Liz Simons, Chair of the Board of the Heising-Simons Foundation, delivered a slightly revised version of the following remarks at The Giving Pledge Virtual Learning Series, “Equity and Intersectionality: What Do Philanthropists Need to Know?” as a prelude to a conversation between Kimberlé Crenshaw and Alvin Starks on how applying an intersectional lens to your giving can increase social impact. The event was held on December 7, 2021.
Intersectionality – and Joining Together
We are one and we are many. Each one of us is a tapestry of our multiple experiences and identities that define who we are, how we see ourselves, how we are seen, and what communities connect us. When I think of intersectionality, that’s the picture I have in my mind.
When my husband Mark and I started out in philanthropy 14 years ago, we set out to focus on issues we cared about: early childhood education and care, science, and climate and clean energy. Seven years ago we added human rights, at the urging of our daughter, Caitlin, now on our Board, who was appalled by our country’s disregard for the millions of people whose lives are upended by mass incarceration, surveillance, and deportation in systems grounded in racial injustice.
It was our human rights work that ultimately helped me see that making change is less about the issues we’ve elected to care about than the people affected by these issues, and how these effects are magnified when people hold multiple identities that have historically been marginalized. I’ve learned that it’s best to center people who are closest to the problems they’ve had to endure as a result of generations of racial, gender, and economic injustice that keep people from accessing what they need to lead whole and dignified lives.
When we focus on people and not solely on issues, the importance of intersectionality in driving change is clear. That’s because communities of people who have endured injustice also have reservoirs of creativity, strength, vision, and understanding of what’s needed to address obstacles they have been living with every day. And they’re the ones on the ground who will be there long after philanthropy leaves, to see things through.
It’s been exciting seeing this work unfolding at our foundation.
For example, one group we’ve been supporting is The Young Women’s Freedom Center, created over 27 years ago in San Francisco– that now has hubs throughout California. It’s a place where women, girls, trans, and gender non-conforming people who face criminalization in various forms stemming from domestic abuse, poverty, homelessness, and who are working in underground economies and find themselves trapped in the child welfare, juvenile justice, and criminal legal systems (often losing their own children to some of these systems), can get support.
The organization not only offers direct services, but is also a grassroots organizing group led by and composed of these very women and girls and others looking to help one another transform their own personal circumstances, build leadership of one another, and organize to change the systems that oppress them. They’ve successfully challenged multiple systems of criminalization, including closing the juvenile hall in San Francisco and taking part in a statewide effort to close the California youth prison system.
They are the incubator of The Sister Warriors Coalition, an intersectional, intergenerational, and multicultural table of more than 1,000 women and girl leaders in 18 jurisdictions across the state, building towards their vision of ending incarceration of women and girls in California by 2030. Building this powerful movement of directly impacted leaders in California would not have been possible without centering their voices and experiences.
We’re also now applying an intersectional lens in areas besides human rights. Much of our early childhood work, for example, centers childcare providers and early educators, almost all of them women and many of them women of color who find themselves in one of the very lowest paid, lowest status professions in the country (98% of the labor force earns more than childcare professionals). We provide funding to childcare providers, early educators, and families so they can organize and have a seat at decision-making tables. As the result of this support, organizers were successful this past year in securing the biggest investment in childcare and Pre-school in California’s history.
Embracing intersectionality is a critical part of trust-based philanthropy and a path towards greater unity of purpose. It breaks down issue-driven silos by shining a light on how people’s distinct experiences of marginalization and oppression overlap and connect. It points the way to multi-faceted approaches that address the root causes of these challenges and demands that we see people in the entirety of their humanity. Only then can all of us, together, find common cause and join hands to build a more just and equitable future.