In this episode, Dr. Carmen Rojas, the president and chief executive officer at the Marguerite Casey Foundation, joins the show. She shares stories of her upbringing as a child of Venezuelan and Nicaraguan immigrants, confronts the complexities and contradictions of the social sector, and offers us a space to think and dream boldly. We learn of the familial roots and values that shaped her path toward a PhD, brainstorm around collective liberation in an age of mass wealth and inequality, and discuss how philanthropy can sharpen its focus on social justice. Join us as we bask in Carmen’s wit and wisdom.
Darren Isom: (00:04)
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. This is Dreaming In Color.
Darren Isom: (00:21)
When it comes to the world of philanthropy, Dr. Carmen Rojas disrupts the narrative. She dreams boldly and openly about a future where, in her own words, “we're not afraid to name those who work against our collective wellbeing, where social movements aren't tethered to those who may not want them to win, where we can grapple with the white supremacy of our founding while building the anti-racist institutions of our future, and where the greatness that we can achieve when giving to and of each other is incentive enough.” Now, the president and chief executive officer of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, she draws from her upbringing as a child of Venezuelan and Nicaraguan immigrants. She tackles her work with wit, uncanny nimbleness, and clarity of mind and vision.
Darren Isom: (01:00)
After earning her bachelor's degree from UC Santa Cruz and her Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley, she was a Fulbright Scholar teaching in Venezuela and the Director of Strategic Programs at the Mitchell Kapor Foundation. A few years later, she founded and led The Workers Lab, an innovation lab that invests in entrepreneurs, community organizers, and government leaders to create replicable and revenue-generating solutions that improve conditions for low-wage workers.
Darren Isom: (01:24)
She sits on several boards, including the General Service Foundation, Blue Ridge Labs, and the San Francisco Federal Reserve’s Community Advisory Council. She's taught in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, and served as the coordinator of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s Task Force on African American Out-Migration, to address the displacement of Black communities in the city. We are humbled and overjoyed to share this space with Dr. Carmen Rojas.
Darren Isom: (01:52)
Carmen, really excited to chat with you today. As you know, I'll allow you to kick it off with a bit of invocation, to set the space. Go for it.
Carmen Rojas: (02:00)
First, let me start with a thank you. And I went back and forth on what my invocation was going to be, but I am going to share something from Angela Davis on optimism, and she writes in ‘Freedom Is A Constant Struggle’, "Well, I don't think we have any alternative other than remaining optimistic. Optimism is an absolute necessity, even if it's only optimism of the will, as Gramsci said, and pessimism of the intellect. What has kept me going has been the development of new modes of community. I don't know whether I would've survived had not movement survived, had not communities of resistance, communities of struggle survived. So whatever I'm doing, I always feel myself directly connected to those communities. And I think that this is an era where we have to encourage that sense of community, particularly at a time when neoliberalism attempts to force people to think of themselves only in individual terms, and not in collective terms. It is in collective that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism."
Darren Isom: (03:06)
"It is in collective that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism," Now if that ain't an anthem, I don't know what is. That's beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. That's really powerful. And as we jump in, one, really excited to chat with you for a number of different reasons. You're just painfully, just wonderfully interesting, in so many ways. And I think that I would love to start just by giving you a chance to talk about your background, from a family cultural perspective, and how in many ways that background may have shaped who you are, and your optimism from a life perspective.
Carmen Rojas: (03:37)
Oh, yeah, juicy. I am the youngest of three kids. My closest brother in age is 14 years older than I am, so I'm like a fake only-kid, who grew up in an extended family that was vast. My mom is one of 17, and my dad is one of 10. My mom is the second eldest of 17, overwhelmingly women, who grew up in a small town in rural Nicaragua, and she was the first person in her immediate family to immigrate to the United States. My dad is the youngest of 10, and he grew up on the last island in the Caribbean, off the coast of Venezuela, near Trinidad and Tobago. Both of my parents grew up poor, global south poor, and had ... From a very young age, my dad tells these stories of trying to escape on Navy ships from Margarita, where he's from to the United States.
Carmen Rojas: (04:42)
They each found their way to San Francisco and were able to, really with optimism, with hope, with a belief of themselves, with fire, with ancestors, were able to create a life for me and my brothers, that was pretty remarkable. I often credit it to the moment in time that they immigrated. They moved here, they both immigrated at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, the peak of the feminist movement, and at the moment in US history, when the majority of working people were represented by labor unions. So they benefited from all of the social and economic infrastructures that many, many people before them had really laid the groundwork for them to arrive into a country of what was possible. And I'm a product of what we are when we invest in all of us.
Carmen Rojas: (05:41)
And I love my mom, that's my lady, that's my lady on the streets. She is so funny. We have this depth of love and admiration for each other, and for her, she could never have imagined what having a daughter who has a Ph.D. and runs a foundation. Like, these were not the things that she did. She worked at a Levi's factory. She cleaned office buildings. And I think that she planted a seed of hope and optimism in me, of possibility in me, as a woman, as a Latina, that frankly many people and many women don't get planted in them. She just watered and tended to it, and cared for it. And here I am today, Darren.
Darren Isom: (06:28)
Here you are today, in the powerful role that you are. I love this. In many ways, you talk about the story, your parents' story in some ways, that you live as an extension of that story, and their hopes and their dream. And as you talk about your mother, you're doing things that are meaningful and powerful in ways that she could have never imagined. It reminds me of my maternal grandmother, a child of sharecroppers in rural Louisiana. My mom is one of six kids, and we're the working-class side of the family. And generationally speaking, my grandmother, who was a housekeeper, insisted that my mother was educated, even more than the boys. The boys were all educated, but for the girls you had to get an education. It was the only way you had an option, right? It was, that you had to have an education.
Darren Isom: (07:06)
And I remember when my grandmother was on her deathbed, my mother held her hand and said jokingly to her, as Black families joke about death in New Orleans, "But you can't die. I haven't learned how to cook yet." And my grandmother looked up at her with the most serious face and said, "That's because you succeeded in life." For her, a woman that didn't know how to cook was all she ever wanted for her daughter. So I think it's something really interesting to think about, like the placeholders that you play, in your parents' lives, but I would love for you to just share, maybe in some ways, I feel like your mother's a placeholder for you, things you needed in your life, as well. What are the things that you've taken from her, from a success perspective, that she wouldn't even think about?
Carmen Rojas: (07:43)
A depth of optimism. She is, I can't imagine, my mom is like five feet tall, ended up in San Francisco, and had just a belief that things could be better for her children, could be better for herself. And her life wasn't easy. She has the ability to star cast forward into a universe of possibility. My mom is a deeply emotive and emotional person. Every time she leaves me at the airport, you would think that ... And I am not, I'm kind of robotic.
Darren Isom: (08:23)
Well compared to her, maybe.
Carmen Rojas: (08:23)
And so I deeply, yeah, I just admire her ability to tap into the well of her heart and to know that it's infinite, that the feelings that live in there are not finite. If she is hurt, she can begin again. If she's fallen out of love, she can begin again, like that. But the will of her emotions are infinite, and it's something that I really admire. I guess she's a super small person compared to me, and she's just fierce. She's almost 80. You can't stop her from carrying a bag, from finding a stool to jump on. You can't stop her from things.
Darren Isom: (09:07)
I love the tenacity of spirit, and the ability to reimagine. I mean, those are all, funny enough, very American traits, right?
Carmen Rojas: (09:13)
Darren Isom: (09:16)
I love that. And I think that's a great basis for us to jump to the next question. I would love to hear, sounds like I've already heard it, but maybe for you to articulate a little bit more, what was your motivation to go into the social sector from a work perspective? How did you land there?
Carmen Rojas: (09:31)
Accidentally, truly accidentally, lots of people, a lot of people along the way. I barely graduated high school. I graduated with just under a 2.0 GPA. I went to a school with 4,000 kids. My graduating class, starting was 1,000, and it was expected that at least 30% of those kids would not graduate from high school. And I went to community college and had an amazing group of teachers. It was when affirmative action still existed in the State of California. It was there that I read ‘Song of Solomon’ by Toni Morrison. And I was like, “Wow, this is a book; this is a book of a story of people that I could imagine in my mind and are so far away from my reality. I love this.” I love the written word. I learned to love how to read. I learned to love how to write.
Carmen Rojas: (10:31)
And I had one teacher in particular, who was, I think he's at Berkeley Community College now, who was in his first year of teaching, a young Chicano from Hawaii. And I just didn't imagine that Latinx folk lived outside of California. I was like, "What? What are you doing here? It's so amazing." But he opened me up to an entire universe of what was possible. And I went to, I got into UC Santa Cruz through undergrad, and was really lucky to meet Manuel Pastor, and work for Manuel Pastor as an undergraduate student.
Carmen Rojas: (11:09)
UC Santa Cruz is a funny part of the UC system because, at that time, it was the highest average parent income of any of the UCs, and it had the most diverse tenured faculty of any of the UCs. So going there made it so that I didn't have to do work-study in a cafeteria, but could do academic research as an undergraduate. I got an award to work with Angela Davis, looking at human rights violations in women's prisons. I had access to people who at other universities, would not have been mine, or would've been able to plant in me. And got a fellowship at The Greenlining Institute out of undergraduate. And that was really the start in my summer-
Darren Isom: (11:53)
You're already killing the game.
Carmen Rojas: (11:55)
I was like, "There's a whole universe." It was really amazing to on the one side, be able to hold an ideological possibility animated around this idea of liberation and to come into a sector that was working to make that real. The public sector is not situated for liberation, it's often in the contest. And the same with the private sector. The social sector created a lot of room for me to hold, I didn't have to feel like I had to tuck parts of myself away. I got my first job. I shared an office with Fred Blackwell, who now runs the San Francisco Foundation, and I was 20, maybe, years old. And at some point, he took me to lunch, and he was like, "So what's the plan?" And he couldn't, again, coming from my family, I was like, "I have an office. I share it with you, but who cares? I'm rich. And with my $32,000 a year, I've made it, Fred Blackwell. I don't need anything."
Darren Isom: (12:56)
I'm cracking up. You're like, "Box checked – I am successful."
Carmen Rojas: (13:01)
Darren, you could not have said anything to me at that point. And he was like, "Oh, no. You can't be a program assistant forever." And encouraged me to apply to graduate school. I worked, like every single person of color I know who goes to graduate school, has to have some other side job. And when I didn't work, I got a Fulbright and lived in Venezuela and I hated it. I hated doing academic research that was disconnected from the places I'd lived, and the communities that were at the forefront of my mind. And came back, and got my first job in philanthropy at the, then, Mitch Kapor Foundation.
Darren Isom: (13:41)
Mm-hmm, I want to pause there just for just a second. Because there was a lot to unpack there, and we have to unpack some of this over cocktails someday because there's a lot going on. Great stuff. But you just articulated so well how you, in some ways, lived into your parents' radical imagination, right? And now Fred's giving you the opportunity to think about, "What are you imagining radically?" How do you think about the world that you're trying to create for someone else to live in? So I just want to just stop and make some space to give you space to talk about what are your dreams as you think about the work in the social sector?
Darren Isom: (14:12)
What do you see as a radical, "Radical" it's all in quotations, because the stuff that we're trying to push through ain't all that radical. I joke all the time, my grandmother used to always say, "Black comedians should never get paid because all they do is tell the truth." And so I think so many of us, many are doing this work that comes across as remotely radical, we're just saying stuff that should be normal. So what's that radical stuff you're pushing for from a dreams perspective?
Carmen Rojas: (14:35)
I want leaders of racial justice organizations to have all of their resources at their fingers tip, to be able to not only execute but to be able to dream, to be clumsy. I always think about the white entrepreneur who's peddling a tech product, and all of the ways that we have been able to articulate a narrative of an idea, of ideation, building, breaking, of failing, and starting again. And racial justice leaders don't have that arc – either they are resourced barely to survive, so that people can say they gave them money, or they're non-existent. There's no full realization of what is possible when racial justice leaders have all of the resources necessary to actually win.
Carmen Rojas: (15:26)
I dream of doing that in ways that are as transparent as possible. I think philanthropy has made and tied itself in knots to professionalize our sector. And some of that is that "We don't get to do this. The government says we do this, and there are norms and rules that should be followed." And oftentimes that comes at the expense of grant recipients. And I imagine a world where philanthropy sits at the feet of racial justice leaders and leads, and heads from the lessons and pains that they are both learning and holding. So we can best be of service.
Darren Isom: (16:08)
I want to stop there just because as you talk about this idea of rethinking and repositioning philanthropy, and clearly much has been written about that. And I want to acknowledge that. I do also want to acknowledge there are some inherent tensions that those of us who work in this space recognize, and don't know what to do with. I was just having a conversation last week, where we've really spent so much time thinking, as a society, as you think about billionaires and wealthy folks, and thinking about we created this narrative that the skills that were created and amassed billions of dollars are somehow never transferable to giving away billions of dollars. And it's like, "Okay, well maybe not always transferable. Maybe there are a few, right?" But when do we have the conversation about what happens if those skills and assets are actually counter to what it takes to get it done. And what do we do with that?
Carmen Rojas: (16:57)
One of the knots that I feel like we have tied racial justice leaders in is to name racialized capitalism as a problem, but not to name philanthropy as a product of racialized capitalism. So it's really difficult for us, it feels bad. It feels gross to be like, "Oh, I work in this sector that's a product of racialized capitalism." And it's dishonest to imagine that we come from a place that many of our institutions ... Of course, I can tell you the story of Jim Casey, who endowed the Marguerite Casey Foundation, and for all intents and purposes, there is no negative origin source, right, outside of the fact that he made a choice not to pay full taxes when his company went public, and then pooled that money from our public coffers, from us, and thought that he was in a better position, or that he could hire a team of people that would be in a better position than us, to decide where those resources go.
Carmen Rojas: (17:55)
And one of the liberating things for me is to hold that contradiction publicly, which is to say that philanthropy is a product of the worst parts of racialized capitalism. And that makes it even more important for us to actually fund in ways that address racialized capitalism. That address the ways that Black people, in particular, have been isolated, starved, and disconnected systemically from their fair share of resources, to actually live lives of dignity in this country. It creates greater pressure on me to publicly hold that contradiction and to fund in ways that go to the heart of the solution, and not around the edges.
Darren Isom: (18:36)
And I think that what you're pulling, I mean, this is all very powerful and meaningful. And I would love for you to talk a little bit more about what it means to stick with the contradiction. I say that in the sense that I just think that people of color are just experts at sitting with beautiful contradictions. Literally, it's our narrative, right? I joke all the time that if you ever want to understand a solid story, just look at how Black America has navigated so many contradictions. I mean, literally, we were out here becoming Christian, and we were being told by Christians that Black people couldn't even go to Heaven. And we were, I mean, you definitely had to hold your own story and create your own story. I would love to hear, as you talk about that contradiction, how do you hold that in a way that's powerful and meaningful, and changes the story as opposed to just normalizing it?
Carmen Rojas: (19:17)
Mm-hmm. One, say it. Say that there is a contradiction, say that "I'm a part of a contradiction." Say that, "I personally benefit," that I am probably wealthier than most Latinos in this country because of this contradiction. And to not tie myself in knots trying to justify the contradiction, but name the origin source of the contradiction. Which is we have political and economic leadership and a historical leadership that has placed the concentration of wealth over our collective wellbeing. It's this idea of a collective leading to greater hope? We've come back to the invocation, right? Our leaders have lived into a different set of values. I'm also radically pragmatic. I believe in pragmatic utopianism. I don't want to spend a bunch of time talking my way out of a position, where I can affect how resources move, to who, in a quick and seamless way, and at scale.
Carmen Rojas: (20:25)
I don't want to talk myself out of the job, because I know a future is possible. I want to tie those two things together. I want to tie the responsibility of creating an example of a just philanthropy, of a transparent philanthropy, of aneasy and responsive philanthropy, to the utopia that writes us out of the story, that writes philanthropy out of the story of how people get houses in this country, of how people eat every day in this country, of how people come together. What the world over has shown us, here, right? That people, when they want to fight, will come together and fight, and they'll fight for a better future for themselves, their families, and for their communities. And philanthropy can either be an agent of help, or an agent of harm. There's no in-between. I really want to create an example of philanthropy being an agent of service, by creating a more even terrain to fight for the future that I know is possible for us.
Darren Isom: (21:24)
And I want to jump in there as well, because I think that, we've talked before, and you just brought up some wonderful points around thinking about our role. And I say this as BIPOC leaders, in changing the narrative and disrupting the narrative. And one of the most powerful things I've read that you've written is this concept of how we arrive at the top of our fields in our institutions, and dreaming is discouraged. In many ways, we're forced to assimilate and conform. And as I mentioned with you in a previous conversation, one of the things that I hold as a mea culpa, as a Black professional you realize that you've basically navigated your life by being able to navigate broken systems. You become an expert at navigating broken systems. You see the system there, you're like, "Ooh, this is a mess, but let's see how we're going to get around this, right.”
Darren Isom: (22:08)
And at some point, that becomes your asset. And you have to think about, "Okay, well, how am I going to fix the system that's broken, instead of teaching people how to navigate it?" Because in navigating it, you confirm the system, you keep it going. You validate it to some degree. So I would love for you to just talk a little bit more about how, in your role, you're trying to repair the broken system, as opposed to just teaching others to navigate around it?
Carmen Rojas: (22:33)
I go on in that same piece, to talk about naming both the victims and the victors. That's one of the ways, right? That in philanthropy and in justice philanthropy, we believe everybody can be an equal winner in this fight. It's just not true. There are people who are actively working against my right to vote, my right to a safe abortion, and my right to participate in our economy fully. People who are actively benefiting from my brothers and sisters not having citizenship status, by putting more money into policing than they are into schools. They're people who benefit from that.
Carmen Rojas: (23:12)
There's a real resistance to name the victors at this moment, in our economy. And philanthropy is a victor in this moment and in our economy. I think that we need to be able to say that, and to resource people who are on the other side, the people who have been excluded from shaping the rules of our economy and our democracy, to center them. To make sure that they are not only responding and reacting, but they have the resources to dream, to build, and to create the economy and democracy that we know is possible here.
Carmen Rojas: (23:48)
That's one very hard way because I feel alone in that. It's a scary thing to do, to alienate people in philanthropy. Because philanthropy is very, it's genteel. There's politeness. There's a polite politic to being in philanthropy, and a desire, and a fundamental belief, I think that politeness is motivated by a desire to actually influence where more money goes. Even if that means that more money goes not to leaders on the front lines, not to organizers who are fighting every day, but to middle of the road organizations. There's a lot of brainwashing that I think we do here in philanthropy, around racial justice work. I've been lucky to move to Seattle at a time when there are a number of leaders who are grappling with what this means and looks like in Washington state. And it's scary. I realize that I have a board that includes Stacey Abrams, Marisa Franco, and Rashad Robinson. So my conversations are very different than those with people who have living donors.
Darren Isom: (24:51)
Wonderful board, and wonderful conversations. I do think there is something to be said about, you talk about, and I'll say it, because why not? We talk very often about this idea of how do we elevate certain voices? And we don't talk about how do we make sure that, one, if we're elevating certain voices, we have to make sure that people are listening, right? So we have to teach people to hear. And the second one is, that you can talk about elevating voices, but that also means some voices need to be silenced. And we don't want to have that conversation. But some folks, that we don't need to be hearing them. We've heard enough of them, in a way that's not helpful. So that's really powerful. Building on the same point, to some degree, as you think about the work of philanthropy, I mean our earlier conversation, you talked about this idea of our being in a civil war. The role of philanthropy in that war, can't be one of bubble gum answers.
Darren Isom: (25:38)
I mean, I have, I wrote that down and underlined it a few times. I would love to get your thoughts on how, within philanthropy, and I think it's important for us, I know very often we talk about the social sector, we talk about philanthropy in a very monolithic way. Because of the way you paint in broad strokes for the sake of conversation. I think it's important for us to be talking about where there are roles for some of us to be playing and supporting the work in a more radical way.
Carmen Rojas: (26:03)
One is just naming, right? So since January 6th, when there was an insurrection and an attempt to overthrow an election in this country, I think that many people in philanthropy have just not said anything. People have been like, "Oh, well glad the Democrats won." Or like, "Oh, not my job." And for me, one of the greatest failings of philanthropic leaders in this moment is confusing being partisan with being ideological. That somehow, if you say that there was an insurrection, you're a partisan, and that's just not true. That's just a fact that there are certain people, and let's name them, white supremacist forces, in this country who are actively working to keep a stranglehold on the vast majority of people, and communities of color across this country. That's just what's happening. And if I read one more unnecessary study that ties our policing institutions to these white supremacist institutions, just to confirm the relationships between these two, I feel like my head's going to explode. We know this is true. This is history. There's a whole history written on this.
Darren Isom: (27:19)
Not new. This is old news.
Carmen Rojas: (27:20)
I feel like ... No, it's not new. And I think that what's likely to happen is, in the coming years we, and I'll speak specifically to progressive funders who believe in, who either believe or speak to a promise of racial justice, who believe that we can be the first country in the history of the world to bring together so many different people to co-govern and co-create a collective future of wellbeing. We are often caught by surprise, even though the story is telling itself in real-time, in every media platform. We are in denial, and we're funding opposition to those leaders. We fight, a number of us are funding in this moment to reconcile. I'm like, "I don't know that reconciling is ... Why are we funding to reconcile? The Koch brothers aren't out here funding to reconcile. Peter Thiel is not out here funding to reconcile, they're funding to win."
Carmen Rojas: (28:21)
And I think that there's a very real denial about opposition in philanthropy. I mean, the most interesting thing for me was when this, what is it, the United Philanthropy Forum wrote an article about social justice funders doing too much. And I was like, "Oh, interesting, this is important. Yes, I'm glad you are saying this. We should get together and actually respond to this." We need to actually define our sector, and instead many of us just hid and were afraid to take on the right-wing forces in our sector, the white supremacist forces in our sector. The people who, at other moments in time, would've felt free to call us and treat us very differently than they treat us now, because we are where we are.
Darren Isom: (29:04)
Well, we didn't even want to acknowledge it exists.
Carmen Rojas: (29:08)
This is a hard-fought game.
Darren Isom: (29:08)
We didn't even want to acknowledge that it existed.
Carmen Rojas: (29:11)
Totally. Yeah, we want to convince them. We're like, "Oh, if only you spend more time," this is the working in the broken systems. I feel like so often the story that leaders of color, who have amassed resources and power, tell themselves, is, "If only these forces, these other opposition leaders spent more time with us and our kind, they would see how human we were." Imagine the absurdity of that statement, of needing to ... I just don't want to spend my life with that. I don't want to wake up every day happy and joyful, chewing bubble gum, and skipping through the forest. But I also don't want to spend one second of my waking breath convincing somebody that I am a whole human being, who's deserving of a voice, and to live a life of dignity in this country, regardless of where and how my parents got here.
Carmen Rojas: (30:02)
It is not the thing that I want to do. And so I feel like we are in a civil war. And for those of us who aren't aware, or aren't saying that over and over again, we have the next couple of years, as we will see what happens in the next couple of years in this country.
Darren Isom: (30:22)
Oh, we'll definitely see, that's for sure. And I think that the point there, one, is the constant dilemma of not wanting to affirm the white gaze. But at the same time, having to be able to somehow or another respond to it. As opposed to living our lives, and doing what we know to be the right answer. That's the constant challenge, of knowing when do we respond in a way that, and responding, you're acknowledging it. And it needs to be acknowledged, but at the same time, you don't want to validate it either. How do you not spend all your time in the defensive, right? How do you actually build and create something that's your own? That's just the constant dilemma that-
Carmen Rojas: (30:56)
But this is the gift of philanthropy. So for me, the gift of philanthropy, it's we should be, because of the sheer amount of absurd resources that we have, we should be able to be in two places at once. We should be able to acknowledge the harm, the fear, the pain that communities of color across this country are confronting, that Black communities, Indigenous communities, Latinx communities, that Asian communities, specifically communities of color are confronting here in the United States, while also giving and moving enough resources for those leaders and those communities, who believe that a different world is possible, to actually plant the seeds, to make that new possibility real. That's, it's the “both/and-gift” that feels like the key, people have the KPIs in terms of a job, key performance indicators, that feels like the philanthropic KPI.
Darren Isom: (31:51)
Yeah, I think it is.
Carmen Rojas: (31:51)
Be in two places at once.
Darren Isom: (31:53)
And I think you, it speaks to, one, having the confidence that we can. And I agree we can, there's no reason why we can't. We definitely have enough funds to do it. Do we feel empowered to do it? And do we feel as if it's our responsibility to do it? Because I'm reminded of this scene from Hidden Figures, when you ask, "Well, can I do that?" It's like, "Yeah, well, you can, you're the boss, right? You're the boss if you act like it." How do we start acting like the boss in these spaces, and driving the answers?
Carmen Rojas: (32:14)
Darren Isom: (32:17)
Well, from a conversation perspective, just like that, it's time for us to be ending our talk, which is unfortunate.
Carmen Rojas: (32:24)
Darren Isom: (32:24)
I know, right? I do have a question for you, I'd love to close out, one question I've been asking others as well. Someone that I respect very much, at a point that was very dark, reminded me that sometimes hope comes from experience. And I would love as you think about that quote, what are some things that you're hopeful for, and what experiences bring that hope?
Carmen Rojas: (32:45)
When I started this job, weeks later, George Floyd was murdered. And I emailed a handful of other CEOs, and I was like, "Hey, we should probably get together and figure out what our response is going to be." And some of these people I knew, and some of these people I didn't know, and we are now a little bit over 20th month, getting together as a group to imagine a world not organized around the white gaze, not organized around racialized capitalism, but a world that's organized around liberation. The fact people keep on showing up to this meeting, to talk about everything from best institutional practice, to just the hardness of personal life, gives me so, so much hope. It's a huge bubble of oxygen for me to step into.
Darren Isom: (33:41)
Agreed, well conversations like this one bring me a whole bunch of hope and optimism as well. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for your work. Thank you so much for your wisdom. Thank you for your tenacity. Thank you for the laughs as well. And I hope that we can talk again real soon.
Carmen Rojas: (33:56)
I hope so too. Thank you so much, Darren.
Darren Isom: (34:01)
My Great-grandpa Lee was an architect, and like his grandfather before him, he studied at Paris's École des Beaux-Arts having been denied entry to architecture programs in the south. Southern professional programs were closed to Blacks, no matter how fancy, upstanding, or noble their families, or how talented the candidate. He returned home to New Orleans and built a successful career, designing public buildings across the city. Public buildings that, by Jim Crow's design, Blacks, himself included, wouldn't be allowed to enter until segregation's end in the '60s, just some years before his death. Great-grandpa Lee was also gay. He separated from his wife, my Great-grandma, Alberta, in the '30s, and lived with his Cuban partner, Uncle Carlo in the French Quarter, as gay men did at the time. And while my Grandpa Lee was an architect, his partner, my Uncle Carlo, was a florist and owned a small shop just across Esplanade Avenue in Marigny.
Darren Isom: (35:38)
Florists at the time created bouquets as they do now, but specialized more in boutonnières, corsages, and in my Uncle Carlos's case, fastening elaborate fresh flower sprays onto hats, particularly in the warmer months, all signs of wealth, good taste, and refinement. Uncle Carlo would send bouquets, some simple, some grand, uptown to my grandma, Alberta, his partner's ex-wife, and the girls, my Grandma Lois, being the youngest of the three, as both a biweekly peace offering and as a friendly tease, a reminder of life on the other side of Canal Street.
Darren Isom: (36:06)
I never met my Great-grandpa Lee or my Uncle Carlo, both died many years before I was born. But when my grandmother spoke of them, she did so with great pride. She described them both as handsome and worldly, sharp as a tack, and having a warmth that was so sincere, that it made their friends sit closer, and their enemies ill at ease. Above all my grandmother spoke of her father and his partner as optimists. Men who saw themselves, two gay men, gems of la diaspore san domingaise, thriving in white supremacist New Orleans, proof that all things were possible in America for them and generations to follow. My conversation with Carmen reminded me of my Great-grandpa Lee and Uncle Carlo, and those who came before, their stories, their resistance, their resilience, their joy, and their optimism. I'm reminded that we've been here before and triumphed, which gives me hope that we will do so again. Reservoirs of hope and optimism as we chart a path forward for those to follow.
Darren Isom: (37:08)
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, a special shout out to our show producer, the wonderful Theresa Buchanan, and our show coordinator, Nicole Genova. And a huge thank you to my ever-brilliant Bridgespan Production team and family, Cora Daniels, Michael Borger, Christina Pistorius, and Britt Savage. Be sure to subscribe, and leave a rating and review wherever you listen to your favorite podcast.