On July 23, 2020, with COVID spiking, the national economy in grave distress, and racial tensions boiling over in America, Kendeda’s executive director Dena Kimball and fund advisor Tené Traylor sat down for a candid conversation over Zoom. Their goal: unpack and examine the Kendeda Fund’s organizational journey around race and equity, including the 2016 decision to refocus Kendeda’s Atlanta grantmaking strategy on the city’s widening opportunity gap. 

Among large U.S. cities, Atlanta ranks first in income inequality and nearly last in upward mobility, and its Black and brown populations have been disproportionately impacted by the city’s rapid de-urbanization and economic decline. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of Dena and Tene’s conversation, as moderated by Kendeda’s communications director David Brotherton. Mindful that each member of the Kendeda Fund staff is on an individual journey where matters of race and equity are concerned, we decided to share this conversation in good faith and as an experiment in transparency. We hope to publish more internal conversations like this in the months ahead as Kendeda moves towards our spend out and the sunsetting of our operations at the end of 2023.

David Brotherton: Let’s begin with some stage-setting. Dena, how would you describe the origins of Kendeda’s equity journey as it relates to the work we’re doing in Atlanta?

Dena Kimball: In many ways, it’s the story of our founder’s evolution as a philanthropist. Initially Diana was a very reluctant philanthropist. Not to say she wasn’t committed to or thoughtful about her giving. But she was not someone who was out to build institutions. It was never her instinct to say, “I’m going to scale up a big foundation, hire a staff and make a big splash.” Instead she turned to someone she trusted for help and advice, her financial adviser and planner, Barry Berlin. Diana has always been interested in making a positive difference in the communities where she’s lived. So giving in Atlanta, where she was still spending much of her life, made a lot of sense. The Atlanta portfolio was initially very focused on environmental issues, almost exclusively. But the giving we did was more intuitive than strategic; it was ad-hoc, and mostly responsive to the circles Diana travelled in, which were not as representative of the diversity of our city. But as time passed and her giving evolved, Diana’s world began to open up in some important ways, and her sense of the community’s needs broadened and expanded.

David: Tené, you joined the Kendeda Fund in 2016. You became the first woman of color on an all-white team. And as part of your new job, you were tasked with rethinking or redesigning the work Kendeda would be doing in Atlanta. What made you say yes to the job given how Kendeda’s Atlanta portfolio looked at that time?

Tené Traylor: When I first heard about the position, the only thing I knew about Kendeda was its environmental focus. I was a senior program officer at the Community Foundation where Kendeda had a fund (Grants to Green) focused on greening nonprofit-owned buildings. And honestly, I really did not understand how the work I was interested in doing would be a fit with their strategy. But the title of the position was “equity advisor,” and it did pique my interest. I reached out to Dena and following our initial conversation, I was blown away. She’s the real deal. She had an openness to thought leadership and analysis that was different from other foundation leaders in the field. I went through an extensive interview process, of course, which helped me understand the vision Dena and Diana wanted for the role. Then when I came on board, I realized I had an opportunity to be creative and build something new, something special. It felt like a good match, a real opportunity to have impact, and flexibility, and room to help create something transformative, something that was truly needed for our city.

David: So, you accepted the gig, Tené, and you were given an existing book of work with the charge to expand it with a greater eye toward justice and equity. Help us understand what that transformation looked like. How did you start to make that pivot?

Tené: I remember a few things. One, I knew I wanted to honor Barry (Berlin), who led great work in Atlanta for Diana for more than 20 years. And the more I had a chance to talk about that work and talk to people about where Kendeda was going, it was pretty obvious to me that I could create a narrative around Barry’s work that centered on what he’d been helping Diana do for all those years. It’s what I came to call “Great Atlanta” grantmaking. So, with projects like the Botanical Garden, KIPP Schools, the Woodruff Arts Center and so many others, they were helping to create a truly strong, great city here in Atlanta. It was about creating space for what the city could be. Their vision and support provided a great runway for me to say “OK, Kendeda has done amazing work for 20 years around making Atlanta great. Now it’s my opportunity to think about how to make it equitable, and to make sure that everyone has access to all the things that Kendeda has been putting so much time and energy toward.”

Within the Atlanta portfolio, I defined equity as a just future for all Atlantans, one where race and zip code is not a barrier to high-quality education and economic vitality. The portfolio was crafted following a deep learning journey, which included a listening tour fueled by conversations with community activists, nonprofit leaders and staff, funders and government leadership voices. My background working in neighborhoods is through a community development lens. I’m also constantly looking at where the data is going. So we were able to be able to marry those two things – economic opportunity and education – as our “pillars,” as the areas where Kendeda was going to push equity. There are so many other indicators of equity in a community’s life, of course. But for our region, here in Atlanta, those are the two measures or indicators that had not really received the level of attention and coordinated support they deserved.

David: Tené, you brought credibility to Kendeda’s work almost instantly. But you also stepped into a dynamic where there was a great deal of justified mistrust or distrust of institutional givers – of older, staid, white Atlanta institutions – by communities of color. Can you share a little bit about how that process of trust-building worked for you?

Tené: Well, there has always been a healthy mistrust around philanthropy in general. And there was always hesitation, resistance and fear about bumping up against philanthropy because funders have so many resources. Atlanta philanthropy, specifically, is a very white-led space. There are all those real factors. Then here I come as a young(ish) Black woman – with various hairstyles, based on the day – and access to a significant amount of resources in comparison to some of my colleagues. That was not always trusted, at least not initially. We saw a lot of people, mainly white-led grantees, who were looking at Kendeda’s resources, and questioning whether I, Tene, actually had ample autonomy within, and support from, Kendeda to deploy those dollars. There was a lot of skirting around that, you know? Barry is an older white male who has established himself in this community, and there was trust in his leadership, perhaps more than in mine. But I knew that there was a group of practitioners and nonprofit leaders, women and BIPOC, out there who were looking for resources, too. They needed a champion, someone who could tell them that they also had access to these (Kendeda’s) resources. It was hard at first. It was a mixed bag. Many folks didn’t know Kendeda well enough to understand what we were about – probably because of the circles that the Kendeda Fund had been in up to that point. So, we needed to convey to all of them that Kendeda made a decision to pivot in this way before I got here…and I am now just here to execute on that strategy.

Dena: I would complement Tené for navigating that. Because there were times when normal human behavior is to go toward the people we know, which is probably a big part of what Kendeda had been doing for many years. And some of it, of course, may have had more racial undertones. And stepping into all of that, Tene was incredibly gracious and graceful in navigating how to let folks know when there wasn’t going to be a place for them in our future portfolio.

David: How would you characterize the transition from the original Atlanta strategy to the new one – including the bruised feelings it may have caused for some long-time Kendeda partners?

Dena: I think there were a couple of reasons why it wasn’t especially awkward or difficult…for Diana I mean. One is that she was increasingly living in, and invested in, Montana. So, Atlanta itself was becoming kind of a legacy community for her. She also knew that I was living here full time again (after many years away), which helped. Mom and I would often laugh that Atlanta was finally becoming the city we always hoped it could be in terms of amenities like the Beltline, and midtown parks, and restaurants, and wonderful children’s museums, and all these incredible things. But who is this done for? I mean, in the Atlanta where I grew up, you could not sit outside on the sidewalk cafe and eat. That wasn’t done. Now finally, it was starting to feel like a “real city.” But that being said, I had the realization that it was a city increasingly being built for folks like me. People with privilege. It wasn’t being built for everybody. And that was really uncomfortable. On a personal level, speaking just for myself, that realization helped spark the desire to create change in a new way.

Tené: I remember, particularly during that first year, feeling like Dena and Barry were being particularly supportive. They treated me and trusted me, even if I wasn’t sure myself that I deserved that level of confidence. That was not necessarily a racial thing. It’s just how they treated new staff and how they managed to give you that level of trust. I think all of that internal support made my work a lot less difficult externally.

Dena: Barry also stepped off of a couple of boards, which was a small but pragmatic way to help. It sent the right signals.

Tené: Right. It was a very conscious step to make room for me. Barry and I were also really intentional about connecting, and that was helpful even when things were not great. We found our way to each other as human beings, and that made all the difference. It allowed for mistakes to happen, but not linger or take over the work we needed to do. That is a testament to the character of the folks on the Kendeda team.

David: Not only did the Atlanta portfolio go through a transition in ownership, from Barry to you, Tené. It also went through a transition in strategy. In other words, there were two big, sometimes complicated dynamics shifting at once.

Dena: Well, I would add a third, actually. Yes, it was a change in strategy, and a change in person. But it was also a change in approach. For instance, before Tene’s arrival, or my arrival as executive director, none of our grantees in Atlanta had really even been submitting applications for funding in any formal way. So you have to add in this overlay of how we began standardizing the Atlanta approach to grantmaking – aligning it with the way the rest of Kendeda was operating in terms of due-diligence, grant applications, reporting results, and things like that.

David: Tené, based on your experience not just at Kendeda, but also previously when you were working at United Way and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, do you think it’s possible for white-led organizations to transform themselves to truly equity-centered organizations when it comes to race? Do we need more Black-led organizations? Or are those not mutually exclusive?

Tené: I think we need both, and I think we can have both. For white led organizations I think the work needed is not just the external work. It’s also the internal work. And we’ve seen that play out with our colleagues in various ways. There are many white-led organizations doing this work who are also rooted in privilege and power and access. I think that has to be interrogated when you’re trying to be benevolent. It’s something white-led organizations have to ask themselves. They have to consider a few things: First, why are you white-led in terms of your practice? Is it because you have the best person for the job? What does that look like within all parts of the organization and how you structure your practices? And second, how do you show up if you are a service-based organization? How do you service your clients or the participants in your program? Oftentimes it’s very patriarchal, it’s very hierarchical, and sometimes it can be bureaucratic based on the historic structure of that organization. As a result, people often don’t feel like people; they feel like cogs in a machine. That’s not helpful to anyone. It’s not helpful to the staff seeking to be creative and innovative in trying to meet those clients where they are. And it’s not helpful to the to the clients who are seeking support and who are already feeling dehumanized, even as they’re looking for a place to be made whole again.

I’d also say that once white-led organizations do their work – once they ask themselves the hard questions about the lens through which they view that work, and whether their outcomes are marrying that – then I think yes, you absolutely can have white-led transformative racial equity organizations. And, just because you’re a Black-led organization doesn’t make you a racial equity organization either. Black leaders who are doing work can sometimes be the face of white supremacy. And, some BIPOC leaders are challenged to push back on the white-led culture and systems that built it. As a result, they find themselves experiencing a certain level of trauma. Really, all of it needs to be constantly interrogated. Philanthropy in general is not really held accountable to anybody. So that work has to be self-imposed as a community and as a field. If we are not willing to do that work, then we are complicit to the power and privilege that built it. I think we have a chance to correct ourselves moving forward, and hold each other accountable, and listen to folks that are doing the work in the field when they say certain things.

David: Dena, how do we as an organization ensure equity is a value embedded in and threaded meaningfully through every Kendeda grant portfolio, rather than just the work we are doing in Atlanta? What advice would you offer others who may be looking at our experience, or trying to learn from it?

Dena: Good question. I do think equity is robustly embedded in all of our existing portfolios. We strive to ensure that the people most affected by the “problems” we are trying to solve for are those who need to be at the table and driving the solutions. In our work with climate, the approach has definitely been around the frontline communities having a seat at the table. On gun violence prevention our focus has been on ensuring that the GVP movement is representative of the people who’re disproportionately facing gun violence in their lives. Kendeda’s girls’ rights portfolio has definitely centered on girls and families driving the necessary change. And our work in Montana, particularly around the Native American culture, aims to position Native American-led organizations as agents of their own change. That values piece is essential, and it’s there, I think.

The other thing Tené talked about is a commitment to data and following what the data says about where equity exists…and where it doesn’t. Within our Atlanta work, equity has become largely synonymous with race. And since we reframed our efforts here that focus has been more explicitly named. Across our other portfolios, it may be different. In some cases racial equity is the kind of equity we need to be talking about. But in other cases different types of inequity are also important. Inequity exists along a number of dimensions and domains that we need to be mindful of. Our organizational culture is not really top down, though. Everyone doesn’t do the work the same way, and we don’t expect them to. We rely, for better for worse, on our relationships as a team, and the time we have learning together, sideways, and influencing one another, and looking deeply into each other’s portfolios. That dynamic style of learning and influencing one another’s work is probably unique among foundations.

David: Tené, what obligations – or resentments – do you feel about needing to be the equity “coach” for the team? Do you see that as a burden? A responsibility? An opportunity? An inconvenience? One could imagine you feeling pressure to be the racial equity mentor to a team of white colleagues trying to do their best.

Tené: It’s funny, I actually feel like I have an “economic opportunity and education and transformation portfolio…with a thick through-line or focus on racial equity. That’s what I think I’m doing. I know it’s called “equity,” but one of our grantee partners, Nathaniel Smith at Partnership for Southern Equity, reminds me regularly that equity is not a what, it’s a way. I get that. When I talk to Tim Stevens, for instance, about how he’s working with Native American communities, and when I learn how they’re showing up in their activism or how they’re showing up in the economic transformation space, it becomes apparent that what matters is the through-line and how he is partnering with that marginalized community to get work accomplished.

As for the data driven piece, before we talked about race, the issues of housing, education, transportation, economic opportunity and economic development were just the things that Atlanta was working on. The problem is that the data was saying Black and brown communities in Atlanta were disproportionately impacted. That’s where the equity work showed up. That is just our approach. And that has grown into an intentional space. I would not say that I’m an expert in any of this. I think it’s more in how we want to shift outcomes for the people that are most impacted. And the people that are most impacted negatively are folks that are Black. That is very intentional, and I don’t mind talking about that at all. And that was that’s true to the portfolio. I would say again that the equity piece is the through-line. But at the end of the day I’m really trying to impact economic opportunity and education in our region…and in Atlanta.

Dena: Returning to your question about how our experiences might be informative to others, I think it’s worth saying that we are – and this is not exactly the right word – kind of a “casual” organization in certain ways. We rely heavily on a mindset of “Well, we’re good people, and we’re trying to good work, and we do things different than others.” But we are outliers on many levels. For instance, Kendeda does not have any policies around sourcing. We don’t have an employee manual, or written policies on sexual harassment in the workplace. We don’t formally analyze our grantees around racial equity lines. We haven’t done an audit of our application process. And so on, and so on. There are a lot of approaches that other grantmaking organizations would lift up as best practices, where we’ve given ourselves a pass. So for better or worse, for our group, the question is: “Would that investment of time and intentionality get us to a significantly different place?” It might. But I’m not sure it would. So that’s probably why I haven’t felt like it’s a good use of time.

David: So, we’ve made trade-offs, and given ourselves a pass here and there. Are there lessons in that for other family foundations of a certain size about what it means to lean into racial equity work, and how to square that priority with other operational considerations and realities?

Dena: I guess I would say this: There’s no substitute to doing the work. I think it takes intention, and I think it takes systems. Both are probably necessary. If you if you have all those structures in place and don’t have the right people or people who have heart and intention for it, it’s only going to get you so far. And probably vice versa. Every foundation has to decide what they’re going to be really good at and where they will invest time. Maybe the third leg of the stool, and again it’s something our organizational culture has lent itself to, although there’s always an opportunity for more, is the personal work for white staff members. Diana, probably first and foremost, has been on her own racial journey, in her own way. And I think part of that has been her exposure to certain books, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.” Or her own experiences getting out, just how she’s aged and grown. It’s her own version of personal work.

Tené: Can I just add that I think everybody on this team has a Black friend, or a white friend, or a Black daughter. I mean, I get that. But I have noticed my time at Kendeda, has offered a sense of proximity to the Black experience…at least professionally with the team…that I think has really been very interesting. Yes, I could see it as a burden. But I think it’s been very, well, I don’t want to use the word “polite” because that’s not fair. I’ve seen familiarity, sensitivity, growth, openness with my colleagues. It has just been interesting to see how growth shows up around race – within myself and within the team – and how it shows up within our work. Over the years, the conversations have definitely evolved and gotten deeper and more intimate. And I’ve seen it show up in work. And I’ve seen people ask themselves, “Well, my portfolio doesn’t look like this and maybe it should. And who am I not talking to?” Whether they have the ability, or need, or want to really change it…at least I know I’ve had conversations with just about everybody around that particular piece. And I think having someone like me on the team allows that to happen. I am not centering myself, but proximity definitely matters.

David: How does the current moment we’re in change the work? And I am referring to the COVID-ignited economic crisis, accelerated by Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and so much more. Really everything that has sort of just zoomed past us in the last two months. How does that change the work? Or does it?

Tené: Yes. It changes the work. I hate that it had to come to a quarantine and racial uprisings. But it came to a head. Now, what I’m noticing is a sense of openness and, more importantly, solidarity in what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Even the conversation itself. It’s not acceptable to ignore the conversation. I’m watching and hoping that it’s not a moment but a movement. I’ve had conversations with colleagues in the field that have traditionally not leaned into this conversation, as individuals or as organizations. And I think that the level of solidarity has definitely shifted within this moment. I would love to ask this question in a year or two: What has actually changed? Has philanthropy shifted? Has giving shifted? Are there more Black-led groups being centered as experts and knowledge bearers – not just in the racial equity work but within the actual issues that matter most. And we can work alongside white and white-adjacent folks to really do amazing work. So yes, in this moment I’m definitely seeing a shift. And I hope we don’t go back.

Dena: I, too, am hopeful. I don’t think you can put this genie back in the bottle. So I’m hopeful that some things will be forever different, in a good way, as a result of this. And I know that belief is definitely what Diana is holding onto at this moment. Certainly with John Lewis’s passing, she said “I just hope and pray that he passed away with some hope seeing these broad movements and broad coalitions coming together in new ways around Black life.”

David: Kendeda has just over three years to go before we end operations. What do you think is the biggest responsibility – or burden – that we all need to carry in those next three years in light of this conversation, and in light of this moment?

Tené: I would say our biggest responsibility is to get super uncomfortable…all the time. I’m uncomfortable all the time. But I think for many of our colleagues – particularly white colleagues – they get to choose when to be uncomfortable or comfortable. And so I would say the aim for them – and for all of us who do this work every day, including me – is to continue to get comfortable saying “the thing.” The thing that forces us to ensure we are working on the liberation of Black folks, women folks, poor folks, disenfranchised folks. And making sure that our white colleagues and white-adjacent colleagues are uncomfortable as often as they can be…and not necessarily rush to provide the answer, or the solution, right now. They need to calm down and listen, so we can get to a shared understanding of how to solve some of this stuff.

Dena: I agree. Look, this is a field where funders are rarely uncomfortable, you know? I mean, it’s philanthropy! And not only are (grant makers) rarely uncomfortable, we’re often put on a pedestal. I would just say in the Atlanta equity portfolio, there are some really terrific organizations. And to the extent that those organizations, in 2023, can be as strong as they can be, as lifted up as they can be, and have a circle of champions around them more than ever before, new faces and voices, to give them a lot of wind at their backs, I think that’s the very, very best thing that we can do. And that does mean asking and pushing our foundation colleagues to think differently and do differently. But I think very much in Diana’s style and spirit is sort of lead by example first and foremost.