The Give: Latina Attorney’s Activist Roots Inform Philanthropic Drive

The California Community Foundation’s vice president of civic engagement recalls that activism was an intrinsic part of her family’s culture. Maria_BlancoMaría Blanco’s father arrived in Mexico when he was 10 years old, a refugee of the Spanish Civil War. Her mother’s father had been born in Costa Rica, but his family had also fled political upheaval in that Central American country. So her mother grew up in Mexico City, where her parents met and where Blanco, now 58, was born. “I think coming from a refugee family, my parents were very liberal and in their own right involved in different causes just because of their family background,” Blanco, the youngest of three children, said. “We didn’t really think of it as public service. We grew up in a family of activists, it is in the family line.” As a student, she says that she was involved in the Chicano Movement, Latino civil rights efforts and college access issues. She earned both her bachelor’s and her law degrees at UC Berkeley. Professionally, she has focused on immigrant rights, gender equality and racial justice, as a litigator and advocate. Among other positions, she has served as executive director of UC Berkeley Law School’s Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity & Diversity; as executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area and as national senior counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Most recently, she helped to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional district boundaries as a member of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. She moved to the Los Angeles area last year, after 26 years in the Bay Area. It was another in a very long line of moves for her, although bringing her closer to San Diego, where her parents live. Her sister, who also lives in San Diego, and her brother, a Chicago resident, are both teachers. Her father taught Spanish Literature at the university level, and the family moved around many times as the children grew up. Blanco recalled elementary school studies in Columbus, Ohio, Riverside, Calif., and for two years in Baltimore, Md. She graduated from La Jolla High School, while her father was teaching in the same area at UC San Diego. And then there were the yearly visits south to see relatives. “I was very fortunate to grow up both bilingual and bicultural, because we went back and forth so much to Mexico every summer,” she said. “That’s really an opportunity that most people never get, to live in both places that fully.” Although Blanco has focused on public service throughout her career, she recently switched from grant-seeking for nonprofits to grantmaking at the California Community Foundation. Blanco had resisted philanthropic recruitment efforts over the years in favor of what she had considered more hands-on programmatic work. The offer for her to head the foundation’s civic engagement efforts, however, was particularly enticing. “…The foundation being a convener and bringing people together who wouldn’t otherwise be at the table,” Blanco said, was a key part of what drove her to take the job, which also came with a portfolio, money for grants, and a role representing the foundation publicly. “It was about programming and policy work too, and not just to make grants,” she said. CBS:  Given your being fairly new to philanthropy, have you noticed trends nationally?  MB:  I started a year and a half ago. I’ve been on the other side of philanthropy raising money for years. I do begin to see the recognition that funders should do more long-term funding, less trendy funding, multi-year core-support that nonprofits have been pushing for, and I’m finally seeing a recognition of that notion … . So I think that’s a really positive change. It helps when you have a Latino president. I think it’s a combination of so many factors; not all of the policies are [explicitly] about Latinos but [may still] have a negative impact on Latinos and on the underfunding of Latino communities. Philanthropy is very oriented toward the Northeast and Midwest, the areas east of the Mississippi, while so much of the Latino population is in the West and Southwest. The geography and mentality of East Coast foundations is different. They have their reality, so that when they think of race issues, it’s all Black and White. There is no mentality when they think about issues of race … around [inclusion of] Latinos and Asians. When people think of funding, they fund people they know. When you have Latinos, people don’t know them. So it is a very insular world. If you haven’t been working on the East Coast, made your mark in New York, cut your teeth in D.C., then you’ll never be considered. Sometimes the foundation work is very trendy … . The foundation world likes to go from fad to fad in a lot of ways, and the work of Latino nonprofits is very basic, poverty-fighting work that often has a hard time getting funded. CBS:  What has to happen? MB:  A little bit like affirmative action and diversity in general, one thing you need to have happen is you get people in the field. You begin to have Latinos, not just at the program officer level but at the decision-making level–not only because they start promoting funding issues but because … it starts to open doors and makes it easier [for nonprofits] to get the second, third or fourth grant, and that can be very helpful. And I think the work that HIP does, even though it makes people very nervous, is important. It’s important … to continue to put the spotlight on the data about the small percentage of grants that go to either Latino- led organizations or Latino issues. It’s important because I don’t think people in the foundations realize, they’re blind to the underfunding. And it’s important to put the data in front of people. CBS:  What else would help foundations, besides Latinos in leadership positions? MB:  I think they need proactively to initiate some listening tours to hear from some of these Latino-led organizations or organizations that focus on Latino issues to see what those organizations perceive as the barriers for breaking into philanthropy to get those first grants. I think they should hear what the perception is, how untransparent it is to get the first grant. They need to look at it and decide how much is really who you know… . They might consider bringing on some advisory committees that have geographic diversity and racial diversity to help when they are reviewing grant proposals to get them out of that insular way of thinking. CBS:  What would you like to see happen in your own corner of the foundation world? MB:  I would like to see foundations fund more collaborative [efforts by nonprofits]. I believe, by funding collaboratives and incentivizing collaborative work, that it would actually help the work in the field. For example, issue-driven collaboratives. When so many [nonprofits] support advocacy around immigration reform, some national and some local groups, there’s so much competition for grants. That’s one issue where I’d like to see funders almost incentivize collaboration of grantees. I do think there are more funders’ collaboratives happening. I mean to emphasize the grantees collaborating. CBS:  What lessons did you take away from your work as a member of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which re-drew the state legislative and congressional districts?  MB:  I became much more familiar with California and its demographics as a whole. And the commission spent a lot of time redrawing the boundaries in the County of Los Angeles. It gave me much more insight into the L.A. region. It was an amazing immersion into the geography and the communities of interest. It was really helpful for my work at the foundation. We focus on L.A. County. The commission had [four Democrats, four Republicans] and four “declined to state.” With just a couple of exceptions, we worked extremely well together. People thought that we were going to fail because we had to have a super-majority–at least three votes from every party and from the declined to state block. We had to have nine to pass the maps. And we were able to do it. And it was a real lesson in working across parties, and you have to build pretty good relationships and getting to know each other. At least on a body like this, it really worked. It did take me out of my comfort zone, and I feel that I learned a lot. CBS:  Are you planning to run for office? MB:  You know I get asked that a lot, and I’m not because all you’re doing all the time is raising money. If they were ever to change campaign financing, I would be. CBS:  What about appointments? MB:  Appointments, yes, I would be. Stuff related to labor interests me, but I like a lot of areas. It would have to be one of the areas of my expertise. Legal knowledge. Maybe a judgeship I would be interested in, or maybe a Cabinet job in the state that deals with labor discrimination issues, that sort of thing.