Good Folks, Amazing Things
Where We Go From Here | Episode 15
Dr. Rahsaan Harris, CEO, Citizens Committee for New York City
Citizens Committee for New York City started in 1975 with an ad in The New York Times looking for "10,000 'greedy and heartless' New Yorkers to work for 5 years. For free." Since then, CitizensNYC has brought people together to drive change in neighborhoods across the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island.
Dr. Rahsaan Harris walks us through his first year of leadership at CitizensNYC as its first Black CEO. He shares with us how CitizensNYC is supporting communities and democratizing access to philanthropy through microgrants. In this conversation with Jonathan Lambour, Senior Associate, Advisory Services at NFF, Harris shares the forces that shaped him into the leader he is today: embracing vulnerability, expressing authenticity, and a sense of duty to his ancestors.
In this video:
- What CitizensNYC does. (0:41)
- How microgrants are democratizing access to philanthropy. (1:21)
- How Harris led with appreciation and hope during the pandemic. (3:05)
- How CitizensNYC brings people together to drive change. (6:12)
- How we're stronger when we work together. (7:40)
- Why philanthropy needs to do less gatekeeping and more movement building? (9:09)
- The power of vulnerability. (10:47)
RAHSAAN: Nonprofit is just a tax structure; it's not that you don't get paid.
RAHSAAN: See, I think it's like, it's bad branding.
JONATHAN: Where are you calling us from? I'm loving the scenic background.
RAHSAAN: So, I'm at Columbia with a bunch of students in the background, and all the sights and sounds that you'd expect in New York City.
JONATHAN: Well, thank you for joining this interview. So, a couple of questions. One, just, could you introduce yourself and briefly describe your organization's work in a few sentences?
RAHSAAN: I'm Dr. Rahsaan Harris, longtime philanthropoid, nonprofit executive leader, student, Harlemite, father, husband, and son. I am the CEO of the Citizens Committee for New York City, which is a microgranting organization founded in 1975. I just so happen to be the first Black leader of that organization. And I have the privilege of giving out grants to community leaders across the five boroughs in New York City so that they can improve their neighborhoods as they see fit.
JONATHAN: For those who don't know, Citizens NYC is one of the nation's oldest microfunding organizations. And for those that aren't familiar. Can you please explain what microfunding is and how it differs from traditional philanthropy?
RAHSAAN: Traditional philanthropy: You write a proposal, you have a 501(c)(3), and you get a grant; and you're applying to the Ford Foundation or the MacArthur Foundation or a Rockefeller Foundation. Microgrants are on the notion that everyday individuals that are do-gooders that are changing the world, that are stepping up the way they do, should have access to resources. So, we give out grants that are, you know, on average, $3,000. They can be as small as $500, as large as $10,000 – to folks that might be getting their first grant. And we can get some leaders on their leadership journey and put them into this philanthropic industrial complex, invite them into this world to see if they want to go for other grants and become larger. But there's some folks that decide that they just want to do good at their level, in their volunteer time, and we provide the resources that help them beautify their community, or reach out to immigrants that are there, or check in on the elderly or the young, or have a voice and create beauty, and are in harmony and unity where they sit and where they are. And that's why I keep trying to repeat: I want to democratize civic engagement. I want to democratize access to philanthropy because it shouldn't be something of the elites or those that have gone to way too much schooling like myself, to be able to get that.
JONATHAN: Absolutely. Thank you for sharing that. A seat at the table is what everyone deserves. You started as the first Black CEO of Citizens NYC in March of 2020, right as the city was locking down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. What did you learn in those early days and what stuck with you over time?
RAHSAAN: I really appreciated being a leader in this moment. You know, I was selected before the pandemic started. So, they made this decision to have their first leader of color, and that was fantastic. And it was a moment to bring what might have been a colorblind approach, to change it, to be a little bit more intentional because of who I am and how I show up. Well, the pandemic really showed that there are some disparities. And all of the disparities in the systems that are in the world were literally exposed to such a huge extent and it allowed me to be a boundary spanner and show folks things that they might have missed without having my lens on the world. I love all people, but I also recognize I'm a cis heterosexual Black male that lives the United States of America. That gives me a certain lens to the work that I can provide opportunities for folks to do the analysis; who is being left behind? We saw that COVID was explicitly great at unfortunately affecting communities of color. So, I was able to bring that to the fore, in our approach to our work. When the racial reckoning happened, being able to explicitly talk about race being inclusive, but recognizing that seeing people authentically is an important part of the work, was an honor and a privilege that I had. And coming to the organization and bringing that lens – to an organization that had the opportunity to bring resources directly to community and make a huge difference. So, one quick story. I had within the first month of me being on as CEO, I had a mentee of mine die, not because of COVID, but because of lack of access to healthcare because the hospitals were overrun. And, you know, his children that were left without a father, that were living in a two-bedroom apartment, that was actually a block away from where I live, was my reality. And so, that was part of my COVID story about lack of access to resources. What do families do in the midst of loss? What happens when you're trying to homeschool or schooling at home in a two-bedroom apartment with three kids, and you're trying to deal with job and keeping people safe? So, bringing those real, true, authentic stories that weren't like non-accessible to me, but like were in my backyard literally, was what I brought to the work. And I'm really appreciative that I'm not the voice, but hopefully that I can lift up other voices that are often overlooked.
JONATHAN: You mentioned community, right? And I think that's a really important piece. So, when people come together, incredible things can happen. Can you tell us a little bit about the way you bring people together to drive change?
RAHSAAN: Bringing people together is at the center of Citizens Committee's mission. We bring people together to improve their communities, particularly communities that lack access to opportunity. So, togetherness is at our core and our application. We prioritize, not individuals, but we prioritize folks that are working in unison with one another, and those are the folks that we fund. So, we bring people together just by the virtue of the way they need to approach applying to us. We use the aggregate data that we get, in what folks are applying, to make as projects. We aggregate that and lift those issues up to the local political level so that those issues have an opportunity to see the light of day. And so that brings New Yorkers together, whether you're in Staten Island or in the Bronx or in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. Those leaders that are dealing with those issues of improving their community, they have a voice and a platform together by just virtue of applying and us lifting their voices up in unison. And hopefully that leads to systems change and not just charity.
JONATHAN: One of my old mentors used to say that he wanted to see change in his lifetime. You know, he didn't want to wait, and to hope that the next generation would create change. And I think the way to create that change is through systems change. So, I appreciate you sharing that. What advice do you have for the people that want to drive change in their own neighborhoods?
RAHSAAN: Driving change, first and foremost, starts by not going alone. My father said this, but I think it's true internationally; relationships precede the work, so form relationships and all the things that you think are possible, can happen when folks want to work with you in community. There's so many great policy suggestions, you know? There's econometrics. There is a way to get the maximum amount of resources to the maximum amount of people – is like an equation. But econometrics doesn't work in life in practice, because there are politics and there are people and things that get in the way. And it’s the relationships that help allow for policies to move forward and get adopted and become part of culture, and are part of what people are willing to do for each other. So, we talk about the state of the United States and how we're so divided and we're not willing to give each other healthcare or supports to economically smooth tough times, and that's because we don't have a relationship with one another. Yes, there's a way to divvy out resources, but you know, right now we don't have the culture and the care for each other that allow us to do it, in a way that's good.
JONATHAN: What's something you wish people understood about the work you do and the communities you serve?
RAHSAAN: I wish that folks really didn't think about keeping grantee partners under your thumb. I wish that people understood that power dynamics matter. I wish people knew that when you give good people resources and the freedom to do their thing, that amazing things happen in the world. And so, yes, strategic plans matter and thinking about measuring impact matters. But what really matters is just giving good folks the ability to do amazing things, and that doesn't happen often enough in philanthropy. It's sometimes hard to describe what I do to other folks. They're like, “Let me get this straight. You just pick a portfolio of great folks from across the five boroughs, doing all these random things, and you just give them money and hope they do well?” And the answer is yes. Because when individuals do their individual acts in aggregate, that creates momentum. That's really movement building. Yes. I believe in theories of change, I believe in having a plan, but as Mike Tyson says, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” So, you also got to be willing to act and to pivot and to allow folks to do what they do, which is adapt and be resilient, and then find solutions that way. And I just wish that philanthropy was more about affirming people and less about gatekeeping.
JONATHAN: You gave a presentation at NFF a while back, and a lot of people were struck by how open and honest you were. It's hard to be that way. How does this inform your work and do you have any advice for being our true, authentic selves?
RAHSAAN: Oof. I'm a lot to handle, first and foremost. I admit. I'm a lot. Being your authentic self and being open, I think first starts from being willing to be vulnerable. It's been a process of my understanding that when you really just get down to brass tacks and that you're willing to be vulnerable and you're willing to call people out on not necessarily being real, and not talking about the underlying issues – you can play nice forever and get nothing done. You know, in the nonprofit world, I mean, you can just get your paycheck, but you're not making change. And change comes when you're talking about the real issues. So, it's calling out, “Hey, I'm in the nonprofit world. And I don’t see no brothers or sisters in this room.” Like call it out. Because nothing’s going to change unless you call it out. Or you know, the way we talk about stuff, like not calling out people's pronouns, might make some other folks feel like they can't enter into the conversation. So, calling it out, not to call people out, but hopefully to call people in, should always be the goal. And I try to do it in a way that's loving and accessible, sometimes funny, but hopefully from a place of truth and authenticity and that moves the ball a little bit further down the field. Because I am my ancestors' wildest dreams. I come from folks that were brought over in chains to the United States of America. And they woke up the next morning not knowing when freedom was going to come, or if it ever would; watching people die around them and they still survived so I could be here. So, I feel that the least I can do is continue to take steps in a direction of bringing hope and change because they did the impossible. So at least I should do the difficult, if they did the impossible.