Surina Khan: The Risk, Change, And The Year Ahead

By Emily Katz, Vice President of Public Affairs, Northern California Grantmakers: A conversation with Surina Khan

I asked five foundation executives—private, public, family, tech, small and large—if they’ve taken any special measures to ready themselves for the year ahead. In our third installment, we hear from Surina Khan, CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California, a statewide, publicly supported foundation dedicated to achieving racial, economic, and gender justice by centering the experience and expertise of communities most impacted by systemic injustice. read the interview below. 

EK: Tell me about your appetite for risk right now, if you’re even thinking in those terms.

SK: We have a lot of opportunity and an imperative to continue working to advance gender, racial, and economic justice. So I think it’s risky to keep things going as they are, I think we have to change up in so many different dimensions. What is our imperative to really be bold? It’s risky not to do anything.

EK: How are you thinking about funding in 2020? Are doing anything differently or doing more of the same?

SK: We want to stay the course in our ‘invest, train, and connect’ strategies. That means multi-issue funding for gender justice and training grassroots leaders to be effective public policy advocates. And convening and connecting community leaders and partners across the state.

We’re also adding a culture change strategy. We’ve been funding strategic communications, policy advocacy, and grassroots organizing coalition building. And our theory is, if we add a culture change strategy, through our Culture Change Fund, we can connect and build the capacity of movement leaders and artists and culture makers to accelerate change.

Adding that cultural component, we won’t just be changing the laws, we’ll be making sure that people are acting, behaving, thinking differently when it comes to gender or racial justice or pay equity issues.

How we go about our work is important too. We will continue a trust-based approach to our grant making, taking applications in any form over the phone, by video. Grantees can submit anything they think is useful and they’ve produced whether it’s a series of videos, or a series of op-eds, or a strategy paper. We want to make sure movement leaders are focused on their work and not jumping through a lot of hoops to get resources from us—because we trust them.

Right now there are 550+ graduates from our Women’s Policy Institute, each of whom are connected to thousands of people through their own networks. One has only to do the math to realize that we have the potential to activate millions of people in California towards progressive policy change. As we continue to invest, California will become even more beautiful and equitable through the work of all the community leaders who are part of our network.

EK: What do you imagine might come up in the next year that you’ll be especially well-positioned to deal with?

SK: Our Women’s Policy Institute alums are leaders here in California and across the country. For example, one of our WPI alums Andrea Mercado, is now the executive director of New Florida Majority which is doing incredible work to engage people in civic participation efforts.

Meanwhile, here in California we are a source of hope and inspiration for the rest of the country. We have not only an amazing group in movement leadership, we have strong political leadership, in our governor his partner, who is blazing a trail by identifying herself as the first partner of California. And we have an incredible philanthropic community here in California. When you put all those pieces together you can see that we have been able to advance so much in California: expanding access to abortion, like we did through the Women’s Policy Institute and medication abortion on publicly funded university campuses, increasing access to subsidized childcare, transgender people who are incarcerated being able to change their gender marker and names. That all happened in the last few years right here in California through our Women’s Policy Institute.

I firmly believe it’s because the Women’s Foundation California and all the community leaders that we’ve supported, through grants or through the Women’s Policy Institute training, have left our fingerprints all over the amazing change that we’ve seen in California over the last several decades.

We just announced a partnership with First Partner Jennifer Seibel Newsom and the Governor’s office and The California Endowment to put on California Women Rising Summit, a statewide women’s summit, on June 6th. We’ll  bring together grassroots community leaders, policymakers, business leaders, movement makers, and funders to think about how we can partner together, build community power, and continue to transform California which hopefully will then help transform the country back to where it needs to be.

California has been where the country is now so if it’s true ‘as goes California, so goes the nation,’ then we have hope. California had our anti LGBT moments with Prop 8 and before that the Briggs Initiative in the 70s. We had our anti-immigrant movement with prop 187, our anti-affirmative action moment, we’ve had our celebrity governor. And we came out the other side, in a really good way. So, I hold that as possible for the country. California has, and can lead the way.

EK: Any big bets? It sounds like you’re moving steady.

SK: We’re putting a big bet on culture change. We’ve seen where culture has shifted: we all wear seatbelts in cars now. People aren’t smoking in airplanes and restaurants or even outside much in parks and public spaces. We have marriage equality. So we’ve seen rapid culture shift happen.

We’ve made lots of advancements in gender justice in terms of women’s rights. In the 70s women couldn’t hold credit cards or take on mortgages in our own names. Things have improved, and still, there’s a lot more to be done.

So our big bet is that we can work together with artists, communicators, creatives, and culture makers and get to people’s emotion and heart. From there, we can move from a culture of violence to a culture of safety, from a culture numb-to-people-living-on-the-streets to a culture of housing everybody. We know that we need culture shift to make sure that everybody has a living wage and savings and assets to turn to in retirement years. We believe it’s possible and we’re making the investment to galvanize different communities to be able to make it happen.

EK: What are you most hoping to see from your peers in philanthropy?

SK: I want my peers in philanthropy to invest in gender justice. I think gender gets left off the table way too often, even though we’re in 2020. We hear a lot of larger foundations saying we have to address racial inequality, we have to address economic inequality, and that’s absolutely true. But you can’t address poverty without looking at gender, because right here in California we have the highest poverty rates in the nation despite being one of the wealthiest states in a global economy and the people who are most living in poverty are women of color and their kids. So if you’re going to try to address poverty you have to have a gender analysis.

Whether the issue is education, housing, poverty, or racial justice, I believe that if we center gender, we will come to solutions much faster. I see again and again, that it’s not happening at the level we need it. So I will continue centering gender, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is the strategic thing to do. We will be able to make much greater advancements when people center gender justice and I really believe that in this moment, where there’s a resurgence of authoritarianism—of white nationalism and fascism—that intersectional feminism will be the antidote to the world we want to live in—where we are all safe, healthy and prosperous.

This blog post was originally published by Northern California Grantmakers.

This work is powered by you.

The feminist future we are building together in California is going to be built by all of us sharing our time, our money, and our skills.  Please consider contributing today.

Together We Are Unstoppable.

Sign up here to join our mailing list and receive updates about our programs, partnerships, and more!