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Honoring Juneteenth with Irvine’s Mikaela Wilburn

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 Program Associate Mikaela Wilburn about her journey to celebrating Juneteenth and examining the role of power in philanthropy. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a Bay Area native and the second oldest of my five siblings. My dad is a pastor. I also have a 2-year-old daughter. I think a lot about identity. My daughter is biracial – Black, Puerto Rican, and Mexican. I ask myself: How do I bring her up with full representation of who she is? I didn’t have that. My grandma is part Puerto Rican, and I’m not connected to that heritage. I want to ensure society doesn’t define who she is, but that she does.

My passion is people and caring for my community. That’s why I’ve wanted to use my creative gift — I’m a creative with a bachelor’s degree in Apparel and Textile Design — in service to others, as communal care for those around me, especially those navigating trauma and hardship.

What does Juneteenth mean to you?

Growing up, I spent a lot of time around White institutions and communities. I didn’t acknowledge the Black part of my identity because I had a deep desire to belong. We didn’t discuss it a lot at home, and in school I didn’t learn much about Black history.

When I moved to a more diverse community, I wasn’t accepted. People said I “acted White.” So, I never identified as a Black person in a positive way.

In my 20s, I came to understand what Juneteenth was. In fact, I watched a Black-ish episode with my family where they broke down the history, and I couldn’t believe how little we actually knew about it.

To me it means: “None of us are free until all of us are free.” My ancestors had to fight to achieve freedom and to break free from racist structural systems.

When I was younger, I dealt with a lot of racism and microaggressions that I was conditioned to accept.  For example, in college I was the only Black woman on my floor in my residence hall. People constantly commented on my dark skin, they asked if I was from the “ghetto.” My professors always asked for my “expertise” when we discussed Black history or culture.

These experiences pushed me to learn more about my history and identity. Now Juneteenth to me is a pivotal marker in the history of once-enslaved Black people. It’s a celebration of my history, my culture, and my people for overcoming and pressing on amidst obstacles.

Why philanthropy? How did you get into this work?

My mom has worked for the Bay Area Rescue Mission for the last 16 years. That was my first immersive experience in nonprofits, and it grew my passion for nonprofit work.

Prior to Irvine, I was a Career Pathways Specialist at The RYSE Center where I worked with a variety of youth, including those who were systems impacted, justice involved, homeless, pregnant, parenting, and foster youth.

It was mentally and physically exhausting, and it wasn’t sustainable for me as a new, single mom. I had to leave because I needed to provide for my family and find a better career growth opportunity.

I interacted with foundations through site visits, but the interactions felt transactional, as if the funders didn’t have genuine interest or care for our work.

After I joined Irvine and saw the staff’s commitment to our North Star, it changed my biases about philanthropy. I’ve learned about how we work with and show intentional care for nonprofit leaders. It’s helped me see a future path continuing in philanthropy.

How do you see philanthropy (and/or Irvine) and its role in advancing racial equity?

At my previous organization, I saw many BIPOC-led organizations doing amazing work but struggling with sustainability.

Now I understand philanthropy has a huge role to play to support nonprofit work, to alleviate burden, and to be an ally. Philanthropy must be willing to challenge racist, oppressive policies and systems vocally and bravely. More than making statements, we must act with the power we hold in our ability to fund those most in need and defund those who do not commit to the fight for liberation and equity.

I was excited for Irvine’s internal racial equity learning sessions and for our racial equity funding, but it should’ve happened a long time ago. It’s sad that it took Black deaths to make it happen.

In philanthropy, we must redistribute our power, bring more voices to the table, and ask leaders how we can serve them. We should also look to the organizations we serve to define what success looks like for them.