In May of this year, our beloved Interim Program Director, Karen Toering, retired after 8+ years with Social Justice Fund. Her brilliance, spirit, and expertise has been a guiding light for SJF over the years. From developing and leading Giving Projects in their early iterations to current form to karaoke outings with staff, Karen’s influence endures. We sat down for a conversation about her time with the organization, what’s next for her, and what she’s been eating during quarantine. This is a long read, but worth it. We’ll miss you, Karen!
I hear that in your job interview, you told them you were applying for the health insurance. Was it worth it?
Well, I do have SJF to thank for my exceptionally good dental health! I had just been doing gig work. But the reality of having to pay health insurance was real.
I applied after the deadline, and I was surprised [SJF] called me back. On reflection, I wonder if they were nervous. I had no idea where these Giving Project members were going to come from. I thought they were just going to give me a list of people to go out and talk to. My concept of what Giving Projects were was almost nothing, and nobody was more surprised than me about what I had signed up for.
I had done some fundraising before as an ED. I said to myself, “It’s in philanthropy. I write grants, surely I can do this.” I figured they’d tell me everything I needed to know, and they did! I love learning stuff, and that kept me going for the first couple years.
In previous iterations of my work I had done some facilitating, but I had never thought of it as strategically as Mijo and Kylie and Zeke [former SJF staff] were. There was this expansiveness of what facilitation could be in doing movement work, a strategic and specific way to move people from point A to point B.
How would you explain facilitation to your younger self?
Facilitation is holding a container so people can move through ideas and make decisions without having to really feel the structure. A facilitator holds the structure, moves the conversation forward, brings out the quiet voices, pushes back the loud voices, and makes sure that the group goals, whatever they are, are met.
What role does that style of facilitation play in social justice movements?
It forces us, as organizers, to have a rigorous movement. It makes a strong building block. It helped me understand that we can break things down: a group of people most impacted together, they become politicized, learning the root cause for their distress, and move to action. As the Giving Projects evolved, we tested different parts of the curriculum and different tools. That’s what the Project Managers continue to do because [the Giving Projects] are a living structure.
What was your first memory of SJF, or A Territory Resource, as it used to be known?
The first time I came in [to the office] was to drop off a grant application. For lack of a better term, I was like, “This is humble!” The office was really tiny, and when I got hired there were four of us in one room — me, Magan, Mijo, and Kylie. It had been nine years since I had worked with other people all day, and I was scared shitless! I was like, “What if I fart?” It was a strange and new time. I didn’t know any of these people. It was like, “Okay. [sighs] Once again, I’m the only Black person on staff.”
How long were you the only Black person on staff?
It felt like forever. It makes me think about the loneliness that you just swallow when you’re the only Black person in a space. Once that loneliness starts to dissipate, you start to relax. Being in that small group — Mijo, Kylie, and Magan — helped me relax and bloom and grow. We were in a very, very generative stage at the time: Giving Projects were still new and folks were knocking on our door to be a part of the model.
What are you most proud of from your time at SJF?
The evolution of the Giving Project model and how it’s grown. I can remember the conversations we were having [at the very start]! “Should we share this? No, it’s not ready.” As we got more comfortable with the model, we were really protective, thinking “Nobody else can do it, only we can do it.”
But there were other people out here saying they were doing collective giving models. We really had nothing to lose. When that finally broke open for the leadership, it was a whole new world of having the responsibility of explaining this model deeply to a whole other organization to get them to adopt it. It was another little growth spurt. Now there are more than a dozen orgs that have adapted the model across the country and Hawaii, too. We built that…right here in Seattle.
Was there any piece of your own work that you’re most proud of?
Getting to work with a team that I trusted. My previous jobs — actual job-jobs — working as an executive director were very lonely and isolating places to be because you have a staff and board who need you to produce and keep raising money so you’re kind of squeezed. Being able to actually have thought partners who were peers, and to be able to not always have the answers — I was just like, “Oh my god this feels so good! I don’t want to make ANY decisions by myself! What you think? What you think? What you think?”
SJF staff are so sad to see you leave! It seems like you’ve been this enormous presence in their lives. Was there ever a person you thought of and went, “Damn, I can learn a lot from them?”
I learned you can push back against authority and the relationship is not over. Mijo Lee taught me that, and I am grateful. If I could just make up that Frankenperson who represents that, I would take a little bit from everyone from … the boss at a liquor store where I used to work who offloaded the truck and lifted heavy kegs and boxes because he was always willing to do what he asked you to do, to my friends who seem to have the wisdom and the empathy to make people pause and slow down, to my co-workers at SJF who made me reflect on myself and my actions. I’ve kind of just taken little bits of the best of people that I admire and hold that up as the thing I most want to be when I’m my best and highest self. I’m a little bit of her, a little bit of him, and that seems to really work for me.
If you met Karen at 25 right now, what would you say to her?
“Go sister, keep the passion, lose the bullshit.” because I’m really petty. If I could tell her to just dial it back, dial it back! You know the inner turmoil that pettiness creates? I would tell her to just dial that back, and fill that space with joy. Take every petty moment and make it a joyful moment or a blessing moment, that’s what I’d tell her. Every time you want to be petty, just try….! Yeah. If I could get those petty moments back, that would be good.
What part of your work at SJF has been most rewarding or fulfilling for you?
Moving money. When I started the job, I had no idea… I haven’t even done the math on all the Giving Projects I’ve facilitated and how much money those folks were able to move! In the millions, I would guess. Witnessing folks who were scared, unsure and unbelieving be brave and make those asks makes me know that donor organizing on a grand scale is possible. There’s no one who can tell me that a group of people can’t raise whatever they want, money, resources, whatever. It’s not even optimism. It’s truth. It proves the model of the collective is powerful. It proves it over and over again.
Are there any projects you’ve been part of that you feel really illustrated the power that moving money within community can have?
One of the grantees that we visited [during an early Criminal Justice Giving Project], was the Black Prisoners’ Caucus at Monroe State Prison. It was my first time inside a prison. Chamber doors that are locking, and the feeling of going inside of a prison, especially as a Black person — as a Black person whose mother was in prison — was…[pauses] I don’t have words to describe what the feeling of walking into that prison was.
So we do the site visit and the grantees’ answers are powerful and clear. They told us their story of how they’d been organizing for 20 years and wanted to save their archives. I was so moved, but trying to keep a straight face because, we’re the funder. We finished a little early, and we were like, “Thank you very much, we’ll be in touch,” and we got up to leave and they were like, “Where are you going? You’re in prison. You can only be in the hallways during these certain times,” and because they had reserved the room until a certain time, we had to stay in that room! You don’t even have freedom of movement in prison. It was their very first grant, and it was more than they had asked for, which doesn’t happen in philanthropy. That’s a testament to SJF and their belief in organizations, and the groups believe they’re worthy of funding. And now BPC, they’re in the family! We’ve been funding them for years.
Do you have any words of wisdom for your SJF community?
I do believe in the power of donor organizing and collective giving. That’s some real shit, and it’s the way we’re going to need to be in the future. It is mutual aid, people leveraging their privilege by opening their mouths and asking people to support this work. It’s such a simple and elegant way to move wealth, and real! Authenticity, I hate to use that word, but the authenticity comes from what people have to go through to do that donor organizing, to make those asks. Anyone who’s done it knows what I am talking about. I am in awe of the people in our Giving Projects, how they break through their shit and surprise themselves.
We’re about to have the first trillionaire, and that (expletive) doesn’t want to pay his fair share of taxes. We need a multi-prong strategy. That guy needs to pay his taxes, but we can only spend a portion of my time trying to make him. I feel like the work we do at SJF is teaching people how to lift their own folks up and get them engaged. The only wisdom in that is to believe. Believe that it works.
The thing I’m most excited about on my way out is cracking open Giving Projects 2.0. Giving Projects that really work for BIPOC and queer and trans folks, that don’t harm them in getting to the goal. What if all the Black folks, and all the Indigenous people, and people of color really understood donor organizing the way SJF understands it, and understood that you can move anything with a few people just as well as Amy Cooper understood she can call the police and tell a lie on a Black man.
I do think that, within this model, is the secret sauce. Unlocking power in people–not empowering them —the power is already there. It makes me sad that power in us has just been so worn down, we get messages all the time about how we can’t do shit. But, we can and we always have.
What are some of your favorite memories from working at SJF?
It’s the karaoke! And being in a workplace where you actually want to spend time with your coworkers after work. You can’t imagine that joy! Where work is the best eight hours of your day. To say “Let’s all go and sing,” with the same people you just spent eight hours with is a gift that a whole lot of people just don’t get in their workplace. One day that will really stick is the day after Trump got elected — when we came to work on Wednesday, we all just cried together.
To have that kind of relationship on your day job was pretty special. So many folks get hurt on their day job. One of the ways I protected myself when I first came to SJF was by saying, “That’s my day job, that’s not who I am.” I firmly believe people tie who they are to what they do at work, and set themselves up for heartache. But, actually having people I want to see outside of those eight hours? Yeah. That was super special.
There’s been a big period of reflection around that, juxtaposed to the harm anti-Blackness and white supremacy can play in an organization that is fundamentally good, in so many ways good, but still has a cancer that needs to be eradicated.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to try and raise $250k to do a self directed fellowship. Basically, pay myself to do the things I love. I’ll be working on the Gary International Black Film Festival, it’s the 10th year of a festival I started in my hometown. I also have another project here in Seattle called the Sankofa Film Society, which is a partner of Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Alliance. I have taken the temporary position of general manager at Black and Tan Hall. We’re a group of BIPOC who are opening up a cultural center. We’re in negotiations to buy a building in Hillman City. I’ve been a partner there for three years, and we’re so close to owning this building. We’re making a case for the city right now around why this is economic justice, why this is the best solution for post-COVID-19 for people that look like you and me. Don’t just give us another program, give us equity, something we can build wealth on. So we have around 21 partners, mostly BIPOC, that are trying to do a new kind of a business.
The product of this fellowship is that each of these entities would actually be able to stand alone without me. And after that, I’m just going to be big time Grandma, just doing Grandma shit. I have two grandkids, they keep us popping, I have a screenplay in the drawer, I just want to work on my dream.
We spend so much time working on other people’s dreams in our careers. Your whole career is pretty much working on somebody else’s dream. I always tell people “When are you going to go work on your dream?” Because that’s winning, when you’re working on your dream. The other stuff is good work, it can be, but I feel like if you never taste what it feels like to work on your dream…. That’s not “winning”.
I don’t want that for myself, or for my kids, or for anyone that I love. I want them all to taste their dream at some point. Even if you have a day job, I want you to have something else that’s about your dream. And don’t nobody want to go out of here not winning! Right?! Even if it’s just a comic strip or you want to learn how to make a basket… but going to work, paying bills, and dying? NO!!! That’s not winning.
Okay, now we’re onto the lighting round of questions. What’s your quarantine activity of choice?
Go-to karaoke song?
Lovely Day, Bill Withers
What is bringing you joy these days?
Can you hear it? The birds are acting a fool! And in my home, cooking. Really treating ourselves like royalty by preparing meals, plating them, planning out meals. On rainy days, we make pretzels! Or some badass charcuterie plate. Or just peanut butter on Ritz crackers!
What’s the first thing you’ll do when it’s safe to leave home regularly again?
Go to dinner with my friends, because that was my juice. Going to dinner with my posse can get me through anything.