Jasmine Sudarkasa and Fay Twersky: A lesson in race, leadership and sharing power

This conversation is part of a new series featuring Hewlett Foundation staff discussing race in our work and lives. It features Jasmine Sudarkasa, a program fellow in our Effective Philanthropy Group, and Fay Twersky, then-vice president of the Hewlett Foundation and director of the Effective Philanthropy Group, discussing the process and experience behind the anti-racism grants that the foundation announced last year. Watch video clips and read a transcript of the conversation below. The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Jasmine and Fay reflect on last year’s racial uprisings and what it meant to meet the moment—both in our grantmaking and within the foundation.

Jasmine Sudarkasa: The weekend that the racial uprising began was actually a personal anniversary for me—the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. And a lot of my work at Hewlett is very motivated by that relationship. My grandmother had always really done a lot of work in and around Black communities. And so I was already kind of in a very emotional place … I remember immediately thinking, well, I have to do something. Because for the first time I felt like I was in a position to do something.

But I think from a feelings perspective … I was very fearful, actually, because it felt like my personal and professional life were converging—in ways that I didn’t necessarily want them to … I feel like I’ve been really guarded about my personal life.

But in this moment, it just felt like everything was aligned and so I remember looking at this opportunity as one that I was uniquely poised to contribute to, and Fay said something almost identical to that to me within a few days of us as a foundation really addressing what this moment called of us.

In terms of the grants themselves … a lot of my work [in the Effective Philanthropy Group] had prepared me to see how we could respond to this quickly and effectively. And I knew that we had unallocated dollars and I knew that that was something that we typically would move towards something that was more responsive in nature. And I also knew that our [internal] culture would probably benefit from something inclusive.

Fay Twersky: When the Board approved the use of $18 million from the unallocated funds to use specifically for anti-racism work, that was a real milestone for the Hewlett Foundation. In the context of the racial uprising, and all the different feelings that people were having around the building, around the country—it was a unique moment, an overdue moment of reckoning. And you know, on the basis of lots of input from staff, Larry [Kramer, the foundation’s president] went to the Board with that as one of our recommendations of how to use the unallocated funds and came out with that approval—enthusiastic approval.

That was the meeting at which the Board really talked about what was happening—all of the different crises that were unfolding, laying bare all the fault lines of our society. And they really encouraged us to be more bold in our work around race, in particular, but around other issues as well. And so I think the approval of these grants and the opportunity for the whole staff to do something was part of the Board’s shift in wanting to be more active in this space—and also realizing that this was a moment to really step up and deal with some of the racial injustice that we had never really dealt with head-on in the foundation.

Larry tasked Jasmine, [Evaluation Officer] Amy Arbreton, and me with the opportunity to design a participatory process involving all of our staff—a highly inclusive process of all of our staff, and he did that for a few different reasons. One, Amy and Jasmine had been working on an analysis of participatory grantmaking really trying to understand what goes into participatory work. And also because our whole staff was really, I would say, in some tumult about what was happening around the country and wanted to find some way to participate in responding as a foundation.

I remember feeling both honored by the opportunity and also felt like it was high stakes. It felt like new territory. I had confidence that as a little design team, we would figure it out. But I wasn’t sure exactly what it was going to look like until we started engaging in the conversations that went pretty deep.

Jasmine Sudarkasa: I feel like there were two efforts that were going on simultaneously—one on the outward-facing effort to respond and be thoughtful in doing so. But also responding internally to the needs of our staff—respond to the needs of Black staff. When I say the personal and professional converged, I mean that quite literally. You know, we’re working from home. I’m in my apartment in Oakland, all hell’s breaking loose outside, and I’m trying to meet this moment and stand with this sort of virtual community. It was just a real conflation—I felt like a lot of different needs. … [For the foundation] there was a real investment in doing this well from the inside out.

Fay Twersky: I just remember every conversation was really full of ideas and also feelings. There’s just a lot of currents of feelings going on, you know, in the foundation, in our team, in the world. So, acknowledging and taking time in every conversation to start with, “How are you feeling?” It was not just a “nice to have”—it was a “need to have.” And I think that that sort of helped us level-set and be open to the ideas.

Jasmine Sudarkasa: I went into this with lots of hope, not so much confidence. One of the things that was very important to me is that Fay and Larry said to me very early on, like, “We got your back.” I don’t know how to say this any other way than that. But so often, and I’ve had this experience before, as a Black voice, you are kind of allowed a leadership opportunity, but you also kind of have to feel the swift fall of the axe if you mess up. The only confidence I had was that if I mess this up, this was a decision that leadership made that they will stand behind, they will support me in, which was why I think we dreamt big. But I don’t know that I was confident … I was like, we’re just gonna see how this goes.

The task at hand [was terrifying]: figure out a way in three months that we can move this money in a way that is fair, that is not undoing the intended effects of the grants themselves by creating harm, and that is meaningfully representing our entire organization. And I take that seriously as a collection of a lot of different people, not just program staff. That felt enormous to me, but mostly from the position of, like, this is an opportunity to represent our community—and I don’t want to misrepresent anyone or anything.

Behind the grantmaking process

With $15 million set aside for anti-racism grants, Jasmine and Fay reflect on how they created a collaborative grantmaking process and how important it was to include voices across the foundation.

Fay Twersky: There were three core values that really guided our work and we established them really early on. One was that we would make really good grants, and really good meant—and we came to define that more—strong grants that would support anti-racist and anti-Black racist work. The second was that the grants would be inclusive in some way of all of our staff, give all of our staff an opportunity to participate in the grantmaking process. And the third was that it would not be overly burdensome to our administrative staff. We wanted to do this in a way that wouldn’t just have all of the burden and pressure rolling downhill to that group at the end of the year when they have a lot of other pressures on them.

So we were trying to balance all three of those interests, and I think we kept those front and center at every step of the way. Those were touchpoints for us as we went. And I would say before we launched into the doing, the planning for each of those actually was quite important. Coming up with the articulated values and the design before we did anything mattered a lot. It was Jasmine’s idea to have an Advisory Council.

Jasmine Sudarkasa: We were going back and forth about how to do this and, privately, my concern was I don’t want to be the only person who’s speaking on this. I don’t want to be the only Black voice on this. And I don’t know that I totally trusted that Larry and Fay were going to consult everyone.

Meanwhile, they were speaking to everybody! I mean, it was like everybody that I went to, they had got to before I had. But I was a little bit concerned about bearing the weight of it. And so I thought, well, who am I going to ask for advice on these grants, and it was the other Black people at Hewlett. I just thought if the goal is to represent our philanthropy in the way that we do it and lift up solutions to anti-Black racism, why not start in-house? And we use Advisory Councils for almost everything else. And so it just seemed apropos to what we were trying to accomplish, but also a really meaningful way to demonstrate this commitment from the inside out—not just to me, but to other folks at Hewlett.

Fay Twersky: When Jasmine initially shared that idea with me, I thought, “That’s a pretty interesting idea. I think it’s a good idea, but I’m not sure.” There was so much going on at that time where I needed to question my own intuitions about different things—and this was one of them. And so I touched base with a few of our Black colleagues to say, “This is what we’re thinking about. Do you think this is a good idea?” And each of them thought, “Yes, it’s a good idea,” and then they added to it: “If you’re going to do [preparatory anti-racism] education work, make sure that everybody who gets included in the voting and the nomination has to participate in the education work; when you’re talking, here’s how you might name the Council.” It gave me more confidence…

When I was talking to somebody, I was saying, [that] it would be sort of in the frame of “nothing about us without us.” And she said, “Say it that way – because that really conveys that this is really an honor, not a burden.” And that was what we were trying to do. But everything about this, it could have been really positive or could have been very fraught and taking the advice—even early on— from the people who would later become members of the Council turned out to be really important.

Jasmine Sudarkasa:  I think this is one of the things about participatory grantmaking— which was very much the inspiration for the design— that you have to experience before you can explain. I’ve been studying this type of grantmaking for a year now, and there are all these unarticulated benefits that I’ve been trying to get at, and one of them is that the design of the system is really intricate. You have to get all these inputs and different feedback points.

… As we started taking more inputs, the system kind of built itself. And so taking the input of Advisory Council members in the design phase meant that once you’re in the Advisory Council phase a lot of the concerns that people have, like conflict of interest or unarticulated goals, we’d already designed out for because we had talked to them early enough that we knew what this needed to be.

And funnily enough, to Fay’s point, a lot of our Advisory Council members were very quick to articulate where points of conflict of interest could be before we even started. They’re like, well, “Why are you doing this? Are you very clear on what the reasoning is for why staff should be on this Advisory Council?” I think that really pushed us to articulate a design that then, once we got going, it was just about maintaining. It was really interesting to see it in motion.

Creating space to share power

Jasmine and Fay discuss how they were able to find ways to share power throughout the process.

Fay Twersky: Going back to a part of the story where there was some friction that ended up being, I think, really important friction for us to go through, was how we were going to staff and run this Advisory Council. The whole time that we’ve been talking about this Advisory Council, I had an assumption that I was going to co-lead. The design team was going to be involved in running it, but I was going to co-lead the Advisory Council with Jasmine. And Jasmine assumed that she was going to lead this Advisory Council. That it didn’t make sense for me as a white person to be leading this Advisory Council of Black, African American and staff of African descent. So I remember a meeting.

Jasmine Sudarkasa: It was a really funny conversation.

Fay Twersky: But it was a deep conversation with Amy. … And we had to really peel back the layers of our assumptions and go deep into what would that mean and what would that look like, and I don’t think we even resolved it in the first meeting. I think we might have slept on it. And then, from where I stood, I remember thinking, Jasmine can do this. I wanted to be there with her, but partly because I just assumed I would, and then partly because I wanted her to succeed. There are a lot of strong personalities in this group. And so I was invested in Jasmine succeeding. And that was part of me wanting to have your back in this.

And what I took away from that deep conversation that we had about your interest, readiness, willingness to do this—it forced me to think differently about my own leadership in this design process. And it was out of that conversation that we were able to get really clear about roles and how I could support you, but from behind and not from in front. And to place my confidence in you, and to be there to talk through things, to help when you hit—if you hit—any challenging moments. To make sure that you were asking for help in the meetings if you needed it. And to just be able to support you without being there with you. And to me, that was a really important breakthrough. And we were then able to get to, okay, your role is going to be [leading] the Advisory Council, and then my role is going to be communicating about the design and engaging with Larry and our board, and Amy’s role is going to be about the voting and the nomination process with all staff.

Jasmine Sudarkasa: I agree, and I just want to spend a moment on this because, I think you know, I’m obsessed with the nitty-gritty of power sharing—the boring, ugly bits of it—because those are the moments where I feel like change happens. And I think, in this particular instance, what I would lift up is the space that was required in a lot of the design process.

So I found there were a lot of times when if you proposed something to me that maybe I didn’t like—for example, in this case, us co-facilitating this group—I was like,  I feel like I should do this on my own. But having the space to kind of sit and think, can I do this on my own? Do I feel prepared enough? Do I feel like I have all the tools that I need?  Can I manage this group of personalities? And getting the reassurance, I think, was also really important, because I definitely did second guess it at different points. But then the trust also, Fay. The trust is what compelled … not to be trite, but that’s what compels greatness. For me, it was, “Larry and Fay trust me in this closed room to come up with 15 groups. I better come up with some damn fantastic groups.”

And to just tie this into our work on anti-racism, you know, Dr. Kendi writes about this idea of racist space, and I believe that to be true. All-Black spaces are policed often and always and I think they are viewed with suspicion both structurally and otherwise. And so to be resourced to create one with my co-workers who are going through this moment in time with me. And a space that is safe and to know that it is protected institutionally and structurally, I mean that’s revolutionary work right there. I think that spurred a certain type of commitment to the process that meant that everybody showed up with their A-game.

Moving at the speed of trust

Jasmine and Fay talk through how they designed the grantmaking process with operations staff to respect guardrails and build trust.

Jasmine Sudarkasa The feeling of this process is so meaningful that I knew that would compel people to take on the tasks that maybe were less desirable. But also very early and often, recognizing people’s expertise—so designing this, at the very beginning, with our colleagues in operations. Putting them at the center of the design, which I don’t know is necessarily always the case in this sort of philanthropic practice. [Asking] “What are our guardrails? You tell us where our barriers are and we’ll use that to frame how this process can work,” just allowed for a different kind of buy-in.

I think what I did notice is that everyone was all in. And this was a very fast, very intense cramming process. And so to the extent that everyone I think showed up with the best of their work. We had our legal team really trying to make this something that could be both anti-racist and in line with our grantmaking practice and legal—that’s at the cutting edge of this work. I just think that level of workmanship and that level of commitment speaks to people’s feelings of inclusion.

Fay Twersky:  I agree with you on the operations piece. I think involving our operations colleagues really early on and saying, “We’ll abide by your guard rails because we don’t want to burden you,” allowed them to express their guardrails—and a lot of feelings about how their guardrails had been transgressed in earlier times. But they felt respected and as a result, I think that they were actually really more invested and were willing to make exceptions. So I do think that moving at the speed of trust was operating here.

Lessons in leadership

Jasmine and Fay reflect on the anti-racism grantmaking process and what they learned about leadership.

Jasmine Sudarkasa: I feel gratitude at a number of levels.

I think that the scale of this investment didn’t really hit me until we were letting people know the dollars. Looking at how the landscape continues to move, these investments are going to be meaningful for a long time, and that really means a lot to me. So just gratitude to Larry and to Fay for being truly catalytic because this is a catalytic thing that we did. I feel a lot of gratitude to our culture. I come from social justice nonprofit. That’s like my bread and butter and it has never been as holistic of a working experience as this is. And so I’m just grateful that this was also a personally nourishing event.

And then I think I’m grateful to the grantees, to be honest, because we came out of nowhere and were like, “We want to give you all this unrestricted money!” And that takes trust, too. That takes an enormous amount of trust. They don’t know what our motives might be. They don’t know what our culture is. They don’t know if this is all some kind of weird moral reckoning. They don’t know anything. And I appreciate that everyone met us with the intent that we proposed. They were willing to meet us, giving everyone the spiel about anti-racism and … they listened and they were encouraging. And so I just have gratitude to them for agreeing to go along with this as we learned with them. How do you feel, Fay?

Fay Twersky: I feel so proud of you, Jasmine. That is my overwhelming feeling right at this moment. It kind of makes me want to cry. I do. I just feel so proud of you. We were peers, but you really were the leader of this effort and I just want to acknowledge that. And I remember you really came in [to Hewlett] on the sails of the spirit of your grandmother. I remember you talking about her in the interview and it moved me when you talked about her. And I think you brought her spirit into this work and I felt that. I feel like I learned a lot, personally, and I’ve been in this field a long time, but I feel like I learned a lot from this process about different ways to lead—[ways] that were better.

Jasmine Sudarkasa: Can I ask what? Not to put you on the spot, but I’m just really curious because I think you know everything…

Fay Twersky: Well, I don’t know everything. I don’t want to overclaim. You know I never like overclaiming. I’m not a micromanager by nature, so it’s not like I learned how to not do that because I don’t like to micromanage. I like to support people doing the work. But in this instance, I think I learned some new ways of leading from behind. You really were leading out front and I was really leading from behind. I was really taking your lead and knowing how to help support it to make you successful in this environment. You were probably going to do that anyway, but I was able to follow you and say, well, what can I do to really support her leadership, because actually, Jasmine is better suited to lead this work than I am. And so, you know, what’s the role that I can play and I feel like I just learned some new intuitions about how to do that. And I think that what you did and the way that you did it led to better material results than if I did it. I’ve heard that phrase used many times to lead from behind, but I never really experienced that until now, like you were really leading out front. And it was better. It was better.

Jasmine Sudarkasa: Well can I say something to you though, Fay, honestly, this fellowship works the way it’s supposed to because I don’t think I could have done this any earlier in my time. The posture of a leader I learned from you. When I came in, I don’t want to call myself temperamental per se, but it was very easy to activate me emotionally, and I think that was getting in the way of my ability to relate to people and to lead people, especially people who were older than me. And it’s something that I, you know, in my work prior to this was never going to be checked on because everyone’s afraid to tell the Black girl that she’s being mean. But I feel like very early in our relationship that’s something that we really were able to work on in a way that was very much honoring of my experience. But also, like, “Get your shit together.” And that’s skillful, Fay.

So I just, you know, I think this was truly a peer effort in that I needed all of my work with EPG up to that moment to be able to lead Hewlett in the way that I could. I knew I had the instincts around the anti-racist work, but to do it at this scale, at this institution—there’s no way. So, I’m heartbroken that my Fay is leaving me, but the only reason why I’m all right is because this process showed me that I will be okay in your absence. So I just wanted to reflect that back to you. Because really, like so many of my instincts, especially around challenging power dynamics, or how to listen to people or make people feel heard, these are things that I learned long before we were doing this anti-racist work. I had the framework and experience to apply it. So right back out.

Fay Twersky: I want to say something about the grantee calls. Every part of this was sort of like a book. They’re different chapters, you know, but there was that piece … Jasmine, you were on all of the calls with the grantees and different people—council members, Amy and I—joined for others. I was probably on six of the calls with you, and I just loved them. I loved hearing the stories from the grantees. I loved hearing Jasmine tell the story of the work to each of them, and the reactions.

Jasmine Sudarkasa: Yeah, I think I’ll share about one in particular, which moved me just on an incredible level. Souls Grown Deep, which works in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, with Gee’s Bend’s quilters as well as the community. I got on a call with the President, a few of their grantmakers, and their board chair—and their board chair is a third-generation Gee’s Bend quilter.

This woman is old enough to be obviously my grandmother (without aging her—I am polite). And at the end of the call, the President asks, “Is there anything else that anyone wants to say?” and she just says, “Thank you so much. From all of us down here. I can’t, I can’t even begin to tell you what this means to us.” And I’m just, you know, I’m not even 30 years old yet. This woman has been protecting my culture for her entire life—and she’s thanking me. And I just say to her, “Thank you for protecting our culture.”

So this for me was like a love letter to my upbringing, my culture. And I feel like I was uniquely privileged and prepared to do it. So the grantees … I mean, every one of those calls was magical. And that’s why I have such gratitude to them because I think in that moment, also, you know, this has been such an alienating year. I haven’t been active in protests. I used to be a protest girl, but don’t do that anymore. And so I’ve been feeling very socially isolated as a movement person. And so those calls and just having our community around me was so rewarding in that moment.

…Fay, I think this is an incredible testament to your work at Hewlett, I think this is like the definition of good philanthropy because it feels good and it does good work. And I just feel very honored that I got to work on your last big project with you at the foundation. It means the world to me. And I hope that you can take some of my love with you. Such appreciation, really, I think this is definitely the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. So I just have a lot of gratitude and it really speaks to the legacy of your work at Hewlett.

Fay Twersky: Thank you, Jasmine. I agree that it was really a magical experience. It really was. They always say: Leave when you’re on top. I can’t imagine a better project to conclude on and I’m definitely taking it with me.

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