Q&A: Chanda Smith Baker, Minneapolis Foundation

As the Senior Vice President of Impact for Minneapolis Foundation, Chanda Smith Baker oversees the Foundation’s grantmaking programs and provides strategic direction to community initiatives and partnerships. She is podcast host of Conversations with Chanda, and has more than 20 years of experience working with underestimated communities. At Pillsbury United Communities, she led the nonprofit as President and CEO.

We talked with Baker about the state of Minnesota today from her perspective.

Q: Given the impact of COVID in our communities, the cycle of fatigue and energy, how can we feel abundance rather than scarcity?

A: There is always an abundance of opportunity — problems to resolve. If you are too optimistic, you are not able to see what is real in the community. If you are too mired in the problems, you cannot see hope. Those are two truths that we have to hold.

COVID has illuminated systemic issues in education, health, and the economy. The most impacted, who are living day to day, are also suffering the most during this time. The suffering is real. We cannot look past it. There are not enough resources. The safety net has failed them. There are more cases to resolve than there should be. Yet there are also amazing ways the first responders have stepped in. Philanthropy moved and pivoted in more immediate ways. We didn’t think work could be done remotely but it can.

There are innovations coming from this. It is a matter of striking the right balance between what is happening and what is possible. Even in darkness there is light.

Q: Some believe philanthropy obscures the role of the public and government in establishing sustainable communities. What do you see as the role of philanthropy?

A: Philanthropy is one piece of the puzzle. It exists within an ecosystem. I did not come to the Foundation to only administrate our grants programs. There is an opportunity to provide leadership — a way of convening learning, and investing in solutions, that makes our community work for everyone.

I also must say that philanthropy cannot save us. It does have a responsibility, and there also are plenty of opportunities for other pieces of the puzzle — the public, policy makers, the business sector — to dig deep into issues of race, equity, and justice. The Minneapolis Foundation has been on a deliberate journey and we recognize that we must be the change, not just fund the change.

In the last several months, we have deepened our partnership in response to the pandemic and civic unrest. We have shortened our granting timelines, in some cases getting resources out the door within weeks to organizations and businesses that need immediate assistances. This is especially true for our OneMpls Fund and Fund for Safe communities.

We also have simplified our application processes and added video submissions for organizations and leaders with less experience with formal philanthropy.

Q: What insights can you offer about our strengths as community amidst all the long-term weaknesses? How do we find resilience in the exhaustion?

A: First, we tend to confuse resilience with survival. Knowing how to survive is not enough. It is not about just getting through something, but coming out better on the other end — better networked, better positioned.

In the midst of all of it, community health, wellness, and self-care are vital. Incorporating self-care rituals into our lives is a challenge for so many of us, and there are even more challenges when you have fewer resources. At the Minneapolis Foundation our Catalyst Initiative informs and fosters culturally authentic non-medical self-care practices to advance health and well-being of people experiencing current or historical trauma, toxic stress, inequities, or lack of access to opportunities.

Our intent is to create meaningful change and better health outcomes while informing policy and activities within the traditional healthcare environment. It is about emphasizing culturally appropriate, integrative wellness solutions that address trauma resulting from racial inequities.

Q: You have been working on community response to police and criminal justice reform for a long time, and the energy of hope that comes from artists. What are you feeling about where Minnesota is right now?

A: I live and work for improvement. Because of that I have to believe things can be better than they are today. What gives me optimism is conversation around not just police reform, but race and systemic issues. This time feels significantly different — the level of outcry across the world that has happened. The Minneapolis city council has put a real stake in the ground in terms of its position on defunding the police department. There are layers of reaction coming together in many ways. [There is a lot of] debate and deliberation to come on what level of change we want to see.


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