Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Desiree Flores, Arcus Foundation U.S. Social Justice program director.
1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?
I grew up in a large Mexican-American family with farm worker roots in the rural Central Valley of California. I started out as a young program assistant right out of college at the Ms. Foundation for Women, excited for the job but not having a clue what the philanthropic sector was! What I wish I had known is the exact lesson I learned early and often in that position: that those closest to a problem know best how to solve it. We supported women of color organizing their local communities and creating national networks for systemic policy change. Black and brown women know how to shift cultural attitudes in support of reproductive rights, while HIV-positive women know how to structure data gathering to best test, treat and prevent the transmission. Invest in those who live it, and you will change the world.
2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?
As a woman of color in social justice philanthropy, I have the privilege of engaging with and resourcing excellent organizing and advocacy work by and for women leaders. Much of this work is done intersectionally, as coined by theorist Kimberle Crenshaw; meaning overlapping identities relate to and affect systems of discrimination.
People – especially those pushed most to the margins – don’t live single issue lives. However, philanthropy is largely structured as many individual foundations supporting specific issues and/or populations. It’s difficult to affect change if you are only resourcing one sliver of a community’s needs (housing but not transportation; job creation but not childcare), or, if you focus on a child’s welfare without ensuring their mother’s safety. Thankfully, there are an increasing number of foundations funding intersectionally. However, the sector’s general structure remains a large-scale challenge, and one I am reminded of on a daily basis.
3. What inspires you most about your work?
The brave activists I’ve had the privilege of supporting through grants for close to 20 years. Many come to the work because of a critical need in their community for which they fight tirelessly because their families and future generations deserve justice. Others come to the work because of the cards they’ve been dealt in life. I know a number of transgender women of color whose life mission is to fight for the health and literal lives of other trans people who suffer severe disparities and astonishing death rates. Many of these women also fight for the rights of sex workers and people experiencing poverty and addiction because they understand the importance of the intersections. And, these leaders will be the first to note the importance of centering the resilience and joy in their communities. They are more than victims and, indeed, those best poised to make transformational change.
4. How does your gender identity inform your work?
Perhaps it’s easier to say, “how doesn’t it inform?!” Although I’ve been in the philanthropic sector for two decades, it’s impossible for me to experience the act of giving money separate from my identity as someone with family roots in the poverty and discrimination. And, as a Mexican-American woman — not a profile usually linked with that of a money manager. My default is to believe and trust women; to listen closely when they explain their community’s experience and their work to make life better for them. I try to do so as best I can and then, figure out how it reflects my foundation’s strategy and funding priorities. Not the other way around. The experience of identifying as a woman, femme, Chicana and lesbian gives me insight into how implicit bias affects women’s validity. I take any small chance I get to, in turn, trust women.
5. How can philanthropy support gender equity?
Hire more women of color at every level – from assistant to CEO. And, appoint them in vastly larger numbers to all boards of directors. Fund women of color leadership. It seems simple but the sector does not do this — not by a long shot. I believe this is one of the most important acts philanthropy can do to ensure gender equity and fundamentally transform change for all. The 2017 piece, “Six Reasons Funders Should Increase Support for People of Color-Led Work” by Teresa Younger and Vanessa Daniel says it best:
There is a wonderful opportunity to follow the lead of many women of color-led organizations and bust through issue silos to lock arms across issues and constituencies, in which to realize that, oftentimes, these people are the same people, and that oppression is intersectional and can come at us from many directions at once.
6. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender-equity movements taking us?
In this unprecedented moment where the world is breaking open and experiencing deep pain and hardship, I believe those who have always been fighting for gender equity will be the leaders who imagine a different, better world and make it so. We are seeing systemic disparities laid bare and more people understanding we shouldn’t live in a society with for-profit health care, crushing student debt and an impossible structure for working parents and caregivers. I have great hope it is these leaders who will show us an alternative reality and fundamentally transform systems and democracy for the better.
More on Desiree Flores:
Desiree Flores is the Arcus Foundation U.S. Social Justice program director. She ensures effective grant making toward policy and culture change determined by LGBTQ+ people pushed to the margins. She brings nearly 20 years of social justice grant making and program development experience supporting constituency building at the local, state and national levels. For over a decade, she was a program officer at the Ms. Foundation for Women, where she led programs on reproductive justice, HIV/AIDS and school-based sexuality education. She holds a bachelor’s degree from UCLA and a master’s in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
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