An Interview with Gabrielle Sims, Project Associate, Shah Family Foundation

Gabrielle Sims, Project Associate, Shah Family Foundation


Tell me about your current role?

The Shah Family Foundation, started three years ago by Jill and Niraj Shah, supports innovative and transformative work in education, healthcare and the community. Interesting and lasting solutions sit where these intersect. The Foundation’s primary work and support is centered in Boston, with the goal of sharing broadly the programs and innovations that prove successful in our hometown. The foundation primarily invests in innovations within government programs.
My Way Café, for example, is a pilot model working in Boston Public Schools (BPS) to provide low income students with healthy meals. The Foundation has partnered with BPS and the City of Boston to build kitchens in schools, procure innovative software and provide strong staff development. Because of this investment, currently 25,000 students have access to a free, healthy breakfast and lunch every day. This program will grow to serve all 55,000 students in Boston over the next two years.
In my role, I work closely with the project managers for My Way Café to track the pilot model’s efficacy. I also do research and data analysis to help the organization find areas to concentrate its investments. I’m relatively new to the organization and I love every minute of the work. I’m working under strong leadership on a great team that is insightful and dedicated to making Boston a better place. It’s always amazing to find an organization that aligns so strongly with your values!

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?

There are two inflection points that I’ve had while working in the social impact field where I’ve had to defend my values. The first is that I’ve always had an issue with DEI conversations in the social impact and philanthropy sector. Being in the sector, you witness so many conversations and trainings on the importance of diversifying the sector, especially along the lines of race. While I believe that this is a critical issue, I wonder if folks who strongly support DEI are leaning too much on tokenism and not looking at the values that individuals bring to their organizations. When tokenization occurs, Black and brown people are silenced, especially when they speak out on issues pertaining to an organization’s anti-Black culture. The Black and brown person providing critical feedback to the organization is no longer held as a shining example of how we can all work in harmony, but that person becomes a threat to the organizational culture. Many of my mentors have had something similar happen to them and I’ve had this happen to me as well. I was raised by two loving parents who taught me that regardless of my race and my gender, that it is always important to speak up when I see an injustice or if I believe that my input could make a process better. Those values are not always respected in the social impact sector. My personal mission is to work towards building a better Boston by uplifting and supporting Black and brown people. So often I ask myself, how can I truly fulfill that mission if I am silenced within the sector?
Another point of tension that I’ve had while working in the social impact sector is seeing those with the lived experience of poverty get marginalized or even dismissed. Often nonprofits berate themselves for not being close enough to ‘the work’ and desire the expertise of those with lived experience. Early on in my career I’ve been in meetings where the ‘community person’ (often a person of color) will suggest a program or an idea and everyone at the table is nodding in support of the idea and acts really encouraging but the moment that person leaves, things change. Those left in the room will lament that the representative from the community is ‘too emotional’ about the work and needs to be more objective’ and ‘doesn’t really understand how these things [programs to alleviate poverty] work.’ Sitting through meetings like that on several occasions really challenges my values but I know that if I am not in those rooms to challenge those perspectives, then I risk the reality that a representative from the community will never be at the table to share their expertise.

Can you share an experience where you have had to reclaim your time?  What was the context? How did you navigate it?

I feel like I’ve constantly had to reinvent myself and reclaim my time in my career. I knew in college that I wanted a career path where I could bring community voices to ivory tower institutions to work together to solve this era’s most critical problems. However, in that journey and spreading the gospel about what I was trying to do, I was met with a lot of doubt by professors, mentors and even people I thought were close friends. I was told that I would ‘never have a career in policy work’ with the path that I was choosing and that if I cared so much about community I should just ‘be an organizer but know that I won’t really change much.’ Very disheartening words to hear for an idealistic 20-year-old looking to make a difference. I’m lucky that I had the continuous support of my parents in staying true to my vision and a lot grace from God.
The key moment that I had in ‘reclaiming my time’ was when I finished graduate school. I graduated with an African American Studies degree where I concentrated on how American public policy created the African American identity. All throughout grad school, I kept hearing ‘what are you going to do with that degree?’ Sometimes, I thought that the questions about my degree were innocuous because cultural studies degrees can be a bit risky but there were moments where I received hostility about the degree itself saying that African American culture in this country was ‘obsolete and unnecessary to talk about.’ Mind you, I started graduate school a few months after the Charleston shootings and a year after Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson.
Finishing up my degree in the spring was a moment where I had to shake off a lot in order to continue in my work. I left friendships that weren’t supportive of the change I was trying to make, and I got critical and discerning about who I called a ‘mentor.’ I didn’t want all ‘yes men’ in my corner if you will but I certainly didn’t want people who brought a strong sense of negativity. Finding that balance was tricky and so was finding a job. But I was at a point where I knew that I could do it and there was never a point in time where I had to lean on my faith more.
I was hired at NeighborWorks America right after graduate school. I was very grateful to find an opportunity where I could use what I had learned in the classroom in a practical way, that doesn’t happen for everyone. The summer after graduate school, I spent my time researching and really unveiling the lost history of this unsung hero in the housing and community development field, Dorothy Richardson. She was a Black woman from Pittsburgh whose activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s led her to partner with banks to incentivize them to provide homeownership loans to low income people who didn’t have a path to homeownership. Her way to create this partnership with the banks was only possible because the 1968 riots shook policy officials to their core. While the Kerner Commission was conducting research to understand why riots were taking place in urban centers, banks also were looking at ways to quell discontent because they had strong financial incentives to keep peace as well. While there were no major riots in Pittsburgh, Dorothy Richardson was wise and knew that she could leverage the fear of one to push her cause for neighborhood stability further.
The message was that people who own their homes don’t burn them down. By providing low income people with small loans to purchase homes in their community, the banks were getting new customers. The model worked for banks and for the residents since they were able to build equity and have deep ties to the community. Her activism was responsible for keeping people in their homes and NeighborWorks America was built from her legacy. It’s a long-winded reflection on the history but I try to share nuggets from her story whenever I can.
Having the grit to uncover a lost activist in American history, especially a Black woman, gave me the strength that I needed to know that this work is my purpose and that the experiences I had during grad school only led to making my vision clearer.

If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what would make the list?

Obviously, a lot of Beyoncé. (Laughter.) She’s inspired a generation to think differently about womanhood, specifically Black womanhood, that we can have it all and just have to show up differently. “Run the World” was my empowerment song in college while thinking about what I was capable of by getting out of my shell.
“Warm Winds” by SZA:  there’s a lyric in the song “doubting has only made your vision blurry, you’re better off just looking in the mirror” that speaks to me. I’ve had so many moments where I’ve doubted myself and gotten in my head about things that didn’t deserve my attention. If I had just looked in the mirror and remembered who I was, my confidence wouldn’t have been shaken.
“Under Control” by the Internet was the song that I played throughout the semester when I was finishing grad school. The lyrics of the song were so powerful for me (and still are) because I’m a perfectionist and I like to have the appearance of being together and ‘under control.’ That time in my life was one of the first times where things truly weren’t under control, but I kept up face like everything was all good.
“Last Call” by Kanye West. This song is great, even though it’s about nine minutes. Kanye chronicles his journey to becoming Kanye and all the bumps in the road. In typical Kanye fashion, he credits his own perseverance and gifts to making it. While humility is a virtue sometimes it’s important to remember what you’ve overcome to get to where you are.
“Formation” was in the early stages of my career and getting prepared for a trajectory in the social sector. I had been warned about the nuances (of the sector), but nothing like the challenges I’ve faced in my career. It also makes for a great workout song.
Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” resonates because in lyrics, Kendrick breaks down how whiteness in this country has broken down our people generation after generation but we’re still here. We’ve been down, we’ve been hurt before. The perseverance of my people and the beautiful culture that’s emerged in the face of so much evil inspires me and is always a reminder of how blessed I am to be living in these times no matter how hard the work gets.
“Changes” by Tupac is such a beautiful song and it’s a reminder to keep pushing for a better reality for our communities. The only lyric in that song that’s changed over time is “I know it seems heaven sent/We ain’t ready to see a Black president.”

What’s your approach to self-care?

My approach is to do a lot of self-care and be very deliberate about what my mind and body needs. The core of my self-care is focusing on my mindset. I have a phrase that helps me honor my self-care practices and not see it as indulgent: “the work can’t continue if I don’t.”  I look at the institutions that I’ve worked at and the stories that I’ve had to hold from people that have difficult lives. Holding those stories and working at organizations that have so many resources has been challenging but self-care has helped me persevere and stay humble.
Focusing on my mind through staying positive and monitoring my thoughts has been critical. I can get negative…. You look at stats and things are getting worse – infant mortality, income inequality. I also get frustrated because I’ve worked with people who tell me that this work is ‘just a job’ and not anything that requires more of me than my 9-5 hours. Working with people who aren’t dedicated to the work beyond the paycheck is difficult. Therefore, I’ve surrounded myself with an army of mentors and friends who believe in change. Social networks are a critical part of self-care. With these people in my life, I have the motivation to keep going which is so necessary for my mental health.
As for other forms of self-care, I do a lot of yoga, running and I probably spend more time at the gym than my home. I’m trying to get more into meditation but think the number one thing effective for me and my self-care is to bond with friends who are positive and have the same vision for change and hope that I do.

We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?

I’m relatively young but do think about legacy quite a bit. What I want to break is the narrative of Black womanhood connected to struggle. I want my children and grandchildren to see a Black woman who’s able to accomplish great things and simultaneously experience joy in her life. The systems in place and the narratives about Black women have attacked our joy and told us we are not worthy of joy. I want people to remember that we can make social change without having a broken spirit.

What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?

The best way to develop or amplify your voice is to just start talking. There’s no formula, no book, no ‘way to do things’ when it comes to advocating for yourself. I wish I would’ve known this earlier. No one can advocate for you and your capabilities like you can. Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness when it comes to speaking up. Your words will invoke fragility and you may not say things that are the most eloquent but over time it gets easier to speak up, especially when something rattles your core.
We, as Black women, have so many superpowers and capabilities that the American culture isn’t socialized to see. Sometimes you must bring your capabilities to the table and say, “This is what I’ve done,” and not wait for people to hand you projects. The expectations of our capabilities are always too low but it’s important to know your own worth. Another piece of advice that I have is to do more than what’s listed on your job description. Build relationships with supportive people who can become your personal board of directors. Getting a taste of how the world sees you through your board of directors is important because we’re all a bit self-conscious about how we’re coming off and sometimes we silence ourselves because of that fear.
Always show up and speak for yourself no matter how challenging it is. Everyone has had tough conversations in life. Don’t depend on anyone — even other people of color — to define your parameters. Own who you think you are or can be and add tax, as they say.

If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?

I’m cynical that there is a silver bullet to truly cultivating the change that the social impact sector wants. The key advice that I have for the sector is to listen to people of color and people from community with lived experience; otherwise we’ll be creating programs and policies that are either ineffective or cause more damage. Every Black woman that I know in the social sector knows this inherently, so I think if the sector really wants to be effective, we need to listen to Black women.
The sector itself is a challenge because it’s not divorced from American culture. The biases and systems of power are so deeply ingrained in our thinking and the way we operate. Black women must operate in that context:  dealing with the legacy of hundreds of years of perceptions and stereotypes that have been ascribed to our identities. I don’t think that can all be changed solely by elevating people of color to leadership positions or having all people of color CEOs. I’m an advocate for Black and brown people in positions of power, but again, it’s about the values that individual brings to the table. Even if you put all CEOs and staff of color (in leadership), a lot of people of color have internalized oppression about each other. The sector itself is broken because it’s so susceptible to operating in a bifurcated “brown skin is charity, whiteness is power” system because that’s American culture. The one thing that I would say to Black women operating in that context is that you’re not crazy, the system is. The reminder that I don’t exist in a parallel universe and that I actually see things for what they are is very relieving to me.
I want to have hope but sometimes I feel that that hope within this context is futile. The sector wasn’t built for us or by us, so I don’t know if this is our space to reclaim. What I want is for people of color and those with lived experience to create our own models of change that are separate from the typical funding and reporting systems. Black women are in a key space to critique the sector and create our own alternative way for social impact. I don’t know what that looks like but I think if enough Black women realize that the table that we want to be a part of won’t welcome us, we’ll be able to create our own change that could more effectively serve our communities.
The change I want is for Black women to question the sector. If hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on social impact programs over 40 years and outcomes across the board related to education, health, homeownership and income have either stayed stagnant or even gotten worse, why wouldn’t you question the sector and who it benefits?

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