Joe Asunka: Well, I think the same here. That learning has been very steep for me. Coming into this space, being Black, African, Ghanaian, to be specific, it’s that sense of, am I an imposter here? And I think it is something that has stuck with me ever since I started a role at the Hewlett Foundation.
I started off with much of my interest in research, and so ending up in philanthropy in a position to make decisions about how to spend somebody else’s money, it felt so jarring in the first year. I just couldn’t imagine it. I couldn’t make new grants in the first year because I felt like, this is not right for me to do this. But, of course, over time I think now the culture within the Hewlett Foundation has allowed me to begin to grow out of that. I don’t think I’ve gotten fully out of it, but that sense of managing a portfolio of resources and making decisions about them as a Black Ghanaian, it just felt a little too much for me.
Joe Asunka: I know that in some ways, your experience as a Black woman, and myself, of course, I’m Black … I’m wondering how that has influenced your life in the foundation and also how it affects your grantmaking?
Althea Anderson: I think, at least in most of my professional career as both a researcher and a donor, based on lived experience, it was completely unacceptable to say that you were explicitly… your identity was impacting the decisions that you made. That was definitely seen as inappropriate, unethical. So I think in my experience as a Black woman, you had to downplay that your identity was shaping that, definitely never explicitly saying that that was the case.
Once we have a very public conversation about what I already understand to be the very structural nature of racism in our field, then it allows for you to say, “Okay, now I can actually authentically bring voice to how and why my identity also is important in this decision-making process,” instead of downplaying it and making it silent and overcoming all these stereotypes people have. People assume you come in here with an agenda because of your identity and instead of constantly negotiating and doing all this extra work around that, you can actually have an honest conversation. One, about the structures, the ideals, and ideologies that influence how we fund. Then also bring voice to the fact that you bring something unique to this given who you are.
So the last three years have been definitely like a roller coaster, because I think, also at this point in my life, I am used to a certain pace of change because of what I’ve experienced over the last 20 years. I think very different from millennials that have a different pace that they’re seeing. And it requires—even though I’m a Black woman, but I’m a middle-aged Black woman at this point— the ability to shift and seize the opportunities that are available now at a different pace than what I’ve experienced previously. There are some other things that I’ve experienced as well, but very interested to hear what your experience has been over five years in philanthropy.
Joe Asunka: Yeah. Both at the foundation, but philanthropy in general, I do think when you are Black in this space, sometimes it’s so easy to stand out in whatever space you find yourself. When I first joined the foundation the population of people of my color was not as much as it is now—[and that change] has been hugely appreciated by me because it does make you feel like you can bring yourself fully to work knowing that you have people who look like you. I think it’s an important thing to consider when you’re working within an institution.
I think the climax of it, of course, was when we did the collaborative grantmaking for the racial equity programming. I was like, “Okay, now I’m in this group with all these folks who look like me. We’re making decisions.” I think that was one of the points when I felt more comfortable in making decisions about somebody’s money, how to spend somebody’s money. Before then, I used to make the grants within my team, which was certainly cross-collaborative and we talk about these grants and who to fund and the like, but just having people of your race sitting together and having to make these decisions reinforces that sense of me being comfortable really making these decisions because I was hired for the fact that I had expertise to make decisions about these grants, and I shouldn’t let my race get in the way.
Secondly, yes, as you rightly pointed out, is there a sense that I’m coming in here with an agenda? Because if my emphasis has been to increase more funding to African institutions, should I be explicit about that? I think in the initial stages, I just couldn’t be explicit about it. It felt … I’m not even sure what word to use… self-serving to say that I want to increase funding to African institutions. Why do I want to do that?
So in some ways, even though initially there was a lot of support … Ruth [Levine, former Global Development Program Director] was very supportive of my grantmaking decisions, which made it much easier to just go for it and say, “You know what? I’m going to increase more funding to African institutions,” without that level of hesitation. But without that, it’s really difficult to just come out explicitly to say, “This is what I want to do, because, well, this is aligned with the strategy, and if that is aligned with the strategy, why not pursue it?”