From the Foundation Team

Everyone Has a Role: My Experiences Shaping Culture within the Jewish Philanthropic Space

– by Heidy Zohar Ramirez

July 13th, 2022

Where we work is often where we spend a significant portion of our time. Thus, the culture we experience at work (even when virtual, at home) deeply influences our lives. Before merely experiencing workplace culture, it has to be created—sometimes with great intentionality over years of planning, and sometimes rapidly and organically, borne of necessity.

After the recent racially motivated shooting in Buffalo, for example, Mallory Morales, Office Coordinator at the Jim Joseph Foundation, and I initiated what we termed Community Conversations—opportunities for our Foundation colleagues to come together in a safe, supportive space to engage in learning, discussion, and difficult conversations with room to embrace mistakes. These Community Conversations weren’t planned over years or even months. But as a queer, indigenous, Jewish, woman of color, I was heavily impacted by the shooting in Buffalo, the ongoing inhumane treatment of black, brown, and indigenous people in this country, and the continued gun violence we experience. I wanted to share my feelings openly so colleagues understood the heavy weight these incidents can carry for employees of color and make space for others who might feel similarly outraged, called to act, and/or saddened by these events. I also wanted to know that my colleagues were allies with me. The conversation allowed our organization to collectively process and reflect while feeling supported by co-workers.

Increasingly, as our field emphasizes having a strong, positive, inclusive workplace culture that fosters these types of conversations, field leaders also think about how best to create that culture. From my time both as a foundation professional currently and previously as Director at Sha’ar Zahav—one of the first LGBTQ+ synagogues, founded in 1977, to serve as a dedicated space for queer Jews in San Francisco—I have been a part of culture building in two different environments. In both places, I’ve experienced how all members of the team play a vital role in shaping organizational culture.

After just a few days at Sha’ar Zahav, I experienced a culture of welcoming and belonging. I was warmly greeted and invited in by the community. For me, this was new and refreshing. Growing up in Los Angeles in the ‘90s and early 2000’s, it was certainly different from the experiences my family and I had at synagogues. Throughout my time at Sha’ar Zahav, I noticed that being welcomed with open arms (figurative and literally) was not solely because I was an employee. This welcoming nature was woven into the culture of the community. Out of a history of being othered, as queer folks, Sha’ar Zahav intentionally created a culture for individuals to be fully embraced, whether they were a first-timer or long-time member, Jew or other faith.

In this culture, I felt I could finally relax and focus on what mattered—my work. I didn’t encounter questions I faced at other Jewish spaces, and more generally the white spaces, I grew up around: “who did you come here with?,” “what are you?,” “where are you from?,” “how are you Jewish?,” and other questions we’ve now come to understand as microaggressions, that often result in loss of self-esteem, feelings of exhaustion, damage to the ability to thrive in an environment, mistrust of peers, staff and the institution, and decreases in participation.

Everyone helped create this culture, from senior staff to junior staff, lay leaders, and congregational members. I learned how intentional an organization must be to cultivate culture. The Sha’ar Zahav community spoke openly about culture development and in its Siddur stated, “we begin each service by singing and linking arms with the people next to us, reminding us that whether we are long-time members of Sha’ar Zahav or this is our first time in a Jewish setting, we are all welcome.” Prior to Covid-19, Hinei Ma Tov was traditionally chanted while linking arms with the stranger next to you, epitomizing the inclusive culture. As Engagement Director, I focused on increasing membership and fundraising. During my three years at Sha’ar Zahav, the organization grew in membership by 47%. We accomplished this growth through listening and genuinely caring about our community. Because I am an inherently curious person, I developed a keen desire to listen to new (or potentially new) member stories and truly learn about their lives. Coming from a career in Business Development for Institutional Asset Management, prior to moving into the non-profit space, it was a shift in how I developed relationships—from an emphasis on caring primarily about metrics, performance, and the bottom line, to prioritizing human connection.

As part of Sha’ar Zahav’s all-female staff of five, I admired the passion, dedication, and discipline exemplified by incredible women living out their personal and spiritual values. I saw the challenges working for a local nonprofit funded primarily by the community it serves (some LGBTQ+ communities are at a financial disadvantage). This challenge is not unique to Sha’ar Zahav. Because many organizations that serve historically marginalized communities also seek funding directly from their constituents, local nonprofits that often serve as dedicated spaces are forced to make difficult budget decisions. These decisions impact staff and the organization’s ability to provide services to communities that need it most for a sense of belonging, connection, meaning, and purpose.

Experiencing both Sha’ar Zahav’s challenges and culture deeply informed my decision to join the Jim Joseph Foundation as a Grant Operations Associate in July 2020.  I wanted to make a positive impact in the lives of future generations; to serve more people at a larger scale, and to influence change. I also wanted to be in a professional setting that both valued culture and understood it to be something shaped collaboratively and ongoing. In this regard, my personal values aligned with the Foundation’s values.

The Foundation’s culture of belonging—where employees are encouraged to be who they truly are—helps make this possible. I appreciate our proactive approach to culture building. In the first few weeks after joining the team, we engaged in CircleUp’s training sessions to learn Effective Strategies To Interrupt Implicit Bias, Microaggressions, Privilege, and Inequities. Culture change of this nature is iterative and collaborative, and for many organizations can be challenging—some DEI initiatives in the workplace can result in backlash of racial equity efforts and a tendency for some colleagues to respond defensively by denying, distancing, or distorting. Understanding why this backlash most often occurs can help to minimize its likelihood and allow colleagues to “cope with their discomfort by choosing a fourth responsive strategy that is more productive: embracing the urge to dismantle unjust systems. Critically, this response is most likely when people both acknowledge systemic racism and see a role for themselves in restoring justice.”

Currently, the Foundation is in the midst of a deep review and update of internal policies and procedures with an equity focus, conducting one-on-one interviews with all professional team members, multiple trainings facilitated by external facilitators for team members, and goal setting exercises by each functional team. We have ongoing monthly internal learning and discussion groups addressing DEI (what we call Diverse Voices and Perspectives), all of which inform language the Foundation uses and shapes our approaches to grantmaking and evaluation. Across the organization, we are committed to elevating and including diverse voices and perspectives both internally and in our external communications.

Throughout the two years with the Foundation, I have grown professionally and am excited for what’s ahead! In addition to grants management and operations, I’ve taken on the opportunity to co-lead the Foundation’s DEI efforts and goal setting for two functional teams. Former Senior Program Officer Jon Marker and I presented at the 2022 PEAK Grantmaking conference on a session titled, Engaging Diverse Voices and Perspectives Within Mission-Specific Organizations; we described the systems and internal practices implemented across the Foundation to promote shared responsibility in pursuit of a more equitable philanthropic environment.

The Foundation’s Diverse Voices and Perspectives DEI efforts are imbued into our work, into our culture. As at Sha’ar Zahav, I play an active role in shaping and sharing this work with the field. Why are culture and dedicated spaces so important? Designing a culture of belonging (or creating dedicated spaces) is an investment that has the potential to nurture the capacity of historically marginalized individuals, in a reciprocal and equitable way, thereby helping to build thriving organizations that are innovative and better equipped to solve problems, find creative solutions, and best meet the needs of their constituents. Who better to find solutions than the individuals experiencing the problems firsthand? To understand these needs, individuals (and both young and older generations) also need to be included in decision making conversations. I have been fortunate to work for two organizations that shared a genuine desire to transform the “traditional” ways in which we understand how foundations and synagogues operate. And, it is precisely for this reason, I decided to work for both organizations.

Funders are in the especially powerful position to play an active role in shaping their organization’s culture and that of grantee-partners. I value the opportunity to be part of culture building. In our Jewish tradition, we are consistently reminded of our obligation to care for those around us and raise our voices in the face of oppression. We each have a role to play, we have the ability to create opportunities that reciprocally nurture and empower others—we have the ability to design and shape culture. Together, we can make the (Jewish) future safe and equitable for the generations to come.

Heidy Zohar Ramirez is a Grants Operations Associate at the Foundation.