This is a guest post by Caterina Gironda, Research & Program Manager at Funders Concerned About AIDS.
In 2017—my first full year working in philanthropy—I attended the United Philanthropy Forum’s annual conference in San Francisco. It was the first year the Forum opened membership to national philanthropy serving-organizations (PSOs), and the big unveiling of its new name occurred in conjunction with my initiation to this massive and incomparable community. I was alone from my organization and slated to present at the Emerging Practitioners pre-conference session on behalf of EPIP – another organization I was brand new to and had sought refuge in early on. The Wick Poetry Center was in attendance at that 2017 conference, and as an introvert, I found solace in the quiet reflection and space it provided. This year, I was pleased to see its return to the conference, and my familiar words from 2017 appear on the collective poem it circulated on note cards.
“My voice is a poem folded into an origami crane, written on little pieces of paper, scraps of thought hidden in the folds.”
Everything about it reminded me of how unsure I felt just two years ago, learning to fly in this daunting field. I recalled how empowering that first experience was, though, and how proud I felt now to be returning to this conference with my new role, new confidence, new relationships and friendships, my colleague in tow, and a chance to present the fruits of our labor at the KM Users Group.
There is so much about the programmatic content of The Forum’s conference that can and should be discussed. The value of learning a simple tool, the partnerships and the power they hold, the impact of relearning forgotten histories. Much of this has been mentioned by my colleagues in previous blogs, so I want to focus on something more personal, more precise yet harder to pinpoint; something rare in professional settings. As a young, introverted woman with a severe deficit in confidence, a heavy dose of imposter syndrome, and a plethora of passion and desire to effect change, professional spaces have been extremely difficult for me to navigate. It is often assumed that the best path to leadership and success is to pretend that you do not experience these emotions, that you do not have struggles and challenges, that you are a beaming ray of confidence at all times.
Not only does The Forum provide a space for folks to learn, network, grow, challenge each other and collaborate as PSOs, but it also encourages individuals to show up as themselves, as Philanthropy Serving People. And in doing so, it highlights something that is rarely acknowledged in professional spaces: that this work ceases to occur if we do not show up every day and do the work; that change does not occur if each individual does not push for that change, or put in the effort to change themselves, to do better and to be better.
Several sessions at this year’s Forum conference politely asked us to shine the mirror back onto our own organizations, to not just assess if we’re encouraging our members to reflect on their workplaces and grantmaking, but to, in turn, reflect on our own internal cultures. In so doing, it provoked us to try and practice what we preach: that we do not cause undue burden on our own staff, that we see representation of people of color, LGBT folks, people living with HIV, or members of the communities we serve, all the way up at the very top of our own hierarchies.
I sat in a room as CEOs and emerging practitioners alike made themselves vulnerable, as they donned name badges with their organization’s clearly labeled and offered candid challenges that they faced in their own professional spaces. These were not grievances thrown to the wind, nor commiseration sessions for survival. The Forum’s own CEO and Administrative Assistant stood side by side, took diligent notes and listened, as collective laughter and frustration gave merit to each point. This might not be the type of change we like to talk about – the inspiring difference that we all want to make. But we cannot talk about giving voice to the communities and the grant partners of our members unless we start with ourselves. And we cannot do good effective work until we feel like we are heard and respected internally, from top to bottom.
Before the week was out, I went to visit my friend from The Wick Poetry Center and updated the record:
“My voice is a cranes wings unfurled – creases revealed – secrets unsealed. “