Caught in the Headlights

Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Christi Tran, Program Officer for Blue Shield Against Violence at the Blue Shield of California Foundation.

by Christi Tran

There’s a large camera pointing at my face, and I’m feeling quite warm – uncomfortably hot, actually, in this tiny room. I watch as people pass by and peek curiously in, and I can see myself on the open browser screen in front of me, wondering how many people are watching the EPIP (the fun acronym for Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy) conference stream live.

“Christi, like many, you got your start in nonprofits. Can you tell me how your experience as a past grant-seeker informs your work today as a funder? What do you do better or differently because of it?” I clutch the microphone tighter, staring into its bulbous webbed top.

Before EPIP’s signature leadership panel had broken up into smaller salons, Julieta Mendez, the founder of the San Diego EPIP local chapter, had tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would do an interview for EPIP’s livestream. She’s now smiling at me, gently coaxing a response. I’m following on the heels of Rob Collier, CEO of the Council of Michigan Foundations, whose vivacious and playful energy was the perfect counter to my now reflective mood.

So I tell her a story. I recall the time when as a youth worker, I had ushered a handful of young people into a small room at the local community center, for a meet-and-greet with a local philanthropist. These were all young boys of Vietnamese descent who had “fallen out of the system” of schools and social services, and into the confusing and seductive microcosm of the streets. The funder, an older gentleman, towered over them, and he was visibly upset that they were not in school.  He launched into a pedantic, angry spiel about how personally offended he was by their choices.

Unclear on what to do, I said nothing. At the time, I was confident about the resilience of my youth. I realize now that in my willingness to acquiesce, I had failed to create the space for these young men to have voice, thinking that would increase our chances of getting funded. While recalling this, small beads of regret collect on my forehead, visible in the glare of the camera lights.

That experience happened nearly ten years ago now, and it was the first time since then that I’ve spoken about it.  Yet the memory jarringly brings me back into the world of power dynamics and lost voices, and it’s an astonishing reality check.

Biting my lip, I look at Julieta and say, “I hope that as a funder, I can remember to speak less.”  Then haltingly, “And to listen more.”

I’m humbled, because I wonder inside how well I actually accomplish that.  In this glass room, my funder’s world is on trial, and appropriately so. I’m very grateful for it, thank Julieta, and leave to seek more.

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.

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One response to “Caught in the Headlights

  1. Thanks for posting, @Philanthropy411! You can also follow me on Twitter, @ChristiDTA (views are all my own).