Prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is central to the Walton Family Foundation’s mission. It informs how we operate internally. And how we work with partners and grantees to tackle big, systemic challenges. For Black History Month, we asked members of our team how they view this annual celebration of Black heritage – and through their work, how they are helping to lead change.
Tell us about yourself and your role at the foundation.
Bre’Anna Brooks: I'm from Colorado originally and serve as a program officer on the Mississippi River team on the Environment Program. My portfolio includes equitable and inclusive community engagement in the Quad Cities region of Iowa and Illinois, as well as coastal restoration in southeast Louisiana.
Abe Hudson: I’m a native Mississippi Deltan and a program officer with the Home Region Program. I get the opportunity to work in the place where I grew up. I'm proud I get a chance to support people in the Delta working to improve education and engage youth, lift families into financial security and elevate the voices of a new generation of local leaders.
Alisha Torres: My name is Alisha Torres, born and raised in Harlem, NYC. I'm a senior program support associate with the Education Program, based in Washington D.C. In my current role, I focus primarily on supporting and coordinating team onboarding operations, planning all-staff Education team meetings, and other special projects. I also provide grant and contract support for the Education communications team.
Wiselene Dorceus: I’m Wiselene, a.k.a. Wizzy. I’m a Strategy, Learning and Evaluation officer with the Home Region Program. I’m a first-generation immigrant from Haiti. At the foundation, I measure the impact of our work. Philanthropy isn’t very diverse, which is a shame because a lot of the people who need the funding are People of Color. Uplifting their work through data – building that bridge – ensures that we're a bit more proximate to those communities.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Abe: It's just like gumbo – it’s a bunch of stuff. It means reminding not only myself but my daughter and my family what being Black is all about and why I am so proud of being me. Sometimes I get a little bothered that there isn’t more emphasis put on it. Because I wake up proud of who I am each and every day.
Bre’Anna: For me, Black History Month feels like an extension of everyday life, of celebration but also remembrance of struggles experienced by generations of Black people. I really do appreciate spending this month celebrating with intention while also carrying that forward 365 days of the year.
Alisha: To me, it is all about honor, remembrance, grief, mourning and, most important of all, perseverance. I identify as an Afro-Latinx American from the Dominican Republic. As a first-generation college grad, this is a time for me to continue to educate my family members that, in the United States, we honor our Black ancestry. We celebrate the trailblazers who stood up against adversity and give a moment of silence to honor our fallen soldiers in the Black community.
Wizzy: As somebody who grew up in a free Black republic, we seldomly discussed “Black History.” It was just history. In the U.S., I learned Black History and African American History in public school. Black History Month was a time to learn about all the greats who paved the way in this country. Having a Black History Month is incredible. It's something we shouldn't take for granted. I have the honor of being Black 365. I celebrate it all year round. Black History Month, to me, presents a learning opportunity for everyone else. This month helps others embrace the pride, learn history and celebrate with us.
What does it mean to amplify Black voices?
Bre’Anna: The environmental movement took shape in the 1960s. Simultaneously, People of Color were speaking up against pollution and environmental degradation occurring in their communities, which grew into the environmental justice movement. But the environmental movement lacked inclusion. Their voices largely went unheard. The effects of this are still prevalent today. Amplifying Black voices means acknowledging America's history. And purposefully creating a future with better representation in positions that can create change.
Alisha: In education nationwide, we need more young Black voices at the decision-making table. We need to provide communal support to get those voices heard. And the social and economic incentives for people to share their stories. Until we get everyone in their communities – whether students, parents or educators – included in decision-making, we are not amplifying these voices enough.
Wizzy: Amplifying Black voices is about reaching back, pulling forward and creating space for all of us. In evaluation, this means allowing members of the community to be a part of the decision-making process. To come up with their own solutions. To tell their own stories. Data is empowering, but only if you understand what it means.
Abe: For me, amplifying Black voices is about allowing people to stand on your shoulders. Each one of us has a circle of influence. In all the spaces that we're in, we need to look for opportunities to give people a chance to speak up.
How has your work helped advance Black leadership and inclusion?
Abe: When I joined the foundation, one of the things that was important to me was ensuring there was more Black leadership in the programs we support. We want programming not only to reflect who it’s serving, but who is in leadership. We’ve been very intentional about making sure, particularly in our underserved communities, that leadership reflects the population.
Wizzy: You don’t always have to be the loudest voice. As minorities in an organization, whether you want to or not, you're disrupting spaces and entire sectors with your presence. Because there just aren't that many of us. With that comes responsibility. Sometimes it's as simple as sharing job openings. Sometimes it’s allowing folks to lead and be creative on company culture. I helped co-start the foundation’s first Black employee resource group. It has become a resource and safe space for Black employees in the organization. The Black Professionals Group has helped to amplify Black voices. It contributes to an inclusive company culture. One that listens to the needs of employees and empowers them to lead in a way that is culturally relevant.
Alisha: In my work, being able to meet and network with other Black folks at the foundation, and in philanthropy in general, has been really important. We support and care for each other in many ways. Whether it’s giving references, nominating people for awards and opportunities, showing up to events, or being a supportive colleague and community member.
Bre’Anna: The Mississippi River and the communities the river supports are facing increasingly intense storms and flooding. Adaptation is necessary to maintain healthy and vibrant communities. But these solutions oftentimes fall short on including People of Color in decision-making circles. Expanding DEI and community-based projects can support long-lasting adaptation. For instance, the foundation is supporting a new majority Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community council in the Quad Cities. It will promote authentic inclusion of all residents, especially Black and other People of Color, in developing solutions that address social and ecological challenges.
Can you share how your work is helping solve the challenges the foundation is tackling?
Abe: In the Delta, we are solving problems because we are allowing ourselves to be conduits for conversation. Our work is about the resources we invest in the community. But it’s also about making the connections, being the glue for people doing similar work. And bringing them together.
Alisha: Coming from an operations background, I’ve dedicated myself to making the grant and contract application process less challenging specifically for grantees that do not have the operational capacity in their organization. If we can support people in removing the systemic challenges in philanthropy, we not only expand access but also integrate comprehension along the way.
Wizzy: What I love about strategy, learning and evaluation is being able to measure what works. But also understanding what doesn't work and learning from it. That's incredibly beneficial, especially for a program area like Home Region that is striving to create one of the most vibrant communities in the nation. You can't do that without ensuring that you're collecting the right information on every community you serve.
Bre’Anna: In the Environment Program, we believe that when it comes to the big challenges along the Mississippi River, there are practical reasons to be both hopeful and take action. But that means working with the communities closest to these challenges. I work at the intersection of social and restoration sciences. I try to center people and their experiences within restoration efforts, while ensuring progress toward a more resilient Mississippi River.