Raymond Colmenar is the president of the Akonadi Foundation, an Oakland-based grantmaker dedicated to advancing racial justice in the California Bay Area. Colmenar, who brings decades of experience in both philanthropy and public service, is Akonadi’s first AAPI president, taking over from Lateefah Simon, who is now a congressional candidate.
Prior to joining Akonadi in late 2022, Colmenar worked at The California Endowment for 16 years, where his most recent role was as managing director of the Northern California regional team. Before joining The California Endowment, Colmenar helped launch and spent seven years at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute focused on advancing racial and economic equity. Colmenar has also worked at the Rockefeller Foundation, South of Market Problem Solving Council and the San Francisco Department of Human Services.
We recently spoke with Colmenar about his new role at Akonadi, his experiences working with communities in the Bay Area, co-governance, and the need for sustained support for racial justice work. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
To start with, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what drew you to the Akonadi Foundation?
I’ve had a fairly long career, most of it in, or almost exclusively in, some sort of public service role and nonprofit community organizations, including local government in San Francisco, but the bulk of my experience has been in philanthropy, starting out at the Rockefeller Foundation and working there for about four years, and then most recently at The California Endowment for 16 years. Most of that is focused around the Bay Area region, but I had a few years working on public policy issues around the state of California.
The California Endowment really evolved over the years I was there through Building Healthy Communities into one of the largest funders of community organization and advocacy around health justice issues in California. I thought that was a great evolution for the endowment because, ultimately, we were trying to really create healthy communities that would provide health sources for low-income communities of color. And Akonadi’s history has always been focused on organizing and advocacy around racial justice issues. So that’s what initially attracted me to the foundation — their long-term commitment to building power among communities in Oakland and really aiming that around racial justice issues that would improve the lives of young people and their families.
Building on that, how have your experiences — both personal and professional — prepared you for this role?
I’ll start with the personal: I’m an immigrant from the Philippines, and came to the United States in the ‘70s, when California wasn’t as diverse as it is today. I remember growing up in San Diego and just really trying to learn how to live in the United States and learning about all the cultural and economic issues in San Diego. I think that experience of coming in as a new Californian, understanding what it feels like to be engaged in navigating this new country, really gave me a perspective in terms of how California has transformed over the decades.
What initially drew me to community work was meeting young people in college. I was able to get a fellowship in [UC] Berkeley in public policy, and I was really inspired by all the young people I met who were committed to improving the conditions in their respective communities throughout the country. That led me to kind of identifying ways I could contribute in my own way to building community and advancing racial and economic justice.
After working in public policy and in local government in San Francisco, I found my way to working in the South of Market community in San Francisco, working with Filipino immigrants and other residents of San Francisco. And it really inspired my commitment to working with community. Once I got into philanthropy, I appreciated the role that foundations play in supporting community organizations and engaging residents around being involved in making change.
Akonadi has an incredible history of supporting community organizing and working to advance racial justice in the Bay Area. How do you hope Akonadi’s work in this space continues to evolve?
I think there’s an opportunity in Oakland — and in other places as well, but Oakland, certainly — to have a real partnership between community-based organizations and policymakers. There’s this concept that many folks in the field have been advancing for a long time now around collaborative governance or co-governance. Essentially, it’s how communities and policymakers could be in deeper partnership in order to solve problems in community. And I think in Oakland — and this is true in other jurisdictions in the Bay Area and others in the state — we’re seeing elected policymakers that come from movement organizations.
I think the evolution of the work in the field in advancing racial and economic justice is really this idea of co-governance and supporting grassroots organizations to be in direct partnership with policymakers, so that public policy and implementation is informed by folks on the ground in community, particularly those who are most disadvantaged and most marginalized.
Can you elaborate on the support that Akonadi would be able to provide for advancing co-governance?
Some of our partners in Oakland have been successful in getting public policies enacted, for example, in the school district. There was a victory around the George Floyd resolution, around changing the way Oakland Unified responds to public safety issues. That’s also true with some of the partners that we’ve had in the city focused on public safety. And on other issues like juvenile justice, advocates in Oakland, Alameda County and others around the state have advanced changes in improving the way we deal with public safety issues. I think the next frontier is really trying to get these public policy victories into implementation and systems changes.
Many of the organizations that we support are in need of more technical expertise around how the systems run and operate in order to be effective in advocating for some of those changes. They sometimes need communications resources to be able to tell the stories of successes and what else needs to happen to make policy changes real and meaningful for communities. So there’s a range of ways foundations can be supportive, both in terms of supporting those same organizations to have greater capability, but I also think there’s an important role that we can play to connect grassroots organizations to existing organizations that have the technical expertise and that are aimed at really trying to change some of these systems.
And then, finally, I do think if we are to be successful in really having sustainable changes, there needs to be a stronger partnership between those who are organizing and representing community and those who are in charge of implementing the system changes. So we do need partners and agencies in government. And so [it’s about] trying to figure out in different places how we can craft that partnership so that there’s a real co-governance, there’s really a community-driven governance approach that we could see being implemented. A key challenge of this, of course, is that getting the policy win is probably the easiest part of the equation. Trying to get those things implemented is more of a long-term approach.
Are there any projects, initiatives or investments coming down the pipeline that you’re able to talk about at the moment?
One of the things that I’ve been focused on as I started at Akonadi is that there was a new city administration coming in almost at the same time. I started late last year and really got going earlier this year. We have a new mayor in Oakland and a new city council. And so we are working with other local funders, including the East Bay Community Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation and a handful of others, to try to be supportive of this kind of partnership between the city and community organizations. I think there’s a willingness on the part of the city and the community and philanthropy to be in that partnership zone. And so we’re excited about what could come out of this initial effort.
The Akonadi Foundation and a few others are supporting an initiative in Oakland called a Talking Transition, which is aimed at informing the city’s priorities through community input, but not as a kind of transactional effort. The hope is that there would be an ongoing partnership between community organizations and leaders and the city in carrying out and implementing the priorities that emerge from that process.
How does being the first AAPI president at Akonadi tie into the foundation’s work to build multiracial solidarity and collaboration?
I’ve been very honored to be selected as president of the Akonadi Foundation. Akonadi has been, throughout its history, committed to building solidarity across communities, and demonstrating that through the kind of grantmaking work that we do and the kind of partnerships we have with other foundations. Akonadi is relatively small and is very focused in Oakland, but we are also eager to be in partnership with other funders who are interested in Oakland, but also interested in working at the state level or the regional level — because, as we all know, addressing conditions in Oakland requires us to work not just in Oakland but the county and the state, as well.
For me, the work that I did at the endowment and throughout my career has always been in partnership with other communities. As I mentioned earlier, my immigrant experience really helped me negotiate differences across communities, and that’s been something that I’ve been able to do throughout my career in public service and in philanthropy. I think that’s one of the reasons the board felt comfortable about bringing me on board — to continue the commitment that we have, but also to bring other partners to the table to work in partnership with Akonadi.
To pivot just a little, what are some of your biggest concerns, philanthropy-wise?
It’s hard to generalize, because philanthropy is, of course, very diverse, and in many ways, it’s dependent upon different kinds of local context, but there was definitely a surge of interest and commitment post-George Floyd around supporting not only racial justice work, but supporting power-building work and community organizing work. And just in conversations with other philanthropic colleagues, there appears to be a decline in that level of commitment, that surge a couple of years ago. That’s a concern.
The way I think about it is that fighting for racial and economic justice is a perpetual fight. We’ve seen what’s happened over the last few years around big policy issues that we thought were settled, like women’s right to choose, they’ve been under attack. It’s been a perpetual fight, and I think that’s the same dynamic with any issue of justice. So the concern is that having support for community organizing and racial justice work be kind of an episodic response is inadequate. For those who care about racial justice and economic justice, we have to stay committed to supporting leaders and organizations that are centering that as their mission. That’s certainly something we want and we’re going to continue to do here at Akonadi. But we also want to make sure that other funders maintain and sustain that commitment. I think that’s an ongoing commitment that those of us in philanthropy should not only sustain, but increase to the extent that we can.
What about Akonadi and philanthropy in general excites you and makes you hopeful?
There’s this window of opportunity here in Oakland and other parts of the Bay Area where I think we’re seeing leaders in public policymaking positions that have either come from movement organizations or have deep relationships with movement organizations. I’m excited about the possibility of exploring and supporting and seeing effective co-governance in action. I think there’s a coalescence of local funders around that in the Bay Area, and hopefully, we can attract more in the region and then the state and nationally, because I do think we have this moment, or window of opportunity, to demonstrate how that could be effective.
The window could close because we know that some of these leaders come from movements, most of them are women of color, and there’s a lot of pressure for them to deliver and demonstrate. And if they can’t or if they don’t, there’s always the risk of a perpetuation of that narrative that women of color or leaders who are from community aren’t able to govern. We’ve heard that from folks, and I’m sure we’ve seen that nationally. There’s this tremendous pressure on them to deliver, and then if they don’t — which is sometimes beyond your control — then all of a sudden, that leadership is undermined or is no longer supported.
So I do think there is this window of opportunity that we’re excited about, but at the same time, it’s an important time for philanthropy to step up and try to see if we can get co-governance, this kind of more collaborative governance, more democratic governance implemented.
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