This interview was first published by Inside Philanthropy on May 18, 2023.
Cathy Cha is the president and CEO of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, a San Francisco-based family foundation that supports power-building, grassroots organizing, and policy advocacy to advance equity and justice in the Bay Area and California as a whole.
Prior to her appointment as president and CEO, Cha had a number of other leadership roles at the Haas, Jr. Fund, including serving as Program Director for immigrant rights. Prior to joining Haas, Cha worked as an independent consultant, program officer at the Boston-based Hyams Foundation, and project manager at the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, among other positions.
We recently spoke with Cha about her career, her experience as the daughter of Korean immigrants, threats to American democracy, and some of the key issue areas Haas Jr. is funding. Here are some excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited for clarity and length.
To start with, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?
My parents are immigrants from Korea. They grew up during the Korean War. My grandfather was a rice farmer, and my dad came here to study to go to grad school and literally came with just a small bag, his life savings, and money cobbled together from family. My mom came a couple of years later, and then I was born. And then fast forward, my father finished his degree and became a professor. My brother and I, we both went to college and went to grad school, and my parents sponsored many family members to come to the U.S.
My parents came with a big dream. And so when I look at what’s happening now with folks from Mexico and Haiti and Ethiopia, Nigeria and Afghanistan, China, India—they’re all coming to this country with a lot of the same dreams that my family had. I’ve really benefited from a more generous and inclusive immigration system. I think about my family and all of the shots that this country gave them. And I wish we were doing more of that today. Because I really believe that folks who are trying to come here are coming with that dream, and want to both improve their own situation, their family situation, but also want to give to this country in terms of the economy and community.
That’s how I got into immigrant rights work. I was the director of Haas’ immigrant rights program for many years, and I worked with immigrant rights leaders from across the state. We were one of the first funders of the Dreamer movement in California. I got a chance to have a front row seat to see California go through what was kind of the residue of the Schwarzenegger years and Prop 187 and Pete Wilson, and we really could have gone the way of Arizona. There was that kind of xenophobia and rhetoric about immigrants taking our public resources and filling the slots in our classrooms. And it was really the strength of immigrant leaders and communities and the movement in the state that has propelled it to where it is now, which is proudly the most welcoming, inclusive pro-immigrant state in the country.
I think we’re showing the rest of the country that this is a strong path that we have taken. And I think it’s really important for us in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco, and as a state, to show other states that are more on the fence or going in a more negative direction about what a positive path, being pro-immigrant and welcoming and inclusive and equitable, looks like. That’s one of the important things that I think California offers to the rest of the country.
What led to your career in philanthropy?
There were two things happening when I was going to college in terms of activism: one was abortion rights, and the other was divestment from South Africa. Like so many students, college was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me. I started to volunteer with an abortion hotline, where people could get vetted information about where they could get abortions. I would volunteer every week, and people would call me, and I would hear their stories about the trouble they were in and the tough decisions that they were making. I ended up being the coordinator for that abortion hotline. And that really opened my eyes to the world of nonprofit work.
I think young people today know more about philanthropy and how to get into philanthropy and think of it as a career option, but back then, I didn’t think of philanthropy at all. When I was doing this abortion work, I wasn’t looking for a job at a nonprofit. I just really cared about abortion access as an issue, and I stumbled upon this nonprofit and started getting involved with them. Then I started working for United Way, and I really got a sense of the nonprofit sector. Then I went to grad school at Cal in city and regional planning with a desire to understand more of the policy and systemic issues that impacted urban poverty, so I focused on affordable housing development.
I ended up working for the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, and then I moved to work for a private consulting firm that was basically helping local governments better use their federal funding and improve their housing and homelessness policies. But I felt really far away. When I was working for Tenderloin, I was literally interacting with residents and community members every day. And when I was starting to consult for public departments and for different cities, I never talked to folks. It was just government staff. And it was very unsatisfying.
I ended up moving to Boston, and one of my colleagues said that I should think about this job in philanthropy, for this local foundation called the Hyams Foundation. And I realized that philanthropy was kind of my calling because it was closer to community. I can be in a room full of community leaders, but we’re far enough away and we get that bird’s-eye view about systems and about policies, and about what different sectors need to do to make an impact. I think philanthropy is this very powerful sweet spot where you can hear the good ideas that bubble up, get the soulful connection of working with community leaders, stay grounded in the reality of problems, while also supporting the hopes and dreams of community folks and lifting them up.