From struggle to empathy to service: the experience of diaspora leaders


Regina Ponce


Sitting at the Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP) Conference last February in San Francisco, my expectation that it would be highly engaging was confirmed by a quick look at the agenda: prominent leaders scheduled to speak; a vast range of topics to be discussed (health, philanthropy and technology, among others); breakout sessions with senior mentors; and all to a lively audience that seemed ready to participate. As the day went by, it also became clear that the conference’s uniqueness extended beyond a well-planned programme; in particular, it was enriched by the inspiring personal stories generously shared by Latin leaders.

At the breakfast plenary session, Mauricio Vivero, an attorney and the founding CEO of the Seattle International Foundation, linked his choice of a career in philanthropy (rather than a lucrative one in the private sector) to his tough childhood. The experience as an immigrant Cuban boy having to adapt to a new world stayed with him, and became the driving force propelling him to others in the developing world. His non-profit has donated over US$8 million towards alleviating poverty.

Among the less senior, although equally inspiring, speakers were a roster of Latin social entrepreneurs at the forefront of digital technology. The session I attended, ‘21st Century Tools of the Trade’, was kicked off by Markos Moulistsas, son of an immigrant Salvadorian mother and founder of the progressive online media Daily Kos, where public figures such as President Jimmy Carter and President Barack Obama have posted.

At this event’s roundtable sat young activists such as Elisa Batista, director of the blog, which advocates for the rights of moms and children; Laura Gomes, ex Twitter manager and founder of Atypic, a digital business vowing to diversify the white-male-world of technology; and Arturo Carmona, executive director of, an organization existing solely to make Latino voices broadly heard.

During the discussions, it became obvious that these young digital professionals don’t shy away from discussing politics. As members of racial minorities, they know first-hand that nothing is apolitical in the US, much less in technology. The group took on the controversial topic of ‘net neutrality’, which lately has provoked heated debate between the White House and those opposing the regulation of the internet, and forbidding ISPs from creating fast lanes to content providers willing to pay more for it. Those in favour of regulation, including the White House, argue that it would prevent the internet from offering unequal access to users. But as one would expect from savvy entrepreneurs, the young Latin social activists didn’t see net neutrality as a straightforward issue. Ms Gomes, for instance, pointed out that today the internet is far from being equal-access; she mentioned the online education platform Coursera as an example of a content provider that puts a price on its content.

The unwavering commitment to philanthropy by diaspora leaders, such as those presenting at the HIP, has recently caught the attention of funders. It’s argued that they need to be more empowered and supported in their social initiatives. At the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) conference this year, for instance, executives Almaz Negash (African Diaspora Network) and Steph Allie Heckman (One World Children’s Fund) discussed the importance of inviting diaspora leaders to the table where decisions about funding are made. Understandably so, for they are our modern version of ancient heroines, who have met epic challenges, transcended them, gained wisdom and now answer the call to elevate their communities. Their commitment to help those left behind is unbeatable, but so is their cultural knowledge and network of overseas relationships, which are key skills in prioritizing funding and monitoring successful projects.

Regina Ponce is One World Champion for Crea +, São Paolo, Brazil, and frequently writes on philanthropy.

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