On Building Power for People Who Have Had Power Used Against Them: An Interview with Brenda Williams-Sears

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Brenda Wiliams-Sears, director of grantmaking and fellowship programs at Voqal, a national collaboration of EBS (Educational Broadband Service) licensees. According to their website, “Voqal makes grants and impact investments, expands internet access and digital equity, offers fellowships and works to protect the public airwaves.” Their goal is to ensure the “education and enrichment of all, not just those who are well-off socially, economically, and politically.”

Tell us a little about yourself and how you became a grantmaker. That’s not a role that many Black women have or know that we can pursue.

My background is part of who I am. My parents and entire extended family were in public service.  They were health care workers, firefighters, bus drivers, sanitation workers, and teachers.  Growing up, I had one foot in a village of people who worked hard, were smart and resourceful.  The other foot was in a more financially affluent community. My parents were like The Jeffersons and had “moved on up”. During the week, I lived in a Gold Coast highrise in Chicago, went to a good school, and had wealthy friends.  On the weekends, we went back to the old neighborhood to go to church and get our hair done.  Early on, I could tell there were two different worlds—one was impacted by racism and exploitation and resulted in early disease and death. 

I started my career in public health.  I wanted to dismantle the inequities I saw.  I worked for several different nonprofits to improve health outcomes.  But sometimes it felt like walking in mud when talking to funders.  They didn’t have the experiences of the people I was trying to serve.  Still, the attitude was, “We know what’s best and are here to save you.”  

I started thinking that I needed to be at a different table if I was going to address the structural inequities that make it so that people can’t get ahead.  I wanted to shape the funding model myself and get to root causes of the issues I was trying to address, not just impact the symptoms.  

I wanted change, not just charity.

That’s powerful. What is Voqal and what do you do there? 

Voqal is over 35 years old and has a diverse menu of initiatives and programs.  We work to expand digital equity by providing low-cost wireless internet and by advocating to protect the public airwaves.  We also provide capital to entrepreneurs working to improve educational outcomes.  In my department, we make grants to nonprofits and individuals to effect social change.  Every day, we ask ourselves  “How can we build power for people who have had power used against them”?

We believe there are five pillars to building power. 

  1. Representative Government – Every vote must count and our elected officials must reflect us.
  2. Fundamental Rights – All people must have fundamental human and civil rights.
  3. Information & Communication – All individuals must be able to access trustworthy information.
  4. Fair Processes – The laws which govern us must be written, interpreted, and enforced fairly. 
  5. Participatory Engagement – We, the citizens, must have opportunities for and engage in civic life.

That’s a powerful framework and makes sense.  It’s also a tall order.  How does Voqal make this happen?

My role at Voqal is to fund unproven, bold, progressive ideas and leaders building social movements that align with the framework.  We do that by identifying strategies that build power and create more equity, identifying people and organizations implementing those strategies and convincing the board to fund them, and inspiring other funders to increase their support for similar work.  

We bring one resource but the people and organizations we fund are rich in many other resources and they are the ones who do all the work to make it happen. 

We’re living through a really tough time right now with the COVID-19 pandemic at hand.  How are you fairing?  What keeps you up at night?

We know that COVID-19 is having a devastating and disproportionate impact on certain communities and organizations. A lot of the civic engagement and advocacy organizations that we support will be negatively impacted. As they decrease field organizing and increase online organizing, they have new expenses and need different skills. This has a real impact on their revenue and cash flow.  Meanwhile, during this crisis, other groups are doubling down on voter suppression, rolling back environmental protections, and keeping people off of food assistance programs. 

Philanthropy has to change. We have to pivot to doing more direct funding to the people who live with injustice. That means giving directly to Black-led organizations and communities of color.  I’d also like to see us provide more general operating support and multi-year grants.  

Having worked for nonprofits, I know what it’s like to always be worried about how to get the next grant.  We need to support leaders and trust them to figure it out.  They know what their organizations and communities need. 

I’d also like to see philanthropists be bolder politically. Foundations have to follow rules but we have to invest more in lobbying and advocacy if we want to change systems. 

What keeps you hopeful?

I can see that social change is happening. For example, we support Color of Change.  They are doing a lot of work with District Attorneys (DAs), who have a lot of power in our criminal justice system.  DAs have discretion over who gets charged and which charges to bring.  A lot of people don’t realize that.  Groups like Color of Change and Faith in Action are working to elect more progressive states attorneys. 

When it comes to philanthropy, a lot of foundations are stepping up during this pandemic and implementing more equitable grantmaking practices and processes.  I hope they continue on this path. 

Let me ask you the miracle question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and it’s April 2021 and a miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

We see far more philanthropic funding going to Black female-led organizations and our talent is honored and recognized.  And a Black woman is Vice President of the United States. Finally, we’ve passed several important policies, like Paid Sick Leave and Vote By Mail.






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