In considering the social sector’s most valuable resources, diversity could easily be at the top of the list. The varied experiences, skills, and identities that changemakers carry with them might just be the key to solving our most complex challenges. Ryan Easterly – the very first changemaker to arrive for the very first Upswell Lab – believes that we all benefit when we bring our whole selves to the table. And, as a Bay Area grantmaker raised in the South and equipped with Beltway savvy, he’s got a fascinating perspective to share.
Q: So, Ryan, give us a sense of who you are. What drives you? What are you working on? What motivates you as a changemaker?
RE: My name is Ryan Easterly. Professionally, I serve as the executive director for the WITH Foundation. It’s a private foundation that promotes accessible and comprehensive healthcare for adults with development disabilities. And what drives me is, I really try to use all my skills and all my experience to make sure that we’re creating equality for all, and ensuring that everyone can benefit from the experiences and skills that we each bring to the table. No one’s left behind and everyone has a seat at the table, because we all benefit from each other’s experience and skills.
Q: Who are your three favorite changemakers in history and briefly why?
RE: Oprah Winfrey, because, well, she’s Oprah. She started out life in Mississippi. I started out my life in Alabama—that’s primarily where I grew up. And I was born in Tennessee. But I think she is able to use her personal experience to give other individuals a platform, help them tell their stories, and help society at large have difficult conversations. And again, similar to my goal, she can kind of bring everyone to the table. So I really admire her for that.
Former President Barack Obama. I am a recovering DC-er, and I appreciate his diplomacy and the way he started his life as a community organizer. In a way, I started my professional journey as doing advocacy around disability in college. The way he is able to always be diplomatic and tries to meet people where they are, hear their perspectives, and bring everyone to the table: I admire that.
I’m also going to be a good Southern boy and also say my close friends and my family because to me, as someone who is the bearer of multiple marginalized experiences and identities, I have lived an exceptional and remarkable and now privileged life. And it’s only because of my friends and my family having my back and supporting me and pushing me when I feel insecure, or think I can’t do certain things…if it weren’t for my friends and family, my admiration for them, and the roles they played in my life, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
Q: If there were one social issue that you could solve instantly today, what would it be and why?
RE: I’m going to flip it and say the thing that I care most about is inclusion. I think so often, we look at particular issues such as healthcare, employment, transportation—you know, any issue—and we unintentionally decide who it most affects. But really, especially as individual with a disability, disability cuts across all issues. Race cuts across all issues. Sexual identity cuts across all issues. So if we could do our best to be inclusive of all perspectives, and all identities, regardless of the issue, I think it would make all the individual issues that much better off. You know: All boats rise together. All communities rise together. And I think we do ourselves a disservice by unintentionally not including all the perspectives that need to be at the table, and that are actually experiencing other issues with whatever the specific issue is.