Fostering Systemic Change
East Fork’s Clarissa Harris, senior community impact manager, interviewed Tracey Greene-Washington, Asheville native and founder of CoThinkk; Libby Kyles, a CoThinkk founding member; and Niconda Garcia, CoThinkk member and grant recipient. You can watch a video of the interview here. And for more about CoThinkk, tune in to Clarissa and Tracey’s conversation on Instagram.
CoThinkk is a collective of social change philanthropists, grassroots community leaders, change agents and allies whose work centers on racial equity. East Fork named CoThinkk the recipient of our Wealth Reclamation/Seconds Sale efforts in July, August and September of 2021. During this time period, we ask our customers to make a donation in the amount of their choice to CoThinkk, and, we hope, learn a bit about the organization and its work, in exchange for granting access to our Seconds, where they can shop for nearly perfect, nicely discounted East Fork pottery.
And if you’re reading this anytime between noon EDT on September 9th and 23rd, you can also enter our very special raffle, 100% of the proceeds of which go to CoThinkk. The winner will receive a collection of six Dinner Plates and six Everyday Bowls in Blue Ridge, a retired glaze that’s back only for this raffle—along with a large platter, a form we don’t sell at present, laser-etched with a question that CoThinkk members ask themselves and each other: What do you desire to interrupt and re-imagine to address complex social change?
Tracey Greene-Washington, Founder
Clarissa Harris: Can you tell me what CoThinkk is and how CoThinkk came about?
Tracey Greene-Washington: CoThinkk is led by African-American and Latinx leaders in service of shifting the narrative for communities of color in Asheville, North Carolina. We have a strategic focus on systems change, racial equity and being able to shift and create supportive networks that have the power to move transformational change.
CoThinkk was birthed out of this desire to figure out how we could create this really fantastic platform for Black and Brown folks who were doing amazing work in Asheville and Western North Carolina but didn’t have the visibility to amplify the impact that they wanted to have. CoThinkk is a social change philanthropy organization. When I talk about social change philanthropy, I’m talking about values related to centering those most impacted by this work: equity, inclusion, getting to systemic issues and innovation. We are structured as a giving circle, which is an organization that uses its time, talent and treasure in service of supporting transformational change.
But I will say that CoThinkk is a little bit different, and we’re really explicit about this because our work is led by Black and Brown communities and supported by allies in service to producing narratives around communities of color and shifting those narratives. We do that in a way that’s about building creative and accelerating networks to have the impact we want to have, as well as focusing on four strategic pathways to do our work.
One is around healing because the reality is, if you can’t heal together, you can’t see each other, you can’t trust each other and you definitely can’t share your resources with each other. Another pathway that we focus on is resources: how we create access and inclusion for communities of color so that they can do the powerful work that they do. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about systems change. It’s all about how we shift those conditions around systems: the mental model, resource flow, relationships, policies and practices in our community that have to be shifted in order for us to do the deep equity work and the transformational work that we do. The last piece of our work is focusing on capacity building through coaching and providing coaching and supportive services for our community members, our peers and our grantee partners as we move forward.
We’re excited about the work that we’re doing. In response to what happened last year , we really were explicit about our work being about systems change, shifting it now so that we can create the future we need for our community. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been able to invest over $200,000 back into the community, from grassroots leaders to grassroots leaders. That’s a win-win for us. We’re excited about what’s to come and we’re excited about East Fork partnering with us. We’re excited about how we evolve in supporting transformational change in our community and in our region.
CH: You talked about CoThinkk being BIPOC-led and BIPOC-focused but you used a cohort model that includes white folk. What do white folk do in this work? How does the cohort model work?
TG-W: Thank you for that question! One of the things that is very powerful is that we see our work as building an ecosystem of change. This involves multiple people playing multiple roles. In order to answer that question, I have to go back to the very idea of co-thinking. It’s a culture coming together, pooling our collective time, talent and treasure with our lived experience and perspectives. So regardless of whether you identify as BIPOC or as an ally, we need your perspective to be able to think about those gaps, those blindspots that we need to be able to address as we move forward. And the reality is, when we think about Western North Carolina, we think about the population. People of color make up a small portion of that population, so for us to have the impact that we desire to have, we need everybody’s voices in the process, to be with us as partners, as allies, etc. And by “allies,” we don’t just mean individuals who identify as white. Allies are also institutions, some that might be led by people of color that are working more within the system as opposed to outside of the system.
When we think about our work with CoThinkk, there’s work that’s centered on systems change, where folks are working diligently in the system to shift it in a way that can have access, inclusion and impact for a variety of different folks. But there are two other areas where we’re pushing the system to do something different and working totally outside of the system to innovate it. CoThinkk lives in that space of innovation. Our job is to create models of service that incubate ideas that are needed for the future so that we introduce something into the system that we haven’t seen yet. So, we ask this question: What could be possible? We remain curious. We ask the question: Who needs to be involved? Because the reality is, everyone’s time, talent and experiences are needed to solve this complex work.
CH: You used the term “giving circle” and that might be new or unfamiliar to some of our audience. So tell me, what is a giving circle and how does it work?
TG-W: So, a giving circle is not a new concept. Historically, from a cultural perspective, in Black and Brown communities, we’ve been giving to each other for a long, long time. And if you think about it historically, though people may not have called it a giving circle, it’s a structure for thinking about community and relationships and it’s about how we care for each other and how we trust each other. There’s a national regional giving circle movement that CoThinkk is part of. One is called the Community Investment Network that solely focuses on giving to circles of color in the South. We’re also part of a national giving circle movement called Philanthropy Together that is focused on growing giving circles both in the United States as well as internationally. We’ve been lifted up as a thought partner, helping those giving circles really think deeply about how they center racial equity in their work. Giving circles can look different: some may be focused on giving money to programs or different populations. I would say that it’s very rare that there are giving circles that are focused on systemic change, like CoThinkk, but all of us have a role to play in this ecosystem of the giving circle movement as we think about how you’re giving your time, talent and treasure. Giving circles have the right gumbo to support their communities in a way that makes sense. And it feels great!
CH: Okay, last question: If you could choose three words to describe what CoThinkk does and aspires to do, what would they be?
TG-W: It’s very hard for us to predict where CoThinkk is going. CoThinkk is so emergent, it’s so iterative. Our work isn’t very linear. To be able to come up with three words is hard, because we don’t know where this country is going to be. Our job is to stay responsive, to be ready and to be proactive in our work so that we can be transformational. One of the things we talked about earlier day is how we have to embrace process as strategy in doing our work and that is something that CoThinkk is constantly doing. What are the things that we are seeing? Where is community saying to us? What do we need to pay attention to? Where are the blindspots? What’s happening nationally and across the globe? We are trying to take all of those things in so that we adapt and evolve because the reality is, we don’t know where we’re going to be in five years. I will say that I have a wishlist and for those that are out there, I would love for CoThinkk to be able to grow a $500,000 equitable, grant-making fund to be able to support systemic change. We know that this type of work requires us to make deep investment. I would love for that to be one of the goals of the next five years.
Libby Kyles, Founding Member
Clarissa Harris: I know who you are, Miss Libby! But can you introduce yourself to the audience?
Libby Kyles: My name is Libby Kyles and I am the director of community-led grant-making at Tzedek Social Justice Fund. I’m also a co-founder of YTL Training Program, which is Youth Transformed for Life, and just an all-around active community member, loving my community.
CH: How are you connected to CoThinkk?
LK: I am one of the founding members of CoThinkk. CoThinkk is really the energy in my life. It helps me to be more active in community and to sow into myself and to others.
CH: How long have you been working with CoThinkk?
LK: I’ve been with CoThinkk from the beginning. I’m excited to see where we are going.
CH: Why do you feel CoThinkk is important for our community here in Asheville?
LK: You know, one of the reasons CoThinkk is so important is because we focus on a couple of different things. Number one: teaching each other that we are not just grantees but we are grantors. We are philanthropists and it is important to have an organization that uplifts Black and Brown people who are doing the hard work but who often don’t get funded. CoThinkk provides an opportunity for visibility for organizations that otherwise might not be seen. The other thing that is really amazing about CoThinkk is that we are a support. It’s not just about doing something one time or one day. It’s about being here for our community every day.
Niconda Garcia, CoThinkk Grant Recipient
Clarissa Harris: I know you! But please introduce yourself to our audience. Who are you?
Niconda Garcia: My name is Niconda Garcia. I am a fifth-generation Asheville native. I am a local entrepreneur. Being a consultant is my newest venture. I have my hands in many pools and I’m involved in many community organizations.
CH: How did you get involved with CoThinkk?
NG: I came to CoThinkk through a co-worker who was one of the founding members. She spoke very highly of the initiative while it was in the formative stages. And the timing a couple of years down the line was just perfect. I joined, and really got the opportunity to see everything that CoThinkk entails. I’m still a member to this day, a lifelong committed CoThinkk member, as far as I can see.
CH: Can you explain in your own words what CoThinkk is?
NG: I’ll speak from a personal perspective because I think what CoThinkk is varies by individual and their own connection to CoThinkk. At first, CoThinkk was a place of respite for me. As an Asheville native, I’ve been in many spaces, many dynamics, had a lot of experiences in groups that were not as effective as they could be and not always as welcoming as I would have imagined. So, I joined CoThinkk and started the healing process, which is one of the four strategic pathways.
At CoThinkk, I found relationships, I found authenticity, I found a community that really cares about my well-being and about reciprocity. That’s what CoThinkk is for me, personally. As a member, what I’ve grown to know over the years is that the trust-based giving philosophy is really unique. Seeding ideas and seeding innovation without all the barriers that we see in traditional grants and traditional funding streams. So often, we have to prove ourselves on the [grant] application, making it perfect, dotting all the i’s and crossing the t’s and really prove yourself before someone is willing to believe in you. CoThinkk is not what way: it works in the reverse order.
CH: Why is CoThinkk so important to us in Asheville, in your opinion? Why do organizations like CoThinkk exist?
NG: I don’t think there are any organizations like CoThinkk! The importance of CoThinkk is that it has been able to master something that we as humans, in general, have had a hard time doing, which is being in genuine relationships and learning how to trust each other while also valuing our differences and come together to discuss them and build and sharpen each other in a very genuine and authentic way. That is the foundation that allows us to continue to replicate relationships that are meaningful and based on trust. Trust is one of the hardest things to find when you’re navigating systems, but when you start with that, and you consistently show that and have a built-in mechanism from the foundation that supports it, the work keeps moving forward.
CH: Can you tell me what the grant you received from CoThinkk has done for you and how it has impacted your work?
NG: Yes, so initially when I applied for a CoThinkk grant out of a life experience with my children, who are Hispanic and Black. We were having some difficulties within the school system. It was a very painful experience. Through the process of trying to help them rebuild their self-confidence and spirit, I applied for a grant called Change the Rubric. The intent of the grant was to foster discussions and help kids’ organizations and individuals change their mindsets around what success looks like, regardless of economic factors, regardless of disabilities, regardless of the color of their skin—all these things. That first year, which was last year, I formulated a curriculum and applied it the following summer with children in a summer camp. It was amazing! Kids were forming their own narratives, finding values. They were writing these things called zines, which are short magazines, to tell their stories.
Through CoThinkk and that grant, I found networks. I found people in the CoThinkk circle who were tied to other networks, which brought me into different circles. I learned about the zines and had a collaboration and was able to deliver this content at a local program called Project Lighten Up. The pastor at that church [where the program was run] sat beside me as I navigated the school system for my kids and advocated for them. All of these ties started happening, with the funding.
A subsequent thing that I never had thought would come out of this is a lot of consulting work. The networks that I had made with CoThinkk allowed for a lot of community opportunities and volunteer work. When people saw my volunteer work, they wanted to hire me on to do consultant work. And when we started to dig deep and rename what success means, my kids and myself along the journey—I really didn’t know this was going to happen to me—started to find all these beautiful things that we could do and the values within us. One of my kids makes and sells his art. He’s pretty serious about it, too! And the most recent thing that’s unfolding as we speak is my nineteen year old daughter, who has watched this process and been alongside us, is now starting her own business creating tinctures to help heal. It’s this ripple that is still happening, the story is still forming. It’s still moving.
What do you desire to interrupt and re-imagine to address complex social change?
Tell us in the comments below!