Why a Foundation is Joining the Movement to Defend Immigrants

By Jose Fermoso In the middle of the worst wave of attacks on U.S.-based immigrants in decades, legacy foundations like Meyer Memorial Trust (Meyer) are using their considerable power to defend them. Based in Oregon, this trust has financially supported programs and organizations serving marginalized groups but recently began taking a more public leadership role. After the recent immigration executive orders by the U.S. president, Meyer’s CEO Doug Stamm responded swiftly. In a post, Stamm called the orders “hateful and inexcusable and counter to the principles of our republic,” and said the foundation group “must stand for the rights of all people of color, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community.” As a symbol matching its pocketbook to its principles, the trust has announced $190,000 in grants to organizations on the front lines of immigration battles. This included $20,000 each to the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Oregon and Unite Oregon, a local organization focused on racial justice. The grants are only the latest Meyer moves dedicated to improving cultural outreach. According to Elisa Harrigan, a Latina leader and officer at Meyer’s Affordable Housing Initiative, the organization has worked hard to become more responsive to the needs of underserved Oregonians. Her presence is one example of that change. An immigrant of El Salvador whose parents taught her to share possessions with those most in need, Harrigan grew up to eventually run a nonprofit. Specifically, she helped Latino renters gain power in housing decisions in Oregon. Four years ago, she realized she could have an even greater effect at Meyer. Harrigan has added to Oregon’s philanthropy with a sorely-needed Latin voice. With Meyer joining Hispanics In Philanthropy as a partner organization, we talked to Harrigan about how they’re working to help Latinos moving forward. (The following has been edited for clarity and length.)

Meyer has been a funder in the Northwest for 35 years. How has its focus towards minority communities changed?

Fred G. Meyer was the entrepreneur who left the trust his fortune and said in his will it needed to “do good and be entrepreneurial.” It’s been a directive adjusted to the needs of the community over time. Seven years ago, Meyer underwent a mission shift from being a foundation that made grants based solely on merit to one that uses a more strategic approach that makes grants based both on merit and the need for social justice and economic prosperity. We now work to make Oregon “equitable” through four focus areas including healthy environments, housing opportunities, equitable education, and building communities. Then we have initiatives inside those areas addressing targeted and timely issues. One example of the focus change is how we approach choices. For our affordable housing initiative seeking ideas that address Oregon’s housing crisis, we take information from an annual demographic survey of all staff and board that we share publicly. Equity [that considers people of color and communities that face disparities] is embedded in the process and extends to how we deal with everything from vendors to leaders of [applicant programs]. For vendors, are they a minority- or women-led business? Are they local? Are products they use sustainable? For applicant programs, are impacted communities involved in the development of the project and/or decision-making levels of the organization? Everybody on staff has the opportunity to explain or understand how diverse communities are involved.

How do you actually express that commitment to organizations seeking funding?

Well, we don’t tell people they need to be at a specific equity level to get funding. But they need to have some commitment to equity. Because that’s part our mission. We let them know we are working on this too. It has taken us years to understand how to diversify staff. You’re not seating people for demographics’ sake but for the actual impact they can have. The way I came to Meyer shows that process makes a difference. I was the only Latina in the organization and a few more were minorities. Before joining, I needed to know if they were making a change or were saying it for public perception. I participated in sessions where Meyer officials were asked about the housing investment program and heard a real commitment. Since I’ve been here, the culture has shifted every time we hire staff—for the better. We’re diverse in age, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, nation of origin, sexual identity, disability status, and gender identity. And that has led to mature conversations about many of Oregon’s communities.

How has this commitment to diversity affected the trust’s work to preserve and increase affordable housing?

We find ways to cut costs and build better. In Oregon, tiny homes are a new way for people to live and we’ve tried to change policies to allow people to be able to build them. Or to be able to have shared housing situations. The lack of affordable housing can be solved differently. We can and have supported groups looking to build modular, prefabricated units stacked on top of each other that are easier and faster to build. And since our support for emerging ideas can come from people that live in difficult situations, and many of those people are minorities, we want to make sure we hear from them.

Explain the Latino community’s effect on the organization.

The Latino community, like any other, has culturally-specific needs and we’re open to ideas for programs that serve them. Like any grant review, we look at how sound the plan and budget are, how well they align with our strategies, and the readiness of the project. For example, let’s look at affordable housing in Oregon. Affordable housing programs asking for funds may need help with cultural competency if they have Latino homeowners or renters. Latinos sometimes have multi-generational households and the way the building is constructed might not accommodate larger family sizes. So the programs have to be culturally sensitive about repairs—not just by having repair sheets in Spanish but also ensuring contractors say hello and get to know the people living there. That’s an expectation of Latino culture. We’re not transactional. We appreciate connection. We want Latino groups to send us grant proposals that help communities thrive where they live.

What’s an example of how Meyer is culturally sensitive in the application process?

For all grant applications, we review finances and their vision but the addition of equity, diversity, and inclusion is critical. We ask: What steps are they taking to do that and how can we support them in furthering their equity, diversity, and inclusion goals?

What is the biggest need of the Latino community in the Oregon area today?

Access to housing is probably one of the biggest, which includes access to housing rights. Another component is challenges to immigration rights. Registering Latino voters, ensuring they are educated about the issues, and getting officials that represent them elected is important. The ability to be yourself as a Latino without feeling threatened is big. Oregon is a sanctuary state but we aren’t as diverse as other states, which can present a challenge, particularly in some rural communities. Being seen and not invisible because the majority of people here are white.

I saw your CEO, Doug Stamm, was very public about his opposition to the President’s executive orders, but how do you actually make real change on the ground happen?

With the recent election, we’ve seen a high rate of violence against people of color, immigrants, and religious minorities. Our public statements and the monetary support we gave after the orders was a way to counteract those acts. The organizations we’re supporting help people threatened by ICE and other groups. We’re trying to be responsive to immediate issues but are looking four years down the road, too. Yes, we express the message vocally. We oppose threats against these communities. We are not quiet. We aren’t afraid if there is pushback for speaking our values. We’ve made the choice that our staff will be out in the community, publicly sharing our values of inclusivity and equity. We’re saying “Meyer cares and this is important to us.” That’s an important statement in Oregon because we’re its third biggest foundation. We are stepping into our power.

As a person who is both an immigrant and a citizen, how do you feel about your position and your voice in your organization?

First off, I came here to the U.S. from Central America, and as staff member, I find it empowering to have the support of Meyer from the chief executive officer on down. Even though I’m a citizen, I feel fear about the rhetoric out there today. So to have an organization that supports my status and how I arrived here is important. I’m honored to be in my position. Going beyond the transactional side and being an ally to the community is something I’ve been vocal about at Meyer. It’s an important part of philanthropy. The checks are great but so is publicly telling folks we believe in the work they’re doing. I came from running a small nonprofit that worked on renter’s rights and in community organizing for 12 years. I learned a lot about people’s experiences and how they were left out of the decision-making process. I came to Meyer looking to continue to push for social change and that means people needing to be part of the decision-making process that impacts their lives and access to philanthropy.

Tell me more about how you grew up and came to the U.S.

I’m from El Salvador. My family came here as refugees in the 80s. I wasn’t naturalized until I was 18 and was not able to go back because of the dangerous political situation. And we helped other refugees once we got here. I remember our home’s furniture was always halfway gone because it was given to other new families who had no money. My parents came with college degrees and professional jobs to the U.S. and had to start over again because all they had was political asylum. For most of my childhood, my father had three jobs and worked through community college to get his degree. At my job, I try to remind myself and others that we all have the same needs, like safety. For us, safety was a huge thing— to live in a community that wasn’t militarized. So it always made sense to me that there should be help with resettlement for refugees. Your home is where your family is and that feeling of safety is where you can grow and thrive.

How does your refugee history connect with your interest in housing issues?

My interest came from liking maps and thinking it was interesting how communities were set up and how people in urban environments can reach their potential. That connected me to finding out how Latino and minority communities don’t always have access to good programs like other communities. My goal has been to support programs that benefit everyone, and take the diversity of our needs into consideration. Latinos would always tell me they didn’t think they had a voice in the community. We would tell them: you are part of it. It was impactful to see how people’s leadership grew when they are supported. There’s a lot of power to influence communities through philanthropy. Funding and supporting culturally-specific organizations and programming is a part of that.

Why did you join HIP and what do you look forward to with this partnership?

Philanthropy as a rule is still very white and middle and upper class. At Meyer, we have a multi-racial staff and board of directors so it makes sense to offer opportunities to interact with places like HIP, which has people from our communities. We can learn about nonprofit issues that matter to Latinos together and bring that information back to Meyer. It also allows us to become more economic- and justice-oriented through affiliation with other philanthropy-specific organizations. There’s power in numbers. We need to be engaged and know what other Latinos in philanthropy are doing. We need to learn. We’ve funded a lot of Latino and culturally-specific groups, including African immigrant and Muslim communities. We’re happy our majority of color trustees and executive team understand they need to speak up for our equity, diversity, and inclusion values, and through those statements and actions, empower all of us as well.
Elisa Harrigan