Deanna James is a passionate woman balanced by wisdom beyond her years that prevents her from being burned up by her fiery determination to effect change in the Virgin Islands.
For much of her five years as president of the St. Croix Foundation, a role she assumed in 2015 when Roger Dewey retired, she has continued to move the agency and its projects forward with little fanfare and even less major funding or outside support.
Though she worked hand-in-glove alongside Dewey for 12 years, funding dropped off. James realized part of the change was that “old” money was harder to find, and some of the funding was a testament to Dewey’s 22-year relationship with many of the Foundation’s supporters. But she also suspected some of the change was due to her being the first female, native Virgin Islander of African descent in 20 years to lead a USVI foundation. It was a daunting task and one she had accepted with some reluctance.
It was a year later when James was introduced to the Association of Black Foundation Executives at a retreat of Black women in philanthropy in 2016 that she could finally take a deep breath, enjoy a few moments of relief in her new relationships and find renewed energy to rev up her activist engine. She also came away with an agreement from ABFE to partner with the St. Croix Foundation.
“I haven’t been the same since,” she said in a recent interview. “Those women adopted me.”
They also connected the St. Croix Foundation with investments “we would never have dreamed up,” James said.
That included $1.3 million raised as a result of a “Funders Retreat” held just seven months before the hurricanes of 2017. The retreat was an idea James cooked up in the midst of criticism and before she could know what it would soon mean to the community.
“My proposal [made to her board of directors] had a few local detractors who questioned the rationale for the convening and who went so far as to suggest that the retreat was a cover for giving my ‘new Black friends’ a free vacation,” James said in her recent statement linked below, “despite the fact that the cost of the retreat [held in February 2017] was less than $7,000, with our guests footing the bill for their own travel expenses,” The expenditure ultimately translated into the $1.3 million provided to the St. Croix Foundation in direct grants from national foundations.” She goes on to say, “Those funds were, in turn, regranted to local nonprofits in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.”
More recently, James was thrilled to collaborate with more than 60 other Black foundation leaders in fashioning a statement released as COVID-19 and police brutality were disproportionately ravaging Black communities across the nation.
The statement, ABFE Joint Statement on COVID and Police Shootings, reads in part:
Our long-term goal is to free Black people from disparate treatment that result in the racial disparities we see in COVID-19, police brutality and on almost every indicator of well-being. To get there, we must dismantle the structures (institutional policies and practices) that disadvantage and marginalize Black people, as well as the false narratives about Black communities that allow for continued inhumane treatment. This will lead to stronger Black communities. Philanthropy has a critical role to play and must step forward. In addition, a more robust partnership moving forward between philanthropy, government, businesses and Black communities is needed to address immediate needs and opportunities [targeted COVID-19 relief and police reform]; as well as the longer-term strategies to address racial inequity. We need deep, transformative institutional change in this country; foundations and donors that support Black communities, in addition to those from other sectors (government, business, etc.) must commit to and deploy an equity analysis to investments moving forward. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and all of us in philanthropy must be in it for the long haul.
Feeling the strength from her association with and support from colleagues at ABFE, James was emboldened to make her own statement which included things she has wanted to say for years.
Though nervous at how some of her frank remarks would be received, she pushed on with the truth. Between, COVID-19, the egregious public killing of George Floyd and an already growing frustration – particularly stateside – by Black leaders at the continued assumption that white leaders knew more about what was needed in Black communities than the actual community members do, James was compelled to expose the other side of philanthropy in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Having spent 12 years sitting stoically in front of donors – a predominant number of whom were white, older and male – I have had to hold my chin up high as I listened to conversations most people of color in the Virgin Islands will hopefully never have to endure. Early on, I was exposed to blatantly racist, subtly bigoted and implicitly discriminatory exchanges on a regular basis. I have had a donor’s rep prep me for a meeting by telling me not to make eye contact unless the donor approached me first because he did not like Black people. I witnessed a donor walk away from the Foundation after being told by our board that they would not be permitted to wield their wealth and power to destroy important partnerships and alienate crucial constituents. Most egregious is that, in a parting gesture, that donor wrote a letter to their peers (many of whom were also donors) declaring St. Croix Foundation to be a racist organization – against white people! That was well over a decade ago, yet the echoes from that letter still reverberate through our community today.
James goes on:
Since that time, there have been far too many micro-aggressions to document. In all cases, I had to endure white donors weaponizing their economic power and their “philanthropy” in ways few in the territory have experienced or have been willing to discuss.
However, rather than being defeated, James has been strengthened by her encounters with this more subtle form of white supremacy.
We now hold firm to the precept that not every dollar is a good dollar. But on the bright side, I am proud to acknowledge that the vast majority of the donors we interface with today are not simply transactional relationships; they are bonafide partners, collaborators and co-conspirators who share in our commitment and conviction to real philanthropy.
As for her mostly female supporters from ABFE and elsewhere, she said, “They helped me find a place in philanthropy I didn’t have before.”