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NanaEfua B. Afoh-Manin, MD, MPH
Founder/CEO & Principal Happy Dancer, Shared Harvest Fund
Grit. Compassion. Culture.
Tell me about your current role?
I’m the CEO and one of two co-founders at Shared Harvest Fund, an online platform that offers and funds social impact through volunteer freelance gigs. It is a compilation of my work with changemakers over the last 20 years. I pulled together all the lessons I’ve learned and found ways to create bite-sized and flexible service projects that any professional can do while earning reward points towards student debt relief. We are the first student loan repayment benefit and rewards program that is mobile and available for independent workers. I am razor-focused on leading Shared Harvest into expanding opportunities nationally, and eventually globally, and creating a movement surrounding people-powered student loan debt relief through social impact. (NanaEfua Afoh-Manin pictured at right.)
What was the rationale for launching Shared Harvest Fund?
One main reason is there’s a real need for people capital when talking about impact. After 20 years of service I know the real value is in the people you can mobilize. Money comes and goes; the people-driven movements are long-lasting. I often hear about nonprofits receiving donor-directed funds, but then they feel limited with what they can do and who they can hire. Donors tend to investigate and dissect how organizations use money which can be a barrier to effective leadership and management. It’s like satisfying two masters. As a Director, how do you produce outcomes your donors want to see, and the ones that you feel are most relevant to your cause with such a lean staff? Volunteer management is a job all on its own. We have so many people with passion and talent who are being sidelined from civic engagement by their debt…shackled by it really. The creation of Shared Harvest Fund was inspired by our vision to promote more civic and community engagement while reducing the financial stressors that get in the way, but also being mindful to ensure projects aren’t taxing or require full-time engagement.
Here are some examples of how you can continue your current gig economy skills on our platform: instead of just delivering food, you deliver meals to someone who is disabled or shut in at home through our nonprofit affiliate. Additionally, you may opt to open your home as temporary housing to a refugee family and get debt relief as a reward. A company can get involved by enrolling in our program. This provides access to Shared Harvest portal for all of its employees and they will be able to volunteer as well and receive additional student loans benefit payments for providing their advanced skills to nonprofits in the community. There are studies related to the benefits to people involved in volunteerism and community development. It positively impacts teams and companies. Our model is one that promotes financial and mental wellness. It’s a win-win idea. No one has ever thought about a vehicle to make this opportunity seamless and tangible until now. Shared Harvest has the solution and the grit to see it through.
What are some of your career highlights?
Certainly, my emergency room physician experiences. I’ve worked in Rwanda and in Haiti teaching emergency medicine. I also have worked in disaster settings with the International Federation of the Red Cross where I trained humanitarians as evaluators of their training programs.
Circling back to where it all started for me was in college. I went to a failing high school and it wasn’t until I became a student and then an admissions officer at UCLA that I realized my high school was disadvantaged. During that time, I was among a team of community-centric visionaries who founded The SHAPE Project which brought together 1,100 local, black and Latino students in Los Angeles who had never visited a college campus before. We also offered an ongoing mentorship program and tutoring for students at public high schools over the next four years to prepare them for university. That program has celebrated its twentieth anniversary and has lived to see several leaders as alumni of the program.
I always had a sense that social change starts with us. My mom was a single mother and an immigrant who said, “I’ll get you to school and it’s your job to do the rest.” Hence, I was never afraid to ask for help. The people around me saw something in me and helped me spread that light to other people. It’s so critical to see the light in others. My favorite uncle, who just passed away, helped me believe in myself before I knew what I was capable of. I will never forget his words to me, “Look here: don’t let nobody stop you from flying, just don’t get too proud to forgive others for not being able to keep up.”
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
That one is a tricky one. (Laughter.) Grit, karma and a little jazz conquers all. My life is about grit. There is no limit to how hard I can hustle for the things that I want. Grit embodies everything that I’m going after.
Karma and legacy…I come from a strong legacy of entrepreneurs who had to make it happen for themselves. My mom was one of 15 children and the only sibling with a high school education. She lived in a remote part of Ghana, West Africa. She had opportunities to study abroad, was a self-starter and learned so much about being able to have three or four hustles on the side. She would buy corn in downtown Los Angeles and resell it from our garage while working as a critical care nurse and sewing on the side. She suggested I learn how to braid to keep up! She also made our home open to all who wanted to get an education, which always meant she had one or two extra mouths to feed.
My grandmother was also a determined hustler – her family would be taken care of no matter what. That determination as an African woman in an African country didn’t change when she came to the USA. When you do for others, you are also doing for yourself. With the legacy of ancestors behind you, everything is designed to move you forward.
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 during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
The world of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector are really interesting because a small, but vocal percentage have a savior mentality…an altruistic mentality. There is gain from altruism whether someone is praising you or offering recognition. Dealing with certain characters in this space has always been challenging. There’s more ego and hypocrisy than I can stand sometimes. When I get frustrated, I just remind myself of my truth and focus on the goal. I’ve been around black women who just get things done despite resources being the limiting factor: we are challenged to work with people who have the resources to get things done but can limit what we are able to get done. They de-value the lived experiences of others. I’m constantly learning better strategies for how I can still help achieve the larger goal without just setting my agendas aside (to acquire the resources). Everything pushes the needle forward a little bit as long as I’m not setting aside my values.
One leader I admire greatly is Stacey Abrams. She has accomplished amazing work in the community despite her debt and has never been ashamed to acknowledge what her journey has cost. We should all be so bold to come into the light. She was a front-runner in the race. Some said she could be a better example if she got out of debt. However, we all wish it was that easy. Barack and Michelle Obama said they didn’t finish paying off their student loans until they were in office. The majority of the black middle class is carrying student loan debt and the intergenerational wealth gap is only increasing. We need to level the playing field; generational wealth is intertwined with higher education. The false simplistic rhetoric is that people made poor choices in life and that’s why they are in debt. On the contrary, for people of color you can chart how academic aspirations parallel the rise in debt without reciprocated financial freedom. Social determinants of health and economics show that there is a false narrative of a level playing field.
Speaking of false narratives, I’m curious about your thoughts related to the college bribery scandal?
I’m not shocked. It’s been shown that legacy admissions are very common – more so than affirmative action cases. More people get accepted to college because their parents are graduates, affiliated with a sports team, or have made an endowment. Those avenues don’t usually go through the same scrutiny.
The worst part about the admissions process that I observed as an admissions officer is that these practices are very blatant. In the same breath there are conversations about how to have a more diverse campus in a more meritocratic way while also believing that organizations should not bring people in who won’t excel. When talking about affirmative action programs, it’s assumed that minorities will not excel. It’s been an ongoing battle. Proposition 209 in the late 1990’s was an attack on affirmative action programs. We fought tooth and nail and it still passed. There are so many stereotypes in terms of equality. At least it’s out there, but I don’t care about jail time or having those cheaters get a slap on the hand. I’d like to see reaffirmation of pipeline programs and disruption to the ongoing stereotypes that students of color and marginalized individuals are not qualified. These students have to prove themselves over and over again, even well after they’ve graduated and into their professional careers.
You have to prove yourself again and again as a black woman in America. You’re already the CEO, but can you do the job? Shellye Archambeau answered this best on her recent interview with Reid Hoffman on the podcast, Masters of Scale. She talks about having to take big risks at every milestone of her journey to break through the stereotypes others had of her. She said, “You've got to have the strength and resilience to believe in yourself and take big risks.”
You never get to a place when you’ve “arrived.” There’s always second guessing. With the bribing scandal, no one was ever going to question if those kids belonged; they’d blend in like everyone else. But for people of color, the need to constantly prove that you belong does not end. The backpack doesn’t ever come off.
Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
To be honest with you, the examples that most resonate are conversations after the 2016 election with colleagues who were frustrated with what was happening politically. I have chosen not to engage in some of the unproductive dialogue that doesn’t lead to real outcomes or action. After the election there were constant conversations about whether we should be doing more. In my opinion, there’s not enough time to keep having conversations about what’s wrong with our society. At this point, there are so many problems that are black and white to address without even having time to address the “grey.” Let’s start with: “Don’t shoot kids.” People who have great practical solutions don’t have resources to execute them. Rather than spending time pontificating and getting people to feel better about their complacency, support the real changemakers, the boots on the ground with your time and money. Support the work being done or get out of the way.
We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?
The type who sits on someone’s shoulder and asks what’s next. I envision myself pushing others to constantly think about what the next chapter is…about how to transcend where they are right now. The work you do should transcend you. Take ego out of it. Me, as an ancestor, is continuing the work that my grandmother started with her 15 kids. I want to get people out of the shackles of mental indentured servitude created by educational debt. Given my history of strong black women who have given me the foundation that allowed me to achieve my current success, I am on a quest to save black excellence. In particular, I want to help women and minorities see their potential and not be limited by those who can’t keep up.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
A lot of working out and a lot of laughing. I used to love kickboxing until an injury, but my nickname is Principal Happy Dancer. I love dancing, music and self-expression. I’m known for my 5-second dance breaks at work where I grab colleagues to dance. My son and I have twenty minutes where we YouTube all the fun songs and dance together. This week’s garage band has been NYC Lucky Chops. They play in subways around the city. My son is almost three and plays his fake trombone. Yes, a daily dose of laughter and movement is key.
I also write gratitude logs in the morning. It’s hard to reflect on how far I’ve come when I’m so ambitious. Reflecting on the seasons I’ve had and the love surrounding me makes it easier to keep going.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
The best way to amplify your voice is to amplify others’ voices, like what you’re doing with this series. If we can do more to support others, validate, and bring awareness to the work of other people, that elevates your work.
When people achieve their goals, they always want to tell others how they got there and who helped them. Take time to mentor. When life is busy and limited on time, think about three people you can talk to about one person that day. You never know how that may make another connection for them.
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
Give them more money to DO and not to be speaker heads or another number on a board; just let them do their thing. Black women have a history of breaking glass ceilings before society started looking up! When black women come up, everybody comes up. Still, the numbers in funding and opportunities are dismal. Contrary to belief, there is so much room at the top. It’s time to give Black women the space to do their thing. If you look at the legacy that we already have, the odds are in our favor, so bet on black women. It works all the time and goes back to grit. We know how to do with little but we don’t have to always do with little. And we’re all diverse, not homogeneous. We reflect so many different lived experiences. It’s more than words; we actually produce and perform every time.