The Interview: Fred Blackwell

by Janet Reilly

Fred Blackwell, changemaker

It’s freezing outside on this Friday afternoon in February, but the Embarcadero Center offices of The San Francisco Foundation are warm and cozy and abuzz with positive energy.

The optimism clearly trickles down from CEO Fred Blackwell, 47, the son of Oakland activist Angela Glover Blackwell and Dr. Fred Blackwell, an orthopedic surgeon. He took over the reins in 2014 after spending the better part of his career in local government and nonprofits, including a five-year stint as a Fellow at the very organization he now runs.

Two years ago, the community foundation — one of the nation’s largest and most respected, with $1 billion-plus in assets — invested more than $99 million into the Bay Area. When I sat down with Blackwell, he spoke about his philanthropic vision, his hopes (and fears) during uncertain times and his painfully honest assessment of his basketball game.     

You grew up in Oakland’s Trestle Glen neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s. What do you remember most about being a kid in Oakland back then? What I remember most was the imbalance in terms of oppotunity. We lived in a great neighborhood, but I attended Oakland public schools my whole academic career except for the time I spent at the school founded and run by the Black Panther Party in East Oakland. I had many classmates and peers who were more talented and smarter than I was at the time, but many of them did not have the opportunities that have allowed me to be where I am today. Some of them ended up in prison and others are no longer alive. Those memories are a motivating factor for my work today.

Your mother is a national authority on the issue of poverty. Your uncle, David Glover, was also focused on expanding opportunity for Oakland’s urban poor. How did their work help shape the person you’ve become? My mother and uncle have influenced me in countless ways. Between the two of them I grew up attending community meetings, falling asleep in city council meetings that lasted well into the night, walking precincts for people running for city council, and engaging in stimulating conversations regarding social justice at the dinner table. All of that has shaped my values, who I have become, and the issues to which I commit myself.

What’s your mission here, and what makes it so unique? We are unapologetically social-justice-focused here at the foundation. When you think about the issues of equity and inclusion, you think about issues of race and class. We think we are best in class at addressing those issues—and not just addressing them from a grantmaking point of view. And we’re not afraid to use our voice and our influence to make a difference.

The foundation was established in 1948, with a like-minded agenda. You know, your readers may not know this, but Daniel Koshland [its founder] was the CEO of Levi Strauss and led the effort for big corporations to integrate their workforce. He galvanized business leaders back then to provide job opportunities for refugees associated with World War II.

So much has changed since that era, but, when you think about it, we’re dealing with some of the same issues Koshland’s team tackled back then. I agree.  And, I’ve been talking a lot with my staff recently, saying how Dan Koshland would be so proud of what we’re doing right now by focusing on social justice issues and supporting immigrant and refugee rights because that is exactly the kind of vision he had for the organization when he established it. 

How are you addressing these problems currently? One example is after the election, we had a series of donors who called us because they were concerned about immigrant and refugee issues. And so we’ve been able to work with those donors to generate about three million dollars of support for universal deportation defense for immigrant and refugee families so they won’t be separated and will have legal support as well as “know your rights” information.  We’re really proud of this.  

With a new administration in Washington, there likely will be budget cuts that could have an impact on the region. Will that affect your funding strategy? While our resources are substantial, they’re not adequate to plug the kinds of budget holes that get created at the federal, state or even the local level. In terms of supporting advocacy, [we need] to make sure that when budget cuts are coming, that the perspectives and needs of low-income communities and communities of color are being taken into account.

Flashing back to your undergrad days: You left the Bay to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta for undergrad. Culture shock? Absolutely culture shock, but if I could do it all over again I would do it the exact same way.  And Atlanta’s soul food crushes the Bay!

Making the world right takes a lot of energy. What do you do for fun? I live in Oakland, about five minutes away from my parents, 10 minutes away from my sister and brother-in-law.  A big part of how I have fun is to continue to stay connected to people who I’ve known my whole life.  I play basketball, but my game isn’t what it used to be!

Do you play in a league, play competitively?  I’ll tell you, I retired two years ago when I was playing basketball and twisted my ankle badly right before a big event I was doing with the San Francisco Foundation.  I ended up wearing sneakers onstage with my suit and I had to tell everybody the embarrassing story about how I injured myself.  I haven’t played since then.  So, there’s that!

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