In this episode, we welcome Kalia Abiade, vice president of programs at Pillars Fund, a national nonprofit social investment fund that amplifies the leadership, narratives, and talents of Muslims in the US. At Pillars Fund, Kalia is responsible for sharpening the organization's vision and collaborating across teams to advance and execute Pillar's mission and strategy. She draws on nearly two decades of experience advocating for equity and racial justice in media, policy, and philanthropy.
Listen in as Kalia shares her experience about migrating from California to Chicago, the legacy of activism in her family, and her dream of lifting the burden and making the world a softer place to land for her children and future generations.
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.
Kalia Abiade is the Vice President of programs at Pillars Fund, where she's responsible for sharpening the organization's strategy and collaborating across a team to execute Pillar's mission to amplify Muslim leadership toward opportunity and justice for all people. She draws on nearly two decades of experience in advocating for equity and racial justice in media, policy and philanthropy. Kalia has served as an organizer and policy advocate, advancing media accountability, immigrant and refugee rights, religious freedom, voter access, and civic participation. She began her career as a newspaper journalist and editor, and her analysis has been cited in The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, National Public Radio, and the Associated Press, among other outlets.
Kalia was raised in California, is a graduate of the University of Florida and lives with her family in Chicago. And while our conversation was recorded some months ago, it's beautifully fitting that it's being released now during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, a time for introspection, self-reflection and gratitude, a time to celebrate family and community. Fasting from sunrise to sunset is important in Ramadan, but also important is nourishing one's soul through prayer and practice to be closer to Allah. In the words of the poet LN “Ramadan opens doors of mercy each year, reconciling all our hearts on goodness, generosity and forgiveness.” And with that, Ramadan Mubarak to my Muslim friends and family. And here's hoping my conversation with Kalia brings us all some much needed warmth and nourishment.
Kalia, it's great to chat with you today. Hello.
Kalia Abiade (01:53):
Good morning, Darren.
Darren Isom (01:55):
How are you doing?
Kalia Abiade (01:56):
I'm doing well. I can't complain.
Darren Isom (01:58):
That's a loaded question: "How are you doing?" My mother was queen of that when folks were acting up in places, public spaces, she'd be like, "Are you okay?" And you'd be surprised how often people are not okay.
Kalia Abiade (02:07):
The answer's always “no” if your mom says, "Are you okay?"
Darren Isom (02:10):
Exactly. You're not behaving like you're okay.
That said, I want to pass you the floor to start. As you know, I love for folks to kick us off with an invocation of sorts. What you got for us?
Kalia Abiade (02:22):
My son, Adam, is a junior in high school. And he's finally encountered James Baldwin in school, which is right around the time that I also encountered James Baldwin for the first time.
Darren Isom (02:33):
People can't see my heart sigh when you said that. Go ahead.
Kalia Abiade (02:36):
I think that's always a good place to start, an excerpt from The Fire Next Time. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day for each of us, the sun will go down for the last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death, ought to decide indeed to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life. It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we all return. One must negotiate this as noble as possible for the sake of those who are coming after us.
Darren Isom (03:22):
That's beautiful. James Baldwin always hits the right spot. His thinking is just profound. And there is something to be said as well about the generational piece of those who come after. It's just a theme that's come up in many conversations, both within the podcast and outside of just a side story. This is hitting a little hard as well today because I was just, early this week, we had a family friend who passed in New Orleans, and I was sending flowers to them and I was just doing the calculation randomly as one does. And it's like, the men in my family don't live past 70. The women, they live a long time, but the men is like...
And so, you're sitting here being one, trying to figure out how much of that is true for your generation and how much of that is generational. Because I do feel like there were things that were generational from a health perspective, from a life perspective. I do worry that sometimes racism in white America is more deadly than cigarettes for Black folks in this space. So, there's some things I don't do that, that I don't know if it's going to compensate for other things that I do.
Kalia Abiade (04:16):
And it seems like we're all holding so much grief these days in ways that we didn't expect. I know that's for me personally, but on a global scale. I realize grief wasn't just going to be a visitor. Grief is here to stay, so how do I grapple within it? It comes up in so many conversations, so I've been trying to lean more into it instead of running away.
Darren Isom (04:39):
One hundred percent. As I'm traveling for an event as we record, and presenting some slides on some very important topic. Bridgespan partner, I always got my slides and they're pretty ones too. But I've just forced my team as we put together the decks and the slides, to just give a blank page just to acknowledge the moment that we're in, because we're living through a moment.
Kalia Abiade (05:01):
Capital M. Moment. Capital H. History.
Darren Isom (05:04):
We are really living through some stuff, and then the colleague was like, "Well, what do you want to put on the slide?" I was like, "An image or a number of images that get at the Trump years, followed by COVID, followed by the Civil Rights Movement that we had during that period, followed by just the global warming and the fact that right now I just feel like we're just on for the ride. Like just, are we doing today?"
Kalia Abiade (05:28):
Holding on so tight.
Darren Isom (05:30):
Mother Nature, tell me what you're doing. But we were really living through a moment, and I don't know, we're going to... Hopefully, we will come out on the outside of this, I truly believe that I'm an optimist in my heart and in spirit, so we'll get on the other side of this, but I don't think we'll realize what a moment we've been living through until we're on the other side of this actually.
Kalia Abiade (05:49):
Yeah, and may we all get there safely.
Darren Isom (05:53):
One hundred percent. I do want to jump in, and Kalia, I just had the pleasure of working with you and being in rooms with you, in spaces with you. And I always joked that the first time I met you, you just screamed California. You were just California to me. And then I learned that you were from, and indeed had spent some time in your life in California. It all resonated. But I do want to give you just some space to share your origin story.
Kalia Abiade (06:16):
I don't know if you did this on purpose, but that is the best thing you could have said to me, because I'm always like “California for life.” I was actually born in Fresno in the Central Valley, and I'm a granddaughter of Filipino immigrants, and the granddaughter of Black migrants from Texas and Oklahoma to the Bay Area.
Darren Isom (06:35):
Kalia Abiade (06:36):
Classic migration story, classic California story. Filipino and Black, growing up in the heart of that state. And even though I left at 14, when I go back, I go home. And the sun feels different there. It permeates my skin in a really different way. And as a parent, I feel like I'm always telling my children these back home stories, but my back home is California. And they experience that when they go. I feel like there's so much meaning.
And I didn't know this until I did a public narrative workshop with Marshall Ganz at Harvard in the Kennedy School. And he started just asking me questions one after another, and then why do you do this and why do you do that? And where did that come from? And I got all the way back to him plucking the story out of me where I realized when I said earlier, capital H, History that my family had that we all do. But my grandfather who migrated from the Philippines came through Alaska down the coast into California, and was a farm worker in Delano, so the Delano Manongs and the Filipino uncles there who were working the land. And then my grandmother, when she moved from Texas, she moved into a home with somebody we called Big Dad. And so, I never asked questions about who he was. I just knew that that was our relative who she came and settled with. And she was 19, and this was in the 1940s, and his name is actually a name known to very many people, C.L. Dellums. He was one...
Darren Isom (08:07):
Oh, wow. The face over here is, oh wow, okay. Yes.
Kalia Abiade (08:10):
I was like, oh, that's a pretty big deal. As I learned about his activism with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and that my dad as a 17-year-old rebel graduated from Berkeley High School, they didn't know what to do with him. When you were asking earlier, “what is wrong with you?”, he was like, "I don't know." He went and actually worked as a porter in 1970 right after high school, before he went to college and everything, because they were like, "We don't know what to do with you. You're just sneaking into Jimmy Hendrix concerts, and doing what teenagers do in Berkeley. Get on this train to Chicago and shine some shoes and come home."
And my grandparents on the Filipino side were also labor activists. They brought that with them. My grandmother was a nurse. My grandfather eventually was an electrician, and they were very deeply rooted in labor work in California. And so I just realized, you think you get to a place on your own, you're like, "I did this." And then you realize how just intertwined. Every step is so ordered in a way that you're like, did I make any choices here? But no, the answer's a few choices, but I'm really fortunate to have that history to lean on, to have parents who carried that tradition and to be able to have these stories that I now can tell my kids. When I talk about back home, it's more than just about the fruit that I picked off of our backyard trees, which are really important stories for us, but also these ways that my family was deeply involved in trying to make things better for other people.
Darren Isom (09:45):
This is wonderful, and I'm laughing over here because I think that's, to me, what makes you very Californian. We're living the stories that were handed to us from our ancestors, and we're lucky enough to live those stories. I think what to me makes California, California, is that their intersectional nature of those stories, communities that one would see as fairly disparate. And actuality, there's so much alignment, there's such a common thread. And I joke all the time, and I shared this story with you before how when I arrived at Howard for undergrad, Howard was a very interesting place. And in the best way possible, I loved my Howard years. It was like this Black campus, this is a campus of middle class Black kids from around the country who were escaping white people for four years, was the goal right after being educated around white people our entire lives.
Kalia Abiade (10:22):
I'm with that.
Darren Isom (10:22):
So culturally, there was some regional distinctions obviously, but there was also a very common Black American threat. And then came the Californians. The Californians were Californian first. You could see them, but the thing is that their California identity did not at all conflict with their Black identity. It was perfectly aligned. And I used to joke that the ultimate Howardite, I wanted to be an Oaklander. It was the city that gave you MC Hammer, En Vogue, the Black Panthers, within eight blocks of each other. It was all right there. These intersectional identities coming together in a way that was one hundred percent true. It was one hundred percent a manifestation of all these narratives in a way that was sincere and beautiful. And then, you came with also we're the western state. You come here to tell a new story, and folks that got nowhere else to go. So, you've got to have a culture that can accommodate all those stories. Get in where you fit in, we'll make a narrative that's inclusive enough. It's a beautiful manifestation of I think what we hope America should be.
Kalia Abiade (11:22):
I'll say, people did not know what to do with me when I moved to Florida as a 14-year-old. They were like, "What are you? Where did you come from, and why do you talk like that?”
Darren Isom (11:32):
One hundred percent California. Okay, thank you. Yeah, my husband and I travel all the time. My husband is Chinese-American, and fifth generation Californian, from Santa Cruz, Peninsula. But we travel all the time to Asia, and he looks ethnically Chinese as he is, but he also looks very western. So, people assume that he's like Singaporean, or a Hong Kong. They're trying to figure out where he's from, and then they see my Black butt traveling with him. Like, what's going on here? And so they'll ask, "Where are you guys from?" And we say, "California." And they're like, "Oh, okay."
Kalia Abiade (12:01):
Darren Isom (12:02):
"Makes sense. That's a box check." A lot of funders may still be relatively new to the idea of intersectionality, I know, but it's a thing. How do your intersecting identities shape your experiences?
Kalia Abiade (12:13):
It's great when you grow up and you learn that there's a name for the things that you've experienced growing up and you're like, wow, you have these frameworks and theories. But I think Isabel Wilkerson changed my life when I read her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, and I lived now on King Drive in Bronzeville and Chicago, so Chicago Defenders. And it's a site of the Great Migration. So, I think of migration as one of those stories of intersection that we don't talk about very often. Something that connects us. We all have them, either some folks... We've all migrated in some way, whether that was by choice or not. And we're seeing this play out over and over. And I think so much of that just has to do with self-determination, has to do with being able to make choices about your life, and what happens when we don't have choices in our life.
So, that may not answer exactly the intersectional conversation, but for me, that's where it all comes together. Because as I started, my family's stories are yes, about people coming from overseas and then coming across land. But what tied them together was this experience of migration and trying to find and make a home in where they were and live their best lives. And I think that's what so many of us are trying to do.
Darren Isom (13:28):
Yes, one hundred percent. As a New Orleans boy, I don't necessarily believe in the melting pot theory, but I do believe in the layering of flavors and complexity of flavors. And good gumbo is like, you can taste every ingredient and even the traditional ingredients change as other words are added to them, so they carry what they were before, but they become something new that's more dynamic and beautiful. And I think of intersectionality as being that in many ways as well, as being able to pull the best from those various cultures, and play them out in the way that's beautiful and meaningful and honors those folks that came before you as well.
I want to spend a little bit of time talking about true Muslim identity as well, and as you know giving to those in need is a core practice in Islamic faith. I'm referring to... Is it zakat, or almsgiving? One of the five Pillars of Islam. As a leader in the philanthropic space the act of giving to those in need is literally part of your role at Pillars Fund, and part of your chosen role within the social sector. Silly question, is that a coincidence, Kalia?
Kalia Abiade (14:24):
Well, again, apparently I have no control over my life, so maybe not. It's interesting because I didn't grow up Muslim, but it's another layer here of this story is I came to Islam in my early 20s. Very much also, I'm going to talk about my dad a lot, I'm realizing, but very much inspired by his experience in the Bay Area, having this familiarity that a lot of Black people do with Muslims and Islam, making sure that we got bean pies out of somebody's truck, and dancing around sometime with the nation. But I came to this faith in college, and it's interesting because zakat is not just something that we do or that's encouraged, but it's actually a requirement. For any people who have excess wealth, it's a requirement that we give 2.5% of it to very specific categories of people in need, not just to your neighbor, but people who... Unless your neighbor is in this particular need.
Darren Isom (15:27):
It's strategic, if you will.
Kalia Abiade (15:28):
Strategic philanthropy. Just if somebody wants to know your theory of change, it's right in there. If we give money to three people who are in bondage, they will live better lives. That is in the Quran. People in bondage are one of the categories of people that you can give to. So, we have a grantee who believers bailout. That's what they do day after day, is they bail people out of jail who haven't had a trial yet.
And so, I feel really fortunate that at Pillars we get to bring... Some of that are that obligation to the work, but then also we get to bring a lot of fun, because outside of what's required of that 2.5% or this annual giving that we do, there's just a lot of generous people in the community. And we have these stories that go way back on this land where we know of enslaved Africans who were gathering what they could to give to one another as a practice of their faith. And that continues today. And so now, we definitely get to have a lot more fun with it, we get to expand our idea of strategic philanthropy to support Muslim leadership. But it's never too far from the core of that obligation.
Darren Isom (16:39):
Wonderful. And I would love for you to talk a little bit more about how your faith as a Muslim woman influences your perspective and decision-making. As a leader in philanthropy, I love stories of how people have adopted faith as a way of freeing themselves. The faith allows them to live into themselves more fully and powerfully. So, I would love to hear more about that. And then as a leader, how does that play out as well?
Kalia Abiade (17:00):
A leader? Well, first of all, when I walk in a room, people already have a story about me that they've created in their mind. So, I'm constantly mindful of that. I think that's something that many of us bring from childhood. Even before I was covering my hair and showing up in places that people could label me as a Muslim woman or a Muslim girl, people were always like, "What are you? What's going on? What's your agenda?" So, I think a lot of that is just owning that, that there is an expectation of me when I show up in a place that I'm going to not shy away from that identity. And I've never been one to shy away from any parts of my identity. But also to say, what does this add to the conversation? What are we not talking about, or who is not in here who should be?
And I really benefit from so many people that we get to work with, but one person I'll name right now, Hussein Rashid, who is one of our Muslim Narrative Change fellows and an academic. He's affiliated with Pillars as a Muslim Narrative Change fellow. He reminds us all the time that there's never been an America without Muslims. And I already mentioned the enslaved Africans who were brought here as many of them Muslim. And we have a grantee in Jackson, Mississippi, who reminds us that at one point in Jackson, there's believed to be more Muslims in that space than Christians, because of the number of enslaved people and where they came from to Jackson, Mississippi, that area.
So that's one thing is that knowing that I'm not creating a new history, I'm not creating a new story, I'm just shining light on something that has actually been part of our history for a really long time. And then the other question that comes in my mind a lot is from somebody, Rashid Shabazz, who's on our board, and many people may know him from his days of color at Color of Change and now with Critical Minded, but he asked us what doesn't exist in this space in the society without Muslims?
And so, that's the challenge. We can't just rest on our history. We also have to be, what are we continuously contributing to conversations that wouldn't necessarily exist without us in the room. And believing that each one of us actually has something unique to contribute. We don't need a particular expertise or these degrees. They enhance or maybe get us in rooms we might not have been in otherwise. But once we're in that room, then what are we contributing and what are we making new?
So, I think those are the things that I think about when I show up in spaces is like, how am I adding to this conversation? How are we not leaving people of all different kinds of faiths outside of the room, but also not limiting myself to faith? Being a Muslim has so many dimensions that are, start with my faith, but also are really interwoven into history and culture, arts, and music, and family, and ways that I don't think we get to talk about enough.
Darren Isom (19:48):
Yeah, it's definitely a religious movement, but as well it's a cultural movement. And so, how do you celebrate that in the way that gets it to plurality of voices and perspectives? Muslim Americans have experienced increased representation in national forums, media, government are in the past 30 years or so, but with every group in every situation. We're in a moment, I would love for you to share, how would you define the moment in history for Muslim Americans, particularly individuals who identify as Black and Muslim? And that's a big old question that you could probably give a full thesis and TED Talk on.
Kalia Abiade (20:16):
What I love about what's happening right now is there's a lot less... And I would say this has probably, at least in my experience, never been the case in Black Muslim communities, but collectively a lot less apologizing for taking up space. We're here. We've been here. We're not going anywhere, and you actually benefit from having us in the room. So, there's this whole check us out versus let us in dichotomy. We're not asking you to let us in. We're having this incredible party, this incredible gathering, this incredible space, and you are more than welcome to join us.
Darren Isom (20:54):
We're dope as hell over here.
Kalia Abiade (20:56):
We're holding it down, and you can hang out with us if you want to, but also we're going to be okay if we're not accepted. We have to build our own ways of being okay knowing that so many of our communities have not been and will never be accepted by what's been deemed dominant culture. And so, I think just seeing a lot of people settle into that, get comfortable in that. And as a parent also, I'm seeing that with... That's really important for me with my boys. I have three Black Muslim boys. That's a lot of layers, and I want them to go in the world-
Darren Isom (21:31):
That's a lot. You can stop right there. That's a lot.
Kalia Abiade (21:36):
It's just a lot. It's loud. First of all, it's a lot of noise, but it's just a lot for them to carry. And as you started the conversation about the weight that a lot of Black men carry, I'm thinking about that for my 16 year old and my 12 year old, my five year old, what are we putting on them? I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, but I want to help create a space where they can carry less, or it's not as heavy or something. And I'm seeing that happen in a lot of our work at Pillars. I'm just so grateful that people are just showing up with that framework and some joy. We've got to have some fun in this, because there's always been fun. Now through all the hardships that we can document over history, people have found a way to connect, build a relationship, create joy, and I'm really just, as hard as everything is, it's a fun time right now. It's a connected time that I feel like we're experiencing.
Darren Isom (22:35):
The role of joy in sustaining us, and giving us something to look forward to. That's a really important theme that carries through in all these conversations.
I do want to acknowledge, you talk about this tension of one, particularly those of us who work with certain communities, traditionally in marginalized communities. We're at a very interesting space right now where there is an outside interest, if you will, in what we're doing and how we're living, and a desire to take advantage of that olive branch to some degree, and bring people along in the story, but also recognition that we have to have our own systems, and our own approaches, and our own stories, and our own identities. And so it's this constant, how much do we focus internally as we think about the work, and how much do we focus externally and bringing others along?
And I think that I've heard so many others share that you focus externally by focusing internally. You have to really think about what's your story that you're holding together as a community? What's the story that you're telling for yourself, and owning that narrative in a way that makes it easier to bring others along? I would love to get your thoughts on how do you really aim to reshape the narrative pertaining to Muslim Americans in the US? When it comes to elevating the voices of the community? What are people getting right? Where are there opportunities to improve, and how do we really share the plurality of the community while keeping a common thread and keeping a community focused, if you will?
Kalia Abiade (23:57):
I think you're right first, about looking inward first before we go out. So, that's one thing. The Muslim ban, I think was the perfect example of this, where here came this big policy idea from a big personality, a big loud personality named Donald Trump.
Darren Isom (24:26):
Kalia Abiade (24:27):
Shout them from the rooftop. And I think that was a real moment of reckoning within Muslim communities in all of the different identities, all the different experiences, where there was potentially an urge to say, "Hey, we're okay. We're safe. We're just like you." All of these urges that people have that are completely understandable. We saw that in 2001 where my local community invited the FBI to our mosque as a peace offering. And the Black Muslims were like, "Hey, you don't do that. You don't. Can we talk? We need to have a conversation." So, I don't think we made that exact mistake right after the Muslim ban, but the work that needed to be done was anti-racism within the community. That work to identify the ways that internalized racism and anti-Black racism were permeating the Muslim community, and still do.
Darren Isom (25:23):
It's America, it's everywhere.
Kalia Abiade (25:24):
Everywhere. We weren't the only ones. And we can look at any subgroup and be like, "Oh yeah, there's anti-Blackness within Black communities."
Darren Isom (24:36):
I was going to say, we could have a whole conversation about anti-Blackness within Black America.
Kalia Abiade (25:31):
So, it wasn't necessarily meant to be an indictment, but to say, if we better understand how this is functioning within our communities, then we can also sharpen our tools to fight it externally, and understand that the root of so much of this, maybe not all of it, but so much of it is anti-Blackness at its core. And if we can figure out how to undo that, we can probably figure out how to undo other forms of racism. So, that was something that I think Muslim communities that we get to work with are really leaning into now. But was a huge conversation around the Muslim ban, because we had to make some choices about how we showed up collectively, how we fought for certain policies. Making sure we didn't leave people behind or throw folks under the bus who was being targeted, and what would've been the faster way to get approval from the external communities with improvement. There's always work to do there, but that's ongoing. That'll be lifelong work for so many of us.
And so, I think the places that I want to improve are resourcing this work the way that it needs to be. And that comes from within the Muslim community, but also outside of the Muslim community. And again, that comes, I think, from this shared destiny. We could be considered a canary in a coal mine. If this is happening to Muslim communities, it can happen and has happened to so many others. So, it's in our collective interest to do this. And this isn't a favor that you're doing to the Muslim community by supporting it. It's not a favor that we're doing toward our grantees when we support their work. It's because we believe they're actually making things easier for us in the long run.
And so, I think that's a big improvement because before coming to Pillars, I spent several years nearly immersed in what the far-right was doing in terms of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policy. They are organized, they are well funded, they're coordinated and they're connected to policy makers. And I don't sometimes think people understand how intentional everything that is happening is. And so, we have to be more intentional. We have to be more generous, and more strategic, and more focused, and more loving with one another, because they're not doing it from a place of love, so we've got that on our side.
And I think that's also just how we share in that plurality. It's understanding that interconnectedness, that if we're supporting each other's work, it's becauseit sounds kumbaya, I get it. But I truly believe, if we understand that what I was saying before, that there's never been an America without Muslims, that these stories are connected. If we can figure out how to end surveillance on Muslim communities, we can probably end surveillance for a lot of people. Surveillance is one of those things we've just accepted in society where there's cameras everywhere. But so much of the surveillance mechanism that exists across our country is rooted in very anti-Muslim language policy and framework. So, it's really to our benefit, and it's not a favor. We should collaborate with one another, but it's actually not a favor that we're doing to one another when we support the work.
Darren Isom (28:48):
When Trump was elected, my dad, he would say, "Slow that train down." That train is always on time and never misses a stop. It starts with immigrants, Muslims. It goes through gay folks, Jewish folks, Black folks. It is coming to your stop. You better stop that train. And so, I think that there's something to be said about the interconnected narrative there.
I do think there is something really powerful about the normalizing of plurality within a community, and the normalizing different narratives and allowing people just to be. The radical piece of like, yep, tell stories about yourself, just your stories. There's no narrative here that you have to follow. And it reminds me of my first year or second year when I was at Howard, I remember visiting a friend in the quad. These were new dorms at the time. I'm sure they're old now. Walked up to the entrance. And from one window to the right, the foojis were blasting, and from... I'm old.
Kalia Abiade (29:44):
That's my era.
Darren Isom (29:46):
And then from another window to the left, the Cranberries were blasting, from this Black dorm room. And I was like, I guess the Cranberries are Black music. If Black people are listening to it, it's Black music. This idea, if you're doing it ...
Kalia Abiade (29:59):
Darren Isom (30:00):
... it's yours. How do you own that authentically? And it gives you a sense of belonging in the space, but it also in some ways shows that it's all very natural. It makes complete sense. So, there's something really beautiful about sharing those stories.
I do want to spend just a little time talking about grant makers for effective organizations. In 2022, National Conference in Chicago, you encouraged funders to go deeper with grantees. One great recommendation you offer was for grant makers to shadow their grantees, to learn from them and experience things from their perspective. I would love to hear you share just, what are some additional ways makers can establish empathy and understanding with grantees? It's clearly a lesson that you've learned working within your community, that is not only valid but important for the larger sector. So, I would love to hear others that you've learn from your work, that grant makers can be taking on from an empathy perspective or just really serving organizations or communities better.
Kalia Abiade (30:57):
On purpose, I want to learn from our grantees. I believe that they are the experts of their communities, that they can tell us a lot. But also sometimes, we come into these spaces and expect them to teach us everything. And so, I think there's some pre-work that can be done. And I think that's one of the things I appreciated so much about you when we first met. I was like, we didn't feel like we were explaining Muslims to you. You had a little experience. A little like …
Darren Isom (31:27):
My job is to be curious and get smarter.
Kalia Abiade (31:29):
... awareness of the world. But there are times when you're like, wow, maybe you should pick up a book. Read just something.
Darren Isom (31:41):
It is shocking though, how people grow up in really homogenous. Have you met anyone? Wow. And I think it's just the level of.... That for me, it's a key tenant of privilege, being able to only have lived around people that look, and think, and act exactly like you, and having that not be seen as a sign of provincialism. Listen, if I was a Black boy from New Orleans, and that's a rich culture, but if that's all that I knew how that would be received in the world. But people completely unapologetic, only knowing their little world. It's like that is really problematic.
Kalia Abiade (32:24):
Yes. I've never known what it's like being... coming from a multiracial household, there were very few times that I found people who were just like me. I was always just a little on the side... Even with my cousins who loved me, I was always just a little somewhere not always in the center. And so, that is something that is very unfamiliar to me and very curious to me, I wonder how this is comfortable for you. Because I think what that built in me is a sense of curiosity about people, and wanting to come to conversations informed about what I was asking about.
And I think the thing that's most interesting for me, when it comes to Pillars and the work that we support, and supporting Muslim communities, and then speaking with other funders and thinking about what some of our grantees may be experiencing. And hearing directly from them what they may be experiencing, is the shock and surprise that people hear about our racial demographics, for example, about a third of us are Black. We're not predominantly immigrants. Many of us do have migration stories, but that's not actually... They come and go. Plus we've got folks who have been here for generations, Syrian communities and Yemeni communities who have just been here. Deep roots.
I think that is the thing that's most shocking to so... I wish I could say not so many people, but a lot of people that I talk to who are genuinely interested in funding Muslim communities, and are asking us for advice on how to do that. And then they're like, "Whoa, this changes everything." And I'm like, "Okay, say more. What does this change exactly for you?" Going back to intersectionality, we can unlock so many possibilities for partnership when people realize, oh, we don't only have to enter this through a faith lens, because I think sometimes people get a little weird about religion, and I get that. I understand that that is a prevailing attitude. A lot of people have complicated relationships with their personal religion. I completely understand and respect that, but we are so much more than that.
And so what we say is, to your point about the Cranberries and the Fugees, if Muslims are experiencing it, it's a Muslim issue, period. It does not have to be surveillance. It does not have to be racial or religious profiling. It doesn't have to be hate crimes. Those are also things that our communities are dealing with. But if healthcare, mental health support, reproductive justice, gender justice, so many things. Education, access to education, those are Muslim issues. And sorry, I'm laughing so hard at this Cranberries example, because …
Darren Isom (35:08):
I'm sorry. It's a great one though, right?
Kalia Abiade (35:10):
My middle son, I was just flipping through the radio and 4 Non Blondes were on. And I was like, "Lusa, this is a great song." And he's like, "Mom, you've been spending the last several years trying to instill... Just making sure I know certain things," like Stevie, Lauren, of course Donnie Hathaway. You know these things, but he's like, "This does not compute.” He's like, "I don't understand." I was like, "No, sorry. You have to know this song. What's up? It's 4 Non Blondes. You've got to sing it with all your chest."
Darren Isom (35:44):
This is good stuff.
Kalia Abiade (35:45):
Darren Isom (35:46):
You've got to have these cultural points. So, these are touch points.
Kalia Abiade (35:49):
It doesn't make you any less of anything, but you've got to know it.
Darren Isom (35:51):
Not at all. In fact, it makes you even more of whatever it is, because you can actually stand steadfast in your cultural awareness and appreciate something that may fall outside of, it's actually pretty linked from a thread perspective, right?
Kalia Abiade (36:03):
Darren Isom (36:03):
Appreciate that. Now that story, I'd laugh about that all the time. You've already started talking about this, but if you can share just a little bit more, I would love... You have the floor. For funders that are looking to incorporate more of an intersectional lens into their decision making. And I think one of the things that I'm always trying to encourage folks is how do you center instructionality as opposed to, it's a nice to have? Because I think the answer is there in there, at the intersections. And so, what suggestions do you have for funders that are looking to incorporate intersectional lenses into their decision making and their work? Any thoughts there?
Kalia Abiade (36:38):
Where we start is getting a little uncomfortable, I think as soon as I start feeling a little like, yeah, I know this. I think that's a good challenge to challenge myself. And I know that's pretty basic and a lot of people do it, but there are a lot of assumptions that I think we make about each other and what we know, organizations that we've already heard of. So, when something new lands at our desk, it's like, why haven't I ever heard of this? It's like maybe because the more I... At least I find, the more I'm in philanthropy, the further I sometimes feel from the work that we're supporting, unless I'm actively going out to participate in it or actively taking part in learning about it.
So, one of the things that we did a few years ago was just, identified these five traits of a leader, a little listicle. But one of those was about just a leader who empowers other people in their midst. It's not just one leader. And we've heard a lot about leaderful movements and leaderful organizations, but I think for me, that's where I start. And what I encourage other folks to do too is, if you're only hearing from one person within one organization, and that's something to probe a little bit more, because the more voices you add to that, just ask some questions. I don't know.
Darren Isom (37:55):
A moment. Folks can't see at all. I'm making the face, yeah, that's a good starting point.
Kalia Abiade (37:59):
These organizations that you just hear from that one person everywhere. And for me that definitely poses more questions than it provides answers, because I'm like, what inputs …
Darren Isom (38:13):
What's really going on?
Kalia Abiade (38:14):
... are going into this strategy development? And even though it might look on paper that everybody is from the same community, or everyone has the same experience, the more you plumb... Everyone's bringing those intersectional identities into the strategy or into that organization. And so, I think for me, that's where I start, is looking for organizations that encourage other people to lead from within their communities, within their organizations, or encourage some of their "stakeholders", people working with them in the communities.
And we had this incredible experience with a grantee in Detroit, where we asked them a question. We were having a community dinner, and we said, "Hey, if resources were not an issue, no obstacles, what would you do?" And the founder or the executive director of that organization sat back in his chair and turned the floor over to all of the community members who were in the room. It's like, "We're being asked this question, what do you all think?" And from there, we had an intergenerational response, people who grew up in that neighborhood, people who came from other places and decided to settle in that community. For me, that's where it starts. It takes more time, but I want to hear more voices from the people that were funding, not just the same person over and over.
Darren Isom (39:29):
I love that response for a number of different reasons. When I think that this whole idea of power seating is one that's really relevant within the philanthropic world and the way you teed it up is, how are organizations power seating you within organizations and within their communities, which is really powerful.
You mentioned your three boys, and it's sometimes been on my mind a lot recently as well, as I watch my sister with my nephew, turns five this year. And it's very interesting thinking of what do we pass on to our children in the next generation, and what does that mean and what does that look like? And I ask the question because my sister, interestingly enough, as I watch her with my nephew, she really wants him to be free. And that sounds like such a silly thing to say, but she's really... There was a beautiful piece that I saw in New York some months ago, and it was a play about this teacher working at a school for kids in a correctional facility. And he said that his ultimate goal was to make sure that the boys stayed soft, which was such a powerful statement. It's radical. We do not encourage Black boys to be soft. The exact opposite.
And I see it in my sister with the, let him grow his hair out. Sure, why not? Not the haircut, not the fresh fade at one. Or let him wear colors. Literally, just thinking through all the things where she's encouraging him to not put on armor too early. You have your whole life to put on armor. How do I allow you to be a child? How do I allow you to be free in a world where freedom is not allowed, in a world where being soft is not celebrated? And so I'm just wondering, if any of that resonates for you?
Kalia Abiade (41:05):
I'm breathing deeply.
Darren Isom (41:08):
What are we doing for the next generation? How do we allow them to live into their beauty, live into their freedom, at the same time knowing that we're in a world that's toxic as hell, and we want them to be strong as well?
Kalia Abiade (41:20):
On the personal front in our family, my stepdaughter is the graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana ...
Darren Isom (41:28):
Kalia Abiade (41:29):
... and we believed in HBCUs for our children. We said, "You can go wherever you get money, but our money is going to HBCUs for you, and we want you to have those four years or whatever it is, to just feel the complexity, but also the embrace of being in that space, and not having to define yourself... Define your Blackness at least. You'll define yourself and figure that out."
Darren Isom (41:56):
Well, it gives you space to define other things, right? Because you're not …
Kalia Abiade (41:58):
Right. Within this understanding that that's not going to be questioned of you. That's what we're thinking about all the time inside of our home, is just how do you not feel like you have to answer to everybody for everything about everything. I have anecdotes for every little thing, but thinking again about Adam in fourth grade, having to answer in a classroom, a teacher well meaning. "Adam, as a Muslim, what do you think of 9/11?" He's like, "I'm nine. I was born in 2006."
Darren Isom (42:30):
“First of all, what is 9/11?” Yeah, exactly.
Kalia Abiade (42:32):
So, she showed a little video, but the kids knew to be like, "But Adam's cool." And so she thought she was doing a good thing. And you're always going to run into these well-meaning people, well-meaning teachers, well-meaning white women.
Darren Isom (42:47):
Folks can't see my raised eyebrows over here. Yes, you will always run into them. That's for sure.
Kalia Abiade (42:51):
You will always run into them. And so, how do you just feel comfortable.
Darren Isom (42:54):
And God knows they mean well. They do.
Kalia Abiade (42:55):
Mean so well. And we've all experienced it in that, bless their hearts.
One of the things that we did not talk about yet, but with Pillars where we're doing work to support filmmakers, writers, directors, who are just sharing our stories on screen, and they can be stories that are not perfect. And I think that's the thing that we're trying to encourage with our children, our communities, is that you don't actually have to show up perfectly every time. That's the FBI reception at the mosque too. We can actually be flawed human beings, and still be accepted. We can actually show some stories that are not PR campaigns for our community, and it's still going to be okay. And I think about that, obviously I think about that in my home first. But it extends to all of these communities that we're supporting, and that's why we're supporting mental health work as core to what we're doing because we are going to run into these people and these situations, and we want them to have a soft place to land as well. And so, it's starting inside, but I think it's rippling out through the community.
Darren Isom (44:03):
That's a good one. And actually I have, my team has all kind of notes on you, and so there's a wonderful quote. I'm going to quote you in your own words.
Kalia Abiade (44:09):
Darren Isom (44:09):
"We're not looking for a perfect Muslim story. We're not looking to prove to you that we're all so great. We're looking for range provocative stories that offer dignified portrayals of our community, but full of the mess and nuance and beauty that exists across the human experience." And that's just lovely. I'm going to start using that one. My grandmother used to always say, "God's greatest gift to man was that of free will." We were allowed to live as we liked, and our gift back is to live our lives as beautifully as possible. And there's some beauty in that messiness, and it's our job to make sure that it's celebrated.
I do want to end by making space for joy. And joy is so important to this work. It's so important to the culture. You carry so much joy, and I really appreciate that and I love that. I would love to know how do you maintain that? How do you keep that joy flowing?
Kalia Abiade (44:57):
I mentioned earlier, I'm having a lot of fun right now. As hard as everything is, I've been one of those people who finally learned how to create some compartmentalization to my life. Close the laptop sometimes, and I get in the kitchen …
Darren Isom (45:04):
And not pick up the phone with those …
Kalia Abiade (45:09):
I try. You know my boss.
Darren Isom (45:13):
Oh gosh, just bless his heart. Yeah.
Kalia Abiade (45:15):
We are chatting together all the time, and it's awesome.
Darren Isom (45:17):
He's fun though too, though. He's fun.
Kalia Abiade (45:18):
He's so much fun. No, it's never anything serious. We are able to connect on a personal level and through work, and it's all tangled up, but lately I've just been going back to baking. It does the thing for me. I just use my hands. I bring the kids in there. We make ice cream, we make bread. This is a regular occurrence in our household, and it's just nice to be able to create something in the midst of all of this destruction.
Darren Isom (45:50):
No, one hundred percent, baking stresses me out. I love to cook, but baking stresses me out. The exactness of it all. You can't fix things if it's broken too far.
Kalia Abiade (46:01):
No, that is exactly ... I need it to be perfect.
Darren Isom (46:01):
Interesting. No, totally.
Kalia Abiade (46:02):
It is the exactness.
Darren Isom (46:04):
Well, I think in some ways we're all perfect recipes or perfect dishes of the ingredients and recipes coming from previous generations, as you noted. So, thank you for all that you do. Great chatting with you, and I'll talk with you later.
Kalia Abiade (46:15):
Thank you so much.
My paternal grandfather, Joseph, was orphan as an infant. His parents, Joseph Pierre and Lurecresse, both died within six months of his birth from la maladie, as the Spanish Flu was called in New Orleans. With their deaths, he was sent from their home in New Orleans's Coliseum Square to live with his maternal grandparents upriver in Edgar. They both died before he was 10, and he went just a little further upriver to live with his paternal grandparents in St. James Parish.
By the time my grandfather made his way back to New Orleans to finish high school and prepare for university, he lost four sets of caretakers, including his parents, his maternal and paternal grandparents, and his mother's eldest sister and her husband, who'd invited him into their home after their father's parents died. Despite a childhood that was marked by tragedy, my Grandpa Joseph had nothing but wonderful stories to tell from what he characterized as a very privileged childhood, from Grandpa Adler and Grandma Theres' big pale greenhouse on River Road with a grand music room and a balcony view of the passing ships, to Grandma Sidone's hat shop with a hidden feather vault just below Grandpa Oscar's office on Zunon Street. He always had, as Kalia conjured, a soft place to land. Grandpa Joseph's been gone for over 30 years now, but his story reminds me that my story is an old and beautiful one, shaped partially by the times we're living through, but mostly by the love that abounds throughout. A legacy of love and soft landings, well worth celebrating and living forward.
Well, you all, that's a wrap. And while the episode is finished, the work continues. Thank you for tuning in and listen generously to Dreaming in Color, a Bridgespan-supported Studio Pod media production. Special shout-outs to our wonderful show producers Teresa Buchanan and Denise Savas, our video editors, Dave Clark McCoy, Diana Radaelli, Alejandro Ramirez, our graphic designer, Diana Jimenez, and our show coordinator, Nicole Genova. And a huge shout out to our ever-brilliant Bridgespan production team and family, Cora Daniels, Jasmine Reliford, Ami Diané, Christina Pistorius, and Ryan Wenzel.
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