July 26, 2017

Leading on education: Matt Morton and Edgar Villanueva

Matt Morton, director of Meyer's Equitable Education portfolio, interviewed Edgar Villanueva, Vice President of Programs and Advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education and board chair of Native Americans in Philanthropy.

Edgar recently wrote an article called Sit in It: Philanthropy Must Embrace Discomfort and Rapid Change on the Road to Achieving Equity.

They sat down together at the Native Americans in Philanthropy Summit in Los Angeles in May for a dialogue on equity, education, affinity groups and impact.

Matt Morton:

I was inspired by your recent article, “Sit In It,” which ran in the Huffington Post. You say “To achieve equity, philanthropies must make space for deeply troubling conversations, and keep having them.” So I’m really curious about that, embracing that discomfort, particularly in philanthropy. Talk with me about embracing discomfort when working toward equity in your work at the Schott Foundation and Native Americans in Philanthropy. What are some of the barriers you see, working in philanthropy, that have acted as barriers to authentic equity work?

Edgar Villanueva:

I’m pushing the philanthropic sector to have uncomfortable conversations that consider the origin of our work, the wealth to do this work—the source of the money. What I’ve found is that there are some great foundations that have really come to terms with how this wealth was accumulated—for the most part because of privilege—and in many cases, it was earned on the backs of people of color. Therefore, philanthropy must acknowledge that, apologize for that history, and be earnest in the equitable distribution of the wealth through our grantmaking strategies. Our priority is returning these resources to the communities from whence they came.

We must also acknowledge that private philanthropy exists in this country because of our tax system, which benefits the wealthy. Philanthropic dollars would have gone into the public trust; however, because of the tax benefits, there’s the opportunity for wealthy individuals or families to start their own foundations. However, if trustees and those who start foundations appreciate that the purpose of the funding is to benefit the public (and not money that is intended to preserve a family's legacy of wealth), it really results in a different kind of grantmaking strategy.

Take, for example, the Northwest Area Foundation in Minneapolis. They acknowledged that their money was made from the railroad business. Its founder built railroad tracks from Minneapolis all the way to the West Coast. As a result, several Native communities were negatively affected by the accumulation of that wealth. So now the foundation is very intentional about Native Nations in that region as a form of undoing the harm caused to those communities.

Matt Morton:

Yeah, 40 percent of their grantmaking is reserved for investment in tribal communities.

Edgar Villanueva:

Exactly. The wealth of that region is rooted in Native lands and communities, and the foundation committed to both acknowledging and honoring that history. That’s why they’ve devoted 40 percent of new grant dollars to Native-led organizations working to advance economic, social, and cultural prosperity in the region.

As another example, I’ve been talking with the leadership of the NoVo Foundation, who are getting a lot of things right in terms of truly listening to people impacted by disparities. They are designing a grantmaking strategy that truly reflects what they’ve heard. Often in the past, philanthropy used focus groups to say that they listened and then put out a grantmaking strategy that is really only what they thought should happen in the community. But if you read what Peter and Jennifer Buffett have written about NoVo and their approach to philanthropy, you will see that they have a profound awareness of their privilege, and they’ve also gone through a lot of reflection on their end to decolonize their thinking about wealth and giving. It really shows up in their grantmaking practices. NoVo is very committed to gender and racial justice, and they have an Indigenous communities portfolio. They are investing significant money into communities of color. So I think those who hold power and privilege at the top of these foundations have a responsibility to say, “Okay, because of the historical context that provided the opportunity for me to have these resources, it is my duty then to pay it back in a way that is respectful and supportive of those communities that had a part in generating this wealth but did not benefit from it.”

Matt Morton:

So, you’ve served on the board of Native Americans in Philanthropy for a number of years, and you were recently elected chair. What are your thoughts on philanthropic “affinity” groups and the role they play in philanthropy nationwide?

Edgar Villanueva:

I see great value in affinity groups. One critique that I have of philanthropy is that we love to talk, process, and intellectualize a lot. I could spend all of my time every day just talking to other funders, and there are numerous affinity groups to facilitate those connections. I think we have to assess which networks are providing value in pushing our work forward, those that are creating spaces for collaborative investment opportunities. The lens that I use is this: if being a part of this group is going to result in more money or move more resources to the communities that I care about, then I’m interested in being a part of it and trying to make that happen. I am interested in ongoing learning about issues. However, I operate with a sense of urgency and action so participating in networks that align with those values work best for me.

Identity-based affinity groups are important for a number of reasons. They provide support and networking opportunities for people of color and other marginalized communities in this field. This can be a difficult sector to work in if you come from a marginalized community. Those groups also provide critical education and information about various communities within the field. And they create opportunities for us to advocate and mobilize resources in a way that presents leveraging opportunities that we might not have otherwise.

I’m convinced that there is more money being invested in communities of color today because of the leadership of affinity groups who are pushing for it.

Matt Morton:

So it sounds like it’s a real balance between the significant need of representation of communities of color, marginalized communities and underrepresented communities in philanthropy with the sort of intellectual circling that happens in philanthropy, the tendency in this field to, “let’s talk it to death because we have that privilege. We have that opportunity to.”

Edgar Villanueva:

Absolutely. And it’s really important. If you’re Native like me, most of us are probably the only Natives in our organizations, seeing that there are only about 25 Natives that work in institutional philanthropy across the U.S. Native Americans in Philanthropy provides a platform for us to connect with one another, to amplify issues in our community and to be able to really advocate for investment in our communities in a way that we would not be able to do individually.

These kind of affinity groups are also providing a seat at the table and providing a platform for collective advocacy for increased philanthropic investment and advancing equity across the field.

Matt Morton:

Sometimes it’s very clear that people don’t understand what equity is and they confuse it with equality. So, because your foundation is focused on equitable education, I wondered if you’d explain in that context of education, what is the difference between equity and equality?

Edgar Villanueva:

I come from a public health background and started working health philanthropy, and I went in thinking that people who are trained in public health have a basic understanding of equity, right? We were trained in the social determinates of health, so we understand that race and ethnicity matter, where you live matters, your income level matters. All these social conditions are indicators that will likely determine your ability to live a healthy life.

Education is very different, even within philanthropy. Often race/ethnicity is something that is not talked about. Because education is a right that every child has in this country, people make assumptions that all kids are getting the same quality of education. We know this is not the case because schools in low-wealth communities, many serving kids of color, are grossly under-resourced, which leads to all kinds of problems in the system. The decisions that are made around education are very personal. And it’s very hard for someone to compromise or make a decision that may not be in the best interests of their child for the sake of the greater good.

In the past, philanthropic and advocacy work in education was often described through an “achievement gap” frame, which is really a negative narrative about how people of color are not achieving. Schott, early on, began to promote a frame around the opportunity gap versus the achievement gap. It’s not that kids of color are unable to achieve at the same level as other kids, but there’s an opportunity gap because kids are not starting in the same place due to the injustices that exist in the system and in community.

There are also other factors impacting kids of color outside of their classroom, like the ability of their parents to earn a living wage in their community or access to health care, in addition to the opportunity to learn.

The simple way to think about equity versus equality is to ask where are we starting from? You know if all things were equal at the very beginning of the start then applying the same amount of resources, programming, and intervention for everyone would be just fine. But you have to understand that a lot of kids of color are showing up in schools from day one with a lot of disadvantages that have to be compensated for in order for them to be on the same playing field as other kids.

Matt Morton:

One of the things that we’ve done at Meyer over the last year or so is to work hard to create that shared definition of equitable education and when we talk about our vision for equitable education we say we’re working towards “ensuring meaningful public education for all.”

You’ve already defined what equity in education means to you, but in a world where we have all of these competing definitions, why do you think it matters that we actually have a common definition, whether within a foundation or within a sector?

Edgar Villanueva:

Language is a start but we have to deconstruct and dig into what we mean by equity and what we mean by education for all. We often say, “we believe all kids should have access to a high-quality education.” But who doesn’t believe that all kids should have a high-quality education? If you really want to dig deep into equity, it’s important to be more explicit.

Equity is a major buzzword right now in the field, but many are still figuring out how to operationalize it. Equity has been on the marquee for some big conferences. But I think that equity and conversations about race, gender, homophobia, all of those things have to be really explicit. Otherwise it just kind of gets lost in foundation-talk. I think that boys and girls of color in education are in many ways, the canary in the coalmine.  Denying educational opportunities for kids of color demonstrates the inequities that exist in our system that ultimately will end up hurting all kids. If we’re not really investing in the places where the deepest hurt is, the result is, all kids are not going to be lifted up.

Matt Morton:

There’s a lot of stuff there that you said, and all resonates with me but a couple specifically that I want to call out. One is Dr. john a. powell and this Targeted Universalism approach. When we talked about “all kids,” it becomes a majority strategy, and that majority strategy continues to leave out those kids that have already been marginalized and left out. So really designing a targeted strategy around the students in education who have been historically underserved and marginalized becomes essential. One of the ways we’ve done that at Meyer within Equitable Education is that we’ve specifically called out our priority populations because, well frankly, equity is our title, and data can very accurately tell us those students who have experienced the opportunity gap.

So we’ve identified underserved communities: students of color, students living in poverty, students who are english language learners, those with disabilities and those who are first-generation college going; because we see compounding issues across all of those different categories, when you see students of color, you oftentimes also see students in poverty. When you look at your immigrant and refugee community, who are often of color, also in poverty, also learning English as a second language, and you tend to have compounding barriers to a positive, meaningful education.

So I really appreciate your commentary. For me, someone who is new in philanthropy still, it feels good that I have someone like you who, with your background in education and healthcare, is echoing the things that we’ve been focusing on over this last year while building our portfolio.

The other thing too I should mention, I think I shared this with you: We were invited to join an education funders group. I’m interested engaging with that group and, selfishly, I want to see more resources from those national funders find their way to Oregon. But certainly, if, in our little way we can start to drive the conversation around how we invest philanthropic dollars in public education, particularly in public education for our priority populations, I think that would be a huge win.

Edgar Villanueva:

Yes it would! And I would add two things.

In philanthropy data is very important. In 2006, Schott published our very first 50-State Report on Public Education and Black Males. It’s also known as the “Black Boys Report,” which has state-by-state analysis of academic achievement through a race and gender lens.  

We consider the Black Boys Report to be a significant contribution to supporting a new conversation in the country about disparities for black boys. Schott was instrumental in starting the conversation within philanthropy that then snowballed to become the Executives’ Alliance that focuses on boys and men of color within philanthropy, which then influenced the launch of My Brother’s Keeper. We feel very proud that a relatively small foundation was successful in leveraging increased investment in the field as a result of compelling data and Schott’s philanthropic advocacy.

Data is critical in driving resource allocation decisions. I was just talking yesterday with someone who works at a health foundation that has a strong focus on equity. She ran a report of their investment data to have a better analysis of who they were funding. She wanted to understand how many of their grantees were led by people of color with the assumption that if grantee organizations are led by people of color and are working in communities of color, the foundation was going to get to some greater parity in its investments. She found that the majority of the foundation’s funding was going to white-led institutional organizations. When she presented that data to her colleagues—she being one of the only persons of color working in this organization—she was personally attacked. She was called “righteous” and then there was justification made to not fund groups (led by people of color) because, “they don’t have the capacity” or “there are plenty of white-led groups that do really good work.” So there are still barriers, even with clear data. If we’re not cautious and very intentional, I think we can justify our way out of not doing the right thing even when we’re presented with the truth.

I appreciate the shared vision for equity that exists between Schott and Meyer. I first heard about the work that you were doing when I lived in Seattle. You have been very explicit about what you’re trying to do, and intentional, and a lot of that has been championed by the leadership of the foundation, which I think is very, very important. More often than not, I see a program officer, a person of color, or someone else within an organization who really “gets it.” They are trying to push things forward in the right direction, and it’s like moving a boulder up the hill when you don’t have the backing of the board and the leadership. I know that your CEO has been very open and honest about what needed to happen at the foundation and was very intentional about recruitment and hiring and the direction of the foundation. Your transparency is so helpful for others to see and understand. It’s okay if you don’t know, or you don’t have all the answers. We all can learn and do better. I appreciate that about you all.

Matt Morton:

Thank you for saying that, it really means a lot, and I would agree, it’s one of the reasons why Meyer attracted me away from the community work that I was doing.

So one of the first questions I asked you was about “leaning in” or “sitting in” it, you know, being uncomfortable. You mentioned the organizations that have done that tend to have a different way of grantmaking, and that grantmaking is focused on actually responding in a way that is reflective of what the communities are seeking versus what the philanthropic organization thinks the communities want. So there was an article recently about how the education sector should reach out to communities to better engage students and their families.

Within Meyer’s Equitable Education portfolio, we really put a lot of stock in the importance of community self-determination, recognizing community expertise and agency to determine the most effective strategies to increase student achievement. How we define it within community is that the community are experts of their own experience. How do you see that approach? Or, have you seen that approach positively impact outcomes in your work with historically underserved communities? And the reason why I’m asking, I should say, because I think this will, as we invest more in this way, within the Equitable Education portfolio, for example, the more scrutiny will be placed on it if we don’t see immediate return on investment. So I’m looking to you, is this a nice thing to say, or is this something we can actually demonstrate? This self-determination works, community-driven solutions work, does it work better than the “white savior” mentality that philanthropy often has: go in, drop the solution, then leave.

Edgar Villanueva:

It begins with our values. Are we seeking to really understand equity and to do the hard, sometime uncomfortable work of changing our internal systems and practices to reflect our understanding? At Schott, we truly believe that change is best achieved when the community’s impacted by injustices are significantly engaged as the leaders. Communities must lead with solutions. The majority of our investments support community-based movement-building organizations. We support activism by students, parents, and teachers who are putting external demands on school districts, on states, and at the federal level to bring about systemic and policy change to advance an equal opportunity to learn for all students.

In terms of having a return on investment, if you believe and lead with that value— that it’s critical that student voice, parent voice be at the table—there has to be resources provided to get them there. In most cases they’re not automatically invited in. Schott's funding has supported creating space for student voice and parent voice to be heard.

For example, in Mississippi, Schott supports an organization called Southern Echo. Southern Echo was successful in creating parent councils around the state. Now significant decisions that are being made by the districts are mandated to engage parents from these councils in decisions that impact education. And that’s a good thing. Some parents may not be engaged because they don’t feel empowered or invited to the table. If you create and support these mechanisms for engagement, for them to not just be at the table but for their voice and their solutions to be meaningful contributions to the decisions that are being made, you see positive outcomes.

Of course, we measure success too. Schott Foundation is a public foundation, which means that we raise money and rely on donors to support our programs. Articulating outcomes is important. Consider this about movement-building. If a movement can be built, then you can measure how it’s growing, how it’s being built, if it’s getting larger. Is the constituent base growing? Are the number of people engaged in public education growing? And what are the systemic and policies wins that came about from the groups that we’re supporting? How many people were impacted by those wins? At Schott, we track these types of indicators. We know that there is higher return on investment on grants made for advocacy versus programs.

Where you have to exercise some caution, is that ROI is not always about a policy win. We don’t win all the time and when we do, implementation is a whole different issue. There are other measures of success that must be considered. In some ways, I’m grappling with this, as are many grantees who are required to report on their advocacy efforts. I am looking at policy and system wins, and I am looking at the impact of the reach and the capacity of our grantees. Again, evaluation of this work comes back to our values set. I don’t believe in my years in this work that we would have seen so much progressive policy change without the demand for it from communities. So investing in that community demand and power is imperative, even if it’s hard to measure.

Matt Morton:

Yeah. You know, I really, appreciate that, in fact, let me just take a minute to tell you what we’ve kind of experienced here. So we have three goals within Equitable Education; the first one is building a unified movement around equitable education. The second is around systems and policy change, because we recognize that there are organizations better equipped to be engaged in community, and we recognize organizations are better equipped in that direct policy and systems change work. And then the third goal is around increasing student achievement for priority populations. So we recently had 163 eligible applications that came in. A good 70 percent of those landed in goal three and 30 percent landed in the first two goals. With the first goal, movement building, I think we got maybe a total of 12 applications. And what that really told me was that the system, the two plus decades of disinvestment in public education in Oregon, has driven all of our community-based organizations, our service providers, nonprofit and otherwise, into this space of backfilling public education.

So now we’re very early in the process of reviewing proposals and making recommendations for consideration, but I’m already thinking we have a lot of work to do to prepare organizations to have authentic relationships with communities where they can start to do the organizing, engagement and movement building before they’re even ready to accept resources for those purposes.

Edgar Villanueva:

I’ve been a part of funding the progressive movement for some time, mostly supporting multi-issue work. When I was at the Marguerite Casey Foundation, we didn’t have a lot of grantees with an education focus. Most of the groups that were doing educational organizing were multi-issue, so it was a part of their platform. They might have been organizing around minimum wage, economic justice, and education. There are a handful of national education-focused coalitions, and a lot of organizing is done by labor. The movement is growing.

At Schott, I have a pretty good sense of the national landscape. I know the national networks who are doing education justice work and again, it’s a pretty small universe compared with the worker’s rights movement, for example. There’s also a dynamic of unions that comes into play. I do believe that post-election, education has absolutely been elevated as an issue of concern to the public. People who have not been paying attention to education or have focused on other issues are now prioritizing the fight for public education. For example, People’s Action is one of the largest base-building organizations in the country. They are very powerful with a massive membership base that covers most of the country. They were a grantee of mine when I was at Marguerite Casey Foundation. At that time, they were primarily focused on economic justice and immigration. They are now talking about public education too. The past several e-mails I’ve received from them have been about the education budget, so I think there is an awakening in the broader progressive movement about what’s happening in education and the need to organize around it. If you truly believe that public education is the last mainstay of our democracy and how our democracy is threatened by privatization, then you have a lot of cause to be alarmed right now.

Matt Morton:

Thank you. So there’s one more question; I mentioned our Equitable Education portfolio, this is our first annual funding opportunity. We received 163 eligible applications requesting about $22 million. Over the next three years, we have $7.8 million that we can commit. Out the door this year: $5.2 million. I just wanted to know, do you have any advice for us as we prioritize our investments for impact?

Edgar Villanueva:

Yes. A couple things to think about: being new at Meyer and this portfolio being pretty fresh, having an open call may be helpful because you get a sense of the landscape. Over time, however, I would think about a way to narrow down the number of applications I was reviewing, perhaps by invitation only, or to have very specific types of RFPs or ROIs. This is a growing trend. There are ways to be very transparent about the process, and I’ve found that grantees appreciate not applying if they’re not really a fit.

Put a priority on funding groups that are working with communities of color. My first “yes” pile would automatically be groups that are working with communities of color, that are led by people of color. But you can’t necessarily apply the same criteria across the board . This is where a lot of these groups lose out, because if you have blanket selection criteria, such as budget size, then you may automatically be cutting out grassroots groups led by people of color.

It’s okay to give those proposals special treatment. That is equity - it’s special treatment and special consideration. One of the first steps I’d make is to try to find a way to say “yes” even if those applications are missing a budget attachments, or you have to do some follow-up to get more information. That is the work that is required to make sure those groups have access to resources. They may not have a development director who’s going to submit a well-written perfect application. We must be willing to do the work to support the success of their proposals.

Matt Morton:

Thank you. This is precisely the message I’ve delivered to my team as we’ve been reviewing these. We want to create a fair system but with the recognition that, in fact, equity compels us to look at things in a way that may not be, to address things in a way that may not be, to respond to things in a way that may not be what we expect or what we’ve been doing in the past.

You touched on something else, where we sort of “white-splain” the reasons why organizations aren’t sophisticated and the reasons why we don’t fund them because they don’t fit into this nice, pretty package that we expect to see. I think that's been one of the bigger challenges that we have faced organizationally, and as a sector, as equity has been attempted. To operationalize equity often means that, all of a sudden, it just doesn’t look the same. It’s hard, and it’s messy, and it takes more time and with the concern of the risk involved. And philanthropy isn’t known for its risk taking generally.

Edgar Villanueva:

Right. In philanthropy, we’ve learned to find ways to say “no.” On one hand, a lot of foundations aren’t clear what they want to say “yes” to, so it’s just easier to say “no” to a lot of things.

Matt Morton:


Edgar Villanueva:

And then be really clear about what you want to say “yes” to and then that would guide you into being more transparent about it in the future.

It’s easy to create sweeping criteria to cut things out because of the large number of proposals to read. And you must exercise the understanding that what is reflected in this proposal is not necessarily reality. Anyone can hire an amazing grant writer to write a proposal. Many times, I’ve seen beautifully written proposals that do not reflect the real impact. You have to take the proposal with a grain of salt.

Proposals are just another step in the approval process. For me, other parts include the community knowledge that you have, and that’s great because you’re a place-based funder, so you know what’s going on and where some impact could be, just from the context of things. You might get some other information from a site visit. All of these information sources should be put into the soup that leads to finding a way to “yes” and “no” and not putting too much weight on a piece of paper, that we don’t know who wrote, or if someone is just so busy doing the work that they just don’t have the right tools and abilities to articulate it in a proposal.

Schott funds almost all small, grassroots organizations and when I tell you that I’ve had to sit on the phone and help type a proposal for people because they’re driving across the rural South or wherever and they don’t have time, it’s true. By any means necessary to support the right work. We don’t want our complicated process to prevent us from funding amazing work on the ground.

Matt Morton:

Exactly. Thank you, Edgar!