INTERVIEW WITH WLW 2020 FELLOW, REBECCA DARWENT
Philanthropy is traditionally not a diverse sector, and Rebecca Darwent felt it was time for that to change. As a founding member of the Foundation for Black Communities in Toronto, Canada, Rebecca has been working alongside several Black community leaders to advocate for funding equity in Canada’s philanthropy space so that “every Black person in Canada can thrive and all Black communities have agency in defining their own future.”
To accelerate the impact of her work, Rebecca applied to join our Fall 2020 cohort of Women Leaders for the World, so we recently caught up with her to chat about what she’s been working on since starting the fellowship, how her experience has been so far, and what’s next on the horizon.
Interview has been edited for clarity.
Interviewer: Hi Rebecca! So nice to finally e-meet you. I’m excited to be with you today. I’ve heard a lot of great things about what you’ve been working on so far. I’d love to just start from the beginning and hear a little bit about you and what motivated you to pursue advocacy for black philanthropy.
Rebecca: Absolutely. So a little bit about me, I am based in Canada, and I grew up in rural Alberta. I have multiple roles like we all do, as a daughter, sister, auntie, partner. What drives me to be part of the Foundation for Black Communities is seeking funding fairness for Black people in this country. I think about my nephews and the future that I would like to see them have, and that's a big part of why I'm doing the work that I do.
I: What has it been like doing this work during the pandemic -- which has obviously changed everything for everyone -- especially since Black philanthropy is already so impacted by racism and a lot of other biases. What’s that challenge been like?
R: It was such a great and big question. I've been working in the philanthropic sector, both on the operation side and the governance side for about five years, and what I can say is during the pandemic, there’s been a movement towards racial equity and this renewal around ensuring that Black Lives Matter. You can breathe it in. You can feel the momentum, you can feel the energy.
It's been dual. On one hand, it is exhausting and difficult and challenging. And on the other hand, momentum is building, and change happens in that time of tension. It's a call to action for everyone. I'm excited to be in a place where I can have really impactful conversations and see some tangible movements that will help Black communities.
I: What's one of the biggest challenges you face in your work, and how do you address it?
R: From my work specifically, the major challenge is lack of funding to Black-led, serving, and focused organizations. The Unfunded report we released really highlighted the woeful underfunding of Black communities by Canadian foundations. What we want to see is a transfer of capital from existing philanthropy to establish a foundation for Black communities.
It's refreshing because philanthropy is not at all a diverse sector, and it's due for change. I'm excited to be on the cutting edge of disrupting a sector that is quite conservative and could do better.
I: Are you seeing a lot of support from your community in this movement? Not just from the Black community, but from other allies as well?
R: Absolutely. We have really strong advocates who are with us. We have really strong relationships with Indigenous community leaders, as well as other allied professionals who understand intuitively that if we have funding equity, it will be better for all communities.
Most people get into philanthropy, because they want to do good work. They want to give funds, and they want to see a more just society. So it's not a lack of good intention that leads us to this inequity. Unfortunately, anti-Black racism is systemic and exists in all sectors. We're all on that learning trajectory, so it's time to just roll up our sleeves and work together.
I: Are there certain types of orgs that you're focused on? Or is this open to any Black-led organizations and movements?
R: Foundation for Black Communities grants will go directly to Black-led and Black-serving charitable and grassroots organizations. We're getting funds to the community organizers who know the community the best, have real buy-in, are mobilizing on the ground, and are in touch with community needs. We see funding those organizations as a primary driver of change.
That said, there are a lot of roles that anybody could play in terms of giving donations to the work or spreading the news. The Unfunded report went viral in the Canadian philanthropic sector, and there are a lot of really good lessons shared in that report. Raising awareness and having that conversation is also important. There are a lot of ways to become involved.
I: That's awesome. How has WLW so far been a positive impact on your leadership through this effort, especially working with so many diverse women in the cohort and with your advisors?
R: My interest in How Women Lead and the Women Leaders for the World fellowship came up prior to the pandemic. Despite starting during the pandemic, it couldn’t have been better timed for me. I came into a women's leadership program in a time of the pandemic, when we're all facing incredible challenges, particularly as women navigating different responsibilities, wearing different hats, trying to lead organizations, trying to do movement-building. The workshops and the intensive cohort building were really powerful. There's no way that I would have found myself in a room with such amazing women all putting forward really bold, visionary ideas into the world and with the love and camaraderie and support that we have for one another.
I have benefited so much from every aspect, whether it's learning with my peers, having an executive coach, having Global Advisors--every element of the program has advanced and accelerated my personal leadership, which ultimately is helping our initiative and the work that I do in the community grow at an accelerated pace.
I also have to give a nod to How Women Lead’s credo and just being supportive for one another. I've been connected to guest speakers, or had people open up their doors and say, ‘Hey, let's set up a time to chat, I’m more than happy to talk to you further about the work that you're doing.’ It's the whole network and the energy around How Women Lead that gives you the courage to say, ‘Oh, yeah, this is possible. This other person has done it, and she's opened the door for me, and she's given me the ability to move forward.’
Honestly, when people talk about women's leadership, vulnerability, and coming to the work as your full self, and really embracing your full self and being unapologetic, that is something that I learned in this program. It’s modeled by Patricia, as a facilitator, modeled by Claudia as a program manager, modeled by my executive coach. When you see other women being vulnerable and showing up as their whole selves, you have a roadmap and feel safe doing it too.
I: I feel that 100%. It's such a special sisterhood in a way because there's still so many environments where women are competitive with each other, because we've been conditioned to be that way. But being involved in How Women Lead, you really see that difference. It's a really special feeling.
R: It is. Absolutely. And I would say that, again, in terms of me saying that this program is perfectly timed for me, there was a time when I was climbing ladders, and checking off boxes, and throwing on a blazer, and showing up to a board meeting in a certain way, with my hair a certain way, and doing everything to fit inside this box.
What this program is showing me is that that box doesn't exist because we don't exist in boxes, and that's okay. If you bring your whole self, you might be even better positioned to do the work that you want to do.
I: I totally agree. It's really empowering to be around that kind of energy, because not only do you grow into yourself more, but you also expand that definition of who you are and find other parts of yourself that maybe you weren't connected to before.
R: Absolutely, and the one other piece I would add around that is it's a mindset shift and a practical shift. It's one thing to change your thoughts, but I'm now surrounded by a team. It’s like Team Rebecca, and I have this incredible group of women who are encouraging me to put it in practice, and reminding me, you can do this. You're not alone, and you can be a gift with your ways of being. I love that there's real tactical support.
I: Was there a certain thing you were working on prior to being in WLW that you felt more empowered to pursue once you went through the fellowship?
R: The work of the Foundation for Black Communities started in the summer, and it was very much a coalescing of a handful of people. What Women Leaders for the World allowed me to do was to name that this is something I'm committed to and going for, and I’m going to be unapologetic about that. Being at the Meet Her event, speaking to a virtual room full of people, and declaring the work that I'm doing, was really powerful.
I am not an executive director, I'm part of a working group of individuals advancing this mission. It's a little bit different when it's not your day job. So to be able to declare -- ‘This is what I'm working on. And this is what I believe the future can look like’ -- was really powerful.
I: Absolutely, that was such an inspiring event. Even virtually. Typically, we do it in person, but I feel like the power wasn't even lost with the fact that we had to do it virtually.
R: Yeah, and it goes to show the incredible nature of connection and listening to one another. Being there for one another is obviously needed in these pandemic times. So to have that sense of connection, despite being online, has been a real gift.
I: What advice do you have for other women like you, who are looking to step into the next phases of their leadership journey?
R: I'm humbled by that question. I'm not really in the business of giving advice. But since you asked, I would say that your work is a part of a movement. There are many people who've come before you, and you can advance it in the way that you're supposed to.
You have a unique skill set. Just take the leap and shine. I talked about standing on the shoulders of giants, as many people do, and I truly believe that to be the case. There are elders and ancestors and community leaders who are with me in this journey. I would encourage any woman to think about who they are as a part of a movement, you're not alone.
We don't talk about how a lot of Western leaders are like, ‘I trailblazed this path all by myself, nobody else was involved.’ I have a little bit of a hesitation and a pushback to that, because it's so counter to my culture and the teachings that have been instilled in me. It's important to highlight the fact that many people have paved the way for me.
I: I definitely feel that cultural clash sometimes. Everyone wants to be “self-made,” but you never really are, so sometimes there’s that internal conflict of, ‘Does my success mean less because I got help from people?’ So I think your message of reminding women that they don’t walk alone in the journey is huge. Well, last question -- now that you’ve gotten the Unfunded report out, what is the next big thing that you're working on?
R: Our main focus is raising the capital for the endowment of the foundation. We are actively engaged in conversations with foundations and individuals who have shown interest in donating and advancing our work.
In addition, the Federal government made a commitment to establish a $200 million Black-led philanthropic foundation in the recently released budget with a citation of the Unfunded report’s findings. Our hope is that it marks a stepping stone to a future where every Black Community has the chance to determine their own futures.
I: I’m excited to continue following your work. Thank you again for your time. I look forward to chatting with you again, hopefully soon!
R: Awesome, yeah, I can't speak enough about the WLW program, and just how much it has meant to me. I'm not even through the full year yet, and I can tell you that I'm not the same person that I was at the end of September, so I am very, very grateful.
To learn more about Foundation for Black Communities and their fight for racial justice and funding equity, visit https://www.forblackcommunities.org, and stay up to date on their work on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Interested in accelerating your impact as a changemaker in your community? For more information about how you can join our global network of women leaders solving some of the most intractable problems in nonprofits, social entrepreneurship, media, politics/government, and business, visit us at https://www.howwomenlead.com/women-leaders-for-the-world-fellows.