About This EpisodeAs a first-generation Muslim American, Kashif Shaikh sees the world through a lens that ensures American Muslims have access to all of the freedoms and opportunities this country offers. In a conversation about leadership, he shares his vision and the importance of developing leaders who can tell their stories to create change, shifting the current narrative around Muslim-Americans. In less than a decade, under Kashif’s leadership, he has grown the organization he co-founded, the Pillars Fund, into a leading voice for American Muslims. Listen and learn.
Kashif Shaikh is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Pillars Fund, an organization that invests in and amplifies the talents, narratives, and leadership of American Muslims. Under Kashif’s leadership, Pillars has grown from a volunteer-led community fund to a fully-staffed, nationally recognized foundation that has invested over $3M into nonprofits working with and alongside the American Muslim community. With over 12 years of experience in the philanthropic sector, Kashif is a leading voice in the field of philanthropy and the important role it plays in empowering vulnerable communities.
Prior to launching Pillars, Kashif was a Program Officer at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation where he managed a portfolio of over $5M and helped scale some of the most promising non-profits in Chicago working at the intersection of racial justice, poverty and education. Additionally, Kashif managed the Foundation’s corporate partnerships and helped develop corporate social responsibility strategies for the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Blackhawks, and the Chicago Bulls. Kashif’s career began at the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, where he advanced key strategies to engage the organization’s largest corporate partners.
Originally from Cincinnati, OH, Kashif holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Ohio State University and a Master’s in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University. He is on the Board of Directors of 826CHI, an organization that dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills.
In his words…
- “I think narrative is really at the heart of everything that we do, because, if you think about it, the reason that the Pillars Fund even exists as an organization is because, for as long as I can remember and for a very long time, the narrative around American Muslims has been that they’re sort of associated with terrorism, have been associated with nefarious foreigners It’s always been this kind of narrative that is really rooted in suspicion of who we are. But the reality is very, very different. American Muslims are a mentally diverse group of people, and we’ve been in America since the very beginning. I mean, some research shows that as many of those up to one third of slaves that were enslaved people that were brought into the states were of Muslim origin. And there’s a rich dynamic history of Muslims playing big roles in this country since it’s very beginning. You know, you look at the civil rights movement and you look at the Black Muslim movement and out how powerful it was in setting different agendas.
- “I’ve been very lucky that, over the last 13 years, I’ve had positions of increasing leadership, which was culminated in today of starting and running the Pillars Fund, which was something that I did not do. I started it in 2010 along with a handful of philanthropists, and you know it was not something that at the time we thought was going to be a full-time organization. To see where we’ve been able to come in such a short amount of time is really remarkable, but it also reminds me and it humbles me to think about all of the people who believed in me. Everyone- from my sister, to my parents, to my cousins, to the people who I’ve worked with professionally. It takes a village, and I truly do believe that. So, the journey is far from over but it’s certainly at a point where I’ve been able to reflect on it and think about it and think about what it what it’s been that helped me get to this point.”
- “One of the things that I had I’ve always been drawn to is anytime I see a problem – I’ve never really been the type of person that’s really interested in theorizing about that problem for too long. I want to think about ways to really solve it. And I think that is one of the most important things and lessons that I’ve learned is that how do we think about solving issues as opposed to simply just talking about them or just theorizing about them.”
- “I was looking around within my own friend circle, and started to see so many people my age or a generation above me starting to accumulate wealth in their respective careers. So I knew there was a gap here, and the question really became how could you have this conversation? How do you systematically really build a philanthropic institution? How does donor X go from feeling like, ‘I’m giving to a couple of great causes and a couple of great organizations,’ to ‘We’re actually building power and we’re helping create influence in this country, and we are making sure that our needs – the Muslim community’s needs – are not ignored.”
Questions Answered on this Episode
- The Pillars Fund amplifies leadership, narratives and talent. What does that look like in practice?
- Tell my why the narrative part of the mission is so important today?
- Tell me a little about your leadership journey. What lead you to co-found Pillars Fund?
- One of Pillars areas of focus is leadership. What are you expectations for the organizations that you fund, with regard to leadership?
- Have any of the priorities of Pillars Fund changed as a result of the current political climate?
- White men are the overwhelming majority in institutional philanthropy. Do you see opportunities to through Pillars Fund to create more leaders in these institutions?
- In your interview with Inside Philanthropy last year, you said “Foundations weren’t explicitly looking at working with Muslims because the topic was too loaded and cumbersome.” Why do you think that is and how has Pillars Fund changed that?
- In an interview last season about philanthropy, one of my guests made a comment that organizations led by black women who are doing amazing work leading nonprofits, are often rewarded with funding that is a fraction of what others receive as the reward for doing good. I know that Pillars Fund works with small organizations. Is that to close the gap where those organizations are overlooked?
- Are there any leadership trends that you are seeing that are encouraging?
Welcome to the first episode of Season Three of the Social Change Diaries. I am chatting today with Kashif Shaikh. Kashif is a first-generation American Muslim, and is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Pillars Fund. Along with a group of five American Muslim philanthropists, he founded the organization in 2010 in partnership with the Chicago Community Trust to ensure that future generations of American Muslims have access to all of the freedoms and the opportunities by advancing an understanding of the American Muslim community. Under his Leadership, he has grown the organization into a leading voice for American Muslims, and build partnerships with some of the country’s most respected civic institutions.
Prior to launching Pillars, Kashif was a program officer at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. In this Role, he managed dynamic charitable partnerships with the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago Bulls and other corporate entities overseeing five million dollars in annual grant making. I have all types of questions for Kashif, and so let’s jump in. I am here today with Kashif Shaikh, super excited to talk to him about his work with the Pillars Fund and really to help us kick off our Season of Leadership.
And this is our first guest and so there’s lots and lots of pressure on the first guest to set the foundation of what this season will sound like, and if people find something here that will keep them returning. So, with that I say, “Hello,” and thank you so much for joining me today.
Hi, Vanessa. Thank you so much for having me. I’m absolutely honored to be the first guest of season, and hopefully I don’t let anyone down and this is an engaging conversation.
I have every confidence that this will be a fantastic conversation. And so, when we were looking to think about and figure out who we’d like to invite on the show for this season and what the exploration of leadership look like, for me I know that there are tons of experts around leadership and what does leadership look like and how do you become a leader. I was hoping that we can talk about leadership framed in a number of different ways around race, around the sector, around philanthropy.
So, I think there are some nuances in each of those that could be helpful to some of our listeners in the nonprofit sector. I’m really getting people to think about what are the leadership opportunities for people, how do we create more leaders, and then how do people leverage what they have to lead even if they’re not in a leadership role. So, wanting to get a number of takes on that, and what I loved about the possibility of speaking with you is that your organization amplifies leadership narratives and talent. Tell me what that looks like in practice. Theoretically I get it, but what does that look like on a day-to-day basis?
Sure. So the Pillars Fund is an organization that – one of our primary missions is to invest in American Muslim leaders and organizations. So, really what in practice it looks like is the Pillars Fund is a philanthropic institution that makes grants to important, often under-resourced, communities that are working within or alongside American Muslim communities. And so what is really exciting about the work that we’ve been able to do over the last – we’ve been in existence for about eight years – is the to really highlight and amplify this really amazing group of people who are really the definition of intersectional. They cut across genders, races and sometimes in sexual orientation.
And what we’ve really started to do is find these young and dynamic leaders and the organizations that they are running, and figure out ways to invest in them, help scale them, help really get them off the ground or, in the cases of the organizations that are already doing them, already kind of launched and off the ground, helping sustain those organizations over the long run. So that’s in general what our mission is.
Thank you for that. And tell me, as a storyteller and someone who works in the PR agency, I’m always interested in the idea of what the narrative is. Tell me why the narrative part of the mission is so important today.
Yeah, I think narrative is really at the heart of everything that we do, because, if you think about it, the reason that the Pillars Fund even exists as an organization is because, for as long as I can remember and for a very long time, the narrative around American Muslims has been that they’re sort of associated with terrorism, have been associated with nefarious foreigners It’s always been this kind of narrative that is really rooted in suspicion of who we are.
But the reality is very, very different. American Muslims are a mentally diverse group of people, and we’ve been in America since the very beginning. I mean, some research shows that as many of those up to one third of slaves that were enslaved people that were brought into the states were of Muslim origin. And there’s a rich dynamic history of Muslims playing big roles in this country since it’s very beginning. You know, you look at the civil rights movement and you look at the Black Muslim movement and out how powerful it was in setting different agendas.
And so for us, this narrative has frankly been the reason why American Muslims, I think, have been able to – this narrative that exists around American Muslims has been so detrimental and has been so problematic, and in the Pillars Fund is what it’s really trying to do here, is kind of shift those narratives and trying to amplify the voices of the community. Because it’s not our job here to rewrite these current narratives that exist, but really kind of inundate the marketplace with the stories of just regular, everyday American Muslims who are doing incredible work, and to really educate the broader society around who we are. And so, this narrative work around educating people around telling our stories is so important, because otherwise these stereotypes of who Muslims are will continue to persist, and I think the way that they’re persisting is, unfortunate.
As we’ve seen in this current election, we’ve seen it sort of come to a boiling point with the Muslim ban And why was the Muslim man able to be passed, was because it’s easy to demonize Muslims in this country, because it’s easy to say, “Well we’re suspicious.” “We don’t know what they’re up to.” “This and that,” because many people have never met a Muslim, or don’t know the stories of their Muslim neighbors or their Muslim doctors or their Muslim whoever.
And so narrative is really at the heart of everything that we’re trying to do. And really, I look at Pillars as an organization that’s really telling stories, telling the stories of our people, telling the stories of our communities, and I do believe that over time that’s what’s going to help shift the way that that we are perceived in this country.
Mm-hmm. So now tell me a little bit about your leadership journey. Was there something – part of your narrative or something in your experiences in the nonprofit of philanthropy sector – that led you to co-found Pillars Fund?
Yeah. So, you know it’s interesting. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. So my parents are immigrants from Pakistan, and I grew up – I was born in New York, and I lived there for a little bit. But really I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, in a predominantly white suburb where I was one of very few people of color. And what’s really interesting about that experience is that, when you’re living in that moment, it doesn’t feel particularly different or special. You obviously do feel it, because you’re different than everyone else. But it isn’t until you get older and you can reflect back on those periods of your life, and you think about so many things that you’ve had to absorb and so many times you’ve let things go that you really shouldn’t have let have let go, because of how different you looked or how the accent by which your parents talked in and etc.
So, for me, I actually was someone that, at a young age, from the age of about 14 or 15 years old, had discovered activism and discovered people who I felt were doing some really, really interesting work. I remember the music that I was listening to was a had a heavy influence on the way that I was thinking about the world. I was reading Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn by the time I was like 16, 17 years old. I don’t know if I was fully comprehending Chomsky, but then People in the History of the United States was a really, really important book in my life, and it sort of helped me think about the world in a different way than I was being taught.
And so one of the things that I had I’ve always been drawn to is anytime I see a problem – I’ve never really been the type of person that’s really interested in theorizing about that problem for too long. I want to think about ways to really solve it. And I think that is one of the most important things and lessons that I’ve learned is that how do we think about solving issues as opposed to simply just talking about them or really theorizing about them. And so for me, I had found some incredible mentors in college who like sat down with me and figured out kind of what I was interested in.
I started doing volunteer work when I was about 16, 17 years old, and I had a mentor in college who told me, “You know, you can make a living doing work in the community.” It was the first time I’d even known the nonprofit sector was a place where one could work. And so I was very fortunate to gotten a job with the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago right out of college. So, it was about 2000, 2006 is when I moved to Chicago and started my journey as a professional in the field.
And honestly, you know, it’s been 13 years and I’ve been so fortunate to have met incredible people who’ve helped me, who’ve believed in me, who’ve really that’s their time, and in some cases their money, in me to help grow me as a leader. And so I’ve been very lucky that, over the last 13 years, I’ve had positions of increasing leadership, which was culminated in today of starting and running the Pillars Fund, which was something that I did not do. I started it in 2010 along with a handful of philanthropists, and you know it was not something that at the time we thought was going to be a full-time organization.
And to see where we’ve been able to come in such a short amount of time is really remarkable, but it also reminds me and it humbles me to think about all of the people who believed in me. I mean everyone, from my sister to my parents to my cousins to the people who I’ve worked with professionally. It takes a village, and I truly do believe that. So, the journey is far from over but it’s certainly at a point where I’ve been able to reflect on it and think about it and think about what it what it’s been that helped me get to this point.
In your journey – in your experiences prior to Pillars Fund, were you one of the only people of color or the only Muslim person who was had a seat at the leadership table, or were you in environments? You talked about an environment where you felt supported and so I’d like to think that possibly others were supported. Did you see diversity in those organizations, or did the lack of diversity have any weight on your decision to create an organization like this to help support potential leaders?
Yeah. It’s a really great question. And so, the reality is that the reason I started the Pillars Fund was because, as I began my career in philanthropy, I didn’t see a lot of Muslims in the field. I was often one of maybe one or two, or most times just one of one. And one of the things that really motivated me to start Pillars was I was really interested in this idea of the power of philanthropy. My first job, as I mentioned, was with the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago.
And one of the most interesting lessons that I learned while I was there was I got to see how power was built. And it was really interesting to watch these, at 22 years old, sit down in a room with these CEOs or these managing partners and see how important civic responsibility was to them and how active they were, partly because they truly believed in it, but partly to be a business leader. These were important issues to really champion. So for Me, what I started to understand these things, I started to really recognize that American Muslims hadn’t really been at the table at all. American Muslims, who I would argue are one of the most generous and philanthropic communities in the world, because it’s so embedded in our faith tradition, but what I was really finding was these fantastic organizations that were working with or alongside Muslim communities were so often under-resourced, they just did not have the type of support that I thought they needed. But at the same time, on the flip side of that, I knew that the community was starting to gain some wealth.
I was looking around within my own friend circle, and started to see so many people my age or a generation above me starting to accumulate wealth in their respective careers. So I knew there was a gap here, and the question really became how could you have this conversation? How do you systematically really build a philanthropic institution? How does donor X go from feeling like, “I’m giving to a couple of great causes and a couple of great organizations,” to “We’re actually building power and we’re helping create influence in this country, and we are making sure that our needs – the Muslim community’s needs – are not ignored.”
Because frankly, you know if you’re not at the table, your needs are not going to be addressed. So institutional philanthropy was not engaging in a big way with American Muslim communities, at all. Even though if you look at the community, it was disproportionately impacted, particularly after 9/11, in terms of how diverse the community is, it was very disproportionately impacted by both everything from the current administration’s policies to foreign policies to a lot of these different factors.
And so for me, the Pillars Fund was really this idea to bring these two sides of our community together. But ultimately the goal was how do we have a voice and how do we make sure that our that our needs are on the agenda, as philanthropy continues to build its strategic plans, think about ways to invest in vulnerable communities, really carry out its mission. It was really important for me to say, “There needs to be an institution that’s holding these foundations accountable for what they’re doing.”
Now, so there’s about 30 questions that I have out of that answer, but I will start with the first one. So I remember reading an interview with you in Inside Philanthropy, and you talked a little bit about what you just said, about foundations weren’t explicitly looking to work with Muslim communities because the topic was it was loaded and cumbersome for Muslim organizations. Do you think Pillars Fund is changing That? Do you have any insights about why that was, like to say it’s cumbersome or the topic was too loaded? Is there anything beneath the hood on that, that would be helpful to understanding how you can infiltrate institutions to gain more support, garner more support for Muslim-led efforts?
Yeah. I mean, I think at the heart of that is – you ask a really good question – and I think at the heart of that is the point we were talking about earlier, which was this narrative, right? So, as I’ve mentioned, the narrative around Muslims in this country has always sort of been steeped in suspicion, has been steeped and you know, “Who are these foreigners?” or “Do they love our country?” etc. And so, I don’t think that our institutions and our communities were immune in treating with some communities that way.
And so, try as they may – and again, I don’t want to generalize, because I’m sure that were there were philanthropic institutions that were supporting Muslim communities – but you know I can generally say being in the field for as long as I’ve been, it was certainly not happening in any type of meaningful way. And so for me, I think this question of what we’re really trying to get at the heart of us is how has philanthropy engaged with Muslim communities, and is Pillars successful in our effort to bridge some of that divide? And I would say, I would like to think that yes we are successful in some of it.
Obviously, we have a very, very long way to go now. We have a very long way to go. But I think that one of the things that has been really powerful has been – you can’t – you know, the first step is getting to know the communities that you want to serve and invest in, etc. And I think the first really big problem was that in these a lot of these spaces, people didn’t know Muslims. They didn’t know what the needs of the Muslim community were. They didn’t know who are our leaders. And so one of the things that I was trying to do, and one of the things that Pillars is trying to do, is not only build capacity in our leaders and in our institutions, but we were also trying to do was create an institution that had access to all of our leaders, had access to all of these institutions, and that we could then bring them to important conversations that were being had.
You know, I often sort of joked that part of my job is knocking on the doors of institutions and saying. Hey, do you have a Muslim on your staff? Do you have Muslims on your Board? Do you have Muslims on – ?” And I think that’s been part of what Pillars has been trying to do here is really ensure that the important issues that impact us are not being ignored. And again, philanthropy plays such a massive role in this. You know, billions of dollars of capital are invested annually into so many different causes.
And I think it’s really important to serve as a resource, because I also know it’s no different than when I was a Program Officer and I oversaw some of our disaster relief work, and I remember one of the big efforts I led was after Hurricane Sandy. We were deploying about two million dollars’ worth of capital into impacted areas. But I didn’t know anything about, particularly the areas of Long Island that we were we were going to help. And so I needed to go spend time with leaders. I needed to spend a lot of time out there getting to know – really understanding the landscape. And so well I had to really find a couple of anchor organizations and community leaders that could help me understand that.
And I think often times, I don’t want to let not just philanthropy or other institutions off the hook by saying that that hadn’t really existed in the past, because it had existed in different iterations. But it does require foundations and other organizations that are interested in working with Muslims to go out there and look for it and do their own landscape analysis. And so, I’d like to think that Pillars is making that a little bit easier for institutional philanthropy, and I certainly hope we continue to have a bigger and bigger impact as we grow.
So with that, do you see any opportunities to hold organizations accountable? And I know that it’s a delicate dance, but do you see – I think that the first reference that comes to mind is the tech industry, and how there have been conversations about them publishing their diversity numbers, and not to say that that’s the way to hold them accountable, but is there any data or is there any reporting or even informal conversations or initiatives where you feel that there is an opportunity to hold organizations accountable so that we can see more equity and inclusion in these spaces?
Yeah. You know, it’s a really good question and I would say that, for me – so here’s a way that I – here’s my philosophy around what we’re doing at Pillars. We’re building a muscle right now, and I think that the community has seen this influx of civic organizations. I think the first real big influx we saw was after 9/11. You had a whole generation of people that were really inspired to push back against this narrative around terrorism being so closely tied to Muslim communities.
And now we’re kind of seeing it with this current election. We’re seeing a new wave of organizations that are coming up. And I guess I view my role – yes we are the stewards of different people’s money. So obviously, accountability is very, very important – accountability in so many different respects, both from programmatic circumstances to Board to diversity to race. All of these things are very important, but ultimately what I think Pillars is really trying to do is – I joke we’re really inundating the marketplace with stories about Muslims, and we’re really trying to find interesting, smart, talented Muslim leaders who are doing some really, really fascinating work and impactful work, and really getting behind them. And so for me, this accountability question, it’s a challenging one – not because we don’t hold these organizations accountable – we absolutely hold them accountable and we have lots of sort of procedures in place that will do so.
But I really want to move away from this hard line like metric-driven kind of grant making and allow people and allow young leaders to have some room to breathe and build something interesting, and build their leadership. And so for me, like we are there with all of our grantees, side by side, there in whatever capacity they may need. But we also recognize that, while we have resources and we can help them with what they need, in certain respects, we have a lot to learn from them. And I think this symbiotic relationship between funders and grantees is so important, because listen, the power dynamic will always exist, because one person has a capital and the other person doesn’t. So it’s silly to pretend like there is not going to be a power dynamic.
But what you can do is diminish that dynamic a little bit, and build a partnership. And for us, the way that we’re really trying to do that is just find people that we think are doing such incredible work, and really getting behind them and allowing them to grow and do this great work, and be there for them, help them along the lines. As they grow their staff, we’re there to say. How are you thinking about diversifying your staff? How are you thinking about your Board?” And, by the way, we’re also very cognizant of that ourselves, you know. That’s something that’s really, really – I think that’s another kind of another strange kind of dynamic about the philanthropic sector that I always find pretty funny, which is, just because you have the money doesn’t mean that you know what you’re doing.
And so I think that there’s this really interesting life. I constantly ask my question I ask myself this, like you know, I don’t know what I’m doing any better than the grantee, right? And so, it has to be this relationship in which we can learn from one another, and we can listen to them and say, “What are the needs that you really have?” And knowing that capital that we are investing is simply one resource, and knowing that so much of the knowledge is coming from them. And so, accountability – yes, but really stringent benchmarks and metrics, but yes of course we care about them. We need to make sure that our investments and the organizations that we’re investing in are succeeding and are doing work that’s really changing the world, but we also recognize that that takes time, and we have to build really strong and authentic relationships with our partners in order to do that.
Got it. Let’s talk a little bit about the current political climate. Have the priorities of the Pillars Fund changed at all as a result of what’s been happening over the past two years?
You know, it’s actually funny, and I would I would say that our priorities haven’t really changed.
And the reason our priorities haven’t changes is because anti-Muslim sentiment existed well before this current administration, and unfortunately will exist well beyond this administration. We are not naive enough to think that this type of sentiment was created by the by the current administration. It’s certainly been exacerbated by the current administration, but it wasn’t created.
And so for us – when I thought about Pillars in the early days, I envisioned an organization that was really in it for the long run. I envisioned an organization that was thinking about ways to build power and create influence, and knowing that that’s going to take some time, and knowing that we can’t be distracted by the issues of the day. Now, that’s not to say that type of work is not important. I have some dear friends who run some incredible Rapid Response Funds that are so necessary, I’m so glad that they exist. But part of the mission for Pillars was never to really be a Rapid Response organization but was to be this steady, “Let’s really think about what things look like in 20 years from now.”
So for us, obviously it made the work that we were doing more urgent. There was perhaps a bigger spotlight on us than had Hillary Clinton won. But, that being said, our strategy remains the same. Our strategy remains to amplify the voices and support our community and allow them to have these platforms to tell their stories because that’s how change is going to happen. It’s going to happen at a slow and steady pace and we can’t simply be reacting to everything that’s happening, because that’s just that’s never been our mission.
So yes, I mean of course the election has had an impact on us, but it hasn’t really had a big impact in terms of shifting our strategy and in terms of the way that we think about the organization.
I want to shift gears a little bit now and talk about women – one of my favorite topics when we’re talking about the nonprofit sector. So we know that women make up more than 70 percent – I think it’s 74 percent – of the nonprofit workforce, but the numbers are greatly reduced when we’re talking about leadership roles. Is there any special focus or is this something that you’re thinking about with “How do we get more women leaders, more women into those leadership roles?”
Yeah. It’s a really great question and it’s one that I think about regularly, and it’s something that is something that’s always on top of mind. And I think for me – there’s a couple of ways to answer this question – but I think the first, the most important way that I know how to answer it is to sort of first say. We had to look inwards.”
Like I had this incredible opportunity to build this organization, build an organization that never been – had never existed before, and to that comes with a lot of responsibilities. And of course, one of the most important responsibilities is staffing, you know, “What is the what is the organization going to look like?” And So, one of the things that I’ve really challenged myself and challenged our team is to make sure that our team reflects the diversity of the communities that we’re serving. That’s very, very important. And so, one of the things I’m most proud of is that the team that I have is – first it’s all women.
Love it. Love it. Love it.
And they’re all just incredibly talented, just kick-ass women who challenge me on a daily basis, and I love them for it. But particularly, I want to highlight someone whose name is Kalia Abiade. She’s my Director of Programs. She was actually my first hire at Pillars, and she is one of the most –any opportunity I get to sing her praises, I take, because I think she has been such an instrumental part of Pillars, and not just furthering the mission but helping shape me as a leader. And one of the things that we have really, one of the things I’m most proud of, is our relationship and our partnership in the way that we work together. Kalia is very much a leader in this organization. She’s someone who I work with, who I trust, who I respect, who I don’t always – sometimes we disagree on. But there’s the healthy balance of pushing each other and challenging one another.
So, I think the first thing is really comes from an internal push, right. I’ve always been very frustrated, and you and I both know that there’s tons and tons of organizations that are in positions of power and give out capital, and are requesting you know, “Is your Board diverse? Is your staff diverse?” Meanwhile you look at them, and you’re like, “Hold on a second. How did you get authority on this, right?” audio skip 35:29
So for me, that was the first step is that I really wanted to empower people on my staff, not just to be people who are working on Pillars, but really partners with me on this organization. So I’m incredibly proud that that our team is all fearless, amazing women. And so that was the first thing. And the second was, in terms of the partners that we’re working with, one of the most incredible things that I have been able to witness in my career is just the sheer will, particularly of women of color, and how much they’ve been able to accomplish. I mean, I owe so much to women of color.
My first job in Chicago was because a black woman who was leading the department at United Way took a chance on a 22-year-old kid and said, “Hey, come to Chicago. I think you’ll do well here.” And so, you know, she certainly didn’t have to do that. She was a friend and a mentor and someone who I admire and I never forgot about the chances she took on me. And so for me, it’s like how do you build those Networks, those mentorship, and it’s very, very important to us. And so, the way that I think about it often is, our organizations, the majority of our grantees that we’re actually investing in, are mostly led by women, and that’s really important.
And the funny thing about that is that it’s not even because of a specific mandate that we have that we are funding specifically. It’s because women are doing the work.
Women are out there every day doing this work. And so, I look at my responsibility is to simply help support that work and be another person that’s helping lift up their voices. And so for me, all of these conversations have always revolved around community building, is that it’s not about ego and it’s not about figuring out who’s doing what, but it’s really lifting up a community of incredible Muslim leaders, and in our case, who just happen to be mostly women. And so it’s something that I think about regularly. And it’s also something that you know frankly like as Much, you know. I’m also very cognizant of my limitations. I’m a male and so I grew up with male privilege, and you can ask my sister, I have blind spots, you know.
And I try to surround myself with people who are willing to call me out on that and learn from those things. And so for me, that’s a lot of what we can do as males as we talk a lot about, “How can white people be allies?” and we have a list of a thousand things to do, but I think about that as a male . I’m really aware that I’m in this position of leadership and I’m in this position of running this organization, and so how do I not get caught up in just having people that look like me around constantly, and really sort of challenge myself. And so, it’s something that we think about, it’s something that we’re really fortunate to have on staff and in our in our partners.
On our last season when we talked about Philanthropy, one of my guests made a comment about some organizations led by black women who are doing great work, like they are totally disrupting the status quo about how social change is happening or social justice. And their reward for doing a great job is smaller grants saying, “Oh you know, you guys are such miracle workers. You don’t need a hundred thousand dollars to change the world like your counterparts. I’m going to give you ten. Can’t wait to see what you can do with this ten thousand dollars.” And so do you find when you are working with organizations, is some of what you’re seeking out, is it based on the understanding that there aren’t support for them, or what they’re getting from other organizations is so small that you folks are trying to fill the gap? How do you identify how you’re going to work with organizations, as far as like what you’re investing?
Yeah. I mean, I think the reality is, and this is not exclusive to Muslim communities, I think communities of color are often – when you look at the way that money is allocated or invested in these communities, it’s obviously very disproportionate. And so, I think that Muslim communities are no different. I mean, when you think about Muslim communities too, we have to be really careful about the way that we think about them, is because it’s not a monolith, right? Like you’re thinking about Muslim communities, black, Latino, Asian, they really cut across so many different races and genders, as I said at the beginning of this conversation.
And so, but the reality is that because the communities’ needs have been overlooked for so long, it’s absolutely true that our community is very under-resourced, particularly the community organizations that are coming out and doing this great work. We saw what happened with the Muslim ban. You saw these incredible organizations out there doing everything from litigation to organizing rallies to just talking about the issue. It was so incredibly important. But yeah, you’re right, you know. They’re often under-resourced.
And so, I think the role the Pillars is trying to play – I mean, Pillars is not a huge organization, so we certainly don’t have the capacity to pay entire people’s salaries and do all these great things that I wish we could do. But what we do try to do is invest in these organizations, and build a platform in which we can tell their stories, so they can attract more interest. And one of the really great things about Pillars is that the way that Pillars has been structured – the way that we get our revenue – is primarily through individual donor families. And so, the Pillars is comprised of a lot of American Muslim philanthropists who invest on an annual basis into Pillars.
And one of the great things about that model is that every year we do this meeting, we present to them about the way we want allocate funds, and ever since we started, it’s always been a really productive and exciting and interesting process, and we’ve been able to do a lot of good. But one of the great things is maybe a donor or a philanthropist will look at one of those organizations and say, “Hey, what they’re doing is really interesting. Aside from Pillars investing in them, can you maybe connect me to them and I’d love to have a conversation with them.” So we’re really trying to increase the capacity of those organizations. And again, that takes time. It takes a lot of time and we’re still small and we’re still growing, but I certainly am optimistic about our ability to do that more in the future.
I have hundreds of other questions, but in the interest of time, I think my last question is going to be about leadership trends. Usually the reports are like, “Oh gosh, this stuff is awful.” Are you seeing anything that is encouraging to you? Are there any trends or early signs of things that we need to be hopeful about and grateful for?
Yeah. You know, one of the greatest joys of my job is that I have traveled around the country twice over, and have met with hundreds – if not thousands – of Muslim leaders who are doing just some incredible work, both on the national level to the very hyper local level. And I have a lot of optimism frankly, because I think that what I’m seeing in the next generation of leaders – I’m talking about people who are in their early 20’s – the attitude that I’m feeling from them is an attitude that that frankly I didn’t have or people my generation didn’t have. There was still this kind of like “thankful to be here” type of mentality, I think.
I often like relate it to my dad, just like you know hundreds of millions of immigrants came to this country, worked very hard, became successful and had a great job, but I think he always felt like indebted to them, always felt indebted to them and saying that, “Well, I’m lucky to have this job and I’m lucky,” not really recognizing that they are lucky to have him. They are lucky to have all of these great people there.
And so what I’m seeing is that this next generation, their grit and their optimism and their fight is really strong. And one of the most sort of interesting conversations that I had, actually just happened about a month ago, and it was with a young college student. She’s a senior. She reached out to me on LinkedIn and she said, “I’ve been following your work. It’s really interesting. I’m interning at the foundation for the summer. Could I perhaps me with you?” And one of the things that I try my hardest to do is meet with – when a young person, particularly someone in college, wants to get together, I always make time because I didn’t have a lot of that when I was in school.
And so, I had this conversation, and it was such a fascinating conversation. We had this long ranging conversation about what Pillars is doing, our philosophy and what we’re hoping to accomplish, but one of the things that I found so compelling was her – she just pushed back on me. She pushed back; she challenged me – in a good way. And I love that. I love it when people push back and challenge, because that’s how we grow. And I was so just impressed with her confidence and her candor, and again, I don’t think she was unique in that.
I’ve met so many young leaders who don’t have this. I think this generation doesn’t feel like, “Oh, we’re just thankful to be here.” I feel like they are like, “No, this is our country. This is our land, and we belong here just as much as anyone else.” And it’s not to say that I don’t have that or my dad did not that, but certainly, not with that sort of vigor, because that’s just not how we were conditioned. And so, I have been so impressed. And I have a lot of optimism. I have so much hope in the next generation of leaders. I think the future is in really good hands, but it’s our job to help mentor, usher, provide resources, do everything we can to invest in them.
That’s fantastic. Before I let you go, is there anything that you want to add and share with our listeners?
Just I want to thank everyone for taking the time out of your day to listen to this conversation, and I think that last point that I brought up is the one that I always really try to leave audiences with is that, listen, we’re living in sort of dark times. I think I think most people, when you see the policies that are being enacted, and it’s scary. But I really ask everyone to go out and meet people, meet your neighbors, meet the people who are doing the work on the ground, because that is a optimism. That will give you a sense of optimism that you’ve never experienced before. I consider myself the luckiest person on the planet to be able to do the job that I’m doing, because it’s kept me sane in times of insanity. So, thank you all for listening.
Well, I would like to thank you so very much for taking some time to chat with me. This was very enlightening, and, like I said, all the pressure is on you as my first guest, and I will definitely be asking you to return again because I feel like the work that you’re doing filters into a number of different categories and areas that I want to discuss. So you will definitely be back.
If you will be up for the challenge, I would love that, and we will continue to follow your work. Please share the website so people can check out Pillars Fund one for me.
Sure, the pillarsfund.org, so simple.
Perfect. Well, I think it’s safe to say that this season is going to be maybe our best. That was a great first episode and I’m so grateful for Kashif sharing his experiences and also just giving some insight into the work that the organization does. I look forward to continuing the conversation about leadership, and please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions or comments. You can always check out what’s happening and view and listen to previous episodes and seasons on our website. That’s thewakemanagency.com, and you can send your emails and questions in to
Until the next time.