As I write this, I’m on a natural high of sorts, enjoying one of my better days in recent weeks. Although contested, the winner of the Presidential election seems clear, which helps mitigate one of the two risks I identified for Cal Wellness as we head into 2021: the need for new political leadership.
And I just signed off on a slew of grants totaling over $5 million. Signing grant agreement letters is one of my favorite CEO rituals, a final tangible step in releasing funds to community partners across the state who are working tirelessly to improve the health and wellness of Californians. This $5 million will support a myriad of policy and direct-service needs, including reimagining the state’s public health care system; providing transitional health care for formerly incarcerated people; uplifting the rights of the disability community; and supporting The Movement for Black Lives. By the end of this year, we will have allocated $47 million to advance the health and wellness of Californians across the state.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in 2020, it’s don’t get your hopes up too soon. My natural high was interrupted this week by a buzzing cell phone with an unusual alert. No missing child or wandering elderly citizen this time, but instead a stark warning that COVID-19 cases are on the rise in LA County, and a reminder to mask up! To date, the lives of more than 18,000 Californians have been lost to COVID-19, adding to the death toll of over 240,000 people in the U.S. Recent news of a promising vaccine is a hopeful sign but comes too late for thousands of Americans. I’m thinking of my cousin Dino whom we lost in April, and the thousands of others whose deaths could have been prevented if we had the leadership and political will to navigate this devastating pandemic. COVID-19 is the second risk that I identified as a threat to our work and state for the coming year. The virus is like a global tsunami crashing through our communities. Yes, it impacts everything and everyone in its path. But it hits hardest those who were struggling before, and who now can barely keep their heads above water as waves of racism, inequality and years of neglect form a perfect storm that increases human despair.
Still, I’m a hopeful cynic, excited to see signs of leadership that represent the values of compassion and social justice. I’m thrilled to see the rise of California’s very own native daughter, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, as she smashes through yet another glass ceiling, and inspires young girls all around the world to know they can soar even higher.
I’m also excited about the changes happening in California, where we see lots of green sprouts heralding new possibilities. Los Angeles County made history when voters elected an all-female roster for the Board of Supervisors. I’m especially pleased to see Holly Mitchell elected to the LA board of supervisors. Mitchell is a Black woman with non-profit leadership experience who has long been a champion for families. As a legislator, she has worked to help undo decades of systemic racism and anti-Black policies with efforts such as the Crown Act. And in San Diego, Todd Gloria will be the first Latino, Filipino, Native American as well as the first LGBTQ mayor. In addition, I’m heartened to see California voters are leading the way in criminal justice reform, having backed Proposition 17 which restores the vote to parolees and defeated Proposition 20 which would have rolled back progress in reducing incarceration. In LA, voters backed Measure J, which will now require 10% of locally-generated revenue go to community investment and alternatives to incarceration.
But we also need to manage expectations. Our new leaders-elect are not magicians. The challenges they face are significant as they seek to repair the devastating harm that has been done to public health, our economy, immigrant health and security, and our democracy over the past four years.
And, philanthropy, including Cal Wellness has its own work to do. As much as I like the ritual of signing grant agreement letters, we simply can’t "grantmake" our way out of this moment in time. We’ll have to do more than define ourselves by our endowment size, our beautifully crafted mission statements, DEI initiatives and theories of change – which, let’s be honest, have changed very little in terms of dismantling policies and practices that often fall short in supporting the communities we’re committed to serve. To truly make change, we have to be willing to trust our grantee partners, raise our voices for justice, take uncomfortable risks and share both our money and our power.
Yes, it’s going to take a collective effort for sure. And I feel a change a-coming.