The following is a conversation between Crystal Hayling, Executive Director of The Libra Foundation, and Denver Frederick, the host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: For nearly two decades, The Libra Foundation has done significant grantmaking in progressive causes and movements, with multigenerational families being closely involved with the foundation, setting its strategy, and interacting with many of the foundations’ grantee partners. And here to tell us more about this work and how the foundation has changed over the years is Crystal Hayling, the Executive Director of The Libra Foundation.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Crystal!
Crystal: Thank you so much, Denver, for inviting me. And it’s wonderful to be here today.
Denver: Great to have you. The Libra Foundation was founded in 2002, and it has evolved, as I mentioned, quite a bit since then. Share with us a bit of the history of the foundation.
Crystal: Well, the foundation was started by the family, Nick and Susan Pritzker and their four adult children, as you said, in 2002. And it really started as a very small effort; originally had $35 million in assets. The foundation is now somewhere around $475 million in assets. But the beautiful thing about that process is that it has grown slowly over time, and the family has begun to develop, go down their own philanthropic journey during that time.
The one overarching theme that has remained consistent is a focus on human rights and moving towards a just society. And so that was one organizing principle that everybody in the family could gather around, and that continues to this day.
Denver: Your guiding principle is that those who are closest to the issues understand those issues the best, and they’re not only the best equipped to build solutions, they’re also the most effective at implementing those solutions. Speak about that principle, Crystal, and give us an example of that and how outcomes are changed as a result.
Crystal: Absolutely. When I came into the foundation, there were two things that I said to the family board, “I love this idea that we should be focusing on human rights. Given the fact that we do most of our work here in the United States, that means that we have to bring a racial justice lens to the work that we do — a racist sorting hat in America. So if you want to determine who gets human rights and who doesn’t, you need to be able to understand the racial dynamics behind the systems that we’ve built.”
We also really wanted to talk about whether or not we felt like we were being very effective with the grantmaking that we had been doing, which was largely going to a lot of activist legal organizations, was going to think tanks, larger organizations, and really feeling like we were not getting to the root of the problems. And so I brought in this idea of thinking about funding people who are actually closest to the issues and what kind of difference does that make in terms of the programs. I’d seen over my career that some of the most successes that I’d had in philanthropy had really been around doing that focus.
And let me just give you a quick example. We have been funding and continue to fund some extraordinary organizations working on criminal justice reform. But what we have found is, over the last decade or so, there’s been an increase in organizations that have been founded by and for people who are coming out of the criminal justice system: groups that are actually by people who have been inside of the system; or groups like Essie Justice Group, which are formed by people who have family members who have been inside of the system, and their whole entire families are impacted by it.
Those organizations have a very different perspective on the system. They’re calling for different priorities in terms of policy solutions, and they are actually able to do the thing that many of those think tanks aren’t able to do, which is to garner the public will to create change. So when a group of those organizations marches in Sacramento or marches in Washington, or in the state capitals across the country, they actually capture much more attention, and their stories have much more resonance for those policymakers to really understand what needs to happen.
So that’s, I think, one of the missing pieces we’ve seen — that ground-up, bottom-up approach to both organizing and policymaking that I think has begun to make a huge difference in that field and in many others.
So often, too, our current system just ignores the people who have experienced the harm… We really forget about the fact that people want to come to some reconciliation, and that’s when healing begins, and that’s the kind of work we’re really beginning to focus more on.
Denver: That makes so much sense and something somewhat affiliated with that is the lack of beneficiary feedback in the sector. It’s amazing how we always ask the donors and the board and the experts and the staff, but never the people who are receiving the service. We’ve overlooked that. And there is something about those people who understand it so much better and their knowing what’s working and not working.
I’ve never seen any innovation come from an expert. I think an expert, by definition, almost narrows their focus. So we continue to do the same thing, but the answers are really with the people who are at the ground level, just as you said.
Well, you do have three major program areas, and you’ve touched on one and that is criminal justice and social justice. I’m going to ask you to expand a little bit on that in terms of some of the other work you’re doing in that area.
Crystal: Great. Yes. We’re doing quite a bit of work in the healing justice space. A lot of times people say, “Well, the reason we have the criminal justice system that we have is because what else are we going to do with criminals?”
And I think one of the ways that… again, one of the real innovations that we’ve gotten from people who are most impacted by the system is to really shift our frame and ask ourselves: What is it as a society we think is most effective in terms of helping people who have done harm… to stop doing it and to not do it anymore? Do we think that putting people in cages is the most effective way to stop harm from happening? I think most of us would say probably not. Many prisons are actually breeding grounds for helping people to be even less connected to their feelings and empathy and connection to humankind.
So I think that’s one of those things where we feel like the healing justice work that we’re working on is coming in and really asking people: Once we have dealt with the issue and acknowledged that harm has been done, how do we actually then heal both the perpetrator and the person who experienced the harm? And both of those need to be addressed. So often, too, our current system just ignores the people who have experienced the harm.
One of the things I found — I used to do a lot of work in the healthcare system — it was always a big surprise to lots of folks that when a physician had made a mistake and a patient had either suffered harm or had passed away as a result of that error, oftentimes, what really the victim’s family wanted was to talk to the physician to understand what had happened and to come to some reconciliation, to understand what the system might do to help make sure that that physician wouldn’t or couldn’t… or others wouldn’t… make those mistakes again.
We really forget about the fact that people want to come to some reconciliation, and that’s when healing begins, and that’s the kind of work we’re really beginning to focus more on.
Denver: Wonderful. The second program area is environment and climate justice. You’re really looking to support those communities that are directly impacted or on the front lines of climate change and environmental harm. Tell us about some of your efforts there.
Crystal: Absolutely. One of the things that we have seen is the environment movement is one in which we have a lot of resources going from major foundations, and that’s a good thing because we all know that we’re experiencing a real climate crisis. One of the challenges here, though, again, is that the vast majority of those dollars are going to the large, big green or environmental organizations, many of which are really quite disconnected from local communities, communities of color, and communities that are experiencing the greatest damage done by those big environmental polluters.
And what we’re trying to do is fund more of the organizations on the ground. For example, groups in Long Beach that have organized around getting the trucks that are at the port down there, our largest port on the West Coast. They’re getting those trucks to not idle with diesel fumes all day long, which is what they actually had been doing for decades, which was causing tremendous air pollution in the communities surrounding the port.
And those communities not only… they didn’t stop at trying to get those, make that one change, they actually also then said, “In fact, if we had a more electric-based transportation system, our community is part of a transportation hub. We could actually get more jobs. We could actually transform the industries that are responsible for that pollution, to actually help them to become more green and more sustainable.
So that’s what we mean when we say, again, even in spaces like environment and climate, there are real solutions coming from local communities. And if we can resource them and pay more attention to them, we believe that we will actually see faster, more deeply embedded transformational change that we’ll need if we’re actually going to make the changes to stave off complete and total climate crisis.
Denver: I’ve always wondered, Crystal, why funders continue to support those mainline organizations to the degree that they do. And I haven’t figured out whether it’s laziness, whether it’s a safe thing to do, whether supporting that institution is going to look good in their annual report and with their board, or perhaps they don’t want to make a mistake on an organization they don’t know that well.
And I’ve always tried to say to them, “Make a mistake because: guess what? The other nine are going to be the ones that make the difference.” And it’s almost like an investment portfolio. You’ll get your Amazon or your Facebook or whatever it is. The others don’t have to do anything, but there’s just a conservatism there that is the lazy man’s route, and it doesn’t pay the dividends along the lines that you just suggested. What do you think?
Crystal: Well, Denver, I think you’ve named so many of the challenges in philanthropy that we face in terms of trying to do new things, different things, innovate. I also think that there is probably some internalized bias there as well.
In philanthropy, we like to fund people who speak the same language we do, maybe even went to the same universities that we did, maybe look the same as we do. And all of those things play into who we believe has expertise and who we believe has standing to make change in communities. And it really does create some blinders around who can be really important players on policy issues. I think that that hopefully is beginning to change some, but it is still a tremendous blind spot.
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t fund some of those organizations. I’m just saying that one of the things we can say is that the balance of how you make that, as you described “portfolio” is so dramatically out of balance right now that we’ve got a long way to go. And I’d like to see some foundations make really big, different bets.
Denver: A little reallocation I think would be in order.
One of the things that we know is true that is a part of what’s important about undoing systemic bias and systemic racism and gender bias is that we actually have to name the things that are there so that we can see them and identify them.
Denver: Finally, there’s gender justice. And again, you seek to support communities most impacted by gender-based structural oppression. Talk to us about that.
Crystal: One of the things that we know is true that is a part of what’s important about undoing systemic bias and systemic racism and gender bias is that we actually have to name the things that are there so that we can see them and identify them.
We are experiencing right now one of the greatest economic downturns that we’ve ever experienced, and it’s important to note that the weight of this is falling far more heavily on women than it is on men. Women are experiencing both the childcare, the fact that we’ve never invested in childcare, that we’ve never actually said that care– whether it’s elder care or childcare– is highly valued in this society, worth paying for in this society. We’ve never done those things. And now, women are having to do that and try to figure out how we keep the families together with much less money, much less income, or continue to work in really high-stress jobs that continue to be low-paying.
We also think it’s really important in areas such as criminal justice to raise up what some of the gender differentials are. We talk about the importance of the current criminal justice system and creating safety in communities, but does it really create safety in communities?
When we look at this on a gender basis, we recognize that law enforcement as it’s currently constructed does very little to protect women from gender-based violence. It has very little to address sexual-based violence and actually capturing people and preventing them from being repeat offenders. So, all of those things that we assume… well, actually, the current system is preventing crime from happening? It’s actually not true when you apply that gender lens to it.
So part of what we want to do in our work is also take a gender lens across many different areas, and help us to recognize that when we don’t consider the differential impact of these systems on men and on women and want to make sure that we increase the impact for women, we’re also missing some of the problem, and we’re letting go of opportunities for solutions.
Denver: No question about it. And to your point on care, wouldn’t it be great if this country could think of care as the next big infrastructure project? Because we always think of infrastructure in terms of roads and bridges, but building a system of care across the country would be probably about the best investment we could make.
Crystal: Denver, 100%. That’s exactly where I think we need to go.
Denver: There’s been a lot of discussion, Crystal, that you’re familiar with, as to whether foundations should be giving a lot more now to address this crisis that is having such a devastating effect on so many lives, or be a little bit more cautious so they can do more later on. The Libra Foundation has emphatically decided upon the former. Tell us about that and the grantmaking that you’re going to be making during 2020.
Crystal: I have to say that this incredible family that I work with, we actually came as a staff to them at the end of 2019 and looked at what was coming up on the horizon for 2020. And at that point in time, we really proposed to the family that we were at a major turning point in this country. And most of the organizations that we were funding at that point are about building local power in communities. Mostly communities have been overlooked… disempowered communities of color.
And knowing that would be essential for those communities to feel empowered enough to show up in 2020 and across the board in so many different ways, the family decided to double our grantmaking. Now, what many people don’t realize is: that was pre-COVID.
Denver: Right. At the end of 2019, there was really nothing, at least in the public eye, going on. You know…
Crystal: That’s right. But it really was recognizing we had the census coming up, we had the election coming up, we had so many things that people really needed to be paying attention to. That was something that lots of the communities were saying to us. We were listening to our grantees. They were saying to us, “We need resources to make sure that we’re organizing to be effective in 2020. Then, COVID hit.
And I went back to them. Let’s remember COVID hit, and what happens in foundations when crises hit is that they also get very conservative because they’re listening to their finance folks who were saying, “Oh my gosh. The stock market’s tanking… “
Denver: The stock market did tank there for a while.
Crystal: It did tank there for a while. And I have a fantastic partner in our investment professional who said, “You know what? Things go down and things go up. The purpose of the foundation is to have an impact. You will make a decision about what you think you need to do in terms of spending the resources, and we’ll figure out, on the other end, how we make this work out. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t take a hit, but it’s to say that, ‘Let’s make sure that we’re driving by the principles for what the institution was created to do, not allowing the back-office end of things, which is the fuel, not allowing that part to drive which direction we’re going in.'”
And I think that was really important in that the family really listened to that, and we were able to make a decision to go lead with our values, lead with the need that we saw in the community, and with the possibility that the communities that we’ve been funding said, “Given the resources, here are the things we know we can accomplish in 2020.”
What we need to remember as philanthropists in this field is that we’re trying to drive change, and we need to support those folks who are the drivers of change.
Culture changes policy, not the other way around.
Denver: Fantastic. Crystal, speak about how you see this broad movement unfolding. For example, Black Lives Matter was not a well-received idea coming out of Ferguson. But it is now. And that’s true with a number of other concepts. They’re radical and/or untenable at first, but then slowly are better understood and gradually accepted, at least by many. Another example would be kneeling during the national anthem or universal health care. So, what are your thoughts on that? And where do you think this is going to go to, that next evolution that we’re going to see and where it’s going to take us?
Crystal: Well, I think that what you’ve described is what we need to remember as philanthropists in this field is that we’re trying to drive change, and we need to support those folks who are the drivers of change. Many times, they are not the folks that we expect. Often, they are culture makers. Culture changes policy, not the other way around.
And so, when we see people out on the streets through art, through music; sometimes it’s through graffiti, sometimes it’s through visual, sometimes it’s through actions like taking a kneel — those are things that capture people’s understanding in a way that no white paper ever will. And we need to be able to support that and recognize that… We, as foundation folks, so many times, I sit in boardrooms… I’ve sat in boardrooms, and people say, “Well, I don’t agree with that. So, I don’t want to support that organization.”
And I think that actually happened a lot with Black Lives Matter, with the whole movement. Lots of foundations said, “I don’t agree with that.” But the movement doesn’t take notes from philanthropy. They have a very clear sense of what is needed in communities. They are creating the zeitgeist of those communities and the evolution of this movement looks exactly as you said.
Six months ago, people who still were uncomfortable with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” have now marched in a march on Black lives in support of Black Lives Matter. They may have a sign in front of their house. And they’re even, now, a few months later, willing to be in a conversation about what the phrase “Defund the Police” means. This is all moving the conversation that we need to have about what are the solutions and re-centering them around what communities are telling us they want.
Denver: I love your point about culture and art. And I think one of the things that frustrates me is that anytime I’m reading about social entrepreneurs and the funding they’ve been able to get, you never see an artist in the group. And I’m just saying what an oversight that is because that is really where it’s all beginning.
The purpose of bringing diversity into leadership positions is because you’ll actually have different conversations, and you’ll come to different solutions.
Denver: So, what are some of the unique challenges that leaders of color face that are not encountered by their white counterparts?
Crystal: It’s an interesting question because you’re delving into things here, Denver, that lots of folks don’t necessarily want to talk about. On the one hand, I don’t want to say that I feel like there are things that make it harder for me to be effective, but on the other hand, the reality is that that is true.
Over the course of my career, what are some of those things? Walking into the room and not necessarily being assumed to have the expertise to do the job. I think also sometimes it’s very difficult for leaders of color to champion projects that have to do with supporting communities of color because we’re somehow or another seen to be like, sometimes there’s some sense that like maybe we’re self-dealing: it’s some self-fulfilling prophecy or something like that.
Denver: It’s almost like you’re asking for yourself.
Crystal: Exactly. And one of the real challenges is that we’re brought in often and people say, “Gosh. We know that we need to have more people of color in leadership positions.” And so organizations will hire people of color,” but what they expect is that those folks will do exactly the same things had they hired a white man, or as the white man that previously was in that job.
The purpose of bringing diversity into leadership positions is because you actually have different conversations, and you’ll come to different solutions. And that is where I also find so much resistance, where people say, “Well, Gee. We wanted to hire you. We wanted to bring you in here, but we don’t want to do that kind of work.” Well, that’s actually what diversity means.
And so, I think that’s really one of the biggest challenges is recognizing that, bringing people of color into leadership positions… when we’re here, we actually open up a different set of possibilities. And making the organization prepared to move on and support those different possibilities is the hard work.
Denver: I’ve had similar conversations about that with people in the classical music field who are looking to attract audiences of color and have come to the realization, “Well, we can’t continue just to offer what we’ve always been offering if we’re going to be able to do that. We can continue a lot of it, but we’re going to have to actually vary our menu, or otherwise, it ain’t going to work.” And it is sort of that same mindset that takes a long time for some people to finally get.
Crystal: That’s exactly right.
Denver: Speaking about leadership, what’s it been like for you to be an effective leader in a crisis? And do you think that maybe the expectations of leaders are going to change as a result of all this… what people expect of them?
Crystal: Absolutely. I definitely have found my own leadership deeply challenged in this moment. We have implemented some different policies within The Libra Foundation. We’ve offered two wellness days a month for employees, and we encourage them. They don’t accrue, so we really want people to take them because we’re all under incredible amounts of stress. We’re having to really identify what’s the difference between important and urgent, and really focus on being able to do the important, and then reclassify what is urgent.
I am really finding that I’m having to slow down and spend more time focusing on talking to my team members about how they’re doing, and really meaning it, like really listening.
Denver: I know what you’re saying.
Crystal: You know what I mean? And it’s not just that sort of like here’s the check-in kind of thing, but really listening.
Denver: No. It’s a big difference between just saying, “How are you?” and expecting the glib “Doing fine. How are you?” Really, actually like, “No. I mean, really, how are you?”
Crystal: Right. And I think, Denver, one of the hardest things for me right now is recognizing that we’re not going back. This is a new reset for where we are as a nation. We are all suffering now from some level of collective grief. We are all suffering now from some levels of trauma. None of us watched George Floyd’s murder without being traumatized by it. And that I believe is why we are going to collectively be able to move in a direction to make changes in this country.
So I think as a leader, to really understand how we are all internalizing these big, giant shifts requires that we manage differently. And that’s what I’m trying to process now as a leader, and it is incredibly challenging.
And so I think we have to try hard to push ourselves to imagine: What do I want to tell my kids about what I do in my work? What do I hope that my grandkids will say about me and the work that I try to do? At moments when our country was in a clear and present crisis, what did I do, and what did I stand for?
Denver: Well, you’re bringing obviously the right humility to the job because that’s what it’s going to take.
Your foundation is held in such high regard by so many, and you really do have an influence beyond your sheer size. Why do you think that is, Crystal? And how do you look to leverage that influence to create the greatest level of good?
Crystal: Thank you for saying that Denver. I think Libra has always tried to lead with our values, to be uncompromising in sharing the lessons that we’ve learned, both where we’ve done well, as well as where we have stumbled.
And I think that we have tried. We’ve really tried to be courageous in the work. I think that it is incredibly difficult to do. This is a field that really encourages us to stay in a pack. And so I think we have to try hard to push ourselves to imagine: What do I want to tell my kids about what I do in my work? What do I hope that my grandkids will say about me and the work that I try to do? At moments when our country was in a clear and present crisis, what did I do, and what did I stand for?
And that’s what we try to do as a foundation, and that’s really where the family is very intent… that they don’t want to play it safe, that they want to try. “Well, even if we aren’t successful, let’s try.”
Denver: Do you think that spirit is contagious in the philanthropic community at this moment or not?
Crystal: I actually do. I actually do think it’s contagious. I’ve written a couple of pieces that have been trying to move some of us forward and have just been sharing my feeling of urgency in the moment, and I’ve actually been getting phone calls from people saying, “What might we do differently if we wanted to?” And I’m very encouraged by that. I think we can take some bold steps. Sometimes we can take those steps in conjunction with others, and it helps make us more courageous together.
So, yes, I actually am hopeful right now that we’re in a moment where philanthropy is really trying to figure out how we move and do this work in a transformational way, as opposed to just a transactional way.
One of the things we absolutely have to do is reinvest in each other… We’ve got to make sure that we recognize that that togetherness and that sense of community is what we’ve got to keep focusing on and driving towards.
When we’re just going to start to kind of discount each other, that’s when we fall back into places where we shut ourselves off. But when we actually invest in each other and believe in the power of community and organizing, that’s really where we see these great leaps forward in this country.
Denver: Great point. And let me close with that, in terms of not philanthropy, but this nation. Are we going to capture this moment? They come along so rarely, and they disappear so quickly. What do we need to do not to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the changes as this country so desperately needs? And is there anything you’re going to be on the lookout for that will raise a red flag that we’re letting this moment pass?
Crystal: I think that one of the things we absolutely have to do is reinvest in each other.
As you mentioned, there are infrastructure needs that we have to put resources towards, and we have to collectively fight for that — whether it’s childcare, elder care, healthcare, all of those things we need to do. But we’ve also got to remember that what is helping us get through COVID is mutual aid, mutual support, neighbors coming together, people knocking on each other’s door even if they’re wearing masks and helping each other out; that spirit has got to continue, and we’ve got to make sure that we recognize that that togetherness and that sense of community is what we’ve got to keep focusing on and driving towards.
We have seen people coming together in respect, in protest in this country. The current movement is the largest civil rights movement we’ve ever had in the history of this country. That creates change, and we have to love it and support it and nurture it and not be afraid of it because that’s what this country is built on.
And I think to the extent that we go back to saying that we’re just going to go back to technocratic solutions, that we’re just going to go back to saying, “Oh, government can’t fix anything,” when we’re just going to start to kind of discount each other, that’s when we fall back into places where we shut ourselves off. But when we actually invest in each other and believe in the power of community and organizing, that’s really, I think, where we see these great leaps forward in this country.
Denver: I really love that paradox that you just closed with because, again, we are facing a set of global crises that we have never encountered at least in our lifetime, but the answer really is at the local level. It’s in the community and with our neighbor, and that is so well-said.
For people who are interested in learning more about The Libra Foundation, tell us a little bit about your website and some of the information you got up there.
Crystal: Great. Absolutely. Please visit thelibrafoundation.org. and there are lots of resources. You can do a search on all of the grants that we’ve made, so if you’re interested in understanding a little bit about our grantees, you can do searches on them. We also share all the writings that we’ve put out.
We certainly recommend to folks, if there are other resources, we’ve got some terrific resources around COVID response on the website, a recent addition to our site that we’ve added that we keep regularly updated. And there’s a way there to also get more information about how to stay connected to us, so I hope folks can visit that and stay connected. We love to be in communication and in community.
Denver: Well, thanks, Crystal for being here today to share these insights. It was a real delight to have you on the program.
Crystal: Thank you so much, Denver for inviting me and for your terrific questions and insights. I really appreciate it.
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