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Reflecting on Black History Month with Irvine Program Officer, Nicole Pritchard

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 sat down with Nicole Pritchard, Program Officer, for her reflections on Black History Month and philanthropy’s responsibility to advance racial equity. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Philly and have lived in San Francisco, Brooklyn, and now I’m in LA. I was raised in a mixed-race family with a White mom and a Black dad. I attended a Quaker school in Philly where community engagement, fighting against injustice, and speaking truth to power were deeply engrained in us. My aunt was a Black Panther in north Philly and would talk about fighting police brutality and supporting Black power. My partner is from England, and, together, we have three kids who keep us on our toes!


Why philanthropy? How did you get into this work?

I started in social research consulting and in nonprofit organizations. I was always fueled by mission-driven work and focused on improving conditions for communities lacking access to opportunity.

My first step into philanthropy was at The California Endowment as a Program Associate in their Learning department. I’ve learned so much from inspiring organizations doing critical work, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to support their leadership and work collaboratively to solve problems.


What does it mean to be a woman of color in this field? And how does that inspire your work with the Priority Communities initiative?

Recently, I was in Pasadena picking up dinner at a burger shop. Four White, teenaged boys yelled the N-word as I walked away. As a woman, alone at night, I didn’t feel safe confronting them, so I had to let it go. I was so angry. What I experience is the tip of the iceberg.

Holding onto these experiences reminds me that who’s doing the work matters and a shared lived experience with organizations and communities you are supporting makes the work stronger.

Philanthropy isn’t known for its diversity, but it’s changing. Working on our Priority Communities initiative allows me to support community leaders working to build a thriving economy, where BIPOC residents earning low wages can access not only opportunity but also economic liberation and overall well-being.

For example, only 0.5% of Black women-owned businesses received PPP loans during the pandemic. Helping BIPOC and women entrepreneurs access capital, technical assistance, and networks is one example of how we invest in shifting power dynamics to address inequities.


What does Black History month mean to you?

Black History Month is a time for both celebrating Black accomplishments and remembering injustices. It’s not about relegating it to one month; all American history is Black history. But celebrating Black history is necessary when the erasure of Black history is our norm. While critical race theory and books by Toni Morrison and Ruby Bridges are being banned, things like the 1619 Project, Black Lives Matter, and Black History month put Black lives back at the forefront.

This year’s theme for Black History Month is Black health and wellness. As we go into the third year of the pandemic and continue to witness Black, Latinx, and Native communities disproportionately experience the burden of COVID-19, we are reminded that systemic barriers to healthy living are very much alive and well.


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

Philanthropy must be bold, and we must be consistent. We can’t only be fueled by the explicit anti-Blackness of recent years, because the country was built on a foundation of racism, starting with the genocide of Native Americans and then the massacre and enslavement of Africans.

Philanthropy has access to resources and a platform to be heard — we must use our privilege to elevate the issues that our community leaders are actively addressing, and we must back it up with consistent funding in the form of multi-year, unrestricted grants. In a time of erasure of Black history, philanthropy must counter that by clearly and boldly calling out structural racism and inequities.

At Irvine, we are accountable to the people of California. In 2020 we committed $20 million to address anti-Black racism, while we began a process of learning and modifying our grantmaking strategies and internal operations to embed equity more deeply. We became more explicit about centering our strategies on BIPOC workers earning low wages who have been historically excluded from opportunities to thrive. We are still learning, and we can do better. We must always strive to do so.