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  • Writer's pictureJara Dean-Coffey, MPH

Tension 1 - Being in Front vs Standing Behind

Originally published on on July 14, 2020


In the spirit of practicing what we preach, we thought it would be useful for our growth as individuals and an initiative to explore some of the tensions inherent in this work. As always and hopefully with consistency, I speak from my vantage point with an awareness that I do not see all, understand all or can be all – this keeps me humble and operating from a place of humility. We also hope that others, particularly our EEI Partners, find this useful. In our Introduction post, six tensions were named. Below I explore the one, which for me, is always front and center:

Tension 1: Being In Front vs Standing Behind

As I have shared before, I decided at 45 that if at 50 I was not willing to use my capital (social, intellectual, financial, etc.) to make clear a point of view then I was not sure what I was saving all of it for (not like the United miles and nights I hoard). Remember, philanthropy was starting to move from diversity to inclusion to equity (approx. 2012). D5 Coalition was soon sunsetting with a set of findings and recommendations to the field (2015). The lid was coming off the pot of race relations in the United States and although not often mentioned, misogyny was alive and well.

So, I did it.

I figured if the field was not interested, I could say with confidence that I did what I could and decide what to do next.

It was a moment to be seized.

My darling husband, as usual, said “go be you” with an occasional check-in…“are you sure?” I was affirmed by people like Teri Behrens, Julia Coffman, Chera Reid, Tom Kelly, Hanh Cao Yu, Katrina Bledsoe, and others that there was something there that needed to be said. I was inspired by people who created space for others by revealing unsaid truths and taking the heat because they could not remain silent such as James Baldwin, Kimberle Crenshaw, Paolo Fréire, bell hooks, and so many others. 2016-2017 was the Equitable Evaluation Project. Luminare Group incubated the Equitable Evaluation Initiative (EEI) in 2018 and although both the Ford Foundation and The California Endowment resourced strategy development, not all costs were covered. We disentangled EEI from Luminare Group and it became a fiscally sponsored project of the Seattle Foundation as of November 2018 and the clock started on the 5-year initiative on January 1, 2019. Meanwhile, Luminare Group continued with its consulting work and other areas of interest. I led two things when I never really wanted to lead anything, but here I am. It has been A LOT. I am also super clear that this is what I should be doing now.

EEI efforts to date have had me at the public center. The consequence being that much of 2018 and half of 2019 (until Marcia Coné joined as the Director of Practice Partnership and Engagement officially in June and public facing by August), I was the face of EEI. Linda Helstowksi has been a key partner working with foundations who stepped into this work in 2018 and she was the lead on the Kresge Teaching Case. Jennie Armstrong has been with us since the EE Project and has led our communications work with Ginger Daniel offering strategy consulting to me and EEI at various points over the past few years. It has not been a solo effort no matter what it might look like.

The pilot EE Teaching Case at Kresge Foundation, co-hosted by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, was the first EEI offering to the field reflecting a year plus of work and a cast of characters coming together for the first time to do something that had not been done before. If I had really thought about that in the weeks or even days before 9/24/2019, I probably would have freaked out. It was also the first time that I was not holding the room; It was Mindelyn Anderson who was/is remarkable. And yet I know, because they wrote it in the GEO registration intake, that many people were there because of me.

I have written in other places that I am someone comfortable in my skin. I know all that it brings with it and I would not have it any other way. I also know that as an African-American female in my 50’s, I am constantly navigating misogyny, racism, ageism and if I am really honest, classism. It means that I, like many before me, have to constantly be thinking about how to manage perceptions as well as structural realities designed to make me prove (but not too boldly, otherwise I am characterized as the angry black woman) myself in ways that my counterparts do not. For example, when I say I live in the Bay Area, there is an assumption it is Oakland. Often after a public speaking event, those who don’t know me, often white females and older, remark “you are so articulate.” If I am facilitating and the room is primarily white cis gender males, I get a lot of questions trying to understand how I came to be... where are you from, where did you go to school, how did you get in this work?

If I am talking about the Equitable Evaluation Framework™, I am approached often by females under 40 of all ethnicities, rarely African-American females of my age or older, thanking me for giving their dis-ease a rationale and permission to name it in their schooling or places of work. And most recently I found a colleague sharing and (over)emphasizing my qualifications and experience to a team who I assume knew enough as they were the ones who initiated the meeting. I am used to it. It is at times exhausting. I can do it but to do it at this scale puts more than me (and my livelihood) at risk but the larger transformation that I believe (and others) that is so desperately needed.



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