In May 2022, Alesha Washington became the new President and CEO of the Seattle Foundation, one of the nation’s largest community foundations. Washington comes with expertise from her most recent role as Program Director for Vibrant Neighborhoods and the Inclusive Economy at the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio, where she led her team in efforts to reinvent the grantmaking from the foundation in strengthening democracy, civic engagement, and leadership of neighborhood residents.
As a cisgender black woman who grew up in a predominantly black downtown neighborhood of Cleveland, Washington shares that much of her worldview can be traced to what was happening in her community at the end of the 80s and early 90s. The War on Drugs was going on with detrimental effects in inner cities – but simultaneously, the solid hip-hop culture of the 90s was thriving.
“When I think about my time in the community, I spend a lot of time thinking about how systems can make a place feel undervalued and out of place, but when you go deeper into that community, there are ways for people and community to build through people make it something really beautiful and vibrant,” Washington said. “Particularly because of the Black [American] experience I come from… [there is] the ability to make something truly beautiful out of nothing, or almost out of chaos or trauma.
“But [as one who] had the opportunity to pursue a career in government relations, the nonprofit sector and philanthropy, I am in a privileged position,” Washington continued. “So how can I use this, given my life experience, to really create new opportunities for people who wouldn’t have had this access otherwise? This is my North Star and my guide for how I introduce myself.
Established in 1946 by Seattle entrepreneur and founder of the Seattle Art Museum, Dr. Richard Fuller – along with 14 other community leaders – the Seattle Foundation began with an endowment of $289,000 and a goal to improve the quality of life in Seattle and beyond. In its first year, it provided $8,000 in investments; it now operates with more than $1 billion in charitable assets and committed bequests, granting more than $100 million annually to local nonprofits.
The Seattle Foundation currently hosts a number of grant opportunitiesoften in partnership with other organizations, focusing on various topics, such as voter turnout (Voter Education Fund), pandemic response (Fund for Inclusive Recovery), and grassroots organizations (Neighbor 2 Neighbor).
Its fields of intervention have also adapted over the decades. In the 1980s, the Seattle Foundation funded HIV/AIDS organizations, such as Bailey Boushay House and the Northwest AIDS Foundation (now known as For life). With the tech boom of the 1990s, it offered some of the country’s first donor-advised funds in response, working to change the way funds were invested in the community.
During the 2000s and 2010s, the Seattle Foundation created giving frameworks, such as the Master Plan for Impactwhich “outlines a series of bold strategies to advance racial equity, shared prosperity, and belonging,” and increasing participatory grantmaking, which allows grantees and community leaders to be part of the process granting grants.
Washington cites neighbor 2 neighbor (N2N) and Black-Led Joy and Welfare Fund as successful examples of grants co-created with the community. N2N, launched in 1992, “supports local efforts that increase the engagement, power, and influence of community members impacted by poverty and racial disparity.” The Black-Led Joy and Wellness Fund supports the well-being of staff at Black-led organizations and serving the Seattle Foundation REPAIR (Racially Equitable Philanthropy Aimed at Initiating Reparations), and was created in 2021 to address the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and anti-Black racism.
“These are community driven by involving different grant partners in the community in shaping the work and then thinking about where the investments go,” Washington explained. “I think this process around co-creating, intentionally listening, and then letting that guide how the investment unfolds is the right approach, and I think the continued deepening of that is going to be important, but I think it’s also important to think about the other roles we bring to play in the grant [sphere].”
Washington believes the Seattle Foundation can leverage its positional power and influence to create access, advocate, convene, or be a thought partner and thought leader. One example she cites is the foundation’s work with King County, where government bureaucracy and contracting processes can sometimes be difficult for small grassroots organizations.
“We can do whatever we can from an access standpoint with [the organizations], to help facilitate the process,” Washington said, “but we also have the opportunity to work with our local government partners to say, ‘Hey, is there a reason this process has to be like this? And can we think of ways to streamline it? »
Washington’s understanding of local, county and state governments comes from her past role as vice president of government advocacy for the Greater Cleveland Partnership, one of the nation’s largest metropolitan chambers of commerce. There, she served as the primary advocate for policy issues impacting local businesses and the economy. Coming to a city like Seattle, which is leaning towards progressive politics, Washington is fascinated by the political landscape and is still learning what collective action looks like in the region.
“The questions that come to mind from my past life in the world of government relations are: how [the government] have an impact on reform, change and long-term political opportunities? asked Washington. “And then how does the business community, nonprofits, or even philanthropy step in and fill a gap or void where this work is happening, if at all?”
She doesn’t have a clear answer yet. As a newcomer, Washington recognizes that she has a lot to learn and that the best approach may be to listen first.
“It really takes time to meet and learn a lot of different voices about this place and the challenges but also the opportunities they see,” she said, “and then to understand how my skills are defined – with the Seattle Foundation’s added value – can help further the cause.
Washington recalled a remarkable moment with the George Gund Foundation, which helps shape his current outlook. She began her role there in January 2020, but in March Ohio was closed due to COVID-19; shortly after, the death of George Floyd and the racial uprisings of Black Lives Matter.
“What I saw happening in my community – and I know it was happening in many other places – was that many legacy institutions…were called upon to provide the answers for the times…but there were also woefully underfunded institutions, not really deeply supported by philanthropy, and were stressed to keep the lights on,” she recalls.
“So my goal became to move as many resources as possible for them, for operations, so they could do the job they were called in to do,” Washington continued. “And I’ll never forget a late-night conversation with the CEO of the Cleveland Urban League, who said, ‘You’ve given us more support in this grant alone than we’ve received in our cycle. of life … your trust in us to do this work and prove it with the money: now we can really do the job.
Stories like this will guide Washington’s tenure as president and CEO of the Seattle Foundation, and she fully plans to bring her lived experience to the role.
“[That story] puts me in the importance of [this]: If you come from a certain experience and have a purpose, and then if you step into a position of power and influence, what positive things can you do with it versus using it for selfish purposes Washington said. “I can create opportunities for people because of the role I sit in, so [I will] maximize this for as long as I can, and as best I can, because I may not be around forever.
Vee Hua 華婷婷 (he/she) is a semi-nomadic writer, filmmaker and organizer. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform self and society. They are the acting editor of the South Seattle Emerald, editor of REDEFINE and co-chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also served as Executive Director of the interdisciplinary community center, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible to diverse audiences. Their latest short, Reckless Spirits, is a metaphysical, multilingual POC buddy comedy, and will be released in late 2022. Follow them on @hellomynameisvee or more at veehua.com
📸 Feature Image: Alesha Washington is the new executive director of the Seattle Foundation. (Photo courtesy of The Seattle Foundation)
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!