Nomzana Augustin, Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships Manager, World Education Services (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund

 “In our work to improve economic opportunity for immigrants and refugees, a bigger barrier is long-term systemic racism and discrimination, which greatly affects immigrants and communities of color. This leads to xenophobia and exacerbates employment barriers. We’re trying to shine a light on interventions that support individuals and communities facing those obstacles, so they can truly thrive.”

 

What is the mission of the WES Mariam Assefa Fund and how does addressing economic equity and opportunity fit in?

The WES Mariam Assefa Fund aims to catalyze economic inclusion, opportunities, and mobility for immigrants and refugees in the United States and Canada. The Fund launched in 2019 as the philanthropic arm of World Education Services (WES).

We pride ourselves in funding solutions that create access and opportunities for immigrants and refugees, so they can build the careers they desire. Our vision is to see immigrants and refugees thrive in equitable, inclusive communities and economies.

How has COVID-19 and the current public outcry for racial justice and structural racism reforms impacted your grantmaking? How are you shifting your strategies to meet this moment? 

We’ve seen an increase in demand for both immediate solutions and broader systems change, as well as growing interest from other funders who want to partner with us. There’s a heightened sense of awareness right now around the intersectional identities of immigrants and communities of color, and why those nuances matter when it comes to closing gaps and unweighting the burdens experienced by those with multiple identities. This is where funders, like us, as well as civil society organizations and government, can step in to provide that needed support to individuals and communities.

We are currently tailoring our approaches in two ways to meet and elevate the experiences of those with intersections of identity.

First, internally, we recently revised our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies to make sure we’re aligned and fully modeling and practicing what we preach. We’ve collected data on our own team, so we can share, with integrity, who we are and why we’re the right people to do this work.

Secondly, externally, with our partners, we’ve been finding ways to collect and support the DEI data that they are tracking. We’ve also developed a statement on our commitment to DEI, which more clearly articulates what we’re working on now and towards in the future and how equity is centered in our funding practices.  We’re exploring trust-based philanthropy practices to shift decision-making power to the communities we serve.

What do you see as the big barriers you’re trying to overcome in your work?

Given what’s happened in the past year, the general trend is lack of capacity to launch or scale the initiatives and solutions we have in mind. We operate in such a unique space, and there are few funders that focus on immigrants and refugees. We seek to partner with aligned funders so we can double down on our funding to build more inclusive economies. We try to balance between supporting both immediate solutions as well as longer-term systemic interventions.

In our work to improve economic opportunity for immigrants and refugees, a bigger barrier is long-term systemic racism and discrimination, which greatly affects immigrants and communities of color. This leads to xenophobia and exacerbates employment barriers. We’re trying to shine a light on interventions that support individuals and communities facing those obstacles in the United States and Canada, so they can truly thrive. We partner with community leaders and organizations on interventions that can be replicated and adopted at the systems level.

As you think through the work of your partners, what has been some of the work that you have been most proud of?

I’m fairly new to the Fund, but what I’ve seen in the last six months is fantastic. Our partners show what’s possible for immigrant and refugee communities, both now and in the future. Personally, this work has allowed me to see a bright future for my family and community. I’m a first-generation African immigrant woman and can relate closely to those we serve while representing their needs. I joined a team that can, and does, bridge the gap for immigrants and refugees, and with our amazing partners, I get to see immigrants settled and flourishing. It makes me not want to give up.

In a recent blog on our website, our team highlights the story of Rosemarie Powell,  who arrived in Canada as a Black immigrant woman from Jamaica at the age of 16. Her story was a hard hitter for me. Now, she leads Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN) and works to integrate immigrants and refugees through employment and dignified work opportunities in the construction industry in Toronto.

How does being a member of Economic Opportunity Funders help you achieve your goals?

Being part of a broad network like EOF allows our team to learn as funders and collaborate with other partners. It gives us opportunities to be thought partners in advancing important work to create an economy that works for all.

Through EOF, I’m hoping the WES Mariam Assefa Fund can build our network and brand, especially as a new funder in this space. We want to highlight the work of our partners and double down on funding to amplify their impact.

Do you have any questions/issues on which you’d like to engage your funder colleagues? What keeps you up at night?

We always want to take our work further as funders, and at this critical time where a racial reckoning is taking place, I’m curious to know how funders will take into account the diverse identities and experiences of immigrants and refugees in this moment in racial equity history.

I hear a lot about equity, but don’t hear enough about pathways to equitable ownership—what does equitable ownership mean for a recent divorcee from India with three kids as opposed to a single African LGBTQ+ immigrant with no family or contacts upon arrival and restrictive human rights policies where they come from? How do we solve for those nuances? We all operate differently as funders. The question we ask is how do we give power to those going through the experiences themselves to create their own solutions? Creating pathways to ownership can mean many things: upward career mobility through sponsorship, home ownership with access to financing, decision-making power in board rooms, or opportunities to build wealth 2-3 generations down the line.

Lastly, if the tables were flipped and you were not a funder, with all of your privileges removed, would you be happy with the current state of funding? Progress means sacrificing and sharing power with the organizations and communities that funders exist to serve in order to get to a level playing field. This may seem like a utopian dream, but that doesn’t mean we don’t work at it and make progress.

Any useful resources to share with funder colleagues? 

Thank you so much Nomzana for your time and support of our network!  If you’d like to reach out to Nomzana directly to learn more about the Fund’s work or partnership opportunities, she can be reached at naugustin@wes.org.

This interview was completed by Sarah Griffiths, consultant to Economic Opportunity Funders.