Black Women to Watch in Philanthropy: La June Montgomery

La June Montgomery is president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Jocelyn: How do you define philanthropy?

I define philanthropy as giving.  This can include giving our wealth, time, or hearts to others.

When we speak about the philanthropy of people of color, we need a broader definition of the term.  People of color and people in poverty are some of the most generous and philanthropic members of society.  That’s why we need to enlarge our understanding of philanthropy.

Jocelyn: What is your philanthropic strategy and what advice would you give to other philanthropists?

At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we are very focused on our mission to support children, particularly the most vulnerable.  That said, we understand that children live in families and families live in the context of communities.  That’s why we’re focused on building equitable communities where children have the opportunities they need to thrive.  We can’t focus on children without also supporting their families and communities.

Leadership is another pillar of our strategy.  We seek to identify and support leaders who create equitable communities for all.  Finally, we look at all our philanthropy through the aperture of racial equity.

Jocelyn: Who are your philanthropic sheroes?

I recently lost my mother.  She was 92.  She raised 10 children and was at the center of our lives.  She was anchored by her faith and was a person who gave to the church, the community, and especially to her children. She truly encompassed the definition of philanthropy that we are exploring which goes beyond money.

Mr. Kellogg, who founded the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is another hero of mine.  We study his life and look at what drove him.  He gave his entire fortune to this institution.  He could have given it to his family and friends — to benefit the people in his immediate circle, but he didn’t.  He had a much bigger vision of community.

In the current environment, I admire all my colleagues in philanthropy.  I admire how newer leaders like Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, have commanded this space.  He is leading boldly and with courage.

I also admire Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, former president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  She reached out to me and offered her support and mentorship.  Sherece West-Scantlebury, president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and I have been friends for decades.  I admire her grace and how she commands a space. Sherece has also taught me a lot about self-care, which is something that I know is important but still struggle with.

Like so many women, I am used to giving to others.  We need to learn to give to ourselves.

Jocelyn: You oversee one of the biggest philanthropies in the U.S. and are responsible for the management of $9 billion in assets.  How do you think about using all your resources for good?

I wake up every morning and go to bed every night with a great responsibility to steward the legacy and resources of the Foundation.  Again, Mr. Kellogg could have left his wealth to his family, but he didn’t want it to be squandered and he worried that it would be.

I’m very focused on being the best steward of our resources.  I ask our team all the time, “What is the return on our mission and purpose?”

At the end of the day, like Mr. Kellogg, we’re investing our money in people.  We are finding people who are working in communities and leading and making a difference for children.  We’re very focused on measuring the results of our work.  I’m an action-oriented person like Mr. Kellogg was.  That’s why we are focused on investing in the people who are doing the work and making the change versus talking about change.

Jocelyn: Do Black women do philanthropy differently?

I can only speak for myself.  I do philanthropy differently.  I don’t approach giving from the place of giving back or charity.  I approach it as an urgent disruptor.

I realize we are all here on this earth for a brief moment.  Many people of color have a sense that we could be removed from our positions tomorrow.  This means that we can’t get comfortable.  There is a level of intentionality and purpose that drives me.

And with the challenges we are facing in our world today, we need real change fast.  We must disrupt the status quo.  We need new leaders and bold thinkers who are taking steps to create something very new.

Jocelyn: Is there anything else you want to share with BlackHer subscribers?

I’ve been reflecting lately on the type of legacy we want to lead as Black women and how we can be (and are) mentors for others.

A couple of years ago, I received a note from a teacher in Detroit, where I grew up.  To celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the teacher had asked her students to choose an African American hero to write about.  They also had to dress like their heroes and present what they learned in class.

One of the second-grade girls picked me!  She sent me her photo (she looked just like me!) and letter.

This experience underscored for me that you never know who’s watching and what legacy you are leaving.

Because of experiences like that, I feel a deep sense of connection with all the people in the communities that we work with.

They are me. I could have been them.  My parents migrated north from Mississippi to create new opportunities for their 10 children.  We are all college graduates and have done well. But if life had taken one or two turns, it could have been different.

There are children with brilliant minds and brilliant hearts who are living in communities right now that are suffering from underinvestment and disinvestment.  We must provide them with access and opportunity.

Jocelyn: Let me ask you the miracle question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and a year has passed, and a miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened?

Black women are paid equally for the work we do, and our talents are being leveraged.  There is a visible and enlightened understanding of the role that Black women play for all.  We are no longer treated like we are angry Black women, instead, our passion is embraced, and people are following our lead.

To read more profiles of Black Women to Watch in Philanthropy, check out The Black Woman’s Guide to Philanthropy.



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