Equity in Action: Reflecting on Our 2023 U.S. Grantee Partner Retreat

Thursday May 2, 2024

Written by Lei Ma, U.S. Senior Program Associate 

Since the WES Mariam Assefa Fund launched in 2019 with a mission to catalyze economic and social inclusion for immigrants and refugees, we knew that our work needed to adopt an intersectional lens, as people’s multiple identities interconnect and can compound the effects of racism and inequity.

The year 2020 crystallized the need for this lens further, as the racial reckoning brought urgency to how philanthropic organizations address justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). Around the same time, people became increasingly aware of “essential workers,” many of whom were immigrants, including undocumented people, who kept us safe and fed during the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic but faced significant health risks with far too little reward. We must address systemic barriers to create lasting change and reshape the narrative for immigrants and refugees.

In 2022, to better center equity in whom and what we fund, the Fund partnered with Just Strategies, a mission-driven consulting firm, to assess our philanthropic practices, including our grantee partners’ perspectives on how the Fund can be more impactful in its commitment to JEDI.

Just Strategies solicited feedback and recommendations from the Fund’s U.S. and Canadian grantee, investee, and strategic partners through online surveys, focus group conversations, and one-on-one interviews. The Just Strategies team prepared an equity report, which would serve as a roadmap for the Fund to advance its equitable philanthropic practices. With this report, the Fund developed equity actions and invited partners to join a virtual discussion.

One action item was to engage more with partners in person, to learn from partners’ lived experience, and to deepen relationships and collaboration. In December 2023, the Fund brought together its grantee partners in the U.S. for an in-person gathering. As we were brainstorming for the theme of the gathering, our partner Dwayne Wharton at Just Strategies suggested that we use the space for self and collective care. We loved the idea immediately. Many of our partners work tirelessly to promote JEDI. in their work every day, and their burnout and exhaustion are real and significant. We quickly decided to create the space for self-care, caring for others, and discovering restorative opportunities on the journey of advancing racial equity.

Amid a tumultuous landscape where racial justice programs face scrutiny, and global turmoil shakes the very foundations of our faith, instead of coming together to discuss work, creating a space for care felt like the most needed thing to do. This felt like something we as a funder should offer to our grantee partner community.

Many on the Fund team were initially hesitant to be present in the room to avoid unnecessary funder and grantee dynamics and thought it might be best to dedicate the space to our partners only. However, Just Strategies offered a vision for our presence as a way to seed trust: by facing the dynamics together, listening to each other’s stories and struggles, and sharing our thoughts and feelings.

And so, that indeed was the best decision. Although it was the first time many of us met in person, with our wonderful partners in the room and thoughtful facilitation by Just Strategies, in a momentous gathering filled with authenticity and vulnerability, the Fund and its partners embarked on a journey of introspection and healing. We reflected on the challenges of advancing JEDI. internally and externally at our organizations and how to move organizations more towards an orientation that actively encourages understanding, empathy, and action related to JEDI. We listened, shared stories, danced, meditated, and laughed.

We were inspired by the resilience of our partners, and we left the space feeling deeply grateful to them for taking the time to participate in person and create this beautiful memory together. And we would especially like to acknowledge our partners at Just Strategies who made this happen: Dwayne Wharton, Cicely Peterson-Mangum, Kathleen Furin, and Zola Wharton.

Although I knew we wouldn’t be living in a world of justice the next day, collectively, we, from various cultural backgrounds, age groups, work functions, and fields, shared and listened, which to me was healing and powerful. I can feel that the trust has grown.

In reflecting on the Fund’s equity retreat of 2023, one thing became clear: in a world fraught with challenges, the power of community, compassion, and collaboration knows no bounds. And for the Fund, the journey towards justice and equity continues.


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