July 14, 2022

Dreaming in Color: Ashindi Maxton

Episode Notes

In this episode, our guest is Ashindi Maxton. She is a co-founder and former executive director of the Donors of Color Network, an organization that offers a philanthropic and political home for high-net-worth donors of color committed to building power for and across communities of color. From racial equity and voting rights to climate justice and income inequality, Ashindi has had her finger on the pulse of where and importantly how we need to do and be better. Join in as we speak with Ashindi on bringing community and confidence to her work, leaning into healing and collective efforts, and demanding accountability and action.

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Episode Transcript

Darren Isom (00:04):

Welcome to Dreaming in Color, a space for social change leaders of color to reflect on how their life experiences, personal and professional, have prepared them to lead and drive the impact we all seek. I'm your host, Darren Isom. This is Dreaming in Color.

Darren Isom (00:17):

Ashindi Maxton is a truly brilliant mind whose genius has been instrumental in tackling everything from climate change to democracy reform, to racial equity and social justice. She's the co-founder and former executive director of the Donors of Color Network, a cross-racial community of donors of color that offers a philanthropic and political home for high net worth donors of color, committed to building power for people of color.

Darren Isom (00:43):

Prior to this role, she worked as an independent strategist and donor advisor, helping organizations such as the Ford Foundation and the Women Donors Network. She has served as the national policy director of the NAACP, the national director of political partnerships for the Service Employees International Union, and the director of research and special projects for the Democracy Alliance. To boot, she was at different points a school principal, a bilingual Spanish teacher for fourth and fifth grade students and a Fulbright Scholar researching race consciousness in young children in the Dominican Republic.

Darren Isom (01:12):

She graduated with her bachelor's degree from Vassar and her master's in public policy from UC Berkeley, and now serves on the boards of the Texas Organizing Project, Way to Win and Vocal USA. She's at the Vanguard of the fight to save our democracy, protect our communities and preserve our planet. And today she joins us for a conversation.

Darren Isom (01:40):

Ashindi dear, it's so good to-

Ashindi Maxton (01:43):


Darren Isom (01:43):

... see you. So good to chat with you. Thank you for making time. Always a pleasure. I'm going to kick it off by throwing it to you. Please give us an invocation.

Ashindi Maxton (01:51):

All right. My early thoughts are one from the random Twitter-verse. You are alive at just the right moment to change everything. And a second, you can't spell anything I think about with that sorry alphabet you have leftover from yesterday. And that is the poet Eve Ewing.

Darren Isom (02:11):

Oh wow.

Ashindi Maxton (02:12):

These are my intro thoughts.

Darren Isom (02:13):

Those are both wonderful thoughts and great openings. And they hit really well. That's a double hitter there. That's perfect. Thank you. So I'll say ashe to that. And I want to kick it off by offering you... I have all these questions on what motivates you? All these things there. But one of the things that really jumps in mind for me is that just to offer you a compliment in starting. You have just a radical graciousness that makes chatting with you just absolutely wonderful and I'm sure working with you as well. And I could ask a painfully sophisticated question about where that graciousness comes from, from a family perspective, from a cultural perspective, from a rearing perspective. But I'll just ask you in short, in the way of Black Twitter, girl, where'd you get that, that radical graciousness? Please do share. Say more.

Ashindi Maxton (03:01):

That is so lovely. I really appreciate it. I really do. I fool people because I definitely think I come off as very warm and I try to be. There's a lot of steel underneath it, which surprises people. So the comment you made about when I'm working with somebody. But the graciousness, I think honestly, it's studying Buddhism. I've been a student of Buddhism for 25 years and the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in particular who just passed. And I think it really is that like the study of oneness that we all inter are, and that we depend and interdependent on one another and nothing is separate from you. And I think if you approach the world in that way, people feel it. You feel that I know that I need you to be in this world and I appreciate that.

Darren Isom (03:50):

No, thank you. I appreciate it as well. And that oneness is real. And I also want to just pull on that, Black girl out here doing Buddhism. Come on now. Tell us a little bit more about that. How'd you get into that?

Ashindi Maxton (04:01):

I did not expect this start. It came from, at some point I lived in the Dominican Republic, right out of college. I did a Fulbright year and it was a lonely time. I was alone a lot. And when I was doing the work, it was in sugar cane plantations with Haitian Dominicans, really harsh conditions, the worst human experiences to see what people were living through, like mothers who had lost their children. And essentially for slavery, people starving, it just... seeing the worst of conditions. And during that time, really in my alone time did a religious survey. I really started reading everything I could about all different religions, Islam, more of Christianity, Judaism, just everything.

Ashindi Maxton (04:44):

And the book that I picked up that sort of spoke to me and made sense of the world in the best way was Peace is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh. And specifically, I think what resonated for me is that Thich Nhat Hanh was a student of war. That he came out of huge conflict, huge trauma, huge suffering and offered this path that was really about how do you interpret all of that suffering and be a part of it, not remove yourself from it, but be a part of it and have a path that's peaceful. And so I think it was in doing that survey that that was the... I think it was specifically finding the teacher who came from the path of engaged Buddhism and engaged activism that spoke to me.

Ashindi Maxton (05:26):

And I've met a number of Black folks along the way who had a very similar experience of like, they needed a religion or a spiritual understanding of the world that both was spiritual, that wasn't a rejection of organized religion, but that also was speaking to our experiences and a path out of them. And Buddhism is about transforming suffering.

Darren Isom (05:46):

Yes. And I was joking. Black Buddhism, I know quite a few. It is definitely a thing.

Ashindi Maxton (05:52):

But it is rare. We are rare people to have met quite a few Black Buddhist.

Darren Isom (05:55):

I guess. Yeah. Not so much in California because California's got everything. But yeah, I hear you loud and clear. No, I appreciate that. And I also appreciate this whole idea of recognizing the spirituality piece and trying to find something that still doesn't over intellectualize it all, but also gives you what you need from a healing perspective. And I feel very lucky in that. I feel like my Christian upbringing was one of Black liberation, which is rare, I realize now. But I definitely appreciate the need to find something that gives you that centering and that piece.

Darren Isom (06:21):

And I'm going to do a hard transition, but still keeping with the same theme of healing to some degree and the self healing. And as I look over your wonderful career, if you will, you've been engaged in a lot of practices and movements that are all about healing to some degree. And so your ability to really look at a broken world and find some healing in that and the power that comes with that. And I would love just for you to start talking or start the conversation talking about your time in politics, in those early years and what you learned there and how in some ways that may have shaped where you went or how you thought about power in the world.

Ashindi Maxton (06:55):

That's a lot. Yes. Okay. I'm happy to do that. So my story of how I stumbled into what I do, which largely has been sort of at the intersection of politics, philanthropy, democracy and race. And somehow I've managed to be playing at that intersection for about the last 15 years, but where I actually started was in education. And that came out of my early experience, going to low income Title I schools, and then getting a scholarship to a private all-girl school in Columbus. And suddenly I was in this school where I was being challenged for the first time. I had no idea what education was supposed to look like. I didn't know it was supposed to be challenging. I didn't even know that the teacher was supposed to stay in the class the whole time. That was different than what I had seen.

Ashindi Maxton (07:38):

And then I read Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities, which made sense to me of why the first schools that I went to less than 50% of people were going to graduate. No one was going out of school to college, but at this private school where I got this scholarship, 100% of people go to college and always have. And obviously there are huge racial disparities in those two experiences. And Savage Inequalities explained how that was structured, how it was a choice to structure something like that into how we do funding of schools and into tax codes. And it changed dramatically my understanding of the systems that I was born into and was affecting my reality and my families.

Ashindi Maxton (08:13):

And so initially I thought the path through that was education. And so I was a teacher. I was really a happy, fourth and fifth grade Spanish bilingual teacher in East Oakland. And I loved doing it, but I realized that the system that I was feeding my kids into was just inherently broken. And it didn't really kind of matter like how good of a teacher I was for those two years, because I was still sending them into a really broken system. And as long as I stayed in education, I never found the angle by which I was like, "If you pull this lever, you fix education." But when I fell backwards into politics, I was like, "Oh, these are the levers." The levers are here by which you change all kinds of things.

Ashindi Maxton (08:52):

And the lived experience of our communities is missing in these rooms. The people who actually believe that the people who clean houses, their kids deserve the same education as the people who ride on yachts in the summer, those people need to have power. And so really my career has been about building power for people who haven't had it or creating paths of access. And a lot of that has had to do with being in philanthropy where the work that gets done is the work that gets resourced. And so making sure that folks who might not otherwise have a path to resources can do that. So we're not empowering people, we're just giving people the resources to do what they were always capable of doing.

Darren Isom (09:31):

I love that story. And particularly, I love this concept of, as you think about the falseness of empowering people, like the people have always had the power, it's just how to give them the space to act out on their power.

Ashindi Maxton (09:41):

Or stop actively oppressing them.

Darren Isom (09:43):

How about that.

Ashindi Maxton (09:44):

Or stop actively keeping them from it, I guess.

Darren Isom (09:44):

How about, literally take your foot off my neck. Is that an option? Right? I do think one of the things I would love for you to chat a little bit about, or just share with us is as you think about the power and opportunity and the genius that exists already in those communities, I feel like looking over your career and all the things you've done, you've had the sixth sense if you will, as it relates to both understanding the most critical issues that we need to be navigating, but also bringing the right people to those conversations in a way that unleashes a whole set of potential. And this, not 100% aligned, but I'm reminded of in my neighborhood, in New Orleans, we had Ms Mary who was like... I think of her now, I didn't think of her then. But she was basically the neighborhood Alain Locke.

Darren Isom (10:28):

And so, I don't think this woman graduated from middle school, maybe, but she was the one that everybody talked to about everything. I remember talking with her about my college decisions or about my first internship. And she was kind of in some ways a broker that understood your talent, understood your skills, understood your importance more than you did, and more than the world did and was able to plug you in in a way that made sense. And so I think of you as a bit of an Alain Locke within the philanthropic world. And I would love for you to talk about, as you look at the various issues, look at the various people, what's that sixth sense that gives you a sense of where we should be playing or where we should be investing or who should be in those conversations?

Ashindi Maxton (11:10):

Yeah. A lot of it is just having imagination about our communities and having the lived experience of being in multiple marginalized groups as a woman, as a Black person, having grown up in low-income schools. All of these identities give me a sense of when there is a threat on the horizon, I'm tuned into it in a really different way than most people in philanthropy who haven't experienced those threats. And so I think when I first got into philanthropy about 15 years ago, everyone I met for the most part, well, one was almost all white, like the rooms that I was in because I was kind of immediately because of a mentor of mine, kind of immediately was working in high net worth philanthropy.

Ashindi Maxton (11:52):

And I remember everyone asked me the same question when I started this first job, which was a place called the Democracy Alliance, which lots of very large donors are working there. But when I first showed up in the office, the question I kept getting asked was, "How did you get here?" People really were mystified at how I had suddenly showed up in this space, because I looked so out of place right away. And then once I realized what kinds of decisions were happening in these rooms where people had no imagination about Black folks, about Latino folks, about Asian folks, other than as widgets you might want to turn to win an election for these kind of generic, progressive values that didn't actually interpret in lived outcomes for people like my cousin who was involved in the criminal justice system early, or family who was born into poverty or uneducated or limiting options in whatever ways.

Ashindi Maxton (12:43):

And so I just had a really basic like, I know how this reality trickles down and then also just blinders off of seeing genius wherever it was. And so one of the things that happened pretty early when they gave me just a little bit of power was that I started wanting to invest in people who looked nothing like the people we were already investing in. So we were already investing in very large organizations, almost all led by white folks, largely white men, all of whom doing race work by the way, all of them.

Darren Isom (13:12):

I want to note the air quotes there.

Ashindi Maxton (13:13):

Yes, for sure. Because you can't hear them, but they're there. All of whom were saying that they were doing racial equity work. And so I was hearing regularly, "We invest in racial equity work. It's just done in these other organizations that happen to be run by white folks." And there was no real sense of irony there at all. So a lot of my radar was simply seeing the genius that was right in front of our faces. It wasn't that I had particular brilliance in finding stars. It was just that I saw the stars in a really different way than people who literally just didn't have experience meeting somebody like a James Rucker who founded Color of Change. When we met James Rucker from Color of Change, this is one of my favorite funder stories.

Ashindi Maxton (13:56):

He was largely self-funded and what he had already done was immensely important. He had already organized thousands of people to get to Jena, Louisiana in that case of the kids in The Jena Six. And people were like, "How did this happen?" And one, he was organizing online, which in 2007 was really still the frontier. And two, he was this Black guy who was not connected to progressive circles, he didn't really want to come to DC and New York and fundraise, he just wanted to do liberation work. But what he'd already done was so effective. And so I was plugged in because one, he was working on an issue that mattered to me. And two, when I met him, his genius was super obvious to me. But when I brought him to the people I worked with, they were like, "This is not a real organization." And the Catch-22 of, "He can only get as big as he can self-fund," was just... it was so obvious and the potential was so there, it was so clear.

Ashindi Maxton (14:53):

So for me, it was a really important story and the genesis of why I've stayed where I am doing what I'm doing, that ultimately we were successful getting the umbrella organization of Color of Change into the Democracy Alliance portfolio. At the time I think it was a $500,000 a year organization, it's now I think a 20 something million dollar a year organization. So it now would fit anybody's criteria of a real organization.

Darren Isom (15:16):


Ashindi Maxton (15:16):

The potential was never in doubt for anyone who was really looking. So I would say it's a matter of both lived experience and then just having radar that are tuned really differently to the issues that matter to my folks. Same thing with all my voting rights work. If voting rights is a theory to you, you'll do one set of things. Which one of the things I saw was white men with a lot of money wanted to invest in legislation in Washington, DC. And organizations led by other white men who were really smart about the legal battles that needed to be fought. And meanwhile, what I was saying was you can't actually change anything if you don't organize people to know that this is their issue. And if you don't talk to the people who are most affected about how it affects them, campaign finance reform, same thing, climate change, same thing, that you get very ineffective policies if you don't see the communities that are actually meant to power the broad change that we need to see.

Darren Isom (16:12):

Yeah. And I think that there's something really powerful there and just this whole sense. And I think it speaks to just your skill as well and understanding, one, having a sense of belonging in all rooms to some degree. Also, it means that you understand from an issue perspective, your sense of belonging in that issue as well and those that are relevant to that conversation. I do want you to talk a little bit more about the Climate Funders Justice Pledge. Because I think that particularly the climate conversation is one that is just so divorced from…

Ashindi Maxton (16:41):

Effectiveness. Let's start there.

Darren Isom (16:42):


Ashindi Maxton (16:43):

Just effectiveness.

Darren Isom (16:45):

I'm just constantly like, "Y'all, couldn't find one Black person to talk to in that conversation? Y'all realize that Black folks are on this earth too, right?" So there's just a disconnect between climate justice conversation, the climate change conversation is just so pronounced. It's admirable, your ability to find some sense of place and belonging. Because yes, start with effectiveness and talk a little bit more about that whole work.

Ashindi Maxton (17:08):

Well, first I want to say something about the sense of belonging, because this is very, very important to my career. And it's something that I really like to pass on to people. I don't usually find a sense of belonging in the most powerful rooms that I'm in. And therefore it's been very important to me to know who my validators are and they're not usually in those rooms. And so I can be comfortable in those rooms. I can go in with a strong sense of myself, but I don't get my validation in those rooms. And so it's been really important to me to know, "I care a lot what Darren Isom thinks of the work I'm doing, because I respect him. We are trying to do the same thing. He sees the same things I do."

Ashindi Maxton (17:45):

And in other places like, "I'm doing the work here." And this person is probably not going to like me and I make a lot of people uncomfortable. And again, I think I come across warm, but you will find a lot of people who I've made uncomfortable. And I have to be comfortable with that because I'm in rooms that other people don't get to be in and I feel I have to take that very responsibly.

Darren Isom (18:09):

Before you jump, I just want to make space for that because I think that is a really powerful statement and one that we don't acknowledge, so many of us who work in this space. The fact that you enter rooms and you're there because you have to be there. You're there representing the community. I joke all the time. I remember when I went on my first interview with a white company, back when I worked in the private sector. It happened, it was a thing. I don't know who scrubbed my Google profile, but I worked in the private sector.

Ashindi Maxton (18:31):

It doesn't show up?

Darren Isom (18:32):

It doesn't show up at all. Thank you, whoever that was. But I remember going in for an interview and my grandmother was coaching me on the phone before the interview, made it. She's like, "You have to walk into the place like you own it. Because if you don't act like you own that place, you'll never make it past the white gaze of the white receptionist, literally." And so there's something to be said about how, when I talk about belonging, you're supposed to be there. Literally, that's your job, that's what you went to school for. There are people outside of that room rooting for you and you have to represent them in that room. But I love just reminding folks that, you are not there to get any... you're not trying to be friends with these people. You don't need their validation. You have your validation from outside up and that's the validation that's most important. And I think that we all have a role to play in this movement. And so I appreciate your just articulating that because I think that's a really powerful statement that matters so much.

Ashindi Maxton (19:26):

We can have a whole hour-long conversation just on that, but let me move on to the Climate Funders Justice Pledge-

Darren Isom (19:29):

Yeah, please.

Ashindi Maxton (19:32):

... because we have limited time. So the Climate Funders Justice Pledge is a really good example of that. We got to meet our amazing climate campaign director, Danielle Deane, and I got to meet with, I want to say 37 of the top 40 climate funders. And that is a rare kind of access. And we were working with the decision makers, the people who are making the biggest decisions about climate funding in the United States. And we were talking to them about racial equity. So I was doing this in my just immediate previous job as executive director of the Donors of Color Network. I can now call myself a retired ED-

Darren Isom (20:04):


Ashindi Maxton (20:05):

... recovering for the moment. But because I was representing a cross-racial community of high net worth donors, they took our meetings. And we got the access to have conversations about racial justice in their funding that most people just can't have. In fact, when we were hiring PR firms to do this work, I can't remember if it was two or three. Two or three different firms passed up working with us on this because they did not want to be on the wrong side of these funders.

Darren Isom (20:33):


Ashindi Maxton (20:36):

And Danielle was constantly marveling at the fact that I was willing to alienate, for example the Ford Foundation or other folks who were actually very important to us and allies that we wanted to have, but if they were going to be alienated by us asking them hard questions, I wasn't going to not take advantage of being in the room. So the climate movement, one, has been incredibly ineffective and that's the starting point. The starting point for me isn't racial justice, it's that we all live on this planet and we have to save it. And the people who have been funding climate work have failed us. And they failed us by being blind to the power they needed to build from the most effective communities. And in not building that power, they failed to move the ball in all the ways they needed to move it.

Ashindi Maxton (21:21):

So what we asked for in this pledge was for each of these funders to commit to funding a floor of 30% of their resources to organizations led by and accountable to communities of color. And the wild thing is all of the justifications people had for not doing it, that they believed were tied to strategy. And deep in their hearts they believed that it was tied to strategy. And so they would say like, "Oh, we really applaud what you do." Nobody would ever disagree with what we were saying. Sort of like, "Oh, we really believe in what you're doing, but we are just about reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. We're trying to win the carbon in the atmosphere battle."

Ashindi Maxton (22:01):

And it was like, "How do you think you get the laws and the policy change you need, if you don't have the public will? And how do you get the public will, if you don't engage the part of the public that is the most affected, that's lived through Katrina, that's lived through Maria, that's had people drown in their neighborhoods, paper towel thrown at their faces? How do you win without those people?"

Darren Isom (22:23):

You can't win. You ain't got the votes.

Ashindi Maxton (22:25):

You can't win. You ain't got the votes. So it's really having the conversations to help people, very smart people, I just want to be clear, really smart people who are missing a part of the puzzle because it's an invisible part to them. A lack of imagination about our communities. Again, without that lived experience and decision making roles, it's very difficult. But I also want to shout out the many funders who did immediately get it and who led and took bold action. And there really were a number of them, and who organized their peers. But they're just taking advantage of the position to actually have these hard conversations and then give people a metric of everyone has the right hook about racial justice. Especially when we started this campaign in 2020, everyone had the words. But we're like, "Here's what it looks like when it lands in a budget." And you can measure it and you can say, "Did we meet it? Or did we not?"

Darren Isom (23:14):

Yeah. Can we go back to this point? Because you've brought this up a few times and I think it's worth stopping and talking about for a little bit, a lack of imagination. And I'm reminded of one... I may have shared this story with you at some point. My great grandfather? Yeah. My paternal grandmother's father was gay and this is the '30s in New Orleans. So he divorced his wife or separated from his wife. I don't know if they ever formally divorced.

Ashindi Maxton (23:34):

That's well that you ever learned that.

Darren Isom (23:35):

Oh yeah. In New Orleans you know all these stories, they just get passed down over coffee and cocktails casually. And his partner was Cuban American and they lived in New Orleans in the French Quarter, in the French Quarter and Marigny. And New Orleans being New Orleans, the family joke was that the brownest person at the table was the Cuban American. The brownest person at this Black table was the Cuban American. I'd never met any of these people, but my grandmother would always bring up my great grandpa Carlo because he would always say whenever there was some degree of doubt or some degree of insecurity like, "Are we American? Isn't that what Americans do, bold things? Start acting like an American." So it's like this immigrant reminding this table of Black Americans to be like an American.

Darren Isom (24:17):

And that speaks to me this idea of the power of imagination, the power of really being able to see a world that doesn't exist and being committed to that world. That, where did they go? When did folks stop dreaming? And so I think there's something to be said about imagination from both a destination point, but also just imagination, people being unable to understand their countrymen in a way that doesn't fit this narrow narrative that they have of those folks in their roles and their cultures. And so really, there's something to be said about proximity gives you a sense of imagination because you've seen all these different things. But I would love just from a story perspective for you to share, as you think about the role of imagination in driving doable solutions or the role of imagination in really driving us from a work perspective and an outcomes' perspective.

Ashindi Maxton (25:16):

I love that. I love this question and I have so many thoughts. One of them is I used to go to spoken word events at The Starry Plough in Berkeley and I once was with a friend and during a break in the spoken word. And he was outside talking to an unhoused man who was talking about the street we were on and what he saw on the street. And what he said was, "Everything you see right now, somebody imagined it before it was built, the light post, the street sign, the building, this window." And my friend was just sort of on a smoke break, just listening to this guy. And it just struck me as the truest thing I'd ever heard, that like everything had to be imagined before it existed for the most part, unless God made it happen himself or herself.

Ashindi Maxton (26:10):

So it's really stayed with me. And I think about it from the strategy and a spirit perspective. From the perspective of the country, like we are in, I think this Adrienne Maree Brown maybe is the person who says this. So like we're in a battle for the imagination of this country. And I really do believe it's a battle of imagination. Like it is, there are people who can only imagine it the way it has been, this deeply colonized, deeply unequal, deeply divisive way that the country has been, that's benefited one group of people over another. And there's a fear, a terror really of people losing their privilege and of it being a different way. And to some extent we're getting very predictable results.

Ashindi Maxton (26:51):

And I think on the other side, we haven't painted the picture of how beautiful it really could be on the other side. And that there's a win-win all around in a society in which we have more justice. And I think that the thing that gets us there is actually seeing it or being able to describe it to one another. And one of the things that makes me the saddest is that if you read science fiction, it is so many iterations on the apocalypse. We can iterate on the apocalypse, especially now as we face climate catastrophe, we get better and better at iterating on the apocalypse. And why don't we iterate on what it looks like to save ourselves and on the beauty that could come with that.

Ashindi Maxton (27:30):

So for me, it's like you win policy battles both by having imagination about all the communities that you need to have, which means you actually need to have that lived experience in the room. Do not think there is any shortcut to that. You need people who have imagination about all of us and how we all are a part of it. But I also think we need this imagined future in which we win together and we have to tell that story in a really different way. And that's not soft. I was a scientist before I was anything else and I think I still think with a very scientific mind. To me, it's science. If you study social change, if you study political change, somebody painted the picture of the reality, like manifest destiny. That was somebody's imagination and we live in it. So what is the alternative to that?

Darren Isom (28:14):

Yes. 100%. And I was thinking about, one, this idea of this imagination that we're living in someone's imagination as the person noted. And so a wonderful exercise, if you ever do it, is to think about who's the oldest person you know or ever knew growing up, and how different your life story is from that person. And for me, it would be my great aunt Ella who was like born in 1890. She was my Sunday school teacher growing up. And I can only imagine, this is a woman who literally, when she was a child, I'm sure most adults around her were not just born into slavery, but were actual adults when slavery ended. And here's this little free Black kid going to school with white people asking, "Really, Jonah was in a whale for three days Aunt Ella , really?" That was a thing. Come on now. Let's talk about that for a second.

Ashindi Maxton (29:00):

I really believe that story. Actually, really, I can imagine it.

Darren Isom (29:01):

Listen. And this is the side conversation. This is where I'm thankful for it. I joke all the time about my liberatory Black religion, Black liberation ideology. And man, they all looked at me and said, "The Bible is a book of parables. What does it mean to be in darkness for three days?" And so, I didn't know literalism was a thing until I went to college. I was like, "Wait, y'all actually believe that literally happened? Oh, wow. Now I understand why people are a little confused." But I do think there is something to be said about if we're living in a world that she imagined to some degree. What are we creating for those that are coming after us? What are we imagining now that others will live in? What good things are we imagining? Because we're imagining a lot of bad things.

Ashindi Maxton (29:42):

We're imagining all the bad things, all the bad things. And these poor, Gen Z kids who have nothing but post-apocalyptic fiction to imagine their futures.

Darren Isom (29:56):

And to live in. No, that's powerful as well. And I think there is something to be said. One of my favorite Octavia Butler quotes, which I may have quoted several times before with you is, "There's nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns." I think that science fiction world, that means you have to go out and find new suns. And I think that there's ways that we can just throw some new suns up there. How do you cast new suns to live under? And that's the power of imagination.

Ashindi Maxton (30:18):

Oh, can I respond to that?

Darren Isom (30:20):


Ashindi Maxton (30:20):

I actually have a thought.

Darren Isom (30:21):

Yes. Please go ahead. Yes, go ahead.

Ashindi Maxton (30:23):

One of the joys .

Darren Isom (30:24):

Girl, this is your show... What are you talking about?!Yes.

Ashindi Maxton (30:27):

One of the joys of my career... it's been a hard career in a lot of ways. But one of the great joys has been that mostly I've been able to build new models. And so I've rarely had a job that anyone had before me. And generally what I get to do is come in and build something that didn't exist before. And the Donors of Color Network I would say is my proudest of these things. And it feels like a new sun. Like philanthropy looked a certain way when I got here 15 years ago and I spent a lot of my career trying to reform it from inside. And I'm proud of the things that I built along the way, like the Youth Engagement Fund and New Media Ventures. These are projects that are about moving money in ways that build equity and in ways that build asymmetrical advantage. And those are institutions inside of traditional philanthropy.

Ashindi Maxton (31:13):

But I think at some point, like pairing with Urvashi Vaid, who I know you've also interviewed. This was Urvashi's imagination to say there could be a cross racial community of high net worth donors leveraging their power together. And that looks completely different than anything that existed. Many very powerful people told us they did not believe we could do this. And I remember actually a Black man, a very powerful foundation leader who was a Black man said to Urvashi and I, while sitting in his office, "What is there in your research that makes you believe there could be a cross racial donor network?" And we were like, "Well, there's nothing in the research because it hasn't been done. But we believe this is what needs to exist and so we're going to build it."

Ashindi Maxton (31:52):

And we have, I'm super proud of it and thank you for your support of it, Darren. But I think it looks like saying, there's no path here, but there is a new thing to build and believing in that. And it's a joy, this community, although I just left as executive director. But the community that exists here is based in joy, it's based in beauty, it's based in an asset based approach to communities of color. If you look at the look and feel of Donors of Color, it's colorful, it's vibrant. Our conferences are full of music and great food and people connecting in strong ways. Our tagline is joy, power and community. And so for me, this is my strongest example of what it looks like to say, "I'm not happy with what's here, but I see this new possibility. I'm going to find my people," in this case, the Urvashi's and the earlier folks. Or Urvashi found me.

Darren Isom (32:46):

You got to find your squad. You got to find your squad.

Ashindi Maxton (32:48):

Find your people. And I do believe in this example of we can build something very different than what we've seen.

Darren Isom (32:56):

Oh, completely. And I do think there's something to be said as well about the need to be able to see something that hasn't been there before. And I'm reminded... I'm sorry. I'm just feeling Octavia Butler today. Another wonderful quote of hers is, she was asked, "Why aren't there more San Francisco, Black writers?" And she responded, "Because there aren't. What we don't see we assume can't be, what a destructive assumption." And I think there's something to be said about seeing just because something doesn't exist doesn't mean it can't happen. And so to me, in some ways that's Black radicalism, being able to envision something, knowing that it doesn't exist, but knowing that it can happen, despite what others say. And that's something that I think you brings to the table in a powerful way that I really appreciate.

Ashindi Maxton (33:40):

Oh, thank you, Darren.

Darren Isom (33:42):

What were you about to say? You were about to jump in.

Ashindi Maxton (33:44):

I was thinking about this concept of sort of if you're born into a world that doesn't fit you it's because you were made to build a new world.

Darren Isom (33:54):


Ashindi Maxton (33:54):

I don't remember who that was. And I stopped myself because I was like, "Oh, it's kind of a cliche." But it's not a cliche to everyone. And I really do believe that there's a reason that the Movement for Black Lives led by not just Black women, but queer Black women. And I'm like, yeah. Because nothing in the identity that these people have fits the world as it exists. And if they get free, everyone is free. It's really true. And so it is kind of one of the joys of being Black or having any marginalized identity is that I do think it frees your imagination in a way, because you're very unattached to what is there and it makes you dream about what else could be.

Darren Isom (34:32):

Yeah. And I think there's something to be said. I see all the time about there's something to be said about when you're not really comfortable anywhere you're comfortable everywhere. And so you have to be able to create that sense of belonging, that sense of space. You've mentioned Adrienne Maree Brown earlier. One of her quotes that's really been on my mind more recently as we're living through... we're living through a moment right now. I don't know. We're going to look up and realize what a moment we were living through. But she wrote, I think, "It is healing behavior to look at something so broken and see the possibility and wholeness in it." And for me, that's a way of turning our chaotic moment on its head and seeing it as a way of finding healing and finding wholeness.

Ashindi Maxton (35:12):

That's beautiful.

Darren Isom (35:13):

And so that one is what I'm reading to myself every morning as I start the day, because the world's a mess for real. But that's why we're here.

Ashindi Maxton (35:20):

That's really beautiful. If you can believe it, I was actually just listening to Adrienne's podcast an hour ago. And specifically it was an interview between her and her sister and someone asked her sister, "What do people not know about Adrienne that you wish that they knew?" And she said, "It is how she truly lives in awe and wonder and silliness." And I know Adrienne, she's a friend, she's stayed with me at my house. And I hadn't really thought about her that way even. And she built a podcast called How to Survive the End of the World because she really believes, this is-

Darren Isom (35:55):

I mean-

Ashindi Maxton (35:55):

... where we're headed. And-

Darren Isom (35:56):

... listen.

Ashindi Maxton (35:56):

... she is... It's actually something we argue about. Like this whole thing about iterating on the apocalypse. So I'm always like, "Adrienne really, could you imagine that we save ourselves?" And she's like, "Yeah, I really don't see that." She's like, "I don't see it." And so her work really is about like, "Okay, how do we survive this? What's on the other side of it?" And then to hold all of that with silliness and awe and all the other things that she humanly feels. But it was really nice to have her sister say that's the headline for her of this woman who thinks about the end of the world.

Darren Isom (36:26):

Yeah. Well I think that ultimately the silliness and the awe is the container for all of that. It's the best container for all of it.

Ashindi Maxton (36:34):

The best container.

Darren Isom (36:36):

Well, we are well over our time, this has been wonderful. I really enjoy chatting with you. Thank you so much for the time. And I wish you all the best as you continue do amazing things, as you continue to be what we need right now. And I offer you just space for healing.

Ashindi Maxton (36:52):

Thank you, Darren.

Darren Isom (36:53):

Okay. Talk soon.

Ashindi Maxton (36:54):


Darren Isom (36:58):

My maternal grandmother Lucinda, had the distinction of being my only grandparent who was not from New Orleans. A distinction that was a very important one for me as a child growing up there. When I was much younger, I thought of her as being from Northern Louisiana or somewhere in that vastness that was the world across the lake, as New Orleanians describe anything outside of the city, be it Marrero or Marrakesh. It wasn't until high school that I bothered to look at a map and realized that faraway place was just two parishes over and actually further south than New Orleans. On occasion, we'd escape the city to her hometown in Lafourche Parish, the country, as we called it. And spent the day visiting her sisters who still lived there in small houses that set across from sugar cane fields. My auntie, Dorothy's house was my favorite.

Darren Isom (37:40):

The youngest of the three daughters, My auntie, Dorothy was dark with the head of cotton candy like white hair, that she pulled back in a big, messy bun that she would undo and redo over and over as she sat and laughed with my grandma. They would sit and enjoy coffee and whatever sweets auntie Dorothy had on hand and there were always ample sweets on hand. A true bounty of homemade cakes and cookies and candies. My auntie Dorothy was also a quilter and on some Saturdays we'd catch her in the middle of a quilting session, cutting and piecing together the various scraps of fabric she'd collected over a lifetime. She'd show us the quilts design meticulously sketched out on a sheet of paper. And after my grandmother would tell her how beautiful the design was, auntie Dorothy would warn her, "Well, that's the design dear, but you know it's going to change once I start putting it together."

Darren Isom (38:20):

And sure enough, when we return some months later, the piece was always different from the design, as she was inspired by an extremely bold print that just had to be brought into the mix, or she came across some scraps of a print that was so beautiful that it needed to be celebrated. Despite the changes, the actual quilt was always far more beautiful than the quilt she'd initially designed. My conversation with Ashindi reminded me of the brilliantly talented quilters that exist in the social sector, who so skillfully and patiently piece together our often disparate narratives into a solid and compelling liberation story that is more balanced and beautiful than anything we could have ever imagined.

Darren Isom (38:55):

I'm reminded of the King quote. "In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an escapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny, whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality." A single garment of destiny that's ours to shape.

Darren Isom (39:32):

Y'all that's a wrap. And while the episode is finished, the work continues. Thank you for tuning in and listening generously to Dreaming in Color. A Bridgespan supported StudioPod media production. A special shout out to our show producer, the wonderful Teresa Buchanan and our show coordinator, Nicole Genova. And a huge thank you to my ever brilliant Bridgespan production team and family Cora Daniels, Michael Borger, Christina Pistorius and Britt Savage. Be sure to subscribe and leave a rating and review wherever you listen to your favorite podcast.

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