"Putting community at the center": SVCF and Obama Foundation partner for power-building webinar

Silicon Valley Community Foundation was proud to partner with The Obama Foundation to present a webinar on April 20, 2021, “Investing In a New Generation of Power-Building Leaders.”

Before a virtual audience, Nicole Taylor, SVCF president and CEO; Valerie Jarrett, president of The Obama Foundation; Shari Davis, 2019 Obama Foundation fellow and executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project; and Poncho Guevara, executive director of Sacred Heart Community Service, discussed how philanthropy can contribute to the power-building work happening now across the nation.

Opening the event, Taylor acknowledged the impending verdicts in the Derek Chauvin trial and noted that greater awareness of racial injustices in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder underscores the importance of supporting leaders who advocate for systemic change and empower people within their communities. “Our vision is a community that is united towards creating an equitable, economically secure and vibrant future for everyone,” Taylor said. “And we believe that power-building is a path to achieve progress in that vision.”

Collective Leadership and Group Power

Jarrett shared some of the leadership lessons she has learned from her many years in both public service and the private sector. One theme she touched upon, and that the panelists kept revisiting, is the notion that effective leaders cultivate conditions for group power.

“This isn’t about any one person or any one issue,” Jarrett said. “This is about how do we support movements? How do we fuel the energy that’s necessary to bring people together with diverse perspectives, give them a purpose to unify behind, and march on in a resilient and determined and persistent way?”

She was joined by Davis and Guevara, who described what they have learned while guiding their organizations toward helping communities build their own power.

Centering Community Voices

Davis emphasized creating space for collective leadership, saying, “We have to ensure that folks that have been historically and traditionally marginalized are actually at the center of decisions. When we [at the Participatory Budgeting Project] think about transforming government, we really think about putting community at the center. I’ve been thinking a lot about how important individuals are, but also how important it is that we move away from individualism.”

Davis continued, “Building some infrastructure to really tap into collective leadership truly is what power-building is about. This is not radical — it's smart. Building the capacity of government is not about empowering others, it’s actually about a design where we build power together that’s sustainable.”

Guevara echoed those thoughts in his explanation for how his organization reframed its mission over the years, “Sacred Heart Community Service first had to understand, as an organization, our own complicity in broken systems and learn how to center the voices of those affected by those systems.”

He said that over the decades, Sacred Heart had worked to provide critical services to the marginalized, but ultimately was not addressing the root causes of inequality.

Guevara continued, “We had to see folks differently. We had to see folks as assets, leaders and the source of power and wisdom rather than people to be saved by our good deeds. We had to see our collective fates tied together. This means having uncomfortable conversations about who has power and what they are protecting, and giving ourselves permission to dream of a different future for our kids.”

Finding, Supporting and Developing Leaders

In speaking about specific characteristics of good leaders, Jarrett counseled humility and a commitment to truly hearing the concerns of constituents.

“Early on, what I learned was to listen,” she said. "Sometimes, leaders find this counterintuitive because you’re supposed to be telling people the direction you want to go, but you really have to listen, be in touch with the people you are trying to lead and make sure you are in sync with them.”

Guevara made the point that embracing collective power and centering the community means letting go of certain popular ideas about what makes a good leader. He said, “It’s not who’s the most charismatic, or who shouts the loudest, or who takes up too much space. We need to strengthen the voice and leadership of everyone, especially those that are impacted by poverty and their allies.”

When asked how to get young people involved and developing into leaders faster, the panelists agreed that it’s never too early to get children engaged with their community. Davis implored the audience to give real opportunities to young people.

“Where to start investing with young people is to invest. Cut the check. Believe in a young person. Give them an opportunity. Allow them an opportunity to fail forward.” They continued, “Look at instances of more than a photo op where young people, themselves, are driving the work. I think those are real markers of good youth development and youth leadership.”

Read more from SVCF: How can we build power among Silicon Valley residents who don’t have it?

Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s new Movement- and Power-Building Fund identifies and supports leading local power-building efforts that are driving systemic change. Contribute to the fund here. SVCF fundholders can give through their advised funds here.