I think because of my experience and your experience and the type of board we have Cal Wellness, without even a hesitation, decided that it would play a role and helping fund the first state-supported reparations commission for the state of California. And I think that's just an example of how lived experiences of board members are so important in driving the agenda.
From The Giving Practice at Philanthropy Northwest, this is "Can We Talk About...?" a project to normalize the messiness of leading for racial equity in philanthropy and reflect on what it takes to create lasting transformation. In our pilot season, leaders across philanthropy reflect with one another on their experiences working to advance racial equity at the governance level. We're asking leaders to explore sticky topics, look for learning, practice vulnerability and give themselves and each other permission to speak in first draft. And what we ask of you is to do the same. In this episode, we're featuring a conversation between two incredible leaders from California, Judy Belk and Debra Nakatomi, who have been connected through the California Wellness Foundation, where they've worked together on deepening the foundation's racial equity commitment. Here they are introducing themselves.
Hi, my name is Judy Belk. I'm currently the senior advisor for the California Wellness Foundation, and just stepped down as president and CEO. I'm currently also a trustee for the Surdna Foundation, a family foundation based in New York City. My pronouns are she and her, and I currently live in Los Angeles.
Hi, my name is Debra Nakatomi. I'm president and CEO of Nakatomi PR, a strategic communications consulting firm, we dedicate our practice to advancing social change and equity through awareness campaigns and capacity building. I'm a trustee and former chair of the California Wellness Foundation. I live in Los Angeles and married with two sons and my pronouns are she/her.
Judy and Debra exchange powerful stories of their experiences with race from childhood to the present, showing us what's possible when foundations lead with lived experience, and harness all of their assets across the foundation to serve their communities. Let's listen in.
Debra, Debra, Debra, I have so looking forward to having a conversation with you. I know that we've worked together we worked together for nine years. In my role offices, nine years, I think you joined kind of two years in so you're there from almost the very beginning. But your story goes far beyond even the time as board member and trustee, because you had actually a connection with Cal Wellness before you came on board. I think the other thing that bonds us, other than us just adoring each other I think is our really personal commitment to racial equity and social justice. I want to explore all of that. As I said, I know your story. But every time I talk with you, I find out a little bit more about your story. But for those who might not know you, as well as I do, I'm just kind of curious what how would you? How would you begin by telling your story?
Thanks, Judy. It's great to be sitting with you and how fitting it is that we are together talking about a topic that we've spent many, many conversations over almost nine years, exploring together working on together perplexed with together. So it's very fitting that we're here face to face talking about such an important topic for both of us. I guess my story where I would start would be just my personal story which which begins and you know this story well, as a third generation Japanese American. I was born in California, and in the shorthand of what that means for people who might be tuning in is that my parents and my grandparents were incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II, along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans, by executive order by our own government and what this also means is that my family lost over three years of their lives as American citizens who were imprisoned by our own government. My parents, my mother was at a desolate camp in Arizona, in Gila River and my father was at Tule Lake, which was another very desolate area at the foot of Mount Shasta near the Oregon border. But I start with this story, because it's a chapter in my life, in my experience, a chapter that we certainly share as a family and as a community of Japanese Americans. And when I first learned of what my parents endured during this period, it was actually during a social studies class when I was maybe in the seventh grade. And I had never heard of it, I didn't know about it. I came home from my middle school, to find my my parents at home. And I shared my discovery of what had happened and learned that both my parents had been incarcerated along with my grandparents. My mother was a senior in high school at the time. And, you know, I was just confused, angry, how could this happen? You were American citizens, you were born here. What happened to your friends, your house, everything that our grandparents had. And this, the discovery really opened my eyes, and it forever changed my sense of security, my identity and my awareness of belonging as a young girl. And it also opened up an awareness of things that, you know, years later, would would become very formative and influential in the choices that I made in my career, my work, my circles in my networks. So it starts with a simple story like that.
That is a pretty amazing story but let me just go back because you kind of skipped over this, are you saying, and I didn't know this. I mean, I certainly know about your parents being in concentration camps. But I didn't know that you didn't find out about it until you were what in high school?
It was in middle school, social studies. And, Judy, that experience is not unusual among Japanese Americans in that that period of time was a time of great conflict, of trauma. And for many, and I later realize this, because I had an opportunity to work on the redress and reparations movement. It was a shared experience that so many people had, that they couldn't talk about, there was stigma associated with it. It was for many people, such a painful episode that they wanted to put behind them. There was anger, a lot of unresolved issues among families. And it was, you know, something that was not that unusual. But for my family, you know, my experience, it was something that, you know, we all have stories of how it was revealed to us. And I realized much later on that it wasn't that unusual that my friends, many of my friends went through similar experiences. And even after confronting my parents with it, they still were reluctant to talk about it. I always heard of my mother's reference to camp. But I had no idea as a young girl, what camp meant that camp was this defining experience for many Japanese Americans that they look, you know, they reflect back on as with pain. And and with kind of deep learning that it was something that they wanted to put behind them.
Wow. And so how did that experience you said that really played a role, a huge role in decisions that you made? So so talk a little bit about what those decisions were? And I'm curious how that decision obviously, brought you to Cal Wellness. First, more as a as a professional, but later on as a board as a communications professional, but talk a little bit about that. I'm just curious.
Sure. Well, reflecting on, you know, all of those those years when of discovery, thinking back of when this was it was late 60s. It was a time of a lot of kind of cultural awakening that was occurring just in the social environment, as I was in middle school, and then later on in high school, and I think what it did for many Japanese Americans a nation amount harkens is it made us understand our place in the civil rights movement. It helped us to, to develop a sense of connection and empathy with what was happening in the South. What was happening in California, with farmworkers with immigration, with civil rights. And it really helped to place our experiences kind of its centered our experiences in this movement, which we later realized was a major awakening and a civil rights movement that was occurring. And it helped me as an Asian American, find my voice and my identity. And frankly, you know, it felt kind of disruptive, it was I felt isolated. I felt like I a community that I at once had felt that I had belonged in, I later realize that, you know, my family was restricted from living in certain places in Sacramento, my parents weren't allowed to buy a home and the community that they had wanted to live in. Instead, they were relegated to kind of far reaches of communities that other people had no desire to live in. But, you know, it's it's a, it was a cultural awakening for me and awareness that I had, as, I guess, as of not belonging, and of kind of gaining at the same time, my own identity as a Japanese American, as an Asian American as a woman, because the women's movement was just beginning to find its roots. So it was a time of awareness building. And I think that that's for so many people of my generation, there does tend to be a defining moment where you really, you really self identify, and you find your place, in a movement in a community, in a social kind of movement or environment that you want to be a part of, but you see that you actually have a place in it. So I guess fast forward to some of the choices that I made, as in my early career, one of them was to join as a staff member of the Japanese American Citizens League. At the time of my joining, it was the very early stages of Japanese Americans seeking redress in reparations, it was an opportunity to learn and to help help my own community come to terms with what had happened at that time was, you know, 40, 45 years ago, but to really be able to face whether redress in reparations was an avenue and an approach that our community could embrace. And, of course, we did, it resulted in congressional hearings, it resulted in legislation, the introduction of H.R.442. And it also resulted in a presidential apology, as well as reparations for the Japanese Americans who were interned. And I think that, you know, that experience really helped to center my family experience into something that I felt was really meaningful. And then at the time, I didn't realize it, but it was also helping to kind of forge my own path of the kind of work that I wanted to do moving forward. So you know, fast forward to over the last 30 years, I've I was founder and head of a, of a PR communications firm and and our work is committed and focused and dedicated to social justice, and equity for especially for underserved communities. And we do that with our clients who comprise philanthropy, government, nonprofit organizations and basically mission focused clients. And that was how I found my myself initially to the California Wellness Foundation, we worked on a couple of the major initiatives for Cal Wellness, going back a couple of almost two decades now I guess, or a decade and a half, related to violence prevention, teen pregnancy prevention, women's health initiatives. And I really, at that point, discovered the impressive work of the foundation that was really breaking new ground in those areas, all those many years ago. So I first joined Cal Wellness as a consultant involved really deeply.
Well you know, Debra, it's interesting, I'm curious, because you had an opprotunity, you know, opportunities that many board members don't have you had an opportunity to check out the board, or just to see and I think you knew some of the early members who were on the board what and of course, you know, I wasn't anywhere around then so I'm curious about what were your first impressions of the board in terms of governance and who was on the board? I mean, what what were your initial impressions?
Yeah, in those early days, Judy, we weren't invited into the boardroom as consultants, I think we might have had one meeting where we came in, but we were generally working with the CEO at the time, Gary Yates. But what what we knew, being interested in in helping to uplift some of their really important initiatives is that this was an organization that had a different type of commitment or a mandate to really tackle some really tough issues. Teen pregnancy, in at that time, was pretty much focused and relegated to messages to teenagers about not having sex, just don't do it just don't have sex. But at the time, Cal Wellness had decided that they felt that teen pregnancy needed to be attacked, kind of from a lot of different quarters. And one of them was that policymakers needed to be brought into the conversation, which has always been a hallmark of Cal Wellness' work, the policy piece, and that there was basically something that could be done to create messaging, and narratives story narrative about the causes of teen pregnancy, why teens make these choices, what information is available to teens, how adults show up responsibly. And that kind of began my introduction and to understanding that Cal Wellness does work really differently. And that there was a courage and a risk taking approach to doing things differently. Not going alone, necessarily, but bringing partners along, engaging community partners of understanding the power of bringing community into the conversation and having community inform the approach. That was how I first learned about Cal Wellness' is kind of uniqueness.
And you can tell me, did you secretly at that moment, say, Oh, I'd love to be on the board?
Not at all, not at all. That was such a distant, distant notion. The people that were serving on the board, were, you know, basically the leaders, the luminaries in the progressive health movement. And they you know, we often say this, Judy, about how we all stand on the shoulders of giants. But we were literally, they were the early visionaries, of helping philanthropy understand how work could be responsive to community need, how the community needed to be at the table when some of these key decisions were made about developing priorities. And, you know, clearly, you know, I had nothing but but ah, in respect for some of those, those early people, Ezra Davidson, Dr. Davidson was one of the early people that I remember. Peggy Saika. More recently, people like Dr. Barbara Staggers, were, you know, pioneers in helping helping Cal Wellness envision a different type of future.
Well, Debra, yeah, have you know it or not, but you you were the first class of board members, that in a way, was one of our goals in terms of operationalizing racial and broader equity. And that prior to you coming on, on the board, there wasn't a full recruitment and open recruitment. And I think with you we, we hired a search firm, we widen the net, it wasn't just who knew but trying to give other folks a shot. So how does that process feel for you when you were contacted and went through that entire process? Because it was kind of the first one of the first scenes that at least I led with the board and saying, we want to open up the process about who gets on the board.
You know, on reflection, Judy, thinking back, it was nerve racking. It was daunting. It felt like it was such a enormous responsibility, because I knew some of the board members certainly and certainly I knew reputationally about Cal Wellness. I I had had some interactions with you early on through the LA Women's Foundation and some of our early work where we had crossed paths. So I think that I was pretty be overwhelmed initially when I was first contacted. But I also felt the the seriousness and the how significant the opportunity would be, and how important it was that Cal Wellness was really looking at representation, and was taking a very careful look at with great intention about what leaders would be seated around its board table. And I felt that it was an important process. And it was not an easy process, because I knew that, that there was great weight, and great, it was it was a very serious process that was underway. So I was thrilled to even be included on a shortlist, I have to say that from the beginning. And I took I took the opportunity very, very seriously and prepared well and, you know, spoke to all the people that I knew that could provide me with some insights to really understand where the foundation was, at this time, and where I might have an opportunity to make contribution. So, you know, flashing forward now, I feel that that Judy has been probably one of the greatest contributions that you have made in in terms of thinking through very carefully about the importance of leadership, and the importance of representation, diversity and how we can apply an equitable lens across the entire organization, the board being one of those first critical areas, that was your area of focus. But I know that later on in the conversation, we'll have a have time to explore those areas, too. So now I want to flip the table a little bit to enquire with you about your story. Judy, we have had so many conversations about your life, the journey that you've you've made, that has shaped you as a leader, and so much of that you bring to your job, and we've seen it, you know, just really in full bloom in so many ways. But take us back about a years years ago, when when you first joined the foundation? And what were some of the factors that brought you to the foundation in terms of your your vision, your work, and you know, what you thought you would be able to contribute?
Yeah, you know, I've been thinking a lot about that, as I end my you know, tenure here at Cal Wellness. And as I as I think about what influences it's really around a couple of things place, race and probably justice and injustice and, you know, place for me, it's always been curious. I grew up literally 10 miles from the White House, in Alexandria, Virginia outside of Washington DC. Fifth generation of Virginian, Alexandria, I grew up in a time when this country was going through a yet another reckoning around race. I was about to start school, you know, eight years or so after the Brown decision. And even though I was closer to the nation's capital, my life was determined by I call the crazies in Richmond, Virginia, you know, the heart of the Confederacy. And for Virginia was, as my grandmother would say, stubborn as a mule in terms of, you know, trying to hold on to a series of injustice. It had to be really pushed kicking and screaming around all basic rights, voting rights, school integration, and even access you know, to water I, you know, I talked about this all the time, my kids keep saying "your not going to talk about growing up without access to water!" But it was a traumatic experience to grow up 12 years without access to, to running water. And it was only because we lived in a historical black community. And they just stopped the sewer systems right before they came into my neighborhood. So that was very traumatic. But I also experienced firsthand courage and I didn't even know it at the time, Debra, the impact of philanthropy, my mother raised her hand to be part of a test case to, to participate in a law lawsuit that got my sister and I into the public schools. And that was funded by a group of Jewish philanthropists. My first exposure to the arts was through the generosity of a philanthropist. I went to college based on the generosity of philanthropy. So I would say, I'm always curious about place. And I guess my commitment to justice has to do with sowing the sting of injustice in my life, and race. You know, I laugh because I think some folks, in fact, someone even asked, you know, maybe if you just stop talking or thinking about race Judy. And I do I try to get up every morning, and I don't talk, I don't think about race, I think about what everybody else thinks, what am I going to wear, what I am going to dress, but invariably, something happens in my life that reminds me about race. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's painful. You know, there's actually a study that says, when a person walks into the room, the first thing or first three things people notice about the person is their age, their race, their gender and their weight. And usually have a negative connotation. So as a black woman who probably could afford to lose a few pounds, I always say I'm in deep, doo doo. Whenever I step into a room, you know, I'm always underestimated or people make assumptions. And that, that's just an extra burden, that I think others don't have I, you know, I don't even it's just how I have to show up, I always have to have my stuff together, I have been able to use people, you know, having lower expectations to my advantage. But it's a burden. And I would say my hope is that it's not it's not a burden that my daughter who is in her 30s will have to take with her because it takes up a lot of energy takes up a lot of stress. And, and time. So nine years ago, I had the opportunity to run Cal Wellness. And I had, you know, Cal Wellness is a pretty young foundation, we this is only our 30th year, but it came on my radar pretty early. And it's interesting, I'm thinking of all the connections we've had Debra, it came on my radar because of the work of the foundation around violence prevention, gun violence, you know, I lost my sister to gun violence 44 years ago. And when I heard about this foundation, embracing violence and gun violence as a public health issue, I was intrigued. So just kept my eye on it. I was also intrigued, because when I started out in the field of philanthropy, I was on search for people on the staff side who looks like me, and just couldn't, there weren't that many of us. And folks really said, there's a diverse team of folks at this new foundation, Cal Wellness.
So, Judy, so much of your story. Your life really embodies the California Wellness Foundation, work, mission issues, areas of that, that we really are committed to. And I recall a conversation we had going back several months, where we spoke about African American reparations. And you told me about an interesting experience in Virginia, in your home state that you were going through related to some type of reparations, and it was a great opportunity where we were able to share in a conversation about my experience and the experience that you were going through and and I think the richness of your life. And all that you bring was really embodied in in that little conversation we had I don't know if you recall that.
Sure. Yeah, I do. And I it's funny because not only do we does your family my family kind of share the reparations journey. But it's also as you know, a major issue in California. And I think because of my experience and your experience, and the type of board we have California, Cal Wellness, without even a hesitation, decided that it would play a role in helping fund the first state supported reparations commission for the state of California. And I think that's just an example of how lived experiences of board members are so important in driving the agenda. I mean, I've talked with other CEOs who some have wanted to get involved or other saying, oh, there is no way our folks our board would touch that. But I've experienced that you're referring to just briefly is that I was I mentioned I, before I grew up in historically Black community of Alexandria, Virginia, the neighborhood was called seminary because we were attached and adjacent to the Episcopal for Virginia Theological Seminary, the flagship of training for for the Episcopal Church, my elders, my ancestors worked on that property. And they were good jobs. They worked as dishwashers, gardeners, cooks. And three years ago, the Episcopal Church acknowledge that not only had it mistreated, my ancestors and others who worked with slave wages, but actually, slaves had actually helped build that institution. And they decided that they were going to create and they have created a reparations fund, and my family, on my mother's side, has been told that we are eligible to receive reparations, and you would think it would really be easy, but it it has provided a variety of differing opinions, both within my family and within the community, not unlike some of the discussions that are happening in California now. And you know, some family members, I don't want to touch it, or they're saying, show me the money. Others are saying it's not enough. But it's those kinds of discussions that we have, you know, in the board room, which I have to say Cal Wellness is the first organization and I've worked with some great organizations, it is the most diverse organization that I have been a part of both in terms of colleagues, majority of our staff are folks of color, women of color, the majority of the board, folks of color, women of color, we actually have grantees, and it's you know, it's really, the credit goes back to Gary Yates, a white man who served almost 20 years as CEO who said, If we're creating this new foundation, why not have the people who work here and govern, reflect the demographics of the state? I'm curious, Debra, what, how do you think that's been helpful at the board level? And, and where some areas that you think we still needed need to work on?
Yeah, I'm gonna turn the question around a little bit to you because equity and diversity are so much at the core of who you are. And I'm sure it's part of what has what has attracted you to the Cal Wellness work. But as you reflect back on your time at Cal Wellness, I'd love for you to share what some of the key moments have been for you both pride points, as well as important turning points that reflect the progress and the commitment commitments that we have as an organization and reflect a little bit about what it took to get there because you have been a taskmaster, you have you have guided us. You have held our feet to the fire. You have been a critical thought partner in this journey. So while we talk about the board progress, I think we also need to really reflect on what your imprint has been and I'd love for you to share with with us just that reflection?
Well, you know, Debra? You know, I think it's a collective effort. You can't do squat without a team effort. And of course, I, I'm curious about the areas that were painful for me in this journey. And, and in some situations, you were like the board chair, let me just share a few one, the board I think we all recognize, yes, it's great. We're a diverse board. But the board said they were interested and being pushed more, and to continue to learn. And so if you remember the first, the DEI training that I brought the board and staff together, and I think I think it was a disaster based on the feedback I got from the board. Basically, the board said, Is this it? This is, you know, diversity 101 We, we want to be pushed, we want to be challenged. And I really, the board really gave me a hard time saying, we're giving, we're giving you the time to to help us to push us, you've got to do better than this. So I sort of licked my wounds on that. You remember that?
Yeah, I do remember that. And I think it was the acknowledgement that we all had a lot to learn, that we felt we were smart people, we were accomplished people sitting around this table with these big decisions. But there was an acknowledgment that learning had to be a part of our diversity journey. And I know that from the onset, we, we decided that we would do that. But we also decided that it was important for staff to take that learning journey along with us. And we all had to be able to face each other in a room and admit what we were learning and and where we had knowledge gaps. We had to face our biases. And we were guided through that with a number of really outstanding presenters and speakers and people who helped us along that journey. But I think you're right. It didn't come with there certainly were stumbles along the way, in another area, and it was an area as board chair and on the board is knowing that we had to shift our culture within the organization. And what does that mean? How were we going to face some of the areas that were not comfortable, not comfortable having hard conversations, not comfortable, some board members with any type of confrontation of disagreement, we developed a set of core principles that guide our board to this day, we review them, they're included in all of our board packets as reminders. But I think both the intentional work that we had to do, but also those kind of new discoveries along the way really helped helped us get to where we are. Also, I want to say that while we were developing all of our internal kind of muscle and our strength and strategy, there was also something going on that was you know, happening externally, in our environment, lots of issues, lots of hot topics that we needed to be engaged in. And one of the areas that that I really want to highlight here is helping us develop our voice as an organization. And that was something that came about during you know, the last five to six years, I think and you know, Judy, I have to say that a lot of credit needs to fall to you. Because one of your superpowers is your writing is the incredible storytelling that you have brought to the foundation. And as well as you know, just your timing of knowing when it makes sense to land. You've been successful with op eds. You've been successful, and just getting your own point of view out through speeches. But I'd love you to talk to us talk a little bit about how how voice really matters for a foundation and knowing when to exert your voice when to join with others. Because I think that has been really instructive for us as board members along our journey. And I think it's really helped to help us all find our voices.
Well yeah, it really goes back to a sense of looking as I do community work looking at what are the assets in a community. And one of the things that that just has been frustrating for me, even before heading up a foundation was that feeling that foundations did not use all of their assets, that the focus always is on the grants and yes, grantmaking and the fact, we, you know, put out $57 million a year, it's great. But there were three areas when I came in, that I really wanted to leverage that hadn't been one you mentioned was the voice was. And as I went and talked to the community folks said, You guys make great grants. But what do you stand for, you can get into rooms that we've don't, and you can use your voice. So really beefing up our our public affairs, our communication, and really determine how we can use our voice in support of our mission. The other isn't our investments, you know, we Yes, we give up 54 million, but we sit on a billion dollars of assets. And at least when I came into Cal Wellness, that was an asset that was not being used in terms of mission alignment. We didn't know what we owned, we were not looking at increasing holdings around diverse managers. We weren't really looking if we were doing any harm, that was working across purpose. And then what serve it actually was trustees, I go bananas, because I think not only foundations, but most boards, they picked these amazing people to sit on their board, they bring them and they give them a good meal, and they PowerPoint them to death. They don't utilize the power. And it just drives me crazy. And so one of the goals was how do we leverage the power and the wisdom around the table? And so one of the things I'm really proud of is it's doing annual planning for leveraging the power of our trustees. And one perfect example is the board said, you know, we've never met with boards of other trustees. So really, you recall, we had a meeting, a general meeting with the board of trustees at the California Endowment, we brought in a trustees and board chair for formally The Group Health, I think they've changed their name to Inatai Foundation in Washington. And a group of our African American trustees said they wanted to organize the African American trustees in California, they organize, they came up with a plan of action. And they secured a meeting with the governor to talk about the needs of the African American community. And I know, Debra, you're going to be pushing that idea among Asian Americans as well as Hispanics in philanthropy.
Yeah, I think that work, Judy, that you describe with NAFI, certainly, and the work of our trustees, or African American trustees, kind of inspired some additional work that is now occurring with APIP with with HIP and also with NAFI which is to organize ourselves to think about what we can learn from each other and to also kind of embolden our own missions as trustees to have greater impact within our own organizations and also work together to uplift some of the the big issues that our communities are facing. And I have to say that I think during this period, certainly over the last six to six to seven years, that we as a board have really been emboldened by some of these acts. And we've been able to step into some of these really important issues and topics individually as trustees, but but more importantly, as as a board.
Debra, I'm really interested in it just just stepping back and, and hearing your reflections as, as one woman, women of color, communications professional, all of that, and it's certainly his board chair to in a really unusual time. As you sit back what are some reflections you have both high points and low points?
First, I'll start just my reflection serving on on this board and the experience over the past almost nine years, one of our board trustees and also former chair Joe LaMotta. And I'm sure you remember this, Judy, he made a toast to you a couple of months ago and he started by just his own personal reflection, and he said, by far, this board is the best board experience I have ever had. And he looked around the room. And he said, and I believe I'm speaking for everybody in this room. And we all nodded, and some of us clapped. But I want to start with that, because I feel that in so many ways, it's been a learning journey for all of us. It's been, as we've spoken before, I get a little emotional, it's been a journey of discovery, of working with incredibly smart, dedicated, committed people who are leaders in their fields in their, in their organizations in our community. But it's learning and being among the best, and really doing great work. So I reflect a lot on that. And I also reflect on how we've really taken time to, to think about and hold ourselves accountable for this work. During my tenure, but it actually started even before me, we really started to include self reflection as part of our practice, so that we could both see who we were as people coming into our boardroom, our lives, our families, our struggles, our work, and what we all have the gifts that we bring into the boardroom. But we also started a board self assessment process. And we set board goals, you certainly set your own goals, but we also set goals for ourselves. Because we really want to do this well and make this time count. And, you know, kudos to our incredible Board of Directors, I mentioned that we have leaders, leaders among leaders. But I gain a lot of personal inspiration from these amazing courageous board members. Just recently, two of our board members on Holika, solace and Virginia Hedrick, two of our board colleagues were appointed to the California racial equity commission, and, you know, stunning, stunning, important appointments. But you know, these are leaders that are leading at major leadership tables around our state, in all in many places where we really need to be so, you know, I reflect on the great work of our work of our board, certainly, but also the work that we still have to do in terms of ensuring that we continue to reflect the diversity of our state, ensuring that we remain in the spaces and the places that we need to be. So one final question that we are being asked of, is a sentence a single sentence? What do we need to do to normalize or talk about more as a sector to advance racial equity work at the board level?
I guess I would say not a sentence, but two words, intentionality and action, less talk. What would you say, Debra?
I will join you on that. It's time, these conversations that we're all having. There's nothing new. I agree. It's time that boards and governance practices reflect our communities and all that we've been talking about, and that we value, and that our goals and our highest aspirations are reflected in our actions. So I think we're we're pretty much at the same place. It's action time. Thank you, Judy. This has been a really wonderful conversation. What a treat.
I learned so much Debra. You have an amazing story. Thank you for all your support,
And I learned something new every time we have these sit downs.
Thank you, Judy and Debra for sharing such powerful reflections on both your individual stories and the work of Cal Wellness. You can find more information on this episode, including guest bios, shownotes and additional resources at thegivingpractice.org. And if you have a topic that you think philanthropy should be talking about more, let us know by emailing email@example.com. This podcast was written and produced by Aya Tsuruta and Emily Daman with audio engineering and editing support by Podfly and graphic design by Asha Hossain. A special thanks to our Philanthropy Northwest and Giving Practice teams for their thought partnership and the Ford Foundation for making this project possible. I'm Nancy Sanabria, and we'll see you next time.
Judy Belk (senior advisor and former president and CEO of The California Wellness Foundation, also known as “Cal Wellness”) and Debra Nakatomi (CEO of NakatomiPR, trustee and former board chair of The California Wellness Foundation) exchange powerful stories of their experiences with race from childhood to the present, reflecting on what’s possible when foundations lead with lived experience.
Together they underscore the importance of intentionality in board recruitment, accountability at the board level and the willingness to be pushed in this work. As they reflect on Cal Wellness’ journey, they present a blueprint for how foundations can go beyond their grantmaking dollars – using their voice, endowments and power of their trustees – to maximize their service to communities.
References and Resources
Debra shares her family’s history with wrongful internment by the U.S. Government during World War II and how that has shaped her lens and experiences. She mentions H.R.442, also known as the Civil Liberties Act of 1987, which was passed to grant reparations to Japanese-American families who were interned. You can learn more about redress and reparations for Japanese-American incarceration here.
- Virginia Theological Seminary Reparations
Judy shares the story of how her family became eligible to receive reparations from the Virginia Theological Seminary for the mistreatment of her ancestors who once worked on the property. She acknowledges the complex discussions around reparations that she has had within her family, and how similar conversations are happening at the Cal Wellness board table and across the state.
- Gary Yates
Both Judy and Debra mention the impact and legacy of Gary Yates, CEO and president of Cal Wellness from 1992-2011. During his tenure, Yates was committed to building a board and staff that reflected the diversity of California, paving the way for the foundation’s community-centered approach that continues today.
- Trustees Advancing Race Equity in Philanthropy
Judy mentions doing annual planning for leveraging the power of Cal Wellness trustees, which led to a group of African American trustees organizing in California to secure a meeting with the governor to talk about the needs of the African American community. Debra references several other spaces where trustees are coming together to advance race equity in philanthropy including HIP: Hispanics in Philanthropy, AAPIP: Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, and ABFE: Association of Black Foundation Executives.
Individual Reflection Questions
- When listening to Debra and Judy’s stories, what stood out to you as their ‘why’? What is your ‘why’ in this work?
- Think about your own board or team. What voices are present? What voices are missing? How do you think that has impacted decisions?
Where I’m From Poem
As Judy and Debra modeled in their episode, bringing our full selves, lived experiences, and unique identities to this work can help foster meaningful and trusting relationships among board members. Writing and sharing a Where I’m From poem is an exercise that can lead to greater connection and help us learn from our colleagues’ lived experiences.
Individually, fill in the blanks using places, things, people or events that evoke strong memories and a sense of self. These verses can be as long or short as you desire, and ideally guided by memories and emotions that show up, along with what has shaped you as a person. Share your poems as a group, and learn something new about your fellow board members.
I am from ________________, ________________________ and ______________________.
Some examples may include:
- Family names
- Food and meals
- Details about your home or place you grew up
- Nostalgic songs
- Smells, tases, textures
- Stories, books or poetry
- Words or phrases you heard growing up
- The best things you were told
- The worst things you were told
- Family traditions
- Losses, grief
- Family Traits
- Pets, animals
You can check out this YouTube video put together by NPR’s Morning Edition of students from Schmucker Middle School reading their Where I’m From poems.
This poem’s inspiration originally came from Geowrge Ella Lyon, an author, teacher and poet from Kentucky. Many thanks to Linh Nygen from the Lumina Foundation, for leading Philanthropy Northwest through this exercise.
This episode of Can we talk about…? was produced by Aya Tsuruta (Executive Producer), Emily Daman (Producer) and Jesse McCune of Podfly (Audio Engineer).
Special thanks to Asha Hossain (Graphic Design), Nancy Sanabria (Episode Host), Komiku (Music), David Littlefield (Public Affairs Manager) and to our Philanthropy Northwest and Giving Practice teams for their thought partnership and support. Thank you to the Ford Foundation for making this project possible.
Judy brings her experience as senior advisor and former president and CEO of The California Wellness Foundation, one of the largest health-focused foundations in California, with more than $1 billion in assets. During her tenure from 2014 to 2023, Judy led the foundation to take bold, community-centered action for historically underserved communities and individuals, directing the majority of grantmaking dollars in 2022 to BIPOC-led organizations and implementing a $13-million investment in initiatives to address health issues that disproportionately affect women of color, among other accomplishments. Judy also brings her lived experience as a Black woman growing up in Alexandria, Virginia - 10 miles from the White House, and the impact of systemic injustices she faced to the conversation. Today, Judy draws on her nearly 30 years of experience in philanthropy, continuing her work as a trustee for the Surdna Foundation and as a storyteller and writer about her personal and professional journey as a woman and woman of color.
Debra Nakatomi is president and CEO of NakatomiPR, a strategic communications consulting firm committed to advancing social change and racial equity. For over 30 years, she’s led statewide and national multicultural awareness campaigns promoting health equity and behavior change and combatting Asian hate violence. She leads the firm’s strategic and creative vision and is a trusted advisor to CEOs and purpose-driven leaders on organizational growth, change initiatives and issues management communications. Debra has dedicated her career to strengthening mission-driven organizations. She is the former board chair and currently serves as trustee of The California Wellness Foundation, working to deliver on its mission to improve the health and wellness of the people of California. A lifelong advocate for gender equity, she serves on the board of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), comprising nine million members in 153 countries. She also serves on the Board of Governors of Little Tokyo Service Center and the Advisory Councils for Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles, Peace Over Violence, Kizuna and the Irene Hirano Inouye Philanthropic Leadership Fund.
Debra co-produced the Mineta Legacy Project which includes a PBS TV documentary, Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story, and an online curriculum, What Does it Mean to Be An American? profiling the life and career of Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. She also co-produced Stories From Tohoku, a PBS documentary about survivors of the 2011 Japan earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. An active member of the Japanese-American community, Debra was conferred the award of the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays by the government of Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs for promoting mutual understanding between Japan and the United States.