Padmini Parthasarathy, Senior Program Officer, Economic Security, Walter & Elise Haas Fund
“Addressing economic security in the Bay Area is a critical part of helping people thrive, of supporting their wellbeing, and of enabling them to participate in their community.“
What is the mission of your foundation and how does addressing economic equity and opportunity fit in?
Our current mission is to build a healthy, just, and vibrant society in which people are connected to, and responsible for, their community.
Addressing economic security in the Bay Area is a critical part of helping people thrive, of supporting their wellbeing, and of enabling them to participate in their community.
What do you see as the big barriers you’re trying to overcome in your work?
The big picture in California is that post-recession, it bounced back. Yet there are many, many folks who have been left completely behind. Prosperity has not been shared. And our inequities have been intensified by the growth of the tech sector. This has meant that extreme wealth is being gained with little benefit to the majority of the population— we see homelessness on the rise and in fact the HUD definition of low income in San Francisco is six figures.
We face a myriad of interconnected and steep barriers to economic security: the cost of living, housing, jobs with inadequate wages, gentrification. We’ve had some big and important wins, for example around increasing the minimum wage, but there’s a lot of people out there who are being left out, and the minimum wage increase only gets you so far.
Being relatively new to my position at the Fund, I’ve been in the process of refreshing our economic security portfolio, exploring what the most pressing needs are in our community and where there are gaps in resources, and then exploring how this portfolio might evolve to create a sharper focus on gender and racial equity.
As you think through your foundation’s work, what has been some of the work that you have been most proud of?
The work can feel like an uphill battle. What keeps me inspired is a focus on the longer view, as well as all of the grassroots organizing and power building that goes on every day. And that we get to focus our funding on helping community leaders to build political and civic power.
This resonates with one of our work areas I’m especially proud of— our participation in ReWork the Bay. This initiative brings together funders, workers, advocates, and employers to build an equitable regional economy. It used to be more funder-driven, but in the last few years we’ve grown in some significant areas. One of these is a greater focus on policy and systems change, the other is shifting the power model in our philanthropic approach.
Our structure has mirrored this. We now have an Equity at Work Council that’s made up of non-funder stakeholders from different sectors: economic justice, organizing, workforce development, community college, employers, etc. They are empowered and tasked with setting our funding strategy. So, as funders, we are collectively responding to what they see and what they perceive as the needs. We’re there to work with them.
For me, this epitomizes using our collective resources and power to elevate issues that we all care about and to do it through a true collaboration of funders and non-funders. And, ReWork the Bay has evolved. Not only do we leverage pooled funding, but we also offer public convenings, and collective action to change systems and expand opportunity.
Often, we, as funders, can inadvertently perpetuate inequity. We ask people and organizations that are stretched thin to do free work. As part of ReWork the Bay, we have worked to address this: the members of the Equity at Work Council are given grants to participate; they have their own meetings; they have their own meeting facilitators; and their collaboration is staffed.
The challenges we face are significant and entrenched. We can’t solve them alone. ReWork the Bay provides a path for funders, of any size, to leverage their resources.
How does being a member of Economic Opportunity Funders help you achieve your goals?
Policy-change at the national level has a huge impact on my work, even though it’s not our focus. So, what I appreciate most, and what distinguishes EOF from other groups, is this focus on federal-level policy, and the opportunity and structure to engage in learning around policy issues and developments with peers.
Through EOF, I get to keep up-to-date and to see how funders are responding. It really is very valuable.
Do you have any questions or issues on which you’d like to engage your funder colleagues?
The scope of the problems we face is enormous, and our resources are only so much. So, the question becomes, how do we leverage those resources? No one funder, or philanthropy more generally, can fix the problem alone. We’re trying to make up for the fact that government doesn’t provide the safety net it should. And, we’re in a double bind. We have massive income and wealth inequities that require big policy and systems changes, and, at the same time, there are immediate crises, like the current COVID-19 pandemic, unfolding that require direct service supports.
So, my biggest question is: how do funders navigate these two paths—the short and long-term interventions? How do we balance them? And how can we, in philanthropy, navigate that space together? Not everyone can pull back from direct services—we don’t want to unthread that final, tenuous safety net.
Any useful resources to share?
The resource I want to share is The Choir Book from Justice Funders. This Framework for Social Justice Philanthropy is a practical guidebook for how to approach grant-making, at every stage in the process, through the lens of social justice. I recommend it for all funders.
Thank you so much Padmini for your time and support of our network! If you’d like to reach out to Padmini directly to learn more, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview was completed by Sarah Griffiths, consultant to Economic Opportunity Funders.