Earlier this year, as I was relocating from Washington D.C. to Seattle, I found myself in a hotel room not far from the Capitol that was under siege by insurrectionists. After venturing outside briefly for food earlier in the day, I decided I’d be safest locking myself in my room. That afternoon, then President-elect Biden addressed the nation saying, “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.”
My immediate thought was, yes, it does.
Because America has been and is this AND that.
America is what we witnessed earlier this year with white supremacy and white privilege on full display, including how law enforcement responded to the rioters. And America is its people who have marched and protested peacefully for civil rights and social justice, making our country more free and just decade after decade.
America is this and that.
America is this, where, as I was walking down the street, a white man in town for the election protest told his child no older than four years old that if he sees someone “who looks like that”—referring to me—that his child should stay close to him.
And America is that, where I was selected to lead the Schultz Family Foundation by Sheri and Howard, who recognize all of the talents, skills, and other assets I have to offer, including the distinct perspective I bring as a Black woman.
January 6th reminded us of a simple truth: our systems are broken. It represented part of who we are but too often don’t want to confront. If we are ever to make real progress in America, we must reckon with who we are and who we have been. We can’t rewrite history. We can’t unsee what we’ve witnessed and experienced. And we can’t rest and let things settle as they once were, in a rush to return to normalcy.
Since joining the Foundation as its new president six months ago, I have had the opportunity to immerse myself more deeply in our work. I am very proud of the impact the Foundation has made in communities across the country over the past 25 years, especially for young people and post-9/11 veterans. I look forward to continuing and advancing our work, while also ensuring we are doing everything we can to address the systemic issues that have been at the root of the national decline in upward mobility and felt opportunity, particularly for Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color.
Evolving our strategy and pivoting our work will be a learning process that takes time. The twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism provide a unique opportunity to examine and to reimagine our fractured systems that were, from the start, designed to lift up one group while keeping others down. We have an opportunity to learn from our past, protect our democracy, and create opportunity for those who have been marginalized in our society. We have an opportunity to counter not only the hate and privilege that we witnessed, but also the silent bigotry and racism which walks among us and exists insidiously in our policies and systems.
At the Foundation, we recognize that we are part of America’s past and present and have a responsibility to do more to address racial inequity. As we evolve our strategic vision and responsive giving to address inequality in our country, we are committed to making equity central to our work, with a particular emphasis on racial equity.
We know we can’t do it alone, and we don’t and won’t. Our grantees do the essential work. They’re our partners and the ultimate subject matter experts who help shape our philanthropic strategies, the ones whose data and stories tell us what really works, and the ones closest to the communities we serve. Making an impact. Enacting change.
Early in the pandemic we recognized the need to respond with an equity focus. We partnered with non-profits in Seattle, including El Centro de la Raza, Falis Community Service, and Asian Counseling and Referral Service, to distribute emergency cash quickly to restaurant and service industry workers who had lost income. As trusted community resources with deep roots in the Latinx, African, and Asian and Pacific Islander communities, they were instrumental in connecting The Plate Fund resources to those that needed help the most, including workers who may not have been eligible for government assistance due to their immigration status.
As the pandemic continued into the fall, we partnered with Serve Washington to develop the WA COVID Response Corps, designed to alleviate rising food insecurity needs in hard-hit communities throughout Washington state. By combining our resources with federal and state government funding, the program increased the capacity of local non-profits to help keep our neighbors fed and healthy, while also creating meaningful service opportunities in AmeriCorps for young people whose education and career plans were unfairly upended due to the pandemic.
As we have pivoted to respond to the needs of the COVID crisis, we have recognized that our core purpose of creating opportunity for all young people is more pressing than ever before. Youth often work in entry-level positions—such as frontline jobs in the food service and hospitality industries—and as a result, are more vulnerable to the ups and downs of the economy. We know that the Great Recession of 2008 left this population especially behind, along with BIPOC communities, and we can’t afford to let that happen again; morally and economically, we shouldn’t and can’t.
Through our partnership with grantees such as SkillUp, we’re addressing the dire employment needs America’s youth are facing by expanding access to upskilling opportunities and connecting them with jobs that are relevant to the ever-changing economy. Leveraging a coalition model, SkillUp’s customized digital platform offers a pathway where young people and adults in low wage jobs can identify high-growth careers, short-term training opportunities, and employers that are hiring in their area.
We have also put a sharper equity lens on our veteran’s work. Data suggests that veterans from the junior enlisted paygrades are less likely to take advantage of employment programs than more senior enlisted paygrades or officers. To address this inequity, we are working closely with our veteran partners in the field to tailor programs to the unique needs of the junior enlisted, who are often less experienced and need more support transitioning from the military to civilian life.
We are grateful to our grantees and partners for leading the tough, but necessary work on-the-ground to build a brighter tomorrow, and we know this is just the beginning. We will continue to foster collaboration and invest across sectors to reimagine a future where communities that have been marginalized have equitable access to opportunity, and one where all young people, regardless of their circumstances, can thrive in their communities. In short, our goal should be one where young people become thriving adults—just like, and better than, you and me.
And we will do our part to help realize our common bonds and strengthen our democracy.
The last twelve months has strengthened our resolve to create a better America—one that is truly equitable and just—an America full of opportunity, accessible to all, that results in real and tangible outcomes.
As “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock notes, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
Together, we will go forward.
Tyra A. Mariani