Skip to content
PEAK Grantmaking

A Conversation with LaTosha Brown About Courage, Authenticity, and Healing

Over her 15-year career in nonprofits and philanthropy, LaTosha Brown has led an array of trailblazing initiatives to tackle urgent needs, bridge relationships between national and regional funders, and innovate funding models. She founded the Gulf Coast Fund, the Appalachian Community Fund, Grantmakers for Southern Progress, the Fund for Southern Communities, the Southern Black Girls and Women’s Consortium, and, in 2017, the Black Voters Matter Fund. This March, she addresses the PEAK Grantmaking community in her PEAK2020 opening keynote, “Inspiration and Courage for Movement Building in Philanthropy.”

In the following highlights from her conversation with Genise Singleton, Program Operations Manager at The Kresge Foundation, Brown takes stock of the qualities and practices needed to advance the state of sector equity.

Genise Singleton: Define courage. And, as a black woman, do you find that your courage is often mistaken for other, more negative attributes?

LaTosha Brown: Courage, for me, is my ability to lean into conflict. I think part of the challenge is that folks don’t lean: It’s a conflict! People are afraid of conflict because they feel like conflict is a negative thing, but I don’t think conflict has to be negative. You can lean into the conflict looking for the breakthrough, looking for what else can be revealed. That energy can be transformed by recognizing that when there is conflict, it is pointing to something. Don’t run away from it. Taking the time, and putting my ego to the side to ask, what is it pointing to? What’s the gifting of the conflict?

Courage is those moments when I’ve had to move on what I know in my heart to be true, authentic, and advancing for all involved, whether they see it or not – leaning into that in spite of the fear and the consequence.

But courage also requires what I call considerations. Having courage sometimes means that I don’t fight at all, or that I don’t fight right now, or that I fight differently because I am concerned about the welfare and the wellbeing of others around me.

Courage is those moments when I’ve had to move on what I know in my heart to be true, authentic, and advancing for all involved, whether they see it or not – leaning into that in spite of the fear and the consequence.

Case in point: Last year, my organization went down to Jefferson County. You may have seen the story, it was all over the place. There were 40 elder Black seniors that we had on a bus to take them to vote, and we got stopped [by the police], and they had to get off the bus. And at the time, because I’m an activist, my initial reaction is, “Oh hell no, we’re going to fight.”

Instead, we adhered to the request, knowing that we would come back and address it – that it wasn’t appropriate to address it there. It required deep courage for me, because at that moment, there was something that I knew was not right, that I personally wanted to shut down. But I also had to recognize that my foremost responsibility is to take care of those people who trusted in me. And so I had to put aside my own ego, my own wanting to blow it up, and consider all these other factors.

So, courage to me requires a commitment. Courage is not just the action – courage is the action as it relates to whatever the commitment requires. Sometimes that means I’ll blow it up now. But having courage also means that sometimes you have to move in a particular way. Not in fear of anything, but making a decision based on the advancement.

Singleton: What workplace issues have you run into that have limited your ability to be impactful, and how have you dealt with them?

Brown: What I think philanthropy often doesn’t do is give people the space to heal. We show up in communities, but there’s no real acknowledgement of racism and how we are dealing with the traumatic effects of it now – not just historically, instructionally, but in the way it shapes how people show up.

What I think philanthropy often doesn’t do is give people the space to heal. We show up in communities, but there’s no real acknowledgement of racism and how we are dealing with the traumatic effects of it now – not just historically, instructionally, but in the way it shapes how people show up.

So you go to a community meeting and people curse you out: If you’re really committed to that community, you lean into the conflict and figure out what has them so angry that they are protesting your plan to put a center there. Maybe it’s because you all didn’t even ask them if they want a center. Maybe that’s not what they want to prioritize. Or maybe they want to be a part of the process, or maybe they just need to curse somebody out because they had a bad day, and they’ve seen their community being exploited over and over again.

So I don’t think that philanthropy gives grace and space to communities, or understands how trauma shows up. And that even in our relationships with philanthropy, that’s been a traumatic experience.

So how are you accounting for healing on both ends? Because trauma doesn’t just impact those that have been oppressed. Oppressors are also traumatized by the nature of oppression. And sometimes they show up in communities like there’s nothing wrong with them, only what’s wrong with the community. No, you’ll need to get some therapy and help too.

That’s the other piece: How do we embed healing constructs in this process that impact the way we interact with communities, but also impact the way that philanthropy shows up, and the way in which we give people grace and space to build trust?

How do we embed healing constructs in this process that impact the way that we interact with communities, but also impact the way that philanthropy shows up, and the way in which we give people grace and space to build trust?

Singleton: In that vein – philanthropy providing grace and space for healing – I want to talk about Black staff in the philanthropic place. I feel like, as a Black person, particularly in a white-structured environment, I need space to connect with people who look like me. Can you talk about things that you have done for your staff to help them succeed as it relates to working in these white spaces?

Brown: Absolutely. One part of our work for the Black Voters Matter Fund is that we center the leadership of black women in particular. We wanted to create an organization to be impactful, but also to create a space for black women to work, get paid, and have benefits doing the organizing work we do in our community. We wanted to create these positions to give opportunities for people to really develop, and be able to take care of themselves in those spaces.

In addition to that, the name of our organization was created specifically for what you described: Black Voters Matter Fund. We’ve got white folks and all kinds of other people that support us. But we want to be affirming that it is okay to have Black space, and that we need Black space. And in affirming who we are, it gives permission for other people to stand and affirm who they are.

White supremacy is this belief that there’s some people who are better than others. White people sometimes don’t have the capacity to be able to make the distinction that when folks are saying “Black lives matter” or “Black voters matter” or whatever, all we’re saying is to give Black people grace and space to fully show up and affirm who they are – and not at the behest of anybody else but those Black people. And to the extent that the white folks don’t understand, that is symptomatic not of us being exclusive, but of them only seeing a world where they are in fact centered.

White people sometimes don’t have the capacity to be able to make the distinction that when folks are saying ‘Black lives matter’ or ‘Black voters matter’ or whatever, all we’re saying is to give Black people grace and space to fully show up and affirm who they are.

So we know that, throughout history, there are spaces that women have created just for women, and men have created for men. What we’ve done, and in a variety of ways, is created career opportunities and paths for Black people where they’re able to affirm who they really are. You don’t have to put away your blackness to work with us. You can actually own that, explore where you want to go with that, and show up in yourself.

Singleton: What inspiration and advice can you offer to Black grantmaking staff who often toe the line between authentically bringing their full selves to work and navigating white-dominant cultures in the workplace?

Brown: One of the things that we’ve been demonstrating and teaching is the art of being authentic. I’m walking in spaces and being my authentic Black self in a way that helps people get beyond whatever belief they have about me. It transcends that because I’m transcending that. And I have no attachment to their acceptance of it or not.

One of the things that we’ve been demonstrating and teaching is the art of being authentic. I’m walking in spaces and being my authentic Black self in a way that helps people get beyond whatever belief they have about me. It transcends that because I’m transcending that. And I have no attachment to their acceptance of it or not.

In my time [teaching] at Harvard, I’ve had students say stuff to me like, “Oh my God, they got to keep you. You are so free. I’ve never seen a black person that’s free.” And I didn’t know what they meant at first. I’m like, “Really?” Because it’s so natural for me. We all have code-switch, because we’ve got to learn that if we’re working in the Eurocentric-dominated environment, right?

If I know you can’t hear me when I say “social justice,” but you can hear me If I say “capacity building,” then I say “capacity building.” I’m still talking about social justice. I’m just using it as a language, as a form of communication. If you speak Japanese, I have to speak to you in Japanese. I don’t have to become Japanese. I’m just showing up in my authentic space, a space that’s filtered in love. It’s being able to demonstrate how we are in white spaces and take that blackness with us, not as something to be embarrassed about, or something to force in, but actually as added value.