The Portal Series: Reflections on Feminist Leadership Through Crisis with Brandi Howard

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in the U.S. and the rest of the world, there can be no doubt that we are in a moment of crisis. As Arundhati Roy writes, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal—a gateway between this world and the next.” This moment of crisis is also a time when feminist leaders are stepping into their power and purpose. We were particularly interested in understanding what new practices leaders are putting in place for themselves and their teams, and which of these they think will be permanent vs. transitory. So—we asked them. Here are their answers.

Since COVID, what do you think has changed around the work you’re doing, or has given you an avenue to do more? What has been evolving in this moment? 

Brandi Howard, Chief of Staff at the San Francisco Foundation: One thing about [the San Francisco Foundation is that] we don’t slow down. Our commitment to equity keeps us on a fast pace to be responsive to our community. So when COVID hit, it caused us to reflect on “Who do we need to be at this moment and when we come out of this?” That’s the journey we are on now: Who do we need to be as an organization, to the community, and to the sector? The first thing we did as a leadership team was to take a moment to reacclimate ourselves around our commitment to equity 

We also took action inward to center staff wellness. We wanted to reduce the spread and protect physical well-being, but we also wanted to reduce worry from layoffs and furloughs. We partnered with a grantee organization to provide mindfulness sessions for staff. It provided an understanding of how to be in this virtual space, how to reduce stress, how to be present in the moment. We also created space for staff to come together after the killing of George Floyd, after [the killing of] Breonna Taylor, to talk about it together. Black staff at the organization have been really pivotal in shaping the narrative around Black life as not only being under attack, but also [filled with] joy. We allow hours for continuous learning for people to understand what’s happening in the moment and to respond. 

How did you lean into that work around equity? 

Our response was really about considering “What is the need in this moment?” We provided funding that would address what was needed on the community side, and we held listening sessions with the community that helped shape our emergency response fund. About $4.5 million went to about 400 community and faith-based organizations. We shifted a significant portion of our grantmaking to general operating, flexible funding. We reduced and, in some cases eliminated, reports for current grantees. A lot of our grantees’ programs shifted, and they also picked up additional programs including providing food, rental assistance, mental health support and we needed to be responsive to this new and unfolding reality 

How has this time unmasked inequities in your organization, community, or constituency? 

From the beginning, before it became news, we knew that the impacts of COVID would not be evenly distributed. Many of our grantee partners called us and said, “We’re going to have to lay off 200 people tomorrow,” in primarily Latinx and Black communities. Those same communities are also the essential workforce, so their exposure to COVID was greater. They were at greater risks because early on there were no protections such as social distancing and protective personal equipment (PPE) for essential workersOur communities knew what the risks were, and they spoke about it early on, and the numbers came later to prove it. 

What do you think should “stick” about how you’re leading or we’re behaving through this crisis? 

The challenge I’m seeing is that a lot of the equity work is transactional and performativeAs a funder, getting resources to the community in a timely manner is critical, I’m worried that the sector will not balance the transactional nature of providing grants with the need to transformation in relationships, systems change, policy, and power shifts needed for lasting change.  

How have you changed as a leader through this crisis?  What have you learned about yourself as you spoke up, prioritized, or taken risks? 

I’ve learned that you have to show up authentically. It is really difficult to do this work and bring the change we speak about if you’re not being authentic, which really means you should also bring in a level of vulnerability.  

It’s also been critical for us as an organization to understand that no matter where someone sits positionally, lived experience is valuable. [It’s important to] hear that lived experience and to be able to not just be an observer or give blanket empathy, but to really understand that it is critical to what else you need to know, learn, and do differently in relation to folks who have that lived experience both in your organizations and in the community 

Brandi Howard turns to the camera with a slight smile. She's got short dark natural hair and medium-toned skin. She is wearing a light green blazer and white shirt. About Brandi Howard

Brandi Howard is the Chief of Staff at the San Francisco Foundation. A natural systems thinker and equity leader, she provides leadership of their organizational culture and development work to center equity and results at the Foundation. Brandi started her career at the Foundation as the Program Officer for the Koshland Program, a 5-year program that elevates community and civic leadership and supports neighborhood transformation. 

Before joining the San Francisco Foundation, Brandi launched Neighborhood Health Action Centers and a city-wide birth equity strategy for the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She served on the leadership team for the Center for Health Equity and provided strategic direction for equity integration in programs and services. 

Brandi is an Oakland native with a deep commitment to the community. She has served her community as a doula (childbirth coach) for nearly 15 years, advocate for reproductive rights and consultant to strengthen the nonprofit infrastructure through her company, Beyond the Curve Consulting.  

Brandi earned an MSW and BA in African American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She serves on the board of the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music—an organization that centers African American artistic culture and provides classes for youth and adults throughout the Bay Area. Brandi is a lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare and an executive coach for new and transitioning executives and Women of Color.

I’ve learned that you have to show up authentically. It is really difficult to do this work and bring the change we speak about if you’re not being authentic, which really means you should also bring in a level of vulnerability.
Brandi Howard