Reflections on GEO’s 2021 Learning Conference

  • By Nadege Souvenir , June 7, 2021

“Give up the notion that you know better.” I am still ruminating on this statement from the closing plenary of the 2021 GEO Learning Conference with Dr. Brittany Lewis of Research in Action, Neeraj Mehta of the McKnight Foundation and Leslie E. Redmond, an activist and attorney.

Over three days of the conference, I heard speaker after speaker – myself included – reference the racial unrest of 2020. This was not at all surprising, given that conference day two fell on the one-year mark since the murder of George Floyd. We had lots of talk of doing things differently, working in partnership with community and centering the voices of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). Underlying all these sessions was a question we as grantmakers should consider: Is philanthropy ready to move from the way we were to the way we should be?

The closing plenary only added to my mental mélange. Unencumbered by the usual trappings of an in-person conference, Dr. Brittany Lewis and Leslie E. Redmond joined us from the heart of community, George Floyd Square. Their physical location only magnified the radical honesty in their challenges to those of us sitting in philanthropy’s ivory towers:

  • What counts as knowledge?
  • Whose questions are we asking?
  • Are you investing in structural change or band-aids?
  • Why aren’t we funding the revolution or the movement?
  • Who is the research serving?
  • How do we help heal the community?

I finished the three days with a brain full of questions after listening to community activists, evaluation experts and peers. These powerful and important questions should not be forgotten once the cerebral euphoria of conference learning wears off. So, what next?

We need to take these questions back to our foundations and truly wrestle with them in all of our work. That said, we do not want to fall prey to navel-gazing and endless loops of convenings. The work of deep analysis and learning must translate to action. From the various sessions, short talks and plenaries I attended, I have identified a starting list of actions items that can help us move towards tackling the big questions:

Build Staff Capacity for Learning. One thing that was clear from the conference is that learning is a muscle that all staff should exercise, not just those who focus on evaluation and learning. Find ways to incorporate learning, evaluation and dialogue into your foundation’s regular practice and use the learnings to inform action. Everyone brings lived and learned expertise to the table; it is a miss not to embrace the full community within the walls of your foundation.

Ask Why. Revisit cemented practices with new eyes and ask why. Are you collecting and processing information because that is how it has always been done or because it is necessary to move the work? Consider the systems and practices that have been put in place. Do they meet the need or create distance between the foundation and its intended impact?

Do Your Own Homework. For all the talk of equity, foundations are not always a hospitable space for BIPOC staff. If equity is an external charge, then it must be an internal priority or else the work is inauthentic. Look at policies, practices and procedures. Reconsider language. Move beyond periodic staff trainings and do the work every day.

Disaggregate. No community is a monolith. The more precise we can be with the data we gather and share, the more specific our responses can be.

Move Faster. Community has long been telling us what they know, but we are often reluctant to pivot without outside research, information, data. 2020 showed us that philanthropy can change quickly – more general operating grants, changing application requirements, increasing flexibility. How can we continue to change at the speed of community – not just in times of emergency, but always?

We may not know better, but we can do better. The GEO Learning Conference provided the needed space to think and now we can bring this all back to our work.

Nadege Souvenir

Senior Vice President of Operations and Learning

Nadege serves as Senior Vice President of Operations and Learning for the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation. In her role, she oversees Grants Administration, Human Resources and IT. Nadege also leads the Foundation’s learning and evaluation efforts, including East Metro Pulse, a community vitality survey and report of life in Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties, which she launched in 2016. Nadege joined the Foundation in 2016. She has a background in dance, arts administration and law, working most recently as an attorney at Dorsey & Whitney LLP. Nadege earned a bachelor’s in communication studies and a bachelor’s in liberal studies with an emphasis in dance from Iowa State University; a master’s degree in arts administration from St. Mary’s University; and a J.D. from Hamline University School of Law. Nadege is Chair of the Minnesota Opera Board, a member of the Blandin Foundation Board and serves on the Minnesota Compass governance committee. She was founding chair of the Trademark Theater Board and served on gala committees for Walker Art Center and Guthrie Theater.