The evening of February 2nd was extraordinary. I am not sure when I was last in a room filled with so much joy and love. I have also never received so many comments from eventgoers expressing both surprise and thanks for an award ceremony that moved them to tears. What a celebration!
The evening of the Rest and Repair Award Celebration was a culmination of several years of challenging work that started long before my arrival at Washington Women’s Foundation. In the spring of 2020, as we were all still reeling from the devastating impact of living through a global pandemic, a man named George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. The recording of that incident shocked the world, and sparked both a racial reckoning and a summer of uprisings in defense of racial equality across the United States that was remarkable in part because of the interracial nature of the protests. Many organizations and companies expressed their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement that spring, and many pledged to act in accordance with their explicitly stated support of racial equality. Washington Women’s Foundation was no different.
What WAS different was that we at WaWF had been wrestling with these questions of race and equity for several years prior to Floyd’s murder. Our leadership was already cognizant that we as a body had failed to support the Black community as robustly as we should have. Our grants went almost exclusively to white-led organizations, even those who claimed to be working in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities. We knew already that we could not simply state our solidarity. We had to take action to back up our words and make a gesture that proved we understood the gravity of the moment and the harms we had done to the many Black women nonprofit leaders we had overlooked for our first two decades of existence.
It was in that context and understanding that the board of Directors approved a one-million-dollar fund in support of Black Women Nonprofit Leaders – The Rest and Repair Fund.
Almost immediately following the agreement regarding the fund came questions around how the money would best be distributed. From the start it was clear that if we were establishing a fund in support of Black women, we should ask members of the Black community how they thought the money should be spent. The staff of WaWF set out on an interview quest, speaking to a variety of prominent Black philanthropists, foundation program officers, community activists and Black business leaders about their perspectives, and the answers we received back were both varied and unanimous. While specific details were different, every person interviewed insisted on two things: That the fund be given in such a way that allowed Black women nonprofit leaders would be given a space to rest, and that if this were to be a fund for Black women that Black women themselves should decide how the one million dollars would be distributed.
We agreed. The question was, how?
Determining the how of this grant turned into one of the greatest labors of love I have ever undertaken. And like all great labors and all great loves, one never does it alone. With the approval of the board, WaWF convened a group of 13 Black women – some WaWF members, some not – to be our Rest and Repair Cohort. It would be up to these women to decide how to give away this fund in support of Black Women.
The cohort was an accomplished and diverse group. Their expertise stretched across healthcare and education, business and nonprofits, foundations, and associations. Our conversation over the next 12 months reflected that variety, as differences of opinion arose regularly! The meetings were also joyful. It is rare in Washington State for a Zoom of varied professionals result in a screen of all Black women’s faces. Our monthly cohort became a bright spot for all of us.
We had begun the process thinking these grants would mimic the collective grants we already were doing at WaWF: $100,000 gifts to ten organizations working in our fields, albeit with the stated twist of being reserved for organizations run by Black women.
But as we talked, we realized that just receiving $100,000 for an organization was no guarantee that a woman would be receiving rest. Indeed, it might mean the very opposite.
Who said It first I do not recall. But finally, someone voiced what we had all been secretly thinking: If we want to be sure this grant gives a Black woman rest, we should just give her the money and let her decide what rest looks like. I think we were all a little stunned by our own audacity. Just…give people money? Could we do that?! Could the answer be that simple?
It turns out that it absolutely could be that simple, and that we could do it. We researched other organizations giving money directly to individuals in honor of their work – the MacArthur Fellows being the most well-known example. We spoke with our auditors to get their professional advice, and called up other foundations from New York to Los Angeles who were giving individuals gifts to ask how they had worked out their grants. And then I took the proposed Rest and Repair Awards to the board of WaWF and asked for their approval of this new concept in WaWF grantmaking. Bold women that they are, they said yes.
They said yes. YES! What a powerful word!
With this grant WaWF said YES to Black Women across Washington state. We invited nominations from the community to tell us about amazing Black women working in nonprofits. Every nomination had to have a resume included, along with a secondary nomination supporting the nominee. We received hundreds of nominations, extolling the work of over 200 women, all doing incredible community work in every nonprofit field imaginable.
The cohort read every one of those nominations, and over many hours – evenings and weekends included – they narrowed those hundreds down to 11 finalists. All eleven were interviewed, and the cohort then chose the final five, using a rubric that weighed the depth and breadth of a woman’s community engagement, demanding a proof of leadership that stretched beyond the borders of a fancy job title.
In the end, our first five Rest and Repair Awardees were as diverse as the Black community they serve.
A Prison & Sentencing Reform Advocate.
A Trans-health Activist.
But most importantly, they were all community connectors, each one striving to heal and protect their community with a leadership that was laced through and born out of an incredible amount of love.
You will notice that I have not listed names in this blog. That was not my original intent. I wanted to shout their names to the sky! But the women we awarded gifts to all asked explicitly that their names be revealed only to those who attended the event on the 2nd of February. They did not wish to be lauded widely.
This was one of the greatest learnings we took from this process.
We had wanted to give Black women a space to rest. It was clear in our conversations, however, that being called out, by name, in public, as a Rest and Repair Awardee would not be a restful experience. Once again, from start to finish, it was imperative that we listen to Black women.
I had hoped to share their stories and make sure they were seen by the wider world for the incredible work they do. Instead, I ask that you take a bold step with us and trust. Trust that these women are remarkable. Trust that they have changed lives and made Washington State a better place to live. And trust that at Washington Women’s Foundation, when we say we are committed to listening to Black women – we mean it.
In closing, I will say yes, we will be sharing the names of the organizations all our over 200 nominees work for, so you can hear about the astounding work being done across our state by Black women. Yes, we will be doing another round of Rest and Repair Awards again this year. Yes, we will have another event next February in celebration of our next five awardees that you are all invited to attend. And when you get that invitation next year? Say Yes!
2 responses to “The Power of Yes.”
Thanks for sharing the history and highlights of this new set of awards. These women have the determination and endurance it takes to do such valuable work in our community. I’m glad to see our foundation recognize them with the awards, rest and repair they’ve earned.
Yessssss!!! So much love and respect to you Maria!
Debra Webb, MFA
Adjunct Professor – Philanthropy in the Arts