network, expanding the network to address regional and audience gaps, and deepening the relationships among grantee partners and funders committed to racial equity transformation in the philanthropic sector. 

REP Fund Ecosystem At A Glance

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