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Honoring Black History and Futures Month with Senior Program Officer Kriztina Palone

The Irvine Foundation is fortunate to have talented staff with diverse backgrounds and life experiences, and we want to introduce some of our colleagues to you. We spoke with Kriztina Palone, Irvine’s Senior Program Officer, about how her upbringing and lived experience fueled her passion to impact public systems, why Black History and Futures Month is critical to who she is, and Irvine’s role in advancing equity. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.  

Tell us about yourself.  

I was born and raised in Sacramento, California, and I’m the eldest of three siblings. My mother was an immigrant, Afro-Latina — specifically Garifuna — from Masca, Honduras. My father, who was also born and raised in Sacramento, is Caucasian and Native American — from the Cherokee Tribe. He taught me everything I know and set the stage for what I would learn about politics and government.  

My upbringing was complicated and extremely hard to endure, and it had a dramatic impact on who I am today. I grew up in extreme poverty in the Meadowview and Del Paso Heights neighborhoods of Sacramento, lost my mother to Lupus when I was 11, and became the primary caretaker of my siblings and father in her absence. These experiences became the source and fire in my soul that would drive my passion to impact public systems designed to help families like mine but that fell very short of achieving that goal.  

I grew up in low-income Black neighborhoods and am eternally grateful to all of the Black parents, leaders, mentors, and professors who crossed my path and shared their love, wisdom, and guidance with me. This shaped who I would become and the issues I would advocate for in my 17 years of service in local politics and government. It is because of that support system that I am thriving today. Their time, commitment, encouragement, and ability to help me fully understand how public systems operate and where they need restructuring and transformation is why I’m so driven to affect change in this work.  

I love spending time with my family, especially my nieces, nephews, and now grand-niece and nephew. I enjoy traveling with my friends, trying new foods, curating fitness routines for myself, taking walks with friends along the Richmond Marina (where I now live) and attending cultural events in the Bay Area.  

How did you get into philanthropy? 

What primed me for my current role in philanthropy was my local government background, working in public systems. In particular, administering public workforce development programming and funding for job training and workforce services to communities and young people. The Better Careers initiative’s unique opportunity to begin a portfolio dedicated to Public Sector Practice Change (PSPC) aligned very well with what I have done in my career.  

It’s incredibly motivating and inspiring to work on a new portfolio focused on increasing the internal capacity of public workforce agencies to become a source of repair to communities and individuals who have been harmed by multiple systems. Addressing systemic and institutional racism and discrimination is my life’s work, and I am forever grateful to be a part of a team working to improve how communities of color are served and supported by the systems that are supposed to help them effectively and comprehensively. 

What does Black History and Futures Month mean to you? 

I am a very proud Black woman who is also multi-ethnic. Black History and Futures Month provides a crucial opportunity to reflect, learn, and understand the history and current state of the Black community in the U.S. — and worldwide, through the African Diaspora.  

This year’s Black History and Futures Month has an even deeper place in my heart after I did the Civil Rights Trail in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Tuskegee, Alabama last year. The deep history of segregation, racism, brutality, harassment, and lynchings of Black people, in the South particularly, displayed throughout multiple museums struck me to my core. I cried for days.  

It was deeply soul-wrenching and triggered memories of how poorly my mother was treated by non-Black medical professionals during her battle with Lupus. They did not understand how a Black woman could have such a thick Spanish accent, nor had they ever heard of an Afro-Latina before. They did not provide my mother with dignity or respect because of the color of her skin and her poor economic status. At that time, I was my mother’s translator and witnessed horrible mistreatment towards her and other Black patients just trying to survive and navigate a very complex medical system.  

It is because of my own past experiences with racism that Black History and Futures Month is critical to who I am and what I stand for. It goes much deeper than a month. I celebrate being Black and Afro-Latinidad by supporting both communities year-round through vocalizing the importance of supporting Black and Afro-Latinidad businesses and communities however possible. Their existence and ability to share their stories of perseverance and sustainability despite extreme harm and hardships are crucial to learning and understanding why both communities are so important.  

What is Irvine’s role in advancing equity? 

I am profoundly impressed and motivated by Irvine’s racial equity work. The level of consideration and thoughtfulness in designing racial equity goals to pursue throughout our grantmaking has inspired me, particularly as someone who cares deeply about being a part of an organization committed to having a significant impact on the economic advancement of low-wage Californians. Continuing to support this kind of internal engagement and inclusivity in Irvine’s decision-making process is hugely valuable and strengthens the drive to do this work every day.