Presenter Q&A with Darren Isom: the best learnings come from communities
// By Jacqueline Brennan
Darren Isom, Bridgespan partner and former executive director of Memphis Music Initiative, wants philanthropic organizations to be intentional about equitable giving, and will lead a frank conversation about it during his Upswell workshop, “Enough Talk — How Foundations Can Live Their Racial Equity Strategy.” He also leads his life guided by an empowering message instilled in him by his grandmother. He shared that and more in this Q&A.
Q: What would you attempt to do if there were no risks attached?
DI: I would spend more time and money engaging, promoting, and elevating the often overlooked leaders in communities and regions that are most impacted by issues and critical to driving outcomes. From a work perspective, I think there’s a shared misperception that there are resource gaps or an absence of community leaders and champions. Very often that false narrative is embraced when we’re talking about specific regions or demographics – “We can’t find any gay Black men to lead this work,” or “We can’t find any people in the Southeast to lead this work.” But that’s simply not true, just because we don’t know them or they fall outside of our limited networks doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Very often we’re looking for the wrong people and in the wrong places – and we don’t value the folks who are out there leading the work.
Q: What one change can changemakers make that would make a bigger impact in the communities they serve?
DI: True changemakers are really good at understanding the issues of their communities, and elevating those issues and connecting them to larger struggle in an intentional way. Being good at the work means being community-engaged and community-grounded, but sometimes that grounding can prevent them from connecting outside of their communities. Community changemakers have to be more intentional about building strong networks both inside and outside of their communities – to find where there are aligned issues and concerns and possibly aligned solutions and strategies to drive impact more collectively, as opposed to feeling as if they’re isolated and working in an isolated way.
Q: What’s one thing you’re deeply proud of but would never put on your resumé?
DI: I value and appreciate my non-academic and non-professional interactions and learnings often more than I do my academic and professional ones. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in conversations with community members doing community engagement, building connections with the grandmothers and unofficial neighborhood mayors, building relationships with nontraditional partners that are often overlooked. Those connections have shaped my perspective as much as my privileged academic and professional ones.
Q: Who has had the biggest impact on the person you have become?
DI: That would easily be my paternal grandmother. She was a very nurturing and loving person who allowed me to develop as a free spirit. She was of a generation of Black folks who were steeped in the segregated South, but knew that they were helping raise a generation of children whose reality would be different from theirs. So they did their best to not project their world, their reality on to ours, while still arming us with the tools we needed to navigate a very biased and bigoted world. I remember before going into my very first job interview as a teenager, my grandma sat me down and explained, “You have to walk into every business as if you own stock there – if you don’t, you’ll never make it past the white gaze to the front desk.” It was that level of confidence-building she offered, reminding me that I belonged in every room I was in – they were lucky to have me, even. It was a really important lesson for me as a young, gay Black man to have, a calming and empowering one – and it’s one I’ve held onto my whole life.
Q: What’s one thing every person in the nonprofit sector should know?
DI: We should all know how our strategies, practices, and approaches impact the day-to-day lives of the people and communities we hope to serve and enrich. These strategies have real life implications for people and their lives. We should know these.
Enough Talk — How Foundations Can Live Their Racial Equity Strategy is happening Wednesday, November 13 from 11:15am – 12:30pm.