(Top, left to right) Cathy Cha, President, Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund; Don Chen, President and CEO, Surdna Foundation; (Bottom, left to right) Taryn Higashi, Executive Director, Unbound Philanthropy; and Kara Inae Carlisle, Vice President of Programs, McKnight Foundation.

Asian American Leaders In A Moment Of Pride And Peril

How Philanthropy is Supporting Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Loren Harris, Kenneth Rainin Foundation's Chief Program and Strategy Officer, interviews four talented leaders including Haas, Jr. Fund president, Cathy Cha.

Growing up in central Georgia during the 70s and 80s afforded limited exposure to Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and cultures beyond cartoons that featured offensive misappropriation of Asian culture and narrow sidekick roles for characters. While today’s popular culture provides a broader and more inclusive slate of images and stories for people of Asian descent, progress remains insufficient and slow.

The false narratives, stereotypes, and divide-and-conquer tactics that have been used to dehumanize Asian Americans are the same used to marginalize Black, Latinx, and Native Americans. They sow seeds of mistrust that grow into weeds of antipathy toward people of color. But in this moment, as some use COVID-19 as an excuse to engage in deplorable anti-Asian bigotry and xenophobia, those of us who know the pains of discrimination and exclusion must support our AAPI colleagues, friends and neighbors. We stand united in celebration of their communities and contributions, and in opposition to those who would see us splintered by hate.

In Solidarity With AAPI Philanthropy Leaders

Many philanthropic organizations are living their values during this health pandemic by funding COVID-19 initiatives that show support for AAPI communities. For example, hundreds of philanthropic organizations and leaders, including the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, co-signed Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy’s letter calling for a philanthropic response to the violence and hate directed at Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Those of us who know the pains of discrimination and exclusion must support our AAPI colleagues, friends and neighbors.”

Loren Harris, Chief Program & Strategy Officer, Kenneth Rainin Foundation

I draw inspiration and insight from the timely leadership and critical voices of the diverse and talented AAPI leaders in this moment; in particular, Kara Inae Carlisle, Vice President of Programs, McKnight Foundation; Cathy Cha, President and CEO Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund; Don Chen, President and CEO, Surdna Foundation; and Taryn Higashi, Executive Director, Unbound Philanthropy. In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I spoke with these four leaders and the following are highlights from our conversations.

How did your career path lead to your current role working to advance equity and opportunity?

Kara Inae Carlisle, Vice President of Programs, McKnight Foundation
Kara Inae Carlisle, Vice President of Programs, McKnight Foundation

Kara Inae Carlisle (KIC): As a young adult, I began to wrestle more consciously with what it meant to be Korean American, eventually leading me to Koreatown, Los Angeles. Working alongside young adults with childhoods altered by the devastating effects of Sa-i-gu, or the Civil Unrest of 1992, I began to see more clearly the impact racism had on communities when built into the economic policies, public narratives, and the social and cultural patterns of a place. I found great purpose there, acting as a bridge across racial and cultural divides—pushing multiracial and multicultural leaders to build deeper relationships with those who looked very different while often aligned on values. After nearly a decade in LA, I joined the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to advance their new civic engagement program. Today, I serve as the VP of Programs at the McKnight Foundation. In 2019, we announced a program called “Vibrant & Equitable Communities” that aims to advance shared power, prosperity, and participation in Minnesota. As an expression of our commitment to equity as a core value, we invited the general public and racially, culturally, and geographically diverse stakeholders across Minnesota and nationally to provide input into program strategies.

Cathy Cha (CC): I appreciate philanthropy’s unique ability to impact changes at the policy and systems-level yet still maintain connections to what’s happening with communities on the ground. My career path to the helm of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund is unusual in that being president is my sixth job here. Over the years, I’ve helped create new organizing, power-building, and voting efforts in African American, Latino, and Vietnamese communities in California. We have found that collaboration across race, issues, and differences can be very powerful and help boost all of our communities. Back in 2014, I worked with Carnegie, Ford, and Coulter to start the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund which fosters a culture of civic engagement in diverse AAPI communities. It’s grown significantly and now supports voter turnout, leadership development, and organizing in 15 states across the country. They’ve also formed a new Anti-Racism Response Network, an exciting and timely effort comprised of 40 AAPI groups combatting racism and xenophobia through services, advocacy, and media and communications work.

“We have found that collaboration across race, issues, and differences can be very powerful and help boost all of our communities.”

Cathy Cha, President and CEO Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund

Don Chen (DC): My career path didn’t seem linear while I was walking it, but in the end, it all added up. As a teenager, I cut my teeth as an organizer fighting hunger and homelessness, while studying to be an environmentalist, much to my parents’ disappointment. I had an epiphany when I found a copy of Race, Poverty, and the Environment, a journal launched by Carl Anthony. I’ve spent my career focusing on environmental justice ever since. As the third president of the Surdna Foundation, I’ve helped sharpen our social justice mission by focusing on racial equity in America’s communities. I feel incredibly humbled to lead an organization that is entirely focused on achieving racial justice in multiple ways, including its grantmaking, hiring, and spending practices. Plus, we’ve entrusted $100 million of our endowment to fund managers of color, who in turn have invested Surdna’s endowment assets in entrepreneurs of color who otherwise would have difficulty gaining access to traditional forms of capital.

Taryn Higashi (TH): The first professional steps to my current role began with law school internships and pro bono work as a law firm associate, which led to a host of opportunities to serve survivors of violence and abuse along with immigrant and refugee communities. With these experiences, I learned to connect what is happening locally to what is happening nationally, with lessons in both directions. As the Deputy Director of the Human Rights Unit at the Ford Foundation, I co-founded the Four Freedoms Fund, a funding collaborative that has granted over $150 million to state and local immigrant organizations. Since joining Unbound in 2008, I’ve worked to deepen and activate public support for immigrants, to ensure that the immigration system is rooted in justice, and to strengthen communities where all people can fully participate in social, civic, and economic life. The biggest step we’ve taken along these lines was co-founding the Pop Culture Collaborative, which is investing in building and sustaining relationships, programs, organizations and networks that are changing the narrative landscape in America around people of color, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and indigenous peoples; especially those who are women, queer, transgender, and/or disabled.

How has being Asian American shaped your leadership?

KIC: Having grown up in a predominantly white community, and due to harmful notions of “model minority” myths and the invisibility of Asian Americans in our country’s history, I grew up as an observer and listener. Over time, this has enabled me to serve as a “neutral” player within highly racialized contexts characterized as Black/white, Black/brown, or in New Mexico, navigating the complex present-day impacts of colonization on Indo-Hispano-Anglo, Black and Asian relations.

Cathy Cha, President Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund
Cathy Cha, President, Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund

CC: My father grew up on a rice farm in war-torn South Korea. He immigrated to the US with very little and was able to study because of a scholarship. In an American Dream type of story, he ended up getting a PhD in math and becoming a professor. My parents worked hard to give my brother and me the opportunity to go to college and, more importantly, to dream. It’s because of my family’s journey that equity and justice have been guiding principles in my life and career. Today’s immigrants may come to the US from Mexico, Nigeria, China, or Haiti and they come for the same reasons my parents did—a chance to live the ideals of democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality that our country was founded on. That continues to inspire me today.

DC: As an Asian American, I grew up getting continually dismissed as an outsider. It heightened my interest in social inclusion, equity, and justice. I’m incensed that today, racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiments have been on the rise against Asian Americans and other people of color in the US. It’s led me to join with my fellow Asian Americans to speak out about issues that matter to our communities, such as immigration, voting rights, and cultural expression—not from a parochial AAPI perspective, but from understanding the need to work with other racial justice advocates to build solidarity and collective political influence. Frankly, these imperatives are long overdue and it’s about time we built our power to support a more just and equitable society for all.

TH: As an Asian American woman, I am acutely aware of the racism, xenophobia, and gender biases that plague American culture. My mother’s family was interned during WWII, and 75 years later, my son still hears anti-Asian taunts. As a third-generation Japanese American given opportunity because of the hard work of my parents and grandparents, I am sensitive to their sacrifices and want to do what I can to help others. I am also very conscious that the model minority myth erases differences among individuals, ignores the diversity of Asian American cultures, and is harmful to the struggle for racial justice because it is used to pit people of color against each other and to perpetuate anti-Blackness. My background drives me to ground our work on immigration in the struggles for racial, gender, and economic justice and the diversity of AAPI communities.

“My background drives me to ground our work on immigration in the struggles for racial, gender, and economic justice and the diversity of AAPI communities.”

Taryn Higashi, Executive Director, Unbound Philanthropy

Has there been a particular focus on AAPI communities as part of your foundation’s response to the COVID-19 crisis?

KIC: Like many foundations, we joined the Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy’s pledge and made some early investments into funds explicitly responsive to the needs of AAPI communities, such as the Communities First Fund. The fund will support AAPI communities and organizations working to combat increased xenophobia toward Asian Americans and all Minnesotans of color who are absorbing heightened social, political, and economic disparities due to COVID-19. We have been proud to feature and amplify the work of some of our AAPI grantees through our Bright Spots campaign online and on social media. For example, the Coalition of Asian American Leaders—an advocacy group that works to build equity, justice, and prosperity across communities—is standing up against the rise in anti-Asian discrimination and violence and uplifting the stories of Asian Minnesotans through its #MinneAsianStories campaign.

“My major focus now is to work with AAPIP’s member network to acknowledge the sting of racism that AAPI communities have experienced and to channel that frustration into stronger solidarity with other social movements, deeper civic engagement, and more impactful activism.”

Don Chen, President and CEO, Surdna Foundation

CC: The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many of the vast inequities in our society. With more than 1,600 anti-Asian hate crimes last month, it’s clear that many community members are living in fear. But anti-Asian racism isn’t new. After all, this is the country that enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act and incarcerated Japanese Americans in internment camps. And at this moment, divisive and derogatory phrases like “Kung Flu” and “China virus” are being used by some government officials and the media. While we denounce these anti-Asian crimes, it’s also important to remember that this type of targeting and racism is what Black and Latinx communities experience every day.

At the Haas, Jr. Fund, we’ve joined other funder partners to support a new urban and suburban Chinese civic engagement effort in five regions of California. The AAPI FORCE-EF project seeks to learn more about Chinese community members, to surface their points of view on current issues, and to lift up the voices and power of the Chinese community. Ultimately, we’re hoping Chinese communities can link arms with other AAPI ethnicities, Latinos and African Americans to unite on issues we all care about, like fair wages, better schools, immigration reform, and decent and affordable health care. Given how COVID-19 is shining a light on the inequities that affect all people of color, perhaps this is our opportunity to forge new alliances and create a “bigger we.”

Don Chen, President and CEO, Surdna Foundation
Don Chen, President and CEO, Surdna Foundation

DC: The Surdna Foundation’s response has been in three parts thus far. First, we’ve provided our grantees with additional flexibility and capacity by converting project grants to general operating support, streamlining our grantmaking process, and waiving most reporting requirements. Second, we’re providing small rapid response grants as well as larger “COVID-informed” grants to help grantees respond to their current challenges. And third, we’re using our platform to speak out against the racist and anti-immigrant statements that have marred the federal government’s response to the pandemic, as well as the racially inequitable impacts that have resulted from the failure of public leadership at the national level. All of these apply to our AAPI-led grantees and the communities they serve. My major focus now is to work with AAPIP’s member network to acknowledge the sting of racism that AAPI communities have experienced and to channel that frustration into stronger solidarity with other social movements, deeper civic engagement, and more impactful activism.

TH: The top line of our COVID-19 response is to support efforts to build a new society—a new normal—where pluralism, equity, and justice are core principles. We are supporting projects that are engaging in narrative transformation, including the Pop Culture Collaborative’s soon-to-be-launched Becoming America Fund, the soon-to-be-launched Butterfly Lab at Race Forward, and the Resilience Force. These efforts were being built before the pandemic but will become even more important now. We also have a focus on addressing anti-Asian racism and are contributing to a new collaborative fund, Empowering AAPIs in the Year of COVID-19, based at the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund. Its purpose is to address rising xenophobia and anti-Asian racism and to build sustained solidarity between Asian, Black, and all communities experiencing heightened bigotry. We want to be part of supporting, disseminating, and shining attention on the leaders who have emerged and their wisdom and stories.

What more does philanthropy need to do to hire, retain and advance, AAPI leaders in executive roles? How can allies support these efforts?

“Philanthropy can bring more curiosity to the engagement of staff and communities, embrace different cultural communication styles, invite leaders and communities to tell their stories—and listen deeply to them.”

Kara Inae Carlisle, Vice President of Programs, McKnight Foundation

KIC: Philanthropy can bring more curiosity to the engagement of staff and communities, embrace different cultural communication styles, invite leaders and communities to tell their stories—and listen deeply to them. Allies can move beyond the practice of aggregating AAPI data across staff and communities into one “Asian-American” box and considering our equity work done if we hit a certain percentage on a graph. This mentality only continues to render the unique strengths and challenges within different communities’ invisible; let’s dive into deeper relationships together.

CC: Asian Americans are still pretty invisible or under the radar in philanthropy. Often, you’ll see public opinion surveys where Asian communities aren’t polled or even mentioned. A recent report revealed some very important data about how nonprofit organizations led by Black and Latino executive directors lag behind white-led groups in attracting funding. The research raises important disparities that philanthropy should be taking on. At the same time, it was disappointing the research did not include AAPI-led organizations. The nonprofit sector is changing, and philanthropy needs to get out in front of those changes. Foundations would clearly benefit from appointing more AAPI board members and from hiring and developing more AAPI staff. And because it’s 2020 and folks know that Chinese, Native Hawaiians, Indians, and Filipinos are different, I hope it goes without saying that including AAPI board and staff from multiple ethnicities is also important. Our organizations and our sector are stronger and more effective when we are enriched by different perspectives. When our investments and our programs reflect the diversity of our communities, that’s when we do our best work.

DC: First of all, I think that AAPI leaders who are currently in executive roles should continue to form strong professional networks so that we can help each other succeed. And we need to take our public-facing roles very seriously because that’ll create new narratives about who gets to take on leadership roles. As I look ahead, I see early-career Asian Americans getting more actively involved in social movements, tackling systems change, and taking on roles in various sectors, including philanthropy. In the coming years, I plan to work with colleagues to support this next generation of leaders through networks like AAPIP and nonprofits like NCAPA and the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund. Fortunately, a critical mass of AAPI philanthropy CEOs is just starting to emerge, and we’ve started talking with each other in hopes that we’ll be able to work on some shared priorities.

Taryn Higashi, Executive Director, Unbound Philanthropy
Taryn Higashi, Executive Director, Unbound Philanthropy

TH: I think it begins with supporting AAPI leaders who are in social justice movements, bringing those who want to try philanthropy into these roles, and then giving them the mentoring and freedom to build grantmaking initiatives that advance equity and justice for the full diversity of AAPI communities. It also means supporting AAPI executive leaders to invest in multiracial and intersectional movements for justice, a role that AAPIP is playing under the dynamic leadership of Patricia Eng. Deep coalitional work is complex and it is the only way to win. As Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, II, says, “to silo us is to silence us” and we need a resurgence of “fusion politics”—new coalitions of unlikely allies who help those who have been divided by race, geography, gender, and religion to see what we have in common. To build a pluralist society that is equitable and just, philanthropy needs to invest in the full spectrum of AAPI leaders and communities.

Reaching for Hope Over Fear

Those stereotypical images I grew up with continue to shape widespread notions of how many think about people of Asian descent. Too often when we’re afraid, our default posture is to lean on ugly untruths that are familiar rather than leaning into building relationships with people who are unfamiliar. As we are witnessing, that fear can become a gateway to hardened ignorance, bigotry, and violence. Especially in a moment such as this, we cannot be guided by fear.

This month of deserved recognition gives us a chance to reflect and appreciate the many ways our lives are enriched by the array of contributions from Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. It can also serve as a point of departure for continued engagement with and support of AAPI people and their priorities. Given the magnitude of the challenge to overcome historic and contemporary injustices, the leaders featured here remind us of the actions that philanthropy, and we all, can take to expand equity and opportunity.


Loren Harris, Chief Program & Strategy Officer, Kenneth Rainin Foundation
Loren Harris,
Chief Program & Strategy Officer,
Kenneth Rainin Foundation

Loren Harris

Chief Program and Strategy Officer,
Kenneth Rainin Foundation

Loren serves on the Foundation’s executive and leadership teams to support a diverse grantmaking portfolio and foster collaboration, learning and impact. He was recently selected for the Change Leaders in Philanthropy Fellowship by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. He is one of 24 senior executives exploring what it takes to lead transformational change through an individual, organizational and ecosystem lens. Read more.

What’s Your Perspective?