In this episode, we sit down with F Javier Torres-Campos, an anti-racist philanthropic leader committed to liberated and self-determined futures for all people. His work centers on caring for people and community while investing in imagination, narrative change, and power building. Most recently, Javier served as the director of Thriving Cultures at Surdna Foundation and is a founding design team member of both the BIPOC Storytelling Fund and the Constellations Narrative and Culture Fund. He also serves as a funding and evaluation partner for the Mosaic Network and Fund at the New York Community Trust.
Join us as Javier shares how his family legacy and lived experiences have shaped his unique approach to philanthropic work, his dreams for the future of arts funding, and how a young coworker inspired him to change his leadership style.
Darren Isom (00:01):
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, and I invite you to join me in these candid kitchen-table conversations where together we celebrate these leaders' ingenuity, are inspired by their wisdom and wit, and learn how collectively we can all strive to do and be better. This is Dreaming in Color.
Javier Torres-Campos is an anti-racist philanthropic leader, committed to liberated and self-determined futures for all people. His work centers on caring for people and community while investing in imagination, prototyping capacity, and power building. Most recently, Javier served as the director of thriving Cultures at Surdna, overseeing a portfolio dedicated to investing in Black, Indigenous, and people of color to practice racially just systems and structures with their communities and build a more just world. Javier's a founding design team member of both the BIPOC Storytelling Fund and the Constellations Narrative and Culture Fund, and he serves as a funding and evaluation partner for the Mosaic Fund and Network at the New York Community Trust. Most importantly, he has a brilliant mind and is one of my favorite partners in good trouble, and it's a joy to talk with him.
Hello, Javier. Thank you for making time today. Great to see you.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (01:13):
Great to see you too.
Darren Isom (01:14):
Really excited to be chatting with you today. As you know, true to Jesuit tradition, blame New Orleans, I like to start things off with a bit of an invocation and I think you have some things for us.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (01:22):
I wanted to start by connecting two quotes, the first from bell hooks and the second from Adrienne Maree Brown. So from bell hooks, "To be truly visionary, we have to root our imagination and our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality." And from Adrienne, "My vision is changing our how more than seeing clearly our what. I see a how where we are all much more comfortable with change and with our personal power to change conditions. Some people are comfortable believing in heaven, in socialism, or in someone else's thinking. That's never quite worked for me. I learn experientially. I so far am only convinced that change is divine and constant. Octavia Butler, the Black science fiction writer said, “Belief initiates and guides action, or it does nothing at all."
Darren Isom (02:17):
Wow. So you're out the door with, you got bell, you got Adrienne, you got Octavia. Man, that's the way to kick things off. Love it. Thank you. And hopefully we get to dig a little bit deeper into some of those quotes a little bit later as well. So I want to just kick things off from my end. I think so much of our future stories depends on our origin stories. I know that your family was really instrumental in the worldview you've developed, particularly as it relates to shaping your sense of activism and the importance of activism. So I would love to start by giving you some space just talk about what it was like to come from a family of activists and what does that activism or how has that activism shaped your perspective on the role of activism and life and social justice and success in general?
F. Javier Torres-Campos (02:56):
I am the third child of two Puerto Rican immigrants, and I am the first in my family ever born outside of the island of Puerto Rico. Both my brother and sister were born there. My mother is one of 16, my father was one of eight. Each of those aunts and uncles had at least three children, so I grew up with a very large extended and yet close family over the years.
From the time I was six to the time I was 16, my parents made sure that I was connected to our roots. They made sure that every Christmas and New Years and every summer I visited. So for three months out of the year, I spent time on the farm where my mother grew up on the south side of Puerto Rico, and having the opportunity to see those two different worlds because the town where I grew up in was incredibly affluent, incredibly white, somewhat on the verge between suburban and rural, more and more over time, becoming more suburban and central Massachusetts.
And I think some key messages that I received as a young person really reminded me that I had to find my own way. My parents were always really clear that it was important to stay connected to our culture and to not lose sight of that in the face of discrimination in the town and the school where I grew up. I'll never forget that on the first day of going to the school bus, my brother and sister and I arrived, and while my sister and I are incredibly translucent, my brother has more pigment and melanin in his skin. But the kids at the school bus ended up throwing rocks at us and making clear at an early stage that we did not belong. My parents though, having come from an activist background, fighting for independence in Puerto Rico before coming to Massachusetts, for my father to go to graduate school and eventually work for the state, my mom after that day ended up going door by door knocking, talking to parents and making clear that any abuse of her children would not be allowed.
Darren Isom (04:51):
Mom wasn't having it.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (04:52):
She was not at all. My mother jokes that when they first moved to Massachusetts in the '70s, that because of their activism in Puerto Rico, the FBI used to tap their phones. I also say that some of that is fable. I think in all families, we mix the truth with what we believe, and that's just part of the cultural journey. So that background really reminded me at every step of my career, my voice was important to be heard and that I needed to make sure that I was sitting at the tables where power was and that I was fighting for justice for those whose voices are not typically heard and for those who are abused and marginalized by society. And that has been sort of a through point in my entire life.
Darren Isom (05:32):
Such a compelling origin story. I would love for you just to share a little bit more. I think one of the things that I've heard you speak on before, which is really powerful, is this idea of having a strong community grounding, giving you a sense of place and space, but at the same time finding yourself in rooms where you didn't have that sense of belonging and having to create that sense of belonging. You talked just earlier about these stories we tell ourselves, some of them based in fact, some of them based in just stories itself. I mean, I believe all the time a story is a story, right? It's there for a reason. And I joke all the time as well that the truthfulness of a story is completely irrelevant. What are you trying to get out of it? What's the lesson there to be learned, right? Sometimes the stories have to change and make sure that lesson is learned.
But I'd love for you to chat a little bit more about how living between worlds, or navigating different worlds, you were able to create your own world or your own reality and how that reality has served you as you move through life.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (06:22):
The piece that I think was important for me to recognize as an adult, as a young person, I remember going to Puerto Rico and being what I call the most translucent or white of my family and being the only one ever born outside of the island of Puerto Rico. My aunts and uncles with good intention would remind us of the fraught history between Puerto Rico and the United States and would call me the American one and would call me the blanquito, the white one, because most of my family, Darren, looks like you when I go home.
Darren Isom (06:50):
And just for folks at home, my melanin is poppin’.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (06:56):
Get it, yes. I remember this story growing up where my mother was teased because as one of 16 who married another fair-skin Puerto Rican, her brothers and sisters would tell her, "You ruined our race because you lightened the next generation's skin." And so there's something about the combination of those stories and experiences and the clear experiences that I had growing up in Holliston, Massachusetts, that I didn't belong anywhere.
It wasn't until my early twenties when I met another Panamanian American woman who's as translucent as I am and had a very similar upbringing. But she happened to be an artist that found a path to process that sense of not being or belonging anywhere through her artwork. And what she found and what I learned in conversation and through her artwork was that she identified as an amphibian, as somebody who knew how to breathe and operate underwater and somebody who knew how to breathe and operate on land, but recognizing that sometimes we have bear friends and sometimes we have fish friends. And those bear friends at times are eating our fish friends. And we have to live and operate in a world where we reconcile that in some way.
And so I think that has translated a lot to my worldview of the importance of making home where you are and finding home in yourself because the only constants are going to change. And there's really no certainty in life that we should be holding onto beyond the certainty of ourselves, our history, our culture, our lineage, and the beliefs of what we want for tomorrow.
Darren Isom (08:26):
It's beautiful. I appreciate the sense of navigating a lack of belonging by creating a sense of belonging everywhere, right? I joke all the time that I think generationally as a Gen Xer, I'm Gen Xer age myself here, I like to call us the Sesame Street generation. We call us the forgotten generation or between generation. We're the Sesame Street generation. We're literally that generation that they set us down in front of Sesame Street and we thought the world was normal. The Sesame Street world was normal when that world was quite radical.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (08:52):
Darren Isom (08:53):
So we grew up thinking all these things from kindness, the importance of music and the arts, they were revolutionary at the time, but we grew up thinking those things were normal and we created our own reality that was a beautiful one and how we're continuing to live into that reality in hopes that we'll bring others along. And so this idea of creating reality becomes really powerful and important. So I love that point.
I do want to push a little bit more on this community piece because you talk about how much your community has shaped your perspective in the world, navigating the various communities as well. I think there's also something there about nurturing the love that comes from that community and using love as a nurturing force to drive impact. We both love Mother hooks and you quoted her as well to start the conversation. I would love to start talking a little bit about her and particularly how leaders in the space can really approach this work from a space of love and care, nurturing that community connection, nurturing that sense of community responsibility to really drive kind of love and care and healing in the work and in life in general.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (09:57):
Darren, in my work, what I learned really quickly because I didn't know that I necessarily as a young person belonged anywhere, I spent a lot of time traveling. My career has taken me across 48 states, three US territories. I have driven thousands and thousands of miles across this country in ways that some people could only dream of. And it's been a great privilege to do that in my career. But the opportunities that allowed me to do that were really about confronting the challenging legacies of philanthropy in the sector that I was working in and recognizing that even though we weren't always set up for success with the resources, the staffing, and the existing relationships or networks, that there are still human ways through love and connection to transform what's possible in our work.
And so a clear example for me was when I arrived at ArtPlace America, there was a lot of critique about the work that had been done. Good, bad, ugly, no judgment there. And so for me, I recognized through my early work that unless you sit down in front of someone and you break bread with them and you make time to listen and care about their personal story and then be able to look them in the eye and say, "No, I mean you. And I'm accountable to you and here's how you can hold me accountable," even in these awkward power dynamics of the sector in which we work, that's where transformation really begins at that increment between two humans deciding to change their way that we will interact and engage with each other.
And so there's a lot of conversations I had about love at that national scale as I was doing the work because I saw how my willingness to sleep three or four hours a night, to travel three states in one day, to eat food that I was allergic to and to listen to all of the stories that people wanted to share with me. When I left ArtPlace America, we had completely transformed that portfolio through those relationships and through those moments in coffee shops where all of a sudden we were seeing applications that were coming in from folks that never could have imagined receiving a half a million dollar award to try to change their community in their own vision, to pull community together through conversations of love and healing after everything that's been done generationally to marginalized communities.
So I've seen examples of that every single day. And it's also one of the things I'm most grateful for in the work that I do, is that so many of the relationships of our partners have become personal ones. I can travel to almost every state in this country and always have a place to lay my head. It is because of those accountable and loving conversations and ways in which we continue to reach out to each other and hold each other's hands even virtually, that those relationships are able to exist. And I think love persists in the work.
Darren Isom (12:39):
I do want to give you some credit here. I think that part of that is definitely your ability to have the right conversations with folks, but also I think it's something to be said about entering those conversations from a place of love. And so we talk all the time about community engagement and importance of engagement with the community. We don't talk as much about the importance of engagement with the community from a place of love as opposed to a place of critique. And the number of folks who are working with communities that they don't love and don't appreciate and what comes out of that can be more problematic. They actually don't engage, trust me. They'll prefer that you stay away.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (13:07):
For sure. I think one of the other pieces here is I've always been a misfit in philanthropy. I am not good at biting my tongue and I haven't been afraid of being able to be transparent about my own complicity in the work and participation in philanthropy and the contradictions that exist in the work that we do. I think that kind of honesty, even though it's not always pretty, is really important to communicate to folks that they can be honest with you. One of the informal criteria that I've talked about as well with all of the partners that I've had for years is I've always said, “If you're not willing to cuss me out or snatch my wig, then we can't work together because you're leaning into a power dynamic that I don't subscribe to. And that while I recognize it's real and it's real for many people, at the end of the day, I'm just a human like anybody else.” And so I think that because of that approach, that combination of honesty and intention with love has made my work different than what I've seen others do.
Darren Isom (14:01):
One hundred percent. I do wonder how much of that is a result of the fact that our worlds are in some ways, I wouldn't say oxymorons, but they're definitely in some ways contradictions, right? So we had to learn at a very early age how to navigate contradictions effortlessly and seamlessly because we are contradictions. What early experiences in some ways gave you a level of comfort with telling the truth and seeing through with the truth and just being comfortable with that truth and being comfortable with those contradictions and how that shaped how you think about the work moving forward?
F. Javier Torres-Campos (14:27):
You shared a quote last season in a couple of episodes where you talked about how we're never going to “out-white” white people. And yet I have to say that in an early age that was my strategy. Because of the white privilege that I have access to and the way that I sort of saw white men sort of push through a room in a bullish way and just sort of plainly state really ignorant things, I found some real power, Darren, in saying things plainly back to them because people were not used to receiving that kind of reaction or response. And often I saw that it was pretty effective at destabilizing leaders that were trying to stand in the way of my work. However, that never really brought me comfort, to get back to your question. It sort of is a leaning into capitalism and white supremacy that now at this age looking back I can see is only fueling oppression, is only fueling that power.
And so I think for me, the early days of real connection came on the weekends. My parents were both clinical people. And as a young child knowing that my dad was a social worker and my mom was a bio scientist, but all of their friends were artists. Almost every weekend from October all the way through April, our house was the central convening place. It was the place where drummers and singers and guitarists and jewelry makers and chefs all came to share their history and stories and music and love. That has been a grounding point for me. It is why initially my first career was in managing a series of nightclubs between Philadelphia and New York City, because that energy of freedom and space where folks could come and really let their hair down was a space that I wanted to more consistently be a part of and a place that I wanted to be a part of creating for others and for myself so that folks knew that even if your home didn't feel like home, you could find a little corner of home somewhere in the world.
Darren Isom (16:24):
I love that. And I do want to, one, I would follow up to, yes, I love that quote. That was a quote from my uncle, "You can't out-white white people, but the follow-up to that was, "But you can know white people better than they know themselves." And I think that people of color do know white people better than they know themselves.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (16:37):
Darren Isom (16:38):
There's histories of that. But you gave me such a natural transition and segue to the role of arts in all of this. And so I love how you talk about within your family, parents with usual or unusual, depending on how you think about it, professional lives, how they were still able to appreciate art. And I think that that rings true in so many homes of people of color, where even within my home with professional parents who both were side artists to some degree, they both had their professions. And yet my dad was an architect professionally, but also a jazz percussionist, right? And my mom who was a child psychiatrist and doing work from a family writing perspective in the local newspaper, but she still was able to play piano as necessary in the church on Sundays if someone didn't show up.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (17:28):
Darren Isom (17:28):
And how this sense of music and culture and the arts just being part of personal expression, but also way of defining a future that we could not see to some degree. So the space of freedom, the space of liberation. And so I would love for you to talk just a little bit more about the role of arts within communities of color particularly, but more importantly as well within the larger social justice space as we think about defining what we want the world to look like.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (17:58):
Those moments of community and family gathering were my introduction along with the fact that my parents were committed to all three of us as kids learning music. What's interesting about that attempt is that my sister became quite prolific at playing piano as well as a quite prolific drawer, even though now she’s a community psychologist, interestingly enough, similar to your mother. My brother is a sound engineer. They both learned how to read music. They both learned how to play. I went through years and years of lessons to learn the drums and could never learn to read music. It was something that my brain just never latched onto. But I knew that it was music, especially in dance, were things that I felt called to. I'll admit that even as a child, I dreamt of being a backup dancer for Janet Jackson.
Darren Isom (18:43):
I mean, who didn't though? Who didn't?
F. Javier Torres-Campos (18:44):
Right. Because it was so amazing. And so I don't know that as a young person, I necessarily consciously connected my joy and sense of home and family and love to those moments. It wasn't until I got into my twenties and thirties where I started to realize being in cultural and artistic spaces moved my spirit. I felt it in my body. I could feel my shoulders relax, I could be inspired, I could be reminded, I could be educated, I could just be joyful. Those experiences when surrounded by music and art and dance were commonplace for me in ways in which I don't see in the world in an everyday way. Now in my appropriate middle age, I'm also a Gen Xer …
Darren Isom (19:31):
Sorry, didn't mean to age you there.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (19:33):
No, it's totally fine. I've actually had to say I've really enjoyed getting older every year. It's been a really beautiful journey for me.
Darren Isom (19:39):
For me as well, intellectually. Not physically, though.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (19:42):
Seriously. Yeah, the physical parts are definitely a work in progress.
Darren Isom (19:48):
F. Javier Torres-Campos (19:48):
Yes, and humbling. So now I'm at a point where I realize that so much of what I learned about art and culture, while it's essential in many ways to our communities as communities of color, I also realize there's a bit of it that still, I think, is deeply connected to a Western gaze and a Western notion of what art and culture are. These last, I would say, five years have been a process of me sort of being able to open my perspective to a re-indigenization of what art and culture are and to remind ourselves that they literally are the way that we dress, the way that we greet each other, the tones that we use, meaning even to different dialects across the continent of Africa, the click sounds that are made that are unique to different heritages, histories, and cultures.
I often explain this in a common way by saying, when I’m in Puerto Rico and I see anybody, the greeting is always a kiss, a one kiss on the cheek and a hug. When I enter into a boardroom, the greeting is a handshake. When I am walking through my neighborhood, if I happen to walk by a friend of mine, it’s a dap with a half hug. Each of those are cultural expressions and agreements that happen between community members. And so in that way, I often now describe art and culture as the air that we breathe, whether we recognize it intentionally or not. And I think that that idea and that notion has been central to why I approach my work in philanthropy the way that I do. Because if we are not attending to the air that we’re breathing in that way and leveraging its power, I think without that tool in the toolbox, I don’t know how many of our strategies for transformation and liberation will be possible or successful.
Darren Isom (21:21):
I spent quite a bit of time in Memphis doing art philanthropy work. What was really interesting for me is that I realized in my time there how much I’d normalize a very abnormal perspective on the role of arts and culture. And so you grew up in New Orleans, I’m sure it’s the same in Puerto Rico to some degree, because New Orleans I think of is just the Caribbean's northernmost city. But you grew up in New Orleans and art is just part of life, right? You don't necessarily have that highbrow perspective on what is art, who's important. I mean the New Orleans City, they gave you Big Freedia and Wynton Marsalis on the same ticket, right?
F. Javier Torres-Campos (21:53):
Darren Isom (21:54):
I mean it is what it is, right?
F. Javier Torres-Campos (21:55):
Darren Isom (21:56):
So this privileged white perspective that the arts is what you do on a Friday night to signal wealth and prestige and distract yourself was very different than where I grew up. Arts is how you navigated life. It was everything from the song you were humming in the morning to what you were making for dinner, to as you said, how you choose to greet the person you're coming up to, to show a sense of connection, a sense of community. I think that speaks to, one, art and culture all we had. And so we made it work in the history of communities of color throughout time across the diaspora. I think it also speaks to unique opportunity we have in investing in supporting the arts as a vehicle of narrative change. And so I would love for you just to chat a little bit more about the role of arts and driving this new narrative that we're living into.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (22:49):
Absolutely. It's been such a big part of the work I've been doing over the last couple of years. I had the great privilege of working with so many amazing folks, but really led by Favianna Rodriguez, who's an activist and artist and CEO in her own right out in the Bay Area for the Center for Cultural Power and her deputy director, Tara Dorabji, who's also another brilliant woman and leader. One of the things that we recognized when we developed the strategy while I was working at the Surdna Foundation was that narrative change was important. The Koch brothers have done a really incredible job since the '70s of building a narrative infrastructure for their view of the world over the last 70 years and a way in which I'm not sure we have on the other side of the aisle.
Darren Isom (23:33):
On the other side of sanity you mean?
F. Javier Torres-Campos (23:36):
Yes, I would agree with that for sure. On the other side, I think we have to always start with a creative individual that is creating an experience, however ephemeral, for someone's point of view or perspective to either be affirmed, opened, or changed. And so in the work that we did collectively, we ended up funding 10 organizations and individual leaders that we said, "Tell us how we connect the cultural organizer that's working in the South Bronx, going from block to block, connecting elders to necessary services and also to a Friday night performance of plena to the national journalism that's happening to the 1916 Project, or 1619 Project, rather. How do we make sure that all of these conversations are connected and strategic toward a broader vision of more just society?" Those individuals end up pulling together a hundred leaders from across the country in order to really get clear about what was necessary.
Ultimately, what came from that was a white paper that they published that told philanthropy, "You're not doing it right" and was a tool that they were able to use in order to build what is now an autonomously run $23 million fund that supports not just the artists and individuals that are doing this work on the ground, but the anchor-based organizations that enable and support their work. And then all of the interstitial travel, learning, and engagement that's necessary to ensure that the local connects to the regional, to the national and vice versa. And not necessarily even in linear ways, but in circular ways. Understanding that change does not happen in a linear function. Often we're taking one step forward and three steps back before we're able to make a leap.
And more recently, I have been working with a group of 25 media leaders where we recognize that even in the nonprofit sector, that work is extremely limited. And largely that is because most philanthropy is only using its 5 percent in order to fund some of this work. There are billions and trillions of dollars in people that are committed to keeping things the way that they are and/or making them worse.
So the latest effort has been to say, "Well fine, then let's do this in a for-profit way, but let's take advantage of the philanthropic resources that we have access to." So I'm still actively working with these media leaders to build what we believe will be $150 million revolving equity fund that will support narrative storytellers of color in film, television, podcasting, and theater to be able to do what we call their second big gig. Often we have lots of incubators, we have lots of accelerators to help people develop intellectual property. Often in those cases when you go to negotiate with a studio or with a financier or a production company, you end up having to sign your rights away to the ongoing future benefits of that intellectual property. We are trying to counter that behavior, but we realize that even studios like Hulu will give $10 million to a first-time storyteller, but that's a loss-leader for them. It's just an opportunity to engage communities of color that are willing to pay the $19.99 or $14.99, whatever you're paying, on a monthly basis, even beyond that one thing that got produced.
In our vision then, and we often point to the example of Crip Camp from Netflix, where amazing documentary film, won Best Documentary at Sundance. And for the first time in decades, that storyteller, as a disabled individual, was the first person to walk out of Sundance after winning that award without representation and a deal for their next film, and to this day have not been able to produce it. So for us, there’s that gap between that 10 million to that 100 million deal that really could be transformational for storytellers of color that we think is an essential contribution to the ecosystem amongst lots of other work because the stories that we hear either affirm or tell us that we are wrong. They help us imagine and believe that something can and should be different. They help us uncover ways in which we can begin to walk those journeys.
And so that storytelling, that narrative change, is essential because as my mom always said growing up, each brain that we run into each mind is its own entire universe. We as humans have entire stories and fandoms and worlds that we create in our minds about what is and what is not, what could be and what was. But being able to manifest those stories in ways that are affirming to us and that connect us to remind us that we are not alone are really, really important for the change that I think so many of us are aspiring to.
Darren Isom (28:19):
We all live in our own realities, right? And how do you showcase those realities? I think, there's also something to be said about the fact that we've all created quite beautiful realities and beautiful narratives that are worth celebrating, and how do we take advantage of those stories to offer people a perspective on what life could look like and what success could look like for others? One of the things that I'm really passionate about, life-wise, is I think that there's a flex that comes from a power perspective, a positionality perspective, in telling new stories. I joke all the time with my team that the easiest way to disrupt a broken narrative is to tell a new one that's just more beautiful and more compelling, right? I would love for you to share in that beautiful mind of yours and that beautiful reality of yours what is the future we're hoping to create. What does it look like? Who's at the center of it? What does happiness look like in the future?
F. Javier Torres-Campos (29:14):
Such a beautiful question. I often have talked about, and I'll admit when my friends and I come together and we will light a blunt and have all of our philosophical conversations, we talk about what it looks like to create an economy based on love. I often think about that being at the center of what we do. Imagine if you both pursued love for yourself and created spaces of love for other people and got rewarded financially for doing that, for care and love and joy.
Now, what I often remind people is our economy is based on individual decisions. Some white men got in a room and made a decision, and that's all that it is. Even down to how we calculate the price of milk, it's all a formula. These are all choices. And so I always think it's ironic and interesting and sometimes I would say a little frustrating to hear folks say, "Well, that's just the way that it is and we just need to deal with it" because it's so clear to me that these are individual decisions that anybody could ultimately decide and realize their own power to change fundamentally.
So for me, at the center are always going to be disabled, Black, Indigenous, gender-nonconforming, trans, and female leaders who we already have millions of examples of across this planet who are leading the way to a better tomorrow, who are creating spaces to remind us that while the world may ultimately feel crazy, we have power over our little corner of the world to not let them in, to not let them tell us how we can or should be, to remind us that we are deserving of gentle, soft, caring, joyful lives that don't require all the work drag, that don't require all of the manipulation or passive-aggressive talk that we often see in corporate business spaces. And so for me, that vision always centers an economy of love led by women, trans, disabled folks.
Darren Isom (31:22):
It's beautiful. I think it speaks to, ultimately, I mean we've all created our own green books from a life perspective. And how do we make that green book the only book from a living and a sense of belonging and a sense of safety? I do want to just jump into a point that you made earlier because I think it's a really powerful one. You mentioned this idea of learning, and it reminded me of a quote from my, interestingly enough, my earlier consulting days interviewing, I think, a high school principal about something completely unrelated and she dropped this quote that I carry with me all the time now. It's, "Learning is not linear. It happens in pits and stops and often in a way that seems random and nonsensical until eventually an event or epiphany that sutures seemingly disparate learnings into a seamless insight that propels you forward."
I think so often about those events, those epiphanies that have sutured the learnings that we've had over time and remind us of how much we progressed as a society as a folk, and remind us how far we have to go as well. But we take for granted the fact that we're living through a lot, first of all. First and foremost, the world is crazy as hell right now. And if smoking on a blunt is what gets you through it, then so be it. Ain't nobody erasing anything there. Between the craziness of the four presidential years we've had, previous president, so we're living through a COVID crisis right now, still to some degree, and we had a civil rights movement in the middle of that as well. Things seem super chaotic, right? At the same time, we are growing and we are changing. And the world is a much better place than it was four or five years ago, although it may not feel that way.
And so I would love to hear from you… I talk about my therapist all the time and he gave me that wonderful quote that sometimes hope comes from experience. What are the things that you've experienced or experiencing that bring you hope in the world, that remind you that we are moving forward from a learning and a success perspective?
F. Javier Torres-Campos (33:14):
It's interesting because what that triggers in my memory is actually another quote from Adrienne that she reminds us, "Everything we touch, we change. And everything we change changes us." And so a really recent example, when I think about this next generation, the kids are going to be all right and they're constantly reminding me that we don't have to worry. We just have to be willing to listen and play our part. And so a really concrete example of that in my last role, I hired this amazing team of two individual leaders that had never worked in philanthropy, both Black. I believed that I was bringing them on to help them navigate the world of philanthropy. While some of that I think ultimately happened, I realized I don't know that that was the point that life had for me in mind.
I come back to when the pandemic started. The first thing that I was grateful for is that my company allowed for great flexibility for each team, given that we're predominantly people of color staff, to design the work week that we needed and to recognize that we were all dealing with a lot. So the first thing that I did for my team was that we moved to a four-day work week. I reminded folks that as people of color, we're caring for families, we're dealing with lots of intellectual and emotional trauma with the new cycle. So figuring out what your on-ramps and off-ramps are from work so that you can actually have a personal life that is filling and allows you to rest so that you can come back and do your job is really essential. But Darren, after several months of doing that, my team still continued to express extreme exhaustion and I was like, "But wait a minute, y'all, I've told you, you can start working whenever you want. You can check out whenever you want. Just communicate with your team and we're going to figure everything out."
And it wasn't until this brilliant 26-year-old associate working with me said to me, "Javier, you talk a lot about flexibility and you tell us that we can do what we need to care for ourselves and for our bodies and families, but what we experience is your and other leadership's ability to move at an incredibly rapid pace producing product and experiences. And then the consequence of that is that you are consistently rewarded for working in that capitalistic way. So whether you like it or not, what you're saying is not aligned with what you're doing. And so it doesn't implicitly feel like we genuinely have permission because there has been no reward for me being softer. There has been no reward for me being slower. In fact, what it does is that the work piles up because you keep producing and then leaving something for me in the wave of all that you are trying to accomplish."
I walked away from that conversation really silent and really thinking to myself, "Well, what in the world do I need to do different?" And the answer was simple. In that moment and in the months afterward, what I realized was I still needed to confront my own internalized capitalism and my own sense that moving quickly was the answer because what I was doing was leaving my team behind. It was a really great lesson for me to say, "Oh, I can break this trauma that exists between generations instead of doing my job as a leader of blocking and tackling and bringing an enlightened sense of 'No, my responsibility is to create space for a new type of leadership and way of working that is caring of our bodies and our spirits while still producing high quality work' and both things are possible."
And so quite frankly, it was just a matter of my slowing down, of my reminding my peers and my supervisors and the board that while philanthropy can be urgent, we are not operating in an emergency room. And the way that we do the work that we do can be as positive or can counteract the work that we're doing if those things are not in alignment with our values.
Darren Isom (37:14):
Wonderful lesson on how do we make sure that we are enabling our team members to develop their own strategy, their own approach, their own way of living and sustaining happiness from a work perspective as well. And also just a lesson for all of us. I know that as someone who finds a lot of purpose and productivity, right? I don't know how much of that is internalized capitalism or much of that is just wanting to be helpful and useful to the movement and the work and recognize that you only have so much time to do the work itself from a generational perspective, but how to set up the work in a way that others feel as if they have something to add to it and as powerful and meaningful is really important.
So we're close to an end of our time together, funny enough because it went by so quickly. I was at an event some months back, Donors of Color convening. A good friend and mentor who we’ve since lost, Urvashi Vaid, who I was able to interview in our last podcast cycle, wasn't able to attend the event at the time. She was dealing with health issues, but she did the closing speech for the event itself and she looked out on this room of Black and brown folks in philanthropy, and I'm sure we looked the hot best, because we're living through a lot and the world's crazy and we're all trying to navigate generational shifts and philanthropic shifts and young folks saying that we're working too hard and the outside world saying we're not working hard enough. It's a lot we're navigating.
She looked out on us and she said, "I know that we all feel dispirited right now. I know that things feel chaotic, but I just want you to know that this is what winning looks like. We are winning." She followed up by saying, "I want you to look around the room. This is what a winning team looks like." And so I offer those words because when I see folks like you in this space, I know that we have the perfect team to carry the work, a whole generation of folks that are thoughtful thinkers.
In closing, I would love if there's any words of advice for those of us in the space, those of us navigating our own personal stories, our own personal narratives, bring that to the work as a point of success. Anything you want to offer us in closing, I give the floor to you for that.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (39:15):
I want to bring it back perhaps to one of the quotes that I used as I started this. Many of us have a vision for what success looks like and some of us also have a belief that we know how we're going to get there. I think where I am in my own personal journey is at a place just to remind us all that we aren't the first ones. People have been doing this a long time. I'm not convinced that any of us necessarily have answers. And so I offer that to say that I think it's important for those of us, especially in our generation, Darren, but I hope, I really do believe that this is important for everyone to get away from the idea that our way is the way, and to stop judging other people's approaches. Because to your point and to her point, we have the right people in place. What we need to begin to do is to practice.
And I often say this to my friends that are curious about, "Should I get married? Do I jump into this relationship?" And my advice is, “Sure, but you're going to have to let go of any dream you made or had about a wedding and how that relationship is going to play out because while you were imagining and dreaming a way of being, this other person or persons, if you're poly, that you're entering into this relationship with, have their own dream and sense of what marriage and life was supposed to look like.”
And so until we're all willing to let go of we have the right idea and are willing to listen to each other and to say, "Here's my piece of the puzzle. I'm looking for the pieces that I should be adjacent to so that we can start to make the important connections" and to really practice what that looks like, practice sort of discipline discourse and disagreement with respect and care and love so that we can continue to make the advances and so that we can continue winning. Every day we are taking individual steps that change us and that reverberate to those that are around us and that add up to much more than the individual humans that we all are on these journeys trying to transform the world.
Darren Isom (41:16):
Wonderful. It's a total throwback as well to the bell hooks quote that you started with as well on this idea of having what I like to call an anchored imagination. So the ability to see and recreate the world, but have some anchorings that allow us to get there as well and hold onto that idea in a way that's meaningful and powerful and grounded.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (41:32):
Darren Isom (41:33):
Javier, you gave me an invocation and a benediction and I appreciate that. Great chatting with you.
F. Javier Torres-Campos (41:37):
So great to see you, Darren. Thank you so much for the time.
Darren Isom (41:41):
No, this has been a pleasure. It's always healing to have these conversations. And I'll talk with you again soon.
Graduation dinners are a true constant on my family's list of traditions. And while the graduate, the high school they're leaving and the college they will attend change, the dinner in the program all remained the same.
Antoine’s Restaurant has hosted my family's graduation dinners for many of our now nine generations in New Orleans. With exceptions some years during the 1860s Civil War and the 1960s Civil Rights movement, whereas my grandmother once noted, “Colored folks ate in during those years for safety's sake.” The speeches have a tried-and-true formula, too, congratulating the graduate on all they've achieved, reminding them of all that's expected of them as they go out into the world, honoring all who sacrificed so they may live freely and instilling in them a duty to all who come before and all who come after. For the family, for the community, for the culture.
Some years pre-COVID, I was home in New Orleans for younger cousin’s high school graduation dinner. Graduation dinner speeches once reserved for my grandparents are now being delivered by older aunts and uncles who've assumed the role of wise elders. And on that trip home, as I sat there, at Antoine's, hearing my uncle speak from the centuries-old script to my cousin, I was reminded of my own graduation dinner speech offered by my Grandpa Joseph from 25 years before. In my grandpa's speech to me, he reminded the family that my generation was entering into a new world that was very different, proudly noting that we were the first to grow up in a desegregated American South and a racially integrated New Orleans, a generational anomaly that our generation had taken for granted, but apparently something that our parents and grandparents all fretted over and frequently conferenced about when we were out of ears’ reach.
Lovingly referred to us as la génération unie, the “united generation” in French, the way Black New Orleanians of a certain now gone generation still pray in French, as if speaking in the abandoned language would somehow summon old gods who might still be listening. And as my Grandma Lois politely signaled for him to end his speech as he's had gone on for far too long and we were all ready to eat, he closed by commending me as I went out into this new world ripe with new opportunities and unknown danger to always remember, "You're a good roux. And a good roux makes any stew better."
We lost the great New Orleans writer Anne Rice in late 2021, quoted as saying, "Of New Orleans, I was born in the city and lived there for many years. It was home. It shaped who and what I am. Never have I ever experienced a place where people knew more about love, about family, about loyalty, and about getting along than the people of New Orleans. It is perhaps our very gentleness that gives us our endurance. There's a sweetness of life that exists in New Orleans that every New Orleaniancarries with them."
As Javier talked of managing and mentoring this new generation, I was reminded of that sweetness that I carry with me, how it guides me at home, at work, wherever I find myself, how it serves as an exhaustible source of joy, as I navigated this new world ripe with both new opportunities and unknown dangers, how that sweetness allows me to live boldly, lovingly, and beautifully, making space for others as I chart my own path forward. Maybe those old gods are still listening after all, listening and answering prayers, if not for me, for the generations to follow.
Well 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. Special shoutouts to our wonderful show producers, Teresa Buchanan and Denise Savas; our video editors, Dave Clark McCoy, Deanna Radieli, and Alejandra Ramirez; our graphic designer, Diana Jimenez; and our show coordinator, Nicole Genova. And a huge shoutout to our ever-brilliant Bridgespan production team and family:Cora Daniels, Jasmine Reliford, Ami Diané, Christina Pistorius, and Ryan Wenzel. Be sure to subscribe and leave a rating and review wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. Talk soon.