Family Philanthropy Speaks: A Conversation with Lisa Graustein

Lisa Graustein, a trustee of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund in Connecticut, brings her experience as a public school teacher and her passion for building an equitable society to the boardroom. In this Family Philanthropy Speaks conversation, Lisa talks with NCFP President and CEO Nick Tedesco about the Fund’s evolution and her own philanthropic journey. Lisa also debunks assumptions that many families hold about their role in advancing equity and justice.

About the Series

Philanthropy is a practice borne out of compassion and commitment—and one that is deeply rooted in family. It’s also a practice that must continue to evolve to effectively meet the needs of the communities it seeks to serve. Thankfully, there are countless social sector leaders who are advancing the field with their bold ideas and unwavering enthusiasm for the greater good. The National Center for Family Philanthropy is honored to share the stories of these leaders through its program, Family Philanthropy Speaks—a series of conversations designed to feature the innovative spirit of family philanthropy. These dynamic discussions aim to capture emerging trends and solutions, share new and diverse voices in the field, and lift up the role of family philanthropy—past, present, and future—in stewarding social change. We hope you will join us to explore what it means to give with intention!

Watch more Family Philanthropy Speaks conversations here.


Nick Tedesco: Welcome to the Family Philanthropy Speaks video blog series from the National Center for Family Philanthropy. These videos highlight the innovative spirit of family giving. Today I’m joined by Lisa Graustein, a trustee of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund in Connecticut. Lisa was an out public school teacher for 20 years, and now trains teachers as an activist, artist and Quaker minister. Lisa, thank you so much for joining us.

Lisa Graustein: Thanks for inviting me. I really appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation.

Nick Tedesco: Yeah, it’s our pleasure. So let’s start with your path. We often talk about philanthropy as a conscious choice and you made the choice to be part of your family’s philanthropy. So we’d love to hear a little bit about what led you to make that decision.

Lisa Graustein: I went into public high school teaching right out of college, and I think I was in my second or third year of teaching, and I knew my family had a foundation. It hadn’t been very large. My grandmother had died a few years previously and left the bulk of her estate to the foundation, so it had increased in size significantly. And my father, who was the chair of the board, called and said, “Hey, you’re going to sort of inherit responsibility for this someday. Why don’t you join the board now?” And we had, at that time, a mission focused on early childhood care and education. So even though I was working at the high school level, I was already seeing how important early childhood care and education was in terms of students’ educational outcomes. And so, it felt like a very natural thing to join.

I think I was the only person under 60 at the time on the board. I was the only woman. I was the only queer person. And so, there was a lot of learning curve for me about how to be a board member, but I also was bringing my professional experience, which felt really relevant to what our mission was. And so, also wanted to honor the responsibility and the legacy that my grandfather had left in setting up the foundation.

Nick Tedesco: So with your arrival to the board, were there some new perspectives that you brought that challenged some of the old thinking or any shifts in how the fund operates?

Lisa Graustein: Yeah, I think one just virtually being a younger generation, right? There’s always just different ways of viewing the world, of thinking about things. Because I was in the classroom eight to five every day, I think what I didn’t bring in professional expertise, or a lot of board experience, I did bring in terms of real life experience in the classroom. I was very engaged with my students and their family lives. What were they facing? What were they dealing with? And particularly, as we were focused on early childhood care and education, what were some of the ramifications of the impact of the quality of those opportunities for families down the line when we were trying to build greater capacity and understanding of the state? Because at that time, our work wasn’t just on grant making, it was also on connecting communities around the state, around supporting parent led advocacy.

And so, where I think I could bring in some voice about how early childhood care and education, isn’t just, what do we do with the little kids? It’s how do we build an inclusive and equitable society? And knowing that those first years are critical in terms of language development, social, emotional skills, all these different things that there’s now a lot more research on than there was 25 years ago.

Nick Tedesco: I’d love to hear a little bit more about the fund.

Lisa Graustein: So our current mission is to achieve equity in education by working with those most impacted and inspiring all to end racism and poverty, that as our previous mission was focused on early childhood care and education, we really saw it wasn’t just about creating good learning spaces for young children and supports for families, that the ways that racism, white supremacy, poverty throw up multiple, multiple roadblocks, not just for youth wellbeing and education, but for family and community wellbeing that honor my grandfather’s initial vision and focusing on education, but really recognizing racism, white supremacy and poverty as the key barriers to young people being successful in education, being able to have choice over how the rest of their lives moves and goes. That was really significant.

And so, our current mission focuses on education, but with a really strong racism and poverty lens and looking at that. And we’re also committed to not just handing out resources, but really trying to work with communities. I know lots of people in philanthropy talk about empowering communities, and that’s a good aspiration. It’s really hard when you hold this the financial capital and a lot of social status to really start to build equitable relationships with communities. So over the years, we have brought on both different leaders from the communities we’re working with, as well as grantees onto our board, so that we’re trying to make our board much more reflective practically and realistically of the communities we’re working with.

Our current strategy is focused on building community power and voice, interrupting key systems of inequity and transforming systems in institutional power. And so, we’re trying to work on all those levels, both internally and externally. So not just how are we doing our grant making, how are we managing our endowment, but how are power dynamics held within the organization? So our staff participate in the bulk of our board meetings. We really try to not blur the lines of staff and trustees, but really honor the different roles that people play, and that just because someone is a trustee doesn’t mean they have a smarter voice than somebody who is a grantee or someone who is a staff person. There’s different responsibilities that different groups hold, but how do we engage constant reflection, and understanding and learning about how we’re using our power individually, in the different roles we hold, as an institution to actually work to achieve equity? So there’s a lot of different things we have to do there.

Our board composition, we currently have a pretty small board, and then we have two family members. It’s a family foundation. My family is very small. Right now, it’s my father and I on the board, and that probably will be what it looks like for a fair amount of time to come. And then, as I said, grantees, community members and other people that we’ve invited to help us figure out how we can best steward the resources of the Memorial Fund in service of equity in the communities in Connecticut that we’re serving.

Nick Tedesco: So tell us a little bit about this commitment to equity. It’s quite extraordinary, and I’m curious if that’s something that the fund has been focused on for a number of years, throughout its history, or if this is a more recent development.

Lisa Graustein: Equity is pretty new to us, and I think it is a natural evolution for where we came from. My grandfather, who established the fund in honor of his brother who was killed in a car accident in the ’40s, had really seen how transformative education had been in his immigrant family’s trajectory in this country, that his father showed up as a barely literate, Prussian teenager in Boston, in the mid 1800s, worked in stables, ran a dairy business and was able to send all of his kids to college. And they then had, by any standards, incredibly successful careers. And so, for my grandfather, education was sort of the key to our family’s immigrant narrative into success in this country.

What I don’t think he had an understanding of, the way many white people of his generation did, was all the ways that white privilege and getting to buy into whiteness played into that trajectory. And so, as we focused on early childhood care and education in the ’90s and early 2000s, we were creating collaborative tables and communities as a way of trying to begin to do some of the work of inclusion and who are the voices that need to be present. But we were still, I think, in a we are inviting people to a table versus how is the community creating the table and we can be supporting it? So in the ways that I think many of us who come from privilege over the last few decades have had a lot of evolution in our thinking. The fund has evolved.

And so, as we started to see the ways that racism and poverty were impacting the communities we were serving, and understand we need to step into more work there, also recognizing where our own internal limitations were in terms of our understanding of those issues. And so, if our ultimate goal is a society in which everybody gets to be their full selves, to flourish, have choice and agency, we have to work to end the systems that deny any of us our full agency and personhood, as well as create the inequitable distribution of resources that we see in our society right now.

That’s a huge task, and one that philanthropy, while has always been well-intentioned, has actually been pretty invested in keeping power and equity, right? Foundations exist because somebody or some group of people mastered tremendous amount of wealth, and then they get to decide how it gets distributed. So that’s a huge question we’re looking at, what does it mean to be working for an equity mission and hold a disproportionate amount of wealth? And I know traditionally philanthropy has maintained wealth by maintaining an endowment and then distributing basically the profits from that to do good works. So we have, under the leadership of some of our trustees, developed a really strong investment policy that is aligned with our mission and are really challenging ourselves to manage our endowment in a way that doesn’t just generate funds that we can then redistribute, but how do we actually use the investment of our endowment to support communities that have been traditionally denied capital, denied resources, denied access to wealth growth themselves?

And that’s a really exciting evolving place for us to be working. And so, for doing that, we also have to be looking at how we’re holding our own power identities. I’m confident that anything I say now, in 10 years, I will look back on and want to edit and update because my own thinking is growing and evolving. And so, also how do we do that co-learning with other philanthropies? How do we do it with our communities? How are we creating spaces in which as many people as possible can come together on as equal footing as possible to share those lived experiences so that we can learn together and figure out how we can use the resources we have access to in service of greater equity?

Nick Tedesco: So how do you do that learning? It’s an incredible point that you make around the importance of ongoing personal reflection and education as a trustee of a family philanthropy, and as anyone in society. So I know that you are a facilitator with Beyond Diversity 101, and you do a lot of work as a professional around racial equity and racial justice. Can you share a little bit more about that experience?

Lisa Graustein: Yeah. As I said, I started my career as a public high school teacher in Boston, and so had to go learn a ton because most of my reference points for high school were not useful to my students because our lived experiences are so different. So this is the early ’90s, I went to as many diversity workshops as I could find. A lot of them were not great. I found a few really good ones and understand that that is a lifelong process, right? That my journey and learning, all my identities, not just the ones that are privileged, right? But as a queer woman, as a single mom, there’s all these pieces that I just need to keep learning about of ways that I’ve internalized whatever the different systems of oppression are and how they not just shape how I am with myself, but how I act in the world, how I use my space, my voice, all my resources, all those things.

So that’s a lifelong ongoing journey. And I know through having gone to many workshops, talked with many people, again, been a public school teacher for 20 years, these systems are really entrenched and it’s going to take multiple strategies and all of us working to really tear them apart. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t achieve the success it did because there was a singular strategy, right? There were all these different groups working for civil rights. And Black Lives Matter today, Standing Rock and the Water Protectors, the queer rights movement, there’s all these different groups that are showing up with multiple, multiple strategies for how we make change, how we recenter people who’ve been historically denied public voice and institutional power, how we do that work.

So at the Memorial Fund, we do that in a bunch of different ways. So one is our own internal learning, talking, workshop, reading, video viewing, discussing, practicing, doing all those pieces. We’ve used Tema Okun’s white supremacy culture article in a number of different ways, and for a year invited both staff and trustees during our board meetings to notice ways that different aspects of white supremacy culture were showing up in how we were conducting our business, and then having conversations about it, not in a gotcha kind of way, but moments where we could say to each other, “We’re really doing a power over move here,” or, “We’re doing some power hoarding,” or “What is our obsession with writing everything down and how has that actualizing in the world, and where are we thinking we’ve done work by writing something versus going and doing it?” And how we were calling each other into that conversation.

We’ve run many community conversations, collaborative tables, focus groups, different ways of really not just inviting grantee experience, but trying to center that. We often invite grantees to come and talk with us, and it’s not a traditional, “Come and show us you’ve met whatever benchmarks were in the grant,” but really trying to start with, “What is it that you’re learning and seeing in your work that we want to know about, or should know about, or need to be in conversation?” Prior to the pandemic, we were visiting grantees, again, not in a site visit kind of traditional model, but really, as much as we could, creating joint learning experiences and conversations. We invite grantees to push back.

We’ve had groups that we’ve denied a grant to say, “We think you made a mistake,” and we say, “Great, please come help us understand more.” And in the most recent case, we’re clear we had made a mistake, and so then were able to offer a grant there, and really trying to invite those conversations. And a lot of that is relationship building because the power dynamics of holding resources are still really present. And so, really trying to build those relationships, be grounded in community, listen to people. And then, we are also working with other philanthropies throughout Connecticut who are interested in equity and anti-racism and how we take on this work together and what we can learn from each other and ways that we can push each other to be more accountable to the communities we’re serving.

Nick Tedesco: So we’re getting a lot of inquiries here at the National Center for Family Philanthropy for families that are looking to begin that conversation and to think about how they can move towards equity and justice. So I’d love your thoughts, both as a facilitator and as someone who is part of Family Philanthropy, to think about some of the practical steps that families can take to advance equity and justice.

Lisa Graustein: I think that’s a great question and I definitely don’t have the definitive answer. Some things that I know have been really useful for me are looking at what are the different worldviews and mindsets I have around money, around philanthropy, around power, around identity that’s grounded in my experience? And then, looking at who are people who have publicly offered up their experiences that I need to learn about? So that’s not buttonholing the nearest person who is somehow different from me, but seeking out the books, the films, the Ted Talks, the discussions, the different places where people are talking about power, talking about identity, talking about wealth, and what is it that I can take in and learn from those experiences and perspectives, really listening to community organizers from the communities we’re seeking to serve.

So community organizers often have their full being on the pulse of how a community is understanding itself and what it understands it needs to be healthy, to be successful, to address whatever challenges they’re facing. So really, let’s say that again, I’m a high school teacher, youth voices. What are young people saying? Young people have the minimal amount of BS in my experience for just naming what’s going on, and also have the most flexibility in terms of encompassing different viewpoints.

And then, I think it’s also looking at what’s the historical context in which my family foundation generated its wealth, the historical context of the space we’re working in, that systems of oppression don’t just happen, that they are built over time by people seeking to control other people and maintain power. And so, what’s the specific context in which we’re working? What are the issues that communities are centering? Not that we would like to center in philanthropy, but the communities want to center. And then, who else is doing equity work that we can learn from?

I think often foundations, by virtue of their power, institutional power, get to come in and say, “Here’s what we want to do now.” And I know as a teacher, many times the schools I worked at, we got grants. And so, we would shift our whole focus because that’s what we could get money for, not because that’s what we deemed was in the best service of our students and families. And so, what is it that communities are saying they need? Who are the people who are championing equity within those communities? And how do we follow their lead versus whatever our slightly removed notion of equity should be? And then, how do we just keep learning? How do we keep expanding that definition? How do we keep expanding our understandings of who we are, who other people are and what equity and liberation really look and mean?

Nick Tedesco: So let’s challenge some assumptions that families have and hold that often present themselves as barriers. One assumption often that is asserted is, our family didn’t contribute to the inequity by way of our actions. How would you address that statement that is often held by families?

Lisa Graustein: So that’s where I’ll hold up my family story again. So as I said earlier, my great-grandfather came here as a barely literate teenager from Prussia with one sibling, right? So by many standards, was not contributing to inequity in this country. He lived in a stable for the first three years he was in this country because they didn’t have a home to live in. And in shedding his Prussian identity, in making sure his children were fluent in English, in acculturating to whiteness in the US, he shed his ethnic identity, his immigrant identity, in order to buy into whiteness in this country. And so, while he himself may not have contributed a lot of the initial harms that happened, he actively participated in that system as a way of ensuring success for his children and future generations.

Now, other parts of my family were some of the early colonizers in New England. Irrespective, all of my ancestors, as I do, live on indigenous land that was not be gotten by any just means, right? I’m continuing to be a colonizer on this land. I benefit from every aspect of historical racism that has occurred in this nation, whether or not my individual ancestors were the ones doing the enslaving, were the ones trafficking labor, were the ones committing genocide, everything in my life has been shaped by other white people having done that, other people of European descent.

So whether or not it was my specific ancestors to me doesn’t matter. I am the inheritor of that reality, as my child will be the inheritor of that reality. And so, my job is not to say, “Well, my ancestors only did this, so I’m only responsible for that.” My job is to say, “How do we work for equity so that no young person growing up in this country is denied the full capacity of who they can be by virtue of what has happened in the past and is continuing in the present?”

Nick Tedesco: Well stated. What about the next assumption here? We created the wealth, therefore, we should have ultimate decision-making authority over how we direct it.

Lisa Graustein: So I’m not sure why you’re in philanthropy if that’s what you think, right? At certain point, by virtue of view philanthropy, there’s some level of saying: we’ve generated exceptional wealth, maybe it shouldn’t all be ours, right? That’s what grantmaking is. Now, the issue around control, right? What does that control about? And that, to me, is the question I would want to ask. And I have some real, real qualms with having a foundation, right? That that is not wealth I generated. It’s wealth I inherited. And whether or not I generated or inherited, it is disproportionate to what any individual should have access to. Right? That’s part of why we have grantees and community members on our board, so that it’s not just my family holding the responsibility for that.

There are many people who make a solid arguments for why philanthropy should exist. Unlike government, we have much freerer rein, and so I think can push agendas. We’ve done a lot of work in our foundation to really support parent and community organizing, to change state policy, to create state institutions and supportive communities, to bring together people that wouldn’t have had the resources to be connected. But I don’t think I get to say, right? I can say what I do with our extra spending on the weekend with me and my son. Do we want to go to the movies? Do we want to go to the beach? But we’re living in the wealthiest nation in the world, in which in the city in which I live 20% of our kids go to bed hungry every night. That’s not okay.

And to say that a small group of people should dictate how wealth is used, we’ve seen that throughout history, and it has never resulted in equity, to my knowledge, that the times and examples we have of societies where really everybody has enough and people’s wellness is centered versus materialism, those are not societies in which a few people get to make all the decisions. Those are not societies in which a few people control those resources. Those historically and currently are societies in which there’s an understanding that material resources are to be used for the betterment of all people and not a few.

So yes, our families may have generated this wealth, but I think the first step into philanthropy is the beginning of a road and understanding that that wealth should not stay with us. And that ultimately that wealth is not ours to decide how it gets used, but it needs to be in service of everybody. And that’s, again, where I think looking at the historical context of how was it generated, what is the context of the space we’re working in, as guides for how we start to build equity.

Nick Tedesco: One last assumption. There are larger philanthropies that are putting substantially more capital to work, to address unjust systems. I’m not sure that we can make a difference. So therefore, should we direct our capital elsewhere?

Lisa Graustein: I can’t think of a more important thing to be working on now than equity and liberation for all people. We are coming out of a number of years in our nation where we have gotten glimpses into what a more stark alternative to equity and liberation can look like, and it was horrific, and it is horrific. So I don’t know what else we should be doing. I’m less interested in, are we going to be successful or not than what is the next successful step we can take to work towards equity and liberation? Again, no movement that I’ve seen for liberation and justice has been successful in the first year or the first two or three years, or could fully say, “This is how we’re going to be successful.” But then all the movements for liberation and justice that I’ve seen build off of previous ones, explore different strategies, try different things.

And I’m also as a person of faith, this is what we’re supposed to be doing, right? We can’t live in a world in which we say it’s okay for some people to build a personal jet to the moon, but other people don’t get enough to eat. How about everybody gets enough to eat? How about everybody gets to be a full person? How about everybody gets equality, housing and access to clean water? And then, let’s see what, as a society, what we create together. But we have to be working for that fundamental equity first. And the fact that, again, we’re in 2021, in the richest nation in the world, and clean water is not something that every person living in this nation can assume they’re going to have access to, to me, that alone is enough argument for why we have to be working for equity and justice.

Nick Tedesco: So, one last question for you. As we look ahead, what’s your hope for family philanthropy?

Lisa Graustein: So my hope is that we start working together more, right? That when we share our learning, share our insights, share our resources, we’re going to become more effective. That we recenter ourselves in what young people, organizers, people in the communities we’re seeking to serve are saying. And that we really look at how do we take off and what’s at the center of our families? That even if it’s gotten distorted.

I never met my grandfather. He passed before I was born, but I assumed he made the choices he did because he actually had care for me and the subsequent generations, right? That family, at some level, is a commitment to each other, even if we get dysfunctional in the execution of it. How do we take that love and care and expand that beyond our, our biological or chosen families to include all people? That I think Family Foundation Philanthropy, even more than other kinds of philanthropy, can have at its core, a sense of unconditional love. And so, how do we bring that out into the world in all the different ways that philanthropy has yet to realize? And that to me, is working for equity, justice, and liberation for all people.

Nick Tedesco: I love this idea of leading with love. So thank you, Lisa. I can’t thank you enough for your time and your wisdom and your leadership on issues of equity, and just excited to continue to watch the Fund’s progress. So thank you for being here.

Lisa Graustein: Well, thank you. I so appreciate that you’re inviting these conversations and bringing up this conversation. I was not finding these spaces when I joined our board 25 years ago and was hungry for them. So I’m really, really grateful these conversations are happening, and I look forward to learning from the other people you’re going to be talking with. Thank you.

Nick Tedesco: Well, we’re excited to keep the conversation going.