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Looking Upriver: Anonymous Do-gooders Work to Promote Systemic Change in Humboldt 


There's an old fable about a village near a great river, a river used for drinking water, fishing and washing. One day a fisherman noticed someone floating downstream, unable to swim to safety and yelling for help. The fisherman jumped into the river and swam toward him, eventually pulling him safely to the river bank, only to see another person floating downstream, yelling for help.

After saving the second person, more people continued to float down the river. The fisherman then had the idea to set up a post nearby with a villager on duty, ready to jump in and save anyone in peril — a sort of direct service to save people from drowning. However, this didn't stop the people from floating down river and the villagers couldn't save everyone.

They began to wonder where all these people were coming from and decided to go upstream to find out. After hiking upriver, they found a perilous broken bridge from which people were falling into the river. The villagers decided to fix the bridge to prevent people from falling in.

They had found a solution to a persistent problem by looking at its direct cause and fixing it.

This classic parable is often used by organizations looking at prevention in the fields of healthcare, education and law enforcement. It also served as a guiding principle for the Humboldt Area Foundation's newly established Donor Circle Fund.

Sitting in a room at Humboldt Area Foundation one recent afternoon, were five ordinary people. The bohemian, hiking-boot wearing, Humboldt-type people that you'd typically see shopping at the Co-op or perusing a farmer's market. Little would you know they had just combined to donate $160,000 to be divided among hand-selected local nonprofits working to address social justice issues on the North Coast.

Fourteen anonymous donors started the Donor Circle Fund in the spring of 2017, when a man we'll call James had the idea to set up a small community of contributors to pool funds for organizations dedicated to social justice philanthropy. Instead of just writing a check to Humboldt Area Foundation (HAF), he wanted to learn more about local issues that were affecting the community. He wanted to be engaged. (In reporting this story, the Journal agreed to honor the donors' wish to remain anonymous, hence our use of the pseudonym "James.")

James, looking for something to do in the next phase of his life, went through HAF to jumpstart his idea. The foundation gave him a list of potential contributors from its donor rolls. Cold calling one person after another, James tried to convince people — most of whom he didn't know — to come to a meeting to learn more about his fund. Many seemed uninterested but, after a while, he was able to convince 13 donors to join him on what would become a journey of education, reflection and philanthropy.

HAF's mission is to promote generosity, inclusion and leadership in Humboldt, Del Norte, Trinity and Curry counties by acquiring grant funding for nonprofits, scholarships for students and managing programs aimed at building stronger communities. Since its beginning in 1972, HAF has awarded $77 million in grants and scholarships to local organizations and students.

"Many of [the donors] have been generous through the years, and we thought it might be useful for us to come together and support these organizations," James said.

In the early stages, the Donor Circle Fund — comprised of mostly strangers — began to meet monthly for a couple of hours to have in-depth conversations about their privilege and wealth, and how to use them to make systemic changes. While they never shared their net worths with the group, much of their discussions focused on the most taboo of topics: money. The group became an open and safe space for the donors to talk about their wealth, with one donor calling it "therapy for people with too much privilege."

In their discussions, the all white group — with ages ranging from late 30s to mid-70s — talked about their different backgrounds.

"Not everyone in the group grew up with money. We're a mix," one donor told the Journal. "Some of us didn't come with a silver spoon. Some of us worked for our money. Others married into it and others were, really, lucky enough to be born into a wealthy family."

Talking about money didn't come easy for the donors. It was something many felt they couldn't discuss with friends in their private lives. It felt awkward. One donor called it a "heavy and multi-layered topic," while another said she has had friends in social service programs who are financially struggling. She said she's had people knock on her door asking for money, calling her experiences a "first-world problem."

Originally, some of the donors wanted to start their own grants and funds but instead decided to join James' effort. Asked by the Journal why he decided to join the group, one donor simply pointed directly at James. Another called herself a "bleeding-heart liberal" who has always wanted to help those less fortunate.

From the start, the donors wanted to primarily focus on sponsoring social justice work. With the help of a HAF employee, the group spent more than a year discussing how to set up their fund and learning the meaning of social justice. They read and discussed articles, role-played situations around the topic of racial equity, went on a two-day retreat and brought on a local consultant to help with the logistics of the fund.

Ultimately, the group decided to emphasize its members' desire to share their wealth with the community by funding work promoting social justice, defining social justice as "the way in which human rights are manifested in the everyday lives of people at every level of society."

"It's evident that [social justice work] isn't happening in our government so it's up to us, the individuals that are able to help, to help," one donor explained.

The group decided to focus the fund on system wide changes rather than direct services. The donors looked for organizations aiming to address social justice and equity problems through finding solutions to root causes rather than Band-Aids. James mentioned the upstream parable as the group's inspiration.

HAF gave the donors a list of 15 possible organizations to consider. Of those 15, they chose four nonprofits that had little to no funding. They liked the idea of providing the seed money for each organization, hoping it would attract other funding sources, one donor said. Through HAF, the donors approached the organizations and gave them an application and an interview. Through the process, the donors were able to form a "a human connection" with the organizations, one donor said.

"We chose these organizations because they were most closely aligned to our mission and didn't have funding from larger sources," one donor said.

Among themselves, the donors made anonymous contributions to their fund. James said the circle wanted to remain egalitarian, making sure no one would feel the pressure to give more than he or she could afford, describing it as "giving freely from the heart."

Here's a look at the four organizations the Donor Circle Fund selected and what they'll do with the grants.

  • Illustration by Jacqui Langeland

Giving back the power

Ask a group of 20-something millenials if they know how to plant and later harvest a vegetable garden, how to change the locks on their door or how a power tool works, and what answer might you get? "I'll just Google it."

Today people don't have the skills that were once necessary for basic survival and instead count on corporate grocery stores, handymen and the internet to solve everyday needs.

Cooperation Humboldt wants to empower people to take back these basic skills. Using funding from the Donor Circle Fund, the nonprofit was able to secure an office space and set up official hours. It will also be planting new fruit trees in community gardens, giving new "skillshops" and creating a tool lending program.

"We want to empower people to learn and practice these skills that were once essential a few decades ago," Tamara McFarland, one of the founders, said. "With the threats of climate change, we want the community to be prepared and reconnect to the fundamental skills of how we feed ourselves with food grown locally."

Cooperation Humboldt began a year ago, when a group of people involved in electoral campaigns and social change efforts decided they wanted to create a more equitable economy.

McFarland installed a Little Free Pantry by her home and is working on expanding her community lawn garden, another Cooperation Humboldt program. The nonprofit is an affiliate of the national Food Not Lawns organization that looks to transform front yards by installing community gardens instead of traditional grass and flower gardens. McFarland changed her front lawn landscape into a community garden and will be installing fruit trees soon, she said.

McFarland said Cooperation Humboldt is all about helping people rely on themselves, especially for those who are economically disadvantaged. In 2017, the U.S. Census found that nearly 20 percent of people in Humboldt County were living in poverty, an 8 percent increase from the national poverty rate of 12 percent.

Cooperation Humboldt will also offer skillshare classes, teaching attendees how to harvest food from community gardens, mushroom hunt, plant gardens and take on construction projects.

Community members who are professionally skilled and experienced in handy work will be able to provide free workshops through the nonprofit and learners will then be able to check out equipment and tools through the lending library using a sliding scale membership fee. People can pay for their membership using cash, volunteer hours or equipment trade-ins, Argie Munoz, another Cooperation Humboldt founder, said.

Munoz added that CH is working on a "Fix-it café," where volunteer "expert teachers" will help people learn to fix appliances, equipment and tools.

"[The Tool Lending Library] is a way to inspire and motivate people who are overwhelmed by pricing and storage space to start and finish projects. We want to help people move forward with DIY projects," Munoz said.

Applied Human Centered Design in Humboldt County

In 2015, Del Norte County began a literacy initiative aimed at ensuring that by 2023, kids in the county and adjacent tribal lands will be reading at their grade level by the time they reach third grade. But to reach that goal, officials first had to understand the barriers that were causing kids to fall behind. Using the Applied Human Centered Design approach, an interview team consisting of members from different educational organizations — including the Del Norte Unified School District, Del Norte First 5, Del Norte Child Care Council, Howonquet Head Start and the Family Resource Center — were able to interview parents and educators, even going so far as interviewing parents in their homes, getting tours of where their kids did homework and played.

The study found many indicators tied to literacy problems, like access to quality child care, kindergarten readiness, preschool participation and more. The organizations are now making efforts to ensure that they meet their 2023 goal by talking to community members about how they can best contribute to those changes.

One of the problems, the group found, is that most Del Norte County parents didn't know if their 4 year olds were "kindergarten ready" because they didn't know what the term meant, according to Michelle Carrillo, the Building Healthy Communities director at Wild Rivers Community Foundation. The literacy initiative campaign launched another communitywide effort, which conducted research using the Applied Human Centered Design workshop, which included "empathy interviews" to talk to parents and gather data about what they thought "kindergarten readiness" meant. They ultimately came to the conclusion that it was a vague and confusing term, which might account for why, according to Literacy Initiative data, only 33 percent of Del Norte County kindergarteners were "kindergarten ready" in 2015.

Together, the organizations were able to launch a campaign aimed at helping parents prepare their children for kindergarten through a series of simple questions: "Can your child sit and listen? Are they potty trained? Do they know their ABCs?" First 5 Del Norte launched Ready4K, a text messaging program aimed at helping parents make sure their kids are ready for kindergarten. As of 2016, after just one year with the initiative in place, they were able to increase kindergarten readiness by 12 percent.

Applied Human Centered Design is a workshop approach to problem solving that involves deep listening, empathetic thinking and outside-the-box solutions for social service organizations through the lens and perspective of their clients. ThinkPlace is a global firm that emphasizes innovation by using the Applied Human Centered Design method to solving problems.

"The concept is new to social innovation design and it tries to answer how you would take what you've heard and apply it to make a change," Carrillo said. "It's helping communities solve sticky complex issues."

Carrillo brought in ThinkPlace to bring Applied Human Centered Design training to local organizations in Del Norte County, and has since worked with local school districts, tribes, the family resource center and the city of Crescent City to change the way services are delivered in Del Norte County.

Jen Rice, director of Community Strategies at Humboldt Area Foundation, is working on an Applied Human Centered Design training for service-based organizations here in Humboldt County, using the funds from the Donor Circle to bring in ThinkPlace and other consultants. The design training will look at social service programs in Humboldt County that have the potential to be more impactful for their clients by reaching out to them directly.

James said this project appealed to the group because it is inclusive and collaborative, and Rice said she hopes it will ultimately reach those who might currently be underserved or unreached by existing programs.

"After working in the community for 30 years, I'm hopeful for families who need a different way of support," Rice said. "Del Norte made mind blowing changes that resulted in people's lives being better. Their work was brilliant and I'm excited to see that here."

  • Illustration by Jacqui Langeland

The roots of equity

One of the key aspects the donors wanted to focus on was making systematic changes that result in a more equitable community. But in order to do that, organizations first have to make sure they are inclusive, which is exactly what the McKinleyville Alliance for Racial Equity (MARE) aims to do.

Using films and books with discussions that follow, MARE is working to help people understand racism on a deeper level, committee member Mary Burke said, adding that the group is now launching a leadership training initiative.

Sponsored by the Donor Circle Fund, MARE's year-long Leadership Initiative will work with McKinleyville organizations that are willing to open up their policies and procedures to look for anything that might not come across as inclusive to people of color. Before the effort begins, the group will be using the Applied Human Centered Design to research and map out the experiences of people of color using empathy interviews. From there, the organization will construct a blueprint of change for the leadership initiative.

For example, Roger Macdonald, a MARE committee member and the superintendent of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District, said he and other committee members will meet with people of color to review the school district's policies and procedures. Together, they will look at hiring processes, dress codes, graduation requirements, athletic programs and everything in between to make sure they are racially equitable.

"I'm trying to look for anything [in the board's policies and procedures] that is offensive to whomever and, if we find something, we will make those changes," Macdonald said. "That's the gist of MARE's [initiative]."

Funding from the Donor Circle will help MARE bring in a consultant to assist with the training. Macdonald said he hopes to teach organizations how their policy language can be most inclusive to everyone.

MARE itself came into fruition amid a contentious discussion about whether the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee should take on the topics of racism and racial equity. Committee member Craig Tucker brought the issue forward in 2017, amid news of the stabbing death of Humboldt State University sophomore David Josiah Lawson and the Charlotesville attack, thinking it was time to talk about racism in McKinleyville and the town's reputation among people of color. When he asked that the issue be put on the committee's agenda, there was pushback.

"Either McKinleyville has a reputation that is unearned or there are real issues of racism here that we need to address," Tucker told the Journal. "It's way past the time to talk about racism in our community. It's hard and uncomfortable but we have to do it."

At the committee's next meeting, Tucker said an abundance of people of color attended and talked about their experiences of racism in McKinleyville, with many longtime white residents shocked to hear their experiences. Through a series of conversations over the ensuing year, and with the help of the Humboldt Area Foundation, MARE sprouted.

About the effort sponsored by the Donor Circle Fund, Burke said she is looking forward to the opportunity to discuss racial equity within the structures of various local organizations "so that the dialogue becomes familiar." For his part, Macdonald said the effort has the power to address racial equity on an institutional level.

"We know that institutional racism is alive in our community, in society and our nation and we are committed to making a difference in this community," he said. "We want to make sure that people of color thrive in McKinleyville."

A gathering place for a community

Once a month, Hoopa's California Kitchen goes downtown to an empty lot where volunteers set up tables and chairs to serve a meal for their community. Anyone and everyone is welcome. During the meals, community members talk about concerns they have and work together to try to solve them.

In January, California Kitchen held an elder's dinner, where they served crab, deer, acorns and other indigenous traditional foods. But the goal is to create a space for dialogue among the Hoopa community.

"We are addressing the needs of the community," Thomas Joseph, the kitchen's co-director, said. "We aren't here to push an agenda but to listen to Hoopa community members' concerns and move forward together and heal."

The kitchen started when tribes from Northern and Southern California joined the Standing Rock protests of the North Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. The tribes established a secondary kitchen, serving and preparing meals with food donated from throughout California. Now California Kitchen is set in Hoopa with a mother and son duo, Thomas and Patty Joseph, co-directing the organization.

Patty Joseph said the monthly discussions vary, depending on what community members bring to the table. Sometimes they talk about education, other times it's global issues, local politics or how members can become more involved in social and environmental efforts. Thomas Joseph also mentioned that the gathering and accompanying dialogue provide a place of healing for people experiencing the generational trauma brought on by white settlers.

California Kitchen is also focusing on building food sovereignty in the community, and is doing so in part by bringing back the "from the mountains to the table" indigenous practice of gathering food at traditional ancestral gathering spots. Similar to Cooperation Humboldt, the organization wants to empower the community to produce its own food, but is doing so with a sense of culture and history.

"We're bringing traditional food forward to remind us where we come from and reconnect us to Mother Earth." Patty Joseph said.

This appealed to the Donor Circle Fund.

"We wanted to fund a local tribal organization and we liked the fact that [California Kitchen] is using indigenous food and an art component as a way to rebuild a sense of community that looked into local problems," James said.

The Donor Circle Fund will continue to contribute to local organizations that are putting in the effort to make systematic social justice change. James, who calls himself "a dreamer," says he has more ideas in the pipeline to promote equity but said the Donor Circle Fund will stick to its original 14 members.

The group has become close through potlucks, swapping garden plants and holding holiday parties. Members who were once only acquaintances have become friends, one donor said. Another said the group has developed a values system and a level of trust.

All of the donors want to move beyond simply providing direct services and to continue focusing on changing systems by looking upstream and finding solutions to problems at their roots. They also hope to inspire others not to hoard their privilege but to instead fund organizations working to address social justice issues in the local community

For his part, James said he's hopeful, saying that the process of creating the Donor Circle Fund has made him more aware of local issues in the community and how he can best contribute to addressing them. He hopes the organizations thrive and other community members are inspired to support them. Others felt similarly that this small group of 14 anonymous donors might inspire others to do what they can.

"In a time where our country is divided, we want to defy that and create positive change," one donor said.

Iridian Casarez is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.

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About The Author

Iridian Casarez

Iridian Casarez was a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2019-2023.

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