by Vee Hua
In May 2022, Alesha Washington became the new president and CEO of Seattle Foundation, one of the largest community foundations in the country. Washington comes with expertise from her most recent role as program director for Vibrant Neighborhoods and Inclusive Economy at the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio, where she led her team in efforts to reimagine the foundation’s grant-making in democracy building, civic engagement, and neighborhood resident leadership.
As a cisgender Black woman who grew up in an inner-city, predominantly Black neighborhood in Cleveland, Washington shares that much of her perspective on the world can be credited to what was happening in her community in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The war on drugs was playing out to detrimental effect in inner cities — but simultaneously, the ’90s-era’s robust hip-hop culture was thriving.
“When I think about my time in community, I spend a lot of time thinking about the way in which systems can make a place feel undervalued and displaced, but when you go deep into that community, there are ways that people and community building across people make it something really beautiful and vibrant,” Washington said. “Particularly because of the Black [American] experience I come from … [there is] the ability to make something really beautiful out of nothing, or almost out of chaos or trauma.”
“But [as one who] has had the opportunity to build a career through government relations and nonprofit sector and philanthropy, I sit in a position of privilege,” Washington continued. “So, how do I use that, given my life experience, to really create new opportunities for folks who otherwise have not had that access? That is my north star and guide for how I show up.”
Started in 1946 by Seattle business leader and Seattle Art Museum founder Dr. Richard Fuller — along with 14 other community leaders — the Seattle Foundation began with a $289,000 endowment and a goal to improve the quality of life in Seattle and beyond. In its first year, it provided $8,000 in investments; it now operates with over $1 billion in charitable assets and committed bequests, granting over $100 million to local nonprofits every year.
Seattle Foundation presently hosts a number of grant opportunities, often in partnership with other organizations, focused on diverse topics, such as voter participation (Voter Education Fund), pandemic response (Fund for Inclusive Recovery), and grassroots organizations (Neighbor 2 Neighbor).
Its focus areas have also adapted with the decades. In the 1980s, Seattle Foundation provided funding for HIV/AIDS organizations, such as Bailey-Boushay House and Northwest AIDS Foundation (now known as Lifelong). With the tech boom of the 1990s, it offered some of the country’s first donor-advised funds in response, endeavoring to change the ways in which funds were invested in community.
Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, Seattle Foundation created frameworks for giving, such as the Blueprint for Impact, which “outlines a series of bold strategies for advancing racial equity, shared prosperity, and belonging,” and increased participatory grant-making, which allows grantees and community leaders to serve as a part of the grant-making process.
Washington cites Neighbor 2 Neighbor (N2N) and the Black-Led Joy and Wellness Fund as successful examples of grants that have been co-created with community. N2N, started in 1992, “supports grassroots efforts that increase engagement, power and influence of community members affected by poverty and racial disparities.” The Black-Led Joy and Wellness Fund supports the well-being of staff at Black-led and -serving organizations under Seattle Foundation’s REPAIR (Racially Equitable Philanthropy Aimed at Initiating Reparations) framework, and was created in 2021 to address the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and anti-Black racism.
“These are community-guided by having different grant-making partners in community be part of the shaping of the work, and then thinking about where investment goes,” explained Washington. “I think that process around co-creation, intentional listening, and then letting that guide how investment goes is the right approach, and I think the continued deepening of that is going to be important, but I think it’s also important to think about the other roles that we bring to play in the grant [sphere].”
Washington believes that Seattle Foundation can leverage its positional power and influence to create access, advocate, convene, or be a thought partner and thought leader. One example she cites is the work the foundation does with King County, where government bureaucracy and contracting processes may sometimes be difficult for small, grassroots organizations.
“We can do as much as we can from an access standpoint with [the organizations], to help ease the process,” said Washington, “but we also have an opportunity to work with our partners in local government to say, ‘Hey, is there a reason why this process has to be this way? And can we think about the ways that we can streamline it?’”
Washington’s understanding of local, county, and state governments comes from her past role as vice president of government advocacy for the Greater Cleveland Partnership, one of the largest metropolitan chambers of commerce in the country. There, she served as the lead advocate on policy issues impacting local business and economy. Coming to a city like Seattle, which arcs toward progresssive policy, Washington is fascinated by the political landscape and is still learning what collective action in the area looks like.
“Questions that sit on my mind, coming from my past life in the government relations world, is: How does [the government] impact long-term policy reform, change, and opportunity?” Washington asked. “And then, how does the business community, nonprofits, or even philanthropy step in and fulfill a gap or a void that that work happens in, if at all?”
She does not yet have a clear answer. As a newcomer, Washington recognizes that she has much to learn, and that the best approach may be to listen first.
“It really is taking the time to meet and learn a lot of different voices about this place and about the challenges, but also the opportunities that they see,” she said, “and then figure out how my skill set — along with Seattle Foundation’s value-add — can help further the cause.”
Washington recalled a notable moment with The George Gund Foundation, which helps shape her current perspective. She began her role there in January 2020, but by March, Ohio was shut down due to COVID-19; shortly thereafter came the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter racial uprisings.
“What I saw happening in my community — that I know was happening in many other places — was that a lot of legacy institutions … were being called upon to provide the answers for the time … but these were also institutions that have been woefully underfunded, not really supported deeply by philanthropy, and were stressed to keep the lights on,” she recalled.
“So my goal became to move as much resources as I could for them as possible, for operations, so they could do the work that they were being called to do,” Washington continued. “And I’ll never forget a late-night conversation with the CEO of the Cleveland Urban League, who said, ‘You’ve given us more support in this one grant than we’ve gotten over our life cycle… your belief in us to do this work and to prove it with the dollars: Now we can really do the work.”
Stories like this will guide Washington’s tenure as president and CEO of Seattle Foundation, and she wholly plans to bring her lived experience to the role.
“[That story] puts me to the importance of [this]: If you come from a certain experience and have a lens, and then, if you get into a position of power and influence, what you can do with it that’s positive versus using it for selfish gain,” said Washington. “I can create opportunity for people because of the role that I sit in, so [I will] maximize this as long as I can, and as best as I can, because I may not be here forever.”
Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/she) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the interim managing editor of the South Seattle Emerald, editor-in-chief of REDEFINE, and co-chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also previously served as the executive director of the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences. Their latest short film, Reckless Spirits, is a metaphysical, multilingual POC buddy comedy, and will be released in late 2022. Follow them at @hellomynameisvee or over at veehua.com
📸 Featured Image: Alesha Washington is Seattle Foundation’s new Executive Director. (Photo: Nakean Wickliff, courtesy of Seattle Foundation)
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