Reflections on the 2020 Summit, “Equity in Action.”

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Over four days, October 15-16 & 19-20, over 450 nonprofit, philanthropic, business and community leaders came together to celebrate and learn as a virtual community. This wasn’t the summit the Orange County Grantmakers Summit Committee envisioned at the beginning of the year, one in which the community would gather in-person for a full-day convening, networking and connecting over pastries, lunch and happy hour, but it was the summit that matched the need and emotion of our community today. Our evolution of structure also matched our evolution of content. In February, when we first settled on the theme of “Equity in Action” we envisioned the summit as a continuation of the theme and work of the last year, “Leading Towards Equity: Tackling the Challenge Together.” But, as the pandemic wore on and our country experienced calls for racial and social justice, we knew that the summit’s content needed to be far more intentional then simply a continuation of a discussion.

Our 2020 Summit, “Equity in Action: Stories of Innovation and Collaboration” became a call to our community to highlight the work already being done, an attempt to demystify the meaning behind equity and, instead of looking at definitions, look at the implications and successes of actionable steps. It also became a place for us to push the boundaries on what is “comfortable” and to encourage our friends, neighbors and colleagues to have the hard conversations around inequity in our community.

After a presentation on the State of Philanthropy in Orange County, The Summit kicked off with a presentation by writer, author and nonprofit leader Vu Le, challenging us all to “draw a new fish” and use this time of change to throw out the old funding models and embrace the opportunity of now. I knew that his perspective would not be agreed on by all the attendees, and in fact, would and should ruffle feathers as it pushed attendees to think about how they have always done things and how those structures may be continuing the inequities that exist in our community. But, I also knew that if we wanted to start off the summit inviting people to be open to new ideas, his voice and challenge to us would set the tone for a summit that was not afraid to “go there.”

In fact, throughout the course of the summit, I knew that many of the conversations and keynotes, discussing issues like inequity, racism, and systematic oppression, would be difficult to hear and a challenge to participate in. I thank the attendees who were willing to listen, to embrace the uncomfortable, and to accept that differing perspectives are what make us stronger.

Over the course of four days, the 2020 Summit explored the theme of “Equity in Action” through the lens of four sub-topics: Innovation in a Time of Crisis, Public Policy with an Equity Lens, Racial & Ethnic Diversity and a Commitment to Social Justice and Resiliency and Recovery in a Post-COVID World.

Innovation in a Time of Crisis

Throughout Day 1 of the Summit, our panelists and breakout sessions made it clear, the challenges of today are an opportunity to go back to better. The forced pivot by so many of our nonprofit organizations is a chance to reimagine the status quo, to embrace new structures and service models with an equity lens, and to ensure we do not go back to the way things used to be simply because it has always been that way. As our panelist Anne Olin shared, “To go forward courageously may mean we challenge everything we think we know about ourselves. But it is a privilege to do this work together.” 

Public Policy with an Equity Lens

Public policy and civic engagement is no longer something that only a select few of organizations can and should engage in. As the 2019 OC Equity Profile stated, “Increasing community engagement among racial/ethnic groups that have been historically underrepresented in decision-making brings in the voices of those who are most impacted by policy change.” The civic unrest in our country right now demands an active and engaged community that advocates for those unable to speak up. In the words of our keynote Kathleen Kelly Janus, “As Californians, we must match the passion we see for social change with an investment in the essential practices that lead to impact.” Our nonprofits are most in-touch with the needs of our individual community members and “civic engagement” goes far beyond support of the Census and elections. It is instead the opportunity for trusted local institutions most aware of the needs of the constituents they serve to ensure policies from the top down address and respond to equity. In the words of Rick Stein, President & CEO of Arts Orange County, “treat elected officials like they are your major donors – invite them to your events, thank them, and build relationships with them.” 

Racial & Ethnic Diversity and a Commitment to Social Justice

The discussion of race, racism and the history that has led to the societal structures we live in today are not comfortable conversations. However, we know that are necessary to working towards equity. As one of our presenters Marcus Walton, President & CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations shared, we must ask ourselves, “what is informing my belief system? What is the source of information that has defined my values?” The national conversation around racial and social injustice has presented our community with the opportunity to address our own implicit biases, to take actionable steps in the authentic diversification of our boards, and to ensure anti-racist policies are integrated into the core of our organizations. Our fireside chat in the morning featuring Alison Edwards with OC Human Relations, Ruha Benjamin, Princeton University, Dean Song Richardson, UCI, and Nupol Kiazolu, activist challenged attendees to think the true meaning of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how each person can play a part in the movement.

Resiliency and Recovery in a Post-COVID World

Our final day of the summit looked to the future. Discussions dived into the role of nonprofits in the recovery of our community, emphasizing that nonprofits represent the soul of our communities, and therefore must be at the table as we together reimagine something different for our future. As our closing keynote Wes Moore so eloquently put it, “the people closest to the challenge are oftentimes the ones closest to the solution. They are just not at the table.”

I want to thank again the 450+ nonprofit, philanthropic and community leaders who joined our virtual convening. I know the conversations were not always comfortable. I know they may have rubbed some attendees the wrong way and I knew for certain that everyone would not and did not agree with the statements made by all of our speakers. By being willing to embrace the uncomfortable, to listen with open ears, hearts and minds to the perspectives of others, we together moved the needle to a more equitable Orange County.

As a reminder, all registered attendees can continue to access recordings of the session on the Whova app. OCG will continue with our equity conversation over the coming month and year. Please keep an eye out for upcoming events soon.

I am so thankful to everyone who helped OCG pull this event off, to the Summit Committee who stepped up in unexpected ways, to our sponsors who were willing to support our progressive conversations. We hope that all attendees left our summit feeling inspired and ready to embrace equity in action.

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How do we build a compassionate and inclusive America in an age of distrust? WAJAHAT ALI knows from personal experience that when we come together to be the superheroes of our own stories, we can create honest social change. The beloved TED speaker has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic about our urgent issues—immigration, politics, parenthood—with boldness, hope, and humor. His memoir Go Back to Where You Came From, one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Year, follows his life as a Muslim Pakistani-American on a surprising, emotional, and challenging quest for the good life. Iconic journalist Katie Couric says that “we are all so fortunate to be on the receiving end of his intellect, his humanity, and his heart.”

Wajahat Ali

“With wit and charm, Ali delivers a masterful meditation on growing up brown in America...he gives us a clear-eyed affirmation of the country America could be.” — Mara Gay, New York Times

Wajahat Ali uses his platform to fight tirelessly for the social change we need in our country—and he isn’t afraid to get personal while doing it. The Daily Beast columnist and former New York Times writer, TED speaker, award-winning playwright, and Peabody-nominated producer of the documentary series The Secret Life of Muslims offers us his experiences of triumph over hardship as a beacon of hope and resilience in the face of life’s impossible situations. From his experiences of Islamophobia growing up as a Muslim Pakistani-American to his two-year-old daughter’s liver cancer diagnosis, Wajahat is living proof that when we share our authentic stories, we build the America we wish to live in.”

In his memoir Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American, Wajahat teaches us how to create our own superhero origin story, invest in hope for the future of America, and enact real social change. The book was called “biting and funny and full of heart” by NPR. Representative Ilhan Omar called Wajahat’s work “hilarious” and “deeply moving”, and legendary writer Dave Eggers said it was the book he’d “been hoping Wajahat Ali would write for ten years—hilarious, stylistically fearless, deeply humane.”

Wajahat is also the author of The Domestic Crusaders—the first major play about Muslim-Americans in a post-9/11 world. He was the lead researcher and author for the Center for American Progress’s seminal report “Fear Inc., Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” and served as a national correspondent for Al Jazeera America, where he told stories about communities and individuals often marginalized or under-reported in mainstream media.

As Creative Director of Affinis Wajahat Labs, he worked to create social entrepreneurship initiatives to support and uplift marginalized communities. He also worked with the US State Department to design and implement the “Generation Change” leadership program to empower young social entrepreneurs. Wajahat initiated chapters in eight countries, including Pakistan and Singapore. For his work, he was honored as a “Generation Change Leader” by Sec. of State Clinton and recognized as an “Emerging Muslim American Artist” by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. 

He has given keynote speeches around the world such as TED, The Aspen Ideas Festival, Google, the United Nations, and The New Yorker Festival. His writing appears regularly in the New York TimesThe Atlantic, the Washington Post, and The Guardian. He’s a Senior Fellow at The Western States Center and Auburn Seminary and co-host of Al Jazeera’s The Stream.