WDN Board Treasurer Sharon Chen Is Stepping Into Power By Sharing It
Your background is in computer science engineering and you worked at Microsoft for 12 years. You’re also incredibly involved in philanthropy, political activism, and environmental justice. How has your career propelled your philanthropic and activist journey?
As a young Asian female in tech in the 90’s who was one of three women in my class to graduate as a computer science major, and the only one with an engineering degree, and even though I valued many of the coworkers and experiences I had during those 12 years, I found many aspects of working in the corporate tech world frustrating. So, oddly, while I didn’t know it at the time, my philanthropic and activist journey has ultimately served as a process for me to understand better what I experienced. It gave me a vocabulary to express and understand my frustrations and experiences and helped me realize that voices like mine are routinely discounted as less important or simply not as informed because of my gender, my age, or my race. I believe I have something to offer this world. We all do, and when we as a society effect solutions without bringing in a variety of voices we are taking risks. It is better for everyone when we are including everyone’s wisdom. I will do everything I can to make such a world a reality.
Environmentalism is sometimes broadstroked as a white issue but people of color (POC) are most impacted by pollution and climate change and POC-led environmental justice organizations are often underfunded in philanthropy. What is your perspective on this and the role that DEI plays in this movement?
That POC are most impacted by pollution and climate change is absolutely true. But I feel that to look at the situation with that foremost in mind runs the danger of reducing communities of color to victims rather than agents of their own lives. It is this dynamic that contributes to climate funders having the impression that someone needs to “save these communities from climate change.” It gives the perception that Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC)-led organizations are suited only for direct service work and not policy development or advocacy. And so we have the current situation where only 1.3% of funding from the top 12 climate funders in the US goes to BIPOC-led efforts, as found in a study by The New School. When much of the most inspiring and impactful organizing against climate change has come from POC communities this is not a winning number and ironically all people (including wealthy privileged white people) are the poorer for it.
I’m on the board of directors at Donors of Color Network which has launched an initiative to change this by asking organizations that do climate funding to, one, start tracking and be transparent about where their climate funding is going; and two, commit at least 30% of their climate funding to POC organizations within the next two years.
Many of us, myself included, have asked ourselves over the past year, “What can I do? What have I not been doing?” Funding climate justice in an effective way, is one thing.
The Asian American community has faced extreme violence over the past year; while hate crimes decreased overall by 7%, hate crimes targeting Asian Americans increased by nearly 150% in 2020. As an experienced activist and philanthropist and someone who is part of the Asian American community, what are your thoughts on the violence and where we go from here?
In order to really do anything about Asian hate, we need to do something about Asian belittling, Asian disregard, Asian invisibility, Asian objectification, etc.
The shooter in Georgia was asked if his crime was racially motivated. No, he said. And while I know he is wrong, I believe he is chillingly sincere in his answer. He didn’t regard the targets of his violence as people at all. In order to go through his bad day and execute, what was to him, a simple plan to remove the temptations from his life, he had to consider his victims as mere objects–not thinking, feeling people, but rather trash that he had to clear out of his life so that he could be a better person. It’s like when I clean out my pantry of junk food.
That an entire class of people can exist to this man as simply his temptations and nothing more belies a profound worldview where Asian women exist only in relation to the benefit they might have to people like him–white men.
There can be no hate really without the minor crimes of disregard, disrespect, objectification, and countless other mindsets that can be seen in the everyday microaggressions that people who look like me experience. Think about that the next time you come across these seemingly harmless crimes. They aren’t harmless. Hate depends on them and won’t go away without addressing their foundation.
When you joined WDN you were already involved in philanthropy and politics. What drew you to join WDN?
One of my personal passions has been people stepping into power that sometimes they didn’t realize they had. What struck me about WDN’s origin story was that it was a space where women came together and could freely exchange ideas that would have been considered too radical, too feminist, or just plain too much in other specs. It sounded like freedom.
I also learned about the kind of funding that WDN was doing in the area of Black-led organizing. At the time that I joined in 2018 there was fear from many organizations to clearly say “we’re prioritizing Black-led funding”. There still is today, although that’s loosening. WDN was and is a space that clearly backed Black-led organizers and voiced the history and the context of why that’s important and should be a focus. It was the first national organization that I had the opportunity to be a part of, that was looking at funding this kind of work. It sounded exactly like the community that I wanted to learn from.
Tell us about your decision to join the WDN board of directors and most recently, this year, to step up as board treasurer.
This is a hugely exciting time at WDN. As a community of women donors, all of us have been realizing that we have more power than we thought we had. People are being more active, more engaged politically, are putting more resources in, and are learning more about political and c4 giving. We are stepping into our power, in part, by sharing it, which means that we’re all, collectively, more powerful. Both among the donor community and with movement leaders, which is something I’d like us to do more of.
While the challenges are great and there is a lot of work to be done, I feel that WDN is at a juncture where its impact and potential is exploding and I want to be a part of maximizing that. Also, I am enthusiastic about the people I am working with, both board members and WDN staff members, and it feeds me personally to work with them.
In what ways do you hope the world of philanthropy will grow and change? What industry shifts, initiatives, or organizations in philanthropy make you feel like that change is possible?
I believe the world of philanthropy needs to change and refocus on what was billed as its original purpose–to make positive change for humanity. Afterall “love of man” is the root meaning of the word. Unfortunately, historically, philanthropy in the US has actually been used to codify power imbalances in our society–particularly around the culture of extraction that drives so much of how we operate. One need only to look at the billions sitting in the corpuses of foundations tax free, being invested in industries that cause the problems they are purported to fight, to understand this.
One of the long-term shifts I’d like to see at WDN, is away from us as wealthy people choosing where money goes. Right now at WDN, grantmaking is done through our impact collectives which improves the efficacy of us as individual philanthropists and I don’t want to lose that educational aspect. But it is also important to ask, is the power in the hands of the people most able to do the best with it? What strategies can we shift towards that will ensure that happens?
What advice would you give to someone just joining WDN? What are some things they can do to be more involved, connected, and informed?
Attend our conference! WDN does an amazing job with the conference, and now, online presentations and talks, so take advantage. It’s one of the huge benefits of being a member.
Where can we connect with and follow your work? (Drop your social media handles, website, blog, or anything else you’d like our readers to connect with.)
You can follow me on Twitter, @sharonhchen.