Listening to Youth Helps Drive Racial Equity At Pierce County Nonprofits

Filed Under: Philanthropy,Strengthening Pierce County,Vibrant Community - Posted @ 7:44am

Jonathan Jackson, Palmer Scholars’ Executive Director with Scholars (photo taken pre-COVID-19)


Jonathan Jackson, Palmer Scholars’ Executive Director, runs an organization that supports underrepresented Pierce County students of color to overcome financial, cultural, and social barriers in their pursuit of higher education. He pointed to the fact that youth voice is essential for their mission, “If you’re talking about building an equitable future, but you’re not including the future in that conversation, you’re not setting the foundation for young people to be successful.” 

“We don’t approach this work as if we know it all,” Jonathan said. “We’re intentional about being thought partners with young people.” Working from an “asset perspective” that acknowledges scholars as the “captains of their own ships,” Jonathan plans to name scholars to his board in an advisory capacity, post-COVID. 

Write 253 Louder Than A Bomb writing workshop (photo taken pre-COVID-19)

Palmer Scholars is one of several Pierce County youth-serving organizations advancing racial equity by centering youth voice in their programs. The term racial equity in this story is defined as, “when race no longer determines one’s socioeconomic outcomes; when everyone has what they need to thrive, no matter where they live.” (Race Forward)

Write253 is a literacy arts organization that seeks to encourage young people across Pierce County to express themselves through writing, performance, and publication. They offer programs like the popular Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB) youth poetry competition and have literary supports for youth at Pierce County’s Remann Hall. 

In early March 2020, just as COVID-19’s gravity was becoming a reality, Write253 Executive Director Michael Haeflinger had to make a difficult call: On the morning of LTAB, he decided to cancel the event. This year, again, no LTAB, thanks to COVID-19. In a year when adaptation has become the norm, Write253 staff, board, and youth participants chose to elevate what Michael had always seen as “the best part of LTAB”—the pre-slam poetry workshops and open mics known as “Crossing the Street” (CTS). The April event “deemphasizes the competition part of slam,” according to Michael, and provides space (albeit online this year) for kids to hang out and get to know each other. The event comes on the heels of Write253’s March release of its Disclaimer literary magazine, whose all-teen editorial board will host a panel discussion at CTS on “How to Get Published.”

“The whole purpose of LTAB and CTS is not to create the world’s next great slam poet,” Michael explained, “but to introduce kids who live in different parts of county to each other. It’s always been a community-building event couched as a poetry slam.” 

An Amara Family

The foster care organization Amara has community building in mind as it develops its new 29-acre Summit-Waller property. Chelsea Talbert, Amara’s Pierce County Partnership and Engagement Manager, said they work from the perspective that, “The people closest to the problem are the ones closest to the solution.” Amara’s community engagement team centered the voices of those with lived experience—especially youth—in foster care and paid community members for their expertise in the process to “design a physical space that is part of reimagining family wellbeing.” 

To achieve this level of equity through their work, Amara also cultivates a culture of equity throughout the entire organization. Fathi Karshie, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), said his position shows how Amara places racial equity at the heart of its work. Even in the face of the past year’s budget cuts, Fathi continues to facilitate a monthly DEI employee council and have monthly “lunch and learns” to facilitate staff wide conversations on equity, which Chelsea said helps the leadership team “feel responsible to do better and engage in more uncomfortable conversations, because equity shows up every day in this work.” 

For these nonprofit leaders, the pursuit of racial equity is baked into what they do, a key ingredient in the way they approach everything from programming to funding. Funders, donors, and others in the philanthropic sector with a shared commitment to racial equity can support nonprofits through an approach called trust-based philanthropy. Trust-based philanthropy is “an approach to giving that addresses the inherent power imbalances between funders, nonprofits, and the communities they serve.” 

Janece Levien, Senior Program Officer, Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, shared how trust-based philanthropy is shaping GTCF’s funding, “GTCF recognizes that communities are the experts to address the issues and needs impacting their own community. Funding requests and reporting now have fewer questions. We focus on relationships by convening community partners instead of asking for a traditional grant report. We prioritize funding organizations to focus on the work they are already doing, rather than new or special programs. As funders, we can shift the power imbalance with our community partners by reducing the burden of traditional funding requirements for a more equitable, transparent, and mutual learning process.” 

As part of a more trust-based approach, Michael urges the foundations and other grant makers he relies on for Write253 funding to value youth voice in the funding process. “What would it look like to have kids at the beginning of that process? That would be way more impactful in terms of better understanding what the kids want—for me and for the funders.” 

Palmer Scholars is also mindful of the importance of trust in donor relationships. Jonathan, as a Black community leader, sometimes feels the tension that comes from explaining what racial equity means. “There’s a lot of personality management and walking on eggshells when you’re raising funds for a mission rooted in equity,” he observed. “If you don’t approach that sensitive subject in a sensitive way, you can turn folks off.” 

Jonathan has seen that when donors trust nonprofits to fulfill their mission, he can be more effective: “Philanthropy needs to trust the value we put on youth voice. And as donors trust practitioners to do the work we do, they need to also recognize that in doing that work, we are doing it effectively if we leverage youth voice … and that just requires another level of trust.” 



Palmer Scholars

Write 253


Trust-Based Philanthropy: An Overview (The Trust-Based Philanthropy Institute) 

What Is Racial Equity? (Race Forward) 

Racial Equity Resources for Philanthropy (The Philanthropic Initiative)


Greater Tacoma Community Foundation connects people, knowledge, and funding to build a thriving Pierce County, now and into the future. To learn more about supporting racial equity in Pierce County and trust-based philanthropy, contact GTCF’s Philanthropy Team.