An Interview with Angelique Power, President, The Field Foundation of Illinois
Mother. Sister. Redesigner.
I am overjoyed that I met you at the Equity in the Center convening in November 2019. That plenary gave me a lot to think about, specifically your question of whether we are architects in pursuit of racial equity or window dressing. Thanks for making time to chat with me.
Tell me about your current role?
I started at Field Foundation in 2016 which was a really crucial year in Chicago and the country. In some ways I had been preparing for this role through my career choices as I’d spent the better part of the past twenty plus years in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector. In another way, I’d been preparing for this role through my lived experience. My upbringing on the Southside of Chicago being the daughter of a Chicago Public Schools teacher and a Chicago police officer offered real revelations about systemic failures. We often blame teachers and police officers for not fixing problems generated by these systems that they are then charged with solving. In short, I was raised with an eye on systems and seeking wisdom from those in the trenches. And while my parents have both passed, I think of them daily and reflect on what it meant to grow up with a white Jewish mom and black dad. I had awareness of being a part of communities and apart from communities at the same time. It’s a helpful skill that I carry into every sector I work in, whether philanthropy or nonprofits. I am always part of those communities while also hovering over and observing them. I view myself as a stakeholder within any system or organization rather than an employee or bystander.
All those things led me to the Field Foundation, and I came as a skeptic of philanthropy writ large. As someone who had been studying antiracism work for the last six years, I was skeptical about race agnostic approaches to solve problems. I needed to put my money where my mouth is…not just kick the Foundation’s tires but use the chance to contribute to an alternative way of being.
You labeled yourself a stakeholder rather than an employee. Can you elaborate on that?
I’m a stakeholder in the city of Chicago. I’m a stakeholder in the philanthropic sector to ensure it is working in service to the city. I am a stakeholder in the Field Foundation – realizing that making grants is just a small portion of what we do. We are in the business of building trust, learning from others and influencing toward justice whether in our sector or other areas. I’m a stakeholder in work that aims for something higher beyond getting tasks done each day. The moment we live in demands that of us.
What does Field Foundation focus on?
We are hyper focused on systemic inequity and root causes in our Justice portfolio and have made a commitment to give the majority of our funds to Black/Indigenous/POC organizations or ALAANA – African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American organizations. The By Us For Us philosophy.
In addition to focusing on racial equity we also earmark most of our funds geographically as the majority of our dollars go the South and West sides of Chicago due to significant divestment and because that is where visionaries are designing solutions. So, what does that mean?
We fund a lot of organizers living in communities designing solutions for themselves. Arts programs that really are about interrogating the notion of what gets to be called art. There is a cooperative space run by immigrant and refugee women in that portfolio. A lot of artists working in social justice movements. A lot of creative enterprises that aren’t structured as 501c3 arts organizations.
There are two other programs to push boundaries on philanthropy. One is Leadership Investment. There is a part of that portfolio called Leaders for a New Chicago where we give dollars directly to individuals. This is a partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Artists, organizers, journalists, storytellers can receive a $25,000 unrestricted cash award with no expectations of what to do. They do not have to prove themselves to us. It really is a bold and clear acknowledgement of who they are and what they have already done. In addition to $25,000 to the individual we also follow that with a $25,000 match that goes to their organization. The reason: a lot of folks we want to get capital to will give money to their organization if it’s given to them. We want them to be able to take care of themselves too.
Metrics are also another place we are trying to re-write the rule book. The metric of success in this program is if the Leaders trust us enough to tell us what more they need from us. They could take the money and moonwalk away and that would be that. We listen, they lead. Breakfast with Cook County Commissioner? Counsel on what constitutes lobbying? Financial planning advice since some may have just received the equivalent of a year’s pay? They tell us; we don’t tell them what we think they need. If we have earned their trust and they tell us how they used the funds – put into a 403b, went on vacation – the metrics of the program are have we built enough trust to learn what people need, and if so, can we tell others what Chicago leaders actually need, whether that’s vacations, more money, or health insurance. Maybe then we can influence others who are shepherding capital to those who need it.
This didn’t happen overnight. To get here, we started a process over four years ago which involved racial justice training of the board and staff where we studied the city. We try to be as transparent as possible about this journey. We created heat maps which are available on our website and a process map that outlines what we went through before rolling out our new way of operating. All of this is an attempt to put racial equity in the center of our foundation.
I’m in awe considering how I know philanthropy to work and the inherent power dynamics.
Ah yes. Well, one way that shows up is what I mentioned earlier in that philanthropy loves unrealistic metrics. The reality is that does harm not just to the nonprofits but to the veracity of philanthropy. We need to be data scientists: if we have earned trust then maybe we can learn not just what happened in the six months since they received the money but we can learn with the organizations more genuinely. Why does that matter? We have power, privilege and platform. We have time that nonprofits don’t tend to have. How are we using our privilege to further their goals rather than putting that work on nonprofits?
How can philanthropy get out of its own way? We are trying to do this. For instance, the Leaders for a New Chicago Award program rolled out last year and we had a selection committee. This year the selection committee is those same Leaders who won the awards last year. We are removing folks who are not the experts (those in philanthropy).
We also are interested in retelling the story of what leadership and power looks like in Chicago. Awardees are from all hierarchies within an organization. You could run the organization or be an entry level person. Leaders are in every role. Some of the awardees were returning citizens, artists, journalists, and organizers. The old school way of operating doesn’t recognize power structures and we hope to change that.
Field’s Media & Storytelling Program focuses on ALAANA journalists and storytellers. We are talking about “fake news” now, but in communities of color there has always been fake news led by corporate white media which rarely includes perspectives from the community. In the heat maps, we clocked where media organizations are in Chicago on the South and West sides. Thirty percent of all media organizations in our city are located in these areas but in the past ten years they only received 6% percent of funding. That’s a $60M shortfall!
If there was investment, would we be where we are today? We want to begin to correct the past funding inequity to journalists of color and media outlets led by Black, Latinx, Indigenous and POC folks. The other side is the storytelling piece. There is a revolution happening with how we get our information…whether listening to podcasts, viewing web series, documentaries, and other ways of sharing information. We have started to fund for profit organizations which has been interesting. Social impact does not organize itself as a 501c3 all the time; that structure is contingent upon having high net worth board members who are also charged with governance. So, when you think about social impact, often it’s organized as individuals, collectives, businesses, or cooperatives so how do we in foundation land stop replicating structures that may not be serving our stated end goal?
I could talk to you forever. I’m back to thinking about design choices that Villanueva references.
Nonprofits kept stepping when they realized that foundations were not asking the right questions. How do we – in this moment when everyone is eager to use the term racial equity – make it not flash in the pan?
Racial equity seems to be a bumper sticker for many organizations. What do you mean by racial equity?
People use racial equity as a substitute for diversity. Yes, it’s important to look at representation, but representation isn’t action. In the spectrum, diversity means systems stay the same and the representation of people changes; the behavioral science of the actors in the system might change but that is all. This kind of tinkering work is labor intensive and when the people leading the work leave, then the work leaves with them. This has been the same conversation for decades.
I am hoping that racial equity work can lead us to a new place. And to be blunt we can’t just hope folks of color do this work. For one, racial equity isn’t always understood by all people of color. Let’s face it – we have gotten the same messages that everyone else has gotten. Many of us are in spaces and charged with trying to actualize racial equity, yet we have our own privilege and internalized racism that we need to sort out.
Racial Equity is about shifting power and resources. It involves dismantling AND rebuilding systems. This is an important point since for many of us it stops with dismantling; rebuilding involves shifting resources and power, acknowledging history, and in some ways rethinking history that you have been told and from that lens building something new. It’s a constant journey. Our muscle memory is that of inequity. That’s the exciting and daunting part of it: once you get started, the universe shifts and opens, expands and almost becomes a spiritual journey like achieving one’s life’s work. System structures change and from that comes a new way of being. DNA shifts instead of getting a makeover.
If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what would make the list?
“Feeling Good” by Nina Simone. “Birds flying high you know how I feel…Sun in the sky you know how I feel…Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel.” That song is joyful and optimistic and shifts from one person to different beings across the universe; it’s about how we are all very much interconnected. The other side of racial equity work – the spiritual element I mentioned – is an ultimate striving for this deep, generative connection to others that feels unbridled.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension and how you reconciled that tension or not?
When I first joined Field, I was hired to be a strategist and think through how the foundation could lead on its journey toward “impact and change.” I decided early on that what we actually needed to do was tackle race and racism. The first big test was hosting a full racial justice training for my board and staff. This was four months into the job. Few foundations at that time were doing similar work and if so, the training was just for staff. Four months in and one month after the presidential election, I hosted this training. The country was very polarized and in a collective civil war which we remain in today. I was scared to do it and joked with my husband…I guess it’s been a good run at the Field Foundation – hope Starbucks is hiring. While the Field Foundation hired me to be a strategist, as a woman of color, I feared they would see this as me pushing my personal proclivities rather than understand that this is strategy; you can’t have strategy that is race agnostic and actually we get further faster by centering racial equity. I didn’t have the luxury of them knowing me and me knowing them. We don’t talk about race in mixed company and don’t know how to frankly. That was an existential moment that ultimately goes back to me as a stakeholder. It wasn’t about a job or reputation, but about the work and what was required.
Maxine Waters is a lovely human and helped us with reclaiming our time. Do you have an example of when you’ve had to reclaim yours?
This might sound harsh, but I’ve had to reclaim my time from so many white people who want me to explain to them how to trim the margins on this work, how to perform racial equity for them so they feel justified in what they are doing. I recall in beginning this work the number of requests that we received from white organizations that wanted dollars to just learn about what racial equity meant was astounding. Funding to have conversations, form a committee, bring in trainers…Essentially asking us to do the same thing that has been done for years – take money from folks of color who are trying to exist in liberated spaces so you can talk about it. If you want to learn, pay for it. Start there.
Another frequent request is how to get more people of color on boards. When I scratch the surface, I realize that the constituencies are incongruent. That’s the diversity lens: we have it all figured out and just need to get some people of color to co-sign on an agenda that doesn’t include them. Part of the work I have to do every day is figuring out who is really here for it…who are my true co-conspirators or allies with the goal of moving things forward. Allies and white allies get a bad rap. This will be messy. You should be able to cut out some folks who aren’t here for it, but one absolutely cannot cut out all white people. I have some incredible co-conspirators in this racial equity work and I have grown so much in learning how to be an ally and co-conspirator with other marginalized communities. We all need to step toward each other in a very real way and step back if our heart isn’t in it.
In society we’re duped to think we are in a racial hierarchy; there’s a natural skepticism that comes with that. We are all learning. Many of us are very new to the ideas we are discussing and others of us have been studying. What is the utopic view? The new structure? What does racial equity look like at work?
I love Carmita (Semaan) who is a dear friend, co-conspirator and was also on the Equity panel with me when you and I first met. She has this amazing way of talking about how some people equate excellence with a white supremacist notion. She counters this by explaining how our culture, in various communities of color, owns excellence – we have always done the most amazing mind-blowing things across fields from art, medicine, engineering, science. We are not gonna give over ownership on things being done really well. We are at a point where those of us deep in this movement are trying to figure out what is “the new.” How to build something where power is shared, different knowledge sets exists, where the hustle is real, there’s room for different cultures and backgrounds, and we acknowledge intersectionality. And there are still institutional structures, deadlines, and incredible deliverables completed because we are working for something big that demands our best working selves.
What’s your approach to self-care? Anything you do to survive and thrive while living your best life?
I have an incredibly supportive husband and an amazing 10-year-old daughter so I’m always trying hard to figure out how to stay centered and be present – as a gift to myself, to them and others. I’m still trying to figure out how to not be everywhere all the time. Lately I’ve been telling myself that it’s okay to give myself time to read. If I’m gonna commit to doing something like presenting or speaking, then I give myself time to prepare for that. If I’m going to be home, I let myself off the hook of feeling guilty to not being out in the mix and enjoy the thrill of being home with family. It goes back to what you were saying about what you have to do to be successful – more money, higher position, recognition, number of re-tweets. Much of self-care is redefining what success means to me: time with family, time to think, a good night’s sleep, and feeling good about myself that at end of day I did okay with what I was given and tomorrow I’ll get back at it.
How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?
Oh, I think about this one ALL the time as I often call my grandfather in to join me when I’m speaking/presenting. He was a Pullman porter who came to Chicago during the Great Migration. He attained his master’s from the University of Chicago in 1938. He worked at Illinois Bell in community relations to get phones into Black homes. He was a 33rd degree Mason who taught himself to speak three different languages.
I open myself up and channel “Pap”, as we called him, to come in and help me in situations where I am trying to facilitate a discussion, lead large meetings, keynote or moderate a panel. I quiet myself prior and feel his spirit with me. It gives me strength and also reminds me that I am only here doing what I do because of a line long of ancestors that got me here. My job is to take the baton and move forward while doing what I am doing.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to amplify their voice and become better self-advocates?
Get a sister circle. I have overlapping sister circles and it so necessary because as women of color we are often navigating a chess game and moving things forward in many spaces on behalf of the unseen and unsaid in our lives. So many of us are caretakers, CEOs of our families, Chief Visioning Officers of our lives. And so many of us are philanthropists – within our communities, our faith spaces, our families, neighbors and more. We need space where we can just be. Hear each other. Say what we are afraid of saying elsewhere. Laugh.
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
That’s a good question and I don’t want to generalize Black women since there are so many ways that we show up, but I think that part of what will help us is that if – in this racial equity work being done – there was a decision to name blackness, first of all, and to understand its uniqueness in the same way that naming indigenous communities is critical. And then for us to be willing to go deeper in trying to unpack how gender and race play into what a Black woman’s experience is whether at school, at work, or in the criminal justice system. When we break down these systems, we see that there are so many additional things misunderstood about Black women.
This interview was conducted in February 2020.