April 11, 2022
President Unmi Song Delivers Keynote Speech at CWIP's "Making a Difference" Luncheon
Below is Unmi Song's keynote speech from CWIP's "Making a Difference" Luncheon, which took place on March 8, 2022.
Thank you Amina!
(Amina Dickerson, board member of the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, introduced Unmi to the podium)
Thank you Sameerah – I saw you speak at the vigil last year. I knew you would be perfect for today. I would like to recognize your colleagues – Inhe Choi, executive director of the Hana Center. Your fellow Women That Fight activists, would you wave? These young women make me feel hopeful about our future.
I am so honored and delighted to be here today! I want to thank Fry Foundation board members Chip Fry and Stephanie Pace Marshall for being here. And it means everything to have my mother, my daughter Audrey, and the talented and dedicated staff of the Fry Foundation in the audience.
It is wonderful to see so many friends. Some of you I have known 30 years! Marianne Philbin, Marcia Festen, Sydney Sidwell. CWIP was one of the first boards I joined when I came to Chicago. CWIP helped me understand how to be a good board member. I had terrific role models, and I learned some very important things about grantmaking.
The Gender Lens
CWIP’s reports ShortSighted and ClearSighted influenced how I looked at programs. Just because a program said that women and girls were welcome, that did not mean the program did a good job of meeting their needs. I learned to use a gender lens, thanks to CWIP. A similar concept helped AAPIP – Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy –use a lens for cultural competency. That means a domestic violence shelter, to be truly welcoming to Asian American women, should stock rice in its pantry, along with peanut butter and jelly. At the Fry Foundation, we use a variety of lenses – gender, cultural and racial equity – to analyze how effectively the programs we fund are serving participants across communities.
That Must Be So Satisfying
I started my career in banking in NY and then I came to Chicago to work at the Joyce Foundation. When people found out I worked in the nonprofit sector, they would say “oh - that must be so satisfying.” And, I would say to myself, not in the way that you think. When I was a banker, I would work really hard on a deal, it would close, we would have a big dinner, and I would get a bonus. That was satisfying.
In the nonprofit world, all of us work on issues of poverty, health disparities, racism, the results of hundreds of years of historic social and political inequity. Our grantees make phenomenal progress, but still, the work is not done, our learning is constantly evolving, and it is meaningful work, but we are not satisfied.
There is a saying that if you know one foundation, you know one foundation. It is true. Today I thought I would share some insights about the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, where I have been for 18 years.
Emotion vs Strategy
Many people think that working at a foundation is the same as being a large individual donor. It is not. How I make my personal donations is probably similar to the way you make yours. It is driven by my passions, the things that move me, the things my mother, daughter, and son care about. It is not objective. It is all emotion and passion.
The Stewards of Funds for the Benefit of Society
How I do my job is completely the opposite. Because it is not my money. It is money that belongs to society, to the public. The Lloyd A. Fry Foundation –board and staff-- we are the stewards of funds meant to benefit society, the communities of Chicago. It is not about my passions or my favorite people.
At the Fry Foundation, it is about strategy, being objective, being fair, being accessible and available to communities that need it most, communities that have not had the same public or private investments that others have had.
So the question is, how can we be strategic with $8 million a year? We may not be able to change a national conversation, but if we are focused, we can help CPS do a better job helping principals improve schools; we can help safety net health providers ensure that low-income, uninsured patients have access to high-quality care. We can have ambitious goals, as long as we are realistic, focused and strategic about our tactics. We look for issues where our funding can be helpful – to accelerate a trend, move something over a tipping point, explore a promising idea.
Commit to the Long Run
If you are going to work on issues where you do not know what the answer is, you have to be there for the long run. We take on issues that cannot be solved in a year or two. We are drawn to challenges that will take five to ten years, or more. Substantive change does not happen in the short-run.
Some of you may know this quote from Samuel Beckett. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. It is a theme we talk about at the Fry Foundation. I have a personal affection for it.
My mother used to say “your father is a scientist” to explain why his viewpoint was different than other people’s. What I learned from my father the scientist was that learning what does not work is an essential part of figuring out what does work. That is a screen we use at the Fry Foundation for exploring where to invest. Of course, we appreciate excellent plans– but very little turns out the way it is planned. What we care about is: are you going to learn something that will be useful the next time you try – or more importantly, useful to other groups that are working on the same issue? That is experience we believe helps to advance practice in the field. It is what grounds our work at the Foundation.
Being in the Know
I am a first-generation immigrant. I came to the US when I was two years old. The Korean community calls me 1.5. I am technically first generation, but I act like I am second generation. Because of that, I understand enough about American culture to be “in the know.” But I am also an outsider, with perspective that comes with that distance. One of my early lessons as a young adult was that if you were not “in on” how the process worked, you got left out a lot.
I keep that early lesson in mind when we think about groups that we hope will apply to the Fry Foundation – who knows what our priorities are; are we telling everyone who needs to know? Are we giving everyone the same information? There is lots of research that shows that networks matter – networks are how people find jobs, get into schools, figure out what foundations fund. So we want to be sure that it is not just our closest networks who know what the Fry Foundation funds – it is all the groups on the outside – so that even people who are not well connected have a fair and full chance at the same opportunities.
In a similar vein, we try to be specific about why groups are declined. It might seem more polite to give a vague and generic – “I am sorry you did not get funded.” But that does not help groups who want to understand the process better, so that they can improve their applications next time. So we work hard at being specific in our declines. It makes new program staff kind of nutty because it is the hardest part of the job when you first start. Providing a clear explanation is one aspect of accountability that we owe you. So if you don’t understand, let us know. And we will try to explain again, with transparency and more clarity.
Overhead and Administrative Costs are Key to Grantee Success! Investments in Staff Training, Technology, and Assessments are not overhead!
There is a small group of very special people – like our Controller Merril Prager – who know a lot about accounting. Thank goodness for them.
The rest of us do not really understand what overhead, administrative, and fixed costs are and why they are labeled that way. All we think is that they are bad. But we are wrong.
You cannot run a program without space, furniture, supplies, heat, financial oversight or fundraising.
Fry Foundation grantees – many of you here today – are the smartest, most effective, and most innovative in the city. They make sure their staff have ongoing opportunities for professional development to stay current on the latest practices and most important skills. They make an investment in technology so that their highly capable staff are not wasting time with old computers and slow software. And – this is key – the most innovative groups are tracking all of their outcomes all the time. They want to know what is leading to the best outcomes for their students and clients. They are improving the things that are not working, and they are constantly on the hunt for new approaches that will deliver better outcomes for their patients.
All of you funders in the room – you need to cover these investments!
Diversity matters. Disrupt the cycle of historic racism.
People of different races, genders, backgrounds, they experience the world differently. You need to have these different experiences in your organization. Yes, it is real work to build a diverse staff and board, to make sure you have diversity in your investment managers and other vendors. But the issue is not a lack of qualified people for these roles. It is challenging because your networks are limited. That is a product of historical segregation. Thank you to the Metropolitan Planning Council for quantifying the Costs of Segregation. I heard Liz Thompson from the Cleveland Avenue Foundation say on a panel, What? You can’t find black board members? Successful black business people, lawyers, artists? What are you talking about? Come to me. I know lots!
Many foundations are engaged in increasing the diversity of their investment managers, some are setting goals for 5% to 10% diversity. That is okay as long as you know it is only a start. Forty percent of our endowment is managed by firms that are majority owned by people of color and women. It did not happen overnight, but it was not hard. And we did not change our performance criteria; we changed our search process.
The founder of a large tech company was asked – what does he look for when investing in tech startups. He said he looks for someone who has been coding and playing video games since middle school. It shows commitment and interest. And you know what all the women in the room did – they rolled their eyes and steam started coming out of their ears. Because they know that middle school girls are not encouraged to code or play video games. Would you be surprised if there were few, if any, women-owned firms in his portfolio? He may not be sexist. But his process is gender-biased.
All of us need to look carefully at our processes and try to understand what unconscious biases are embedded, even when we think they are completely neutral. What is leading to disparate outcomes?
As foundation leaders, we need to examine our grant portfolios with that equity lens. That is what CWIP taught me 30 years ago.
Now I will turn to a more personal perspective and every immigrant’s favorite question – where are you from?
Close your eyes, now picture an American – what does that person look like? What color is his hair? What is the shape of her nose? Now open your eyes. Did you picture me? I am an American!
There is an advice columnist who once explained, if you are American-looking, and people ask, “where are you from?” It is an icebreaker. They want to know if you are from Cleveland or Chicago.
And if you are not American-looking, they are trying to “decode your ethnicity.” Well – what do you think she meant by that? She was saying someone who looks like me is not American-looking. So if I am not “American-looking,” can I be an “American?”
Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) Act
In grade school, I learned about the incarceration of American citizens based on their race – they called it the Japanese internment. But that term does not tell you what actually happened. Internment was the euphemism for incarceration. Japanese sounds like it was Japanese nationals who were imprisoned, but it was American citizens. The internment was about all that I ever learned in school about Americans of Asian descent.
My father came to the US as a graduate student on scholarship. This was in the early 1960s and growing up we were pretty much the only Korean family around. I thought that was because Korea was so poor, no one could afford the airfare to come! I was so naïve.
There were not many Korean families in the US because of a long history of racist policies that limited immigration and people’s rights to own property. I did not learn any of those things in school.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 kept people from China from moving to the US. I learned about that when I was in college.
Alien Land Laws prohibited Asians from owning property. I learned that watching a documentary on TV.
It was not until I joined the board of a civil rights organization that I learned that until 1965, there was a quota system that favored immigration of people from northern Europe and limited immigration from anywhere else.
If you ask a person of color who is an immigrant (not just from Asia, but from Africa and South America), when did their family come to the US, I will almost guarantee they will say some date after 1965.
But there is good news on the horizon for the next generation.
Just about a year ago, Illinois became the first state in the U.S. to require Asian American history be taught in public schools. As Governor Pritzker said, "We are setting a new standard for what it means to truly reckon with our history," to understand one another better, and, ultimately, to move ourselves closer to the nation of our ideals.
This is historic legislation and marks a watershed moment to teach all students about the civil rights challenges as well as the numerous contributions of Asian Americans in history. It is a valuable opportunity to develop high quality curriculum that is inclusive and gives all students a deeper understanding of American history. And it is an opportunity to strengthen alliances across communities, to work against efforts to censor any histories, to help our children know how intertwined all of our histories and our current lives are.
I believe a more complete and inclusive understanding can help all of us have more empathy and a greater willingness to understand the far-reaching tentacles of structural and systemic racism.
Othering and Belonging
We have to fight extremism. Anti-Asian hate, Anti-Blackness, white supremacy, anti-Semitism. But we also have a lot of work to do ourselves as allies and with people who want to be our allies, to address Implicit Bias, Unconscious Discrimination. That is a big and ongoing nut to crack. john powell, the law professor at Berkeley, writes about an important, but nuanced concept: Othering and Belonging.
Othering marginalizes people on the basis of perceived group differences.
Belonging confers the privileges of membership in a community, including the care and concern of other members.
We Cannot Be Silent Any Longer
Just about one year ago, 8 people were murdered in Atlanta – 6 were Asian American women. They were targeted because of their race and where they worked. For days and weeks after, my head felt like it was exploding. The racism, the misogyny, the bigotry of the media coverage enraged me. And social media in Asian American circles also exploded.
A young Asian American entrepreneur, said:
With the slaying in Atlanta, I could no longer be silent about racism. I recalled a childhood where I never spoke my family’s language in public. I made myself “fit in” to American culture. I had done a spectacular job pretending Asian racism doesn’t exist, even though I experienced it regularly. But Racism against Asian Americans is real. The Violence is real. We cannot be silent any longer.
There are some Asian Americans who are reluctant to bring up Anti-Asian Hate because what our community experiences is so much less compared to Anti-Blackness. That is true. But, we need to walk and chew gum at the same time – we need to recognize violence against Asian Americans as well as against African Americans. It is different, but it is the same. Recognizing one should not make the other invisible.
African Americans in this country know better than any of us what it means to dehumanize minority groups. Our rights and privileges all stand on the shoulders and sacrifices of Black civil rights leaders. We would not be where we are today if not for them. It also is true that alliances across racial groups have been essential to our progress and will continue to be essential.
We all need to be united in breaking the bonds of historic, structural and systemic racism.
I am going to close with a favorite story:
In the mid 1990’s Congress was debating welfare reform and not making progress. One congressman, completely exasperated, shouted out on the floor, this is not brain surgery, we have got to figure this out! An enterprising reporter went to a brain surgeon, explained the comment and asked, what do you think of that? The doctor replied, brain surgery is not as hard as it used to be, we have robots and cameras that help us out now. The reporter asked, so what is harder? The reply was, maybe rocket science?
So the reporter went to Morton Thiokol to talk to a rocket scientist. He said, oh rocket science has come a long way and the problems we work on now are not as difficult as before. So what is harder? Theoretical astrophysics.
So the reporter went to the University of Chicago to talk to a theoretical astrophysicist who said, oh we know much more about black holes and the origins of the universe than we used to. So what is harder? What is harder? Oh my – world peace. social justice. Those are the true challenges facing mankind.
So there you go. All of you are working on things that are more difficult than the origins of the universe. You are my heroes. Thank you for your service.