Shifting Power, Advancing Justice, and forging a pathway forward

April 23, 2024

By Vetto Casado, Director, Shifting Power and Advancing Justice

Two weeks ago, things came full circle for me.

I joined the Boston Foundation four and a half years ago, not really sure of what I was getting myself into in philanthropy. I had spent five years previously on the community side of TBF's work as a community advocate and executive director of a small nonprofit, so while I had a sense of TBF, I had a lot of myths and misconceptions about how philanthropy worked and how they (now we) made decisions and supported organizations. 

Four and a half years later – there have been a lot of lessons – beautiful lessons, brutal lessons. There have been trials, tribulations, and magical moments of learning. There's been moments of rebellious joy that I've seen in the community. There has been the launch of our Our New Pathway, embodied in our four pathways to equity – including Amplifying Community Leadership, in which my work is grounded. There have been moments of intense grief and loss, not just with the COVID-19 pandemic, but with losing Thomas Ruffen, one of our Boston Neighborhood Fellows, in a senseless motor vehicle accident, and all the other inequities that have been laid out for everyone to see. You feel it all. 

SPAJ group picture
The Shifting Power, Advancing Justice partners with TBF President and CEO Lee Pelton and program leadweship for SPAJ. From left: Vetto Casado, Director, Shifting Power, Advancing Justice; Mike Leyba, City Life/Vida Urbana; Darian Burrell Gambrell, DEAF, Inc.; Dwaign Tyndal, Alternatives for Community and Environment; Lee Pelton, President and CEO, the Boston Foundation; Gamaliel Lauture, Brockton Interfaith Community, Shanique Rodriguez, Mass Voter Table; Noemi 'Mimi' Ramos, New England United for Justice; Juliana Brandao, Sr. Program Associate, Shifting Power and Advancing Justice.

It all fed into this month’s event at TBF, when 100 people came together to celebrate six movement leaders and partners in a body of work we call 'Shifting Power, Advancing Justice.' With this new partnership, the Boston Foundation is making a roughly $4 million commitment to partner with these six people and their organizations, supporting them and committing to a shared learning journey – an investment in brilliant leaders sparking social, economic, and societal change, with lived experience and an authentic connection to the communities that they serve that can only come with a close, personal commitment to their work. 

In addition to three-year, $675,000 grants for each of our movement leaders and necessary technical support, we are building in wellness funding for them and their organizations. Burnout, stress, and despair are all real issues in our work – and the closer to the pain that you work, the more you can't help but feel it. We also included a shared pool of emergency funding, to be overseen by the movement leaders, for those times when tangible resources are needed to meet the crises that drive people from community work – an unexpected expense, a crisis, or a loss that shakes the very foundations of the people who do this work – and are never paid anywhere close to their true value.

At the event, I talked about my first experience with community leadership. It was in my mother's hair salon, in our first apartment in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where my mother, perhaps unknowingly, became a community organizer. As I said then, "Her beauty salon, nestled in our living room, was more than just a place for glamorous hairstyles and conversations. It was where powerful immigrant women who were heads of households came together to create something remarkable: a micro-lending circle. This was not just about timely resources; it was about trust. It was about change, and it was about bringing together a community to catalyze and actualize their power." 

Shifting Power, Advancing Justice also reflects the full dimensions of our Pathway work. I am honored to have been able to bring my community advocacy experience to TBF, to craft a body of work shaped through community conversation that amplifies the voices and work of leaders with lived experience and real connections and supports their impact and power to shape the future.

That power takes many human forms – demonstrated clearly in our six movement leaders. Darian Burwell Gambrell, the Executive Director of DEAF Inc., is a bridge to an underground community and culture that we don't have access to, one we, for far too long, have not seen and have not heard. At City Life/Vida UrbanaMike Leyba is a visionary who continues to be an important leader in making Boston more affordable through housing justice efforts. Gamaliel Lauture of Brockton Interfaith Community, known as Brother Game, will be the central glue that will finally get Brockton's residents and community members to have an authentic voice at the table for true equity. Mimi Ramos of New England United 4 Justice personifies social justice work. She is the central guiding force propelling social justice work in our region. Dwaign Tyndal of Alternatives for Community and Environment is an unsung statesman, not just of environmental justice work, but of leadership development. He may be the person who is doing the most to plant seeds for the future leaders of Boston. And Shanique Rodriguez of Mass Voter Table is the freedom fighter we all deserve - a leader raising the bar on what real civic engagement, voter awareness, and voter participation can look like in our region for all marginalized voices.

I am awed at these remarkable people, and in some ways, that makes the work harder – what battles can we take on together? How can we position ourselves and leverage our resources at TBF to ensure our work hits its substantial potential? How do we come together as a collective? What is the cadence? And how do we ask the right questions going forward, and set the table and expectations so that we can come to a shared vision and a shared definition of what success looks like in year one, year two, and accumulatively and year three? 

And then - how do we document and make visible this beautiful work that's happening?

While we wrestle with those questions – I think a lot about the journey from the salon in the living room to the doors of TBF. I signed on and joined Orlando Watkins' call to action in October 2019. Three months later, my learning journey took me unexpectedly into the hospital for 17 days, fighting for my life as one of Boston's first COVID cases. My experience – an unwanted master class in navigating a healthcare system that was not inherently designed for us – gave me painful first-hand knowledge of the inequities in our healthcare system. I recovered with a new question: "How can Boston be better for all of us?" Just as I have worked to bring my community lived experience to TBF, I now represent TBF and the role we can play in answering that question. I am a part of not just where TBF was and how it's been evolving, but I'm also hopefully part of TBF's future.

It wouldn't be a plausible future without many people, from Orlando Watkins to my partners in the work, Jennifer Aronson and Juliana Brandao, to the leadership of Dr. Lee Pelton and a whole organization standing for equity. On that Tuesday night, I called it a spiritual moment. It is the beginning of a deeper connection, a deeper conversation, and a deeper opportunity for greater work, and I think we're well-positioned for it. That's why I'm so excited. 

As I look at it, it all goes back to the lessons that I learned in my mom's hair salon. For me, that may be the most beautiful circle of all.