The Women's Foundation of California | Investing in Black Women’s Leadership - An Interview with Maya Thornell-Sandifor

Investing in Black Women’s Leadership – An Interview with Maya Thornell-Sandifor

by Allison Cook

Part of the power of the Women’s Foundation of California is our community – the dynamic people who shape and share in our work to advance gender, racial, and economic justice. We are smarter and stronger in what we do because of the many individuals across our network. We want to do more to share their wisdom and experience with a broader audience. This month, we were fortunate to spend some time with Maya Thornell-Sandifor, a former Women’s Foundation of California staffer and Funders Policy Institute alum, who currently works as the Director of Racial Equity Initiatives at Borealis Philanthropy.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am an African American woman who has been working in and adjacent to philanthropy for 20 plus years. I’m currently the Director of Racial Equity Initiatives at Borealis Philanthropy, but I got started at the Women’s Foundation of California. In between those I’ve held almost every kind of role inside and outside of philanthropy. I’ve worked as an evaluator, with public sector grantmaking entities and with the federal government. Most recently, I went to a philanthropy serving organization, Philanthropy Northwest, and pushed that sector to center race and policy and systems level engagement. 

I’m also a mom of two black boys so that is a big part of my identity and shapes all kinds of choices that I make professionally and personally. 

How did your experience with The Women’s Foundation of California shape your work? 

I started in communications, but during my tenure there I got the program bug and was ultimately at the Women’s Foundation of California for nine years years. I attribute my time and tenure in philanthropy to so much of what I learned at the Women’s Foundation of California. Things that are now considered trends in the sector: systems work, investing in women and girls, a participatory and trust based model, those were things that were always a part of the Women’s Foundation. I think about those roots as being very informative to my career trajectory and how I approach my work as a grantmaker.

We’re currently in the process of recruiting for Funders Policy Institute which is a program I know you’ve participated in. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience? 

After four years in Seattle, I missed the Bay and my family here and my husband and I decided to come back home with our children. After making that decision, I pretty quickly got into my role at Borealis Philanthropy and that work is focused nationally. And I found myself wanting to be very engaged in what’s happening in my community and my state. I was trying to figure out how I live into that and that one of the things that was so helpful about doing the Funders Policy Institute. 

It helped me answer the question of “how do I build relationships with colleagues and peers in California to be a part of the change here?” On top of that, I got to reconnect with some folks that I hadn’t seen in a long time and make new relationships with state and local folks. For example, the Akonadi Foundation –  Lateefah Simon and the Young Women’s Freedom Center was one of my first grants ever and now she is running her own foundation and doing all sorts of other great things. It was a really positive thing for me to be involved with the Funders Policy Institute. 

You work in philanthropy and social  justice – can you tell me a little bit about how those two things overlap and contradict themselves?

That’s a big question and I have a lot of thoughts and opinions! I think particularly for an intermediary, like Borealis Philanthropy, you have a sense of the nuances of philanthropy. We’re closer in with social justice to organizations on the ground doing the work and have more insight into what they’re grappling with, and how they think of philanthropy. 

As a grantseeker I’m constantly amazed as how well institutionalized philanthropy maintains status quo behavior and white supremacy practices in terms of who they think is credible and valid, who is an expert, and ultimately who they invest in and also their understanding of how long change takes. I find myself constantly having to restate the case on things like racial equity, systems change, transforming organizations – the level of patience that is required can feel heroic. 

It’s somewhat like even when we see a change in leadership and a philanthropic organization becomes more reflective of community, that status quo behavior persists. One thing that tells me is that diversity alone is not the answer. We really have to constantly question how and why we do the things that we do – practices, policies, cultures, systems, and decision making. But there isn’t that reflection in institutionalized philanthropy of those failures. When we do have some major initiative and it doesn’t work, there isn’t a lot of acknowledgement of that and how we might learn from that and move forward. That self examination and reflection doesn’t happen which is a critical missing step. 

If we are ever to realize our missions, we have to be paying attention to building in the time and space for that reflection to happen authentically and with some accountability.

What does supporting Black women’s leadership mean to you? How do you live out that value in your work? 

Black women are always at the center of the work. When you look at who is at the center of change and who is the most impacted – whether you’re talking about the transgender movement, criminal justice reform, or reproductive justice – it’s Black women. Black women are carrying that load for other communities even though that goes unacknowledged. People rarely connect the dots about how that work benefits them as a queer white man or a cis black man.

From a staff perspective and a grantee perspective what I think about is: where are the Black women and how can I support them now? The majority of our team is Black women. We put a premium on hiring people who have lived experience in addition to more professional expertise and the candidates who rise to the top are black women.

For me in particular because I’m focused on racial equity, I think about the intersectional identities – but centering race. I think it’s important that we constantly make visible that Black women are central to most movements.  And as part of that narrative we have to be explicit about how that benefits all communities that experience oppression. The more that we can share that narrative and be really explicit about it we won’t be burning black women out and slowly (and sometimes quickly) killing them. Instead we’ll be lifting them up, giving them power and that can only result in good things.

Can you tell me about a time that you felt supported (or supported someone else in their work) and what that meant to you?

I always feel lifted by other women of color in philanthropy – I feel a sisterhood that goes almost unspoken. We both call each other in (gently) and have each other’s back in a very tangible way. I know that I can always pick up the phone and get really solid feedback and ideas. I’ve tried to be reciprocal in that. 

At Philanthropy Northwest, I created a pipeline program to get more people of color into the sector and place them in positions in philanthropy. Ten women of color came through that program and to this day – they email me, ask for references, or just to talk it out. I never hesitate to respond to those calls.  I know that people have done that for me and I gotta pay it back.


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