(Part 1 of 3) Daranee Petsod: Advocate for Immigrants, Bridge Builder, Surfer

Episode Summary

In Part 1 (of 3) of ForumNation's first episode, host Dave Biemesderfer interviews Daranee Petsod. For more than three decades, Daranee has devoted her career to fighting for justice and equity for immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, working primarily in the philanthropic sector. She has worked for such philanthropic organizations as the Sophia Fund, the United Way of Metro Chicago and the Field Foundation if Illinois. Since 1998, she has served as President of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR), an influential national network of funders dedicated to uplifting the contributions and addressing the needs of our country’s immigrant and refugee populations. Daranee explains to Dave how her experience as a young immigrant from Thailand has shaped her career work as a bridge-builder, what it’s been like for GCIR to be thrust into the frontlines of our country’s immigration debate, and how surfing has helped her manage the stresses of her work. For more information about ForumNation, visit

Episode Transcription

Dave Biemesderfer (00:05):

Forum Nation is a podcast of United Philanthropy Forum where we interview amazing philanthropy leaders that we want more people to know about. You'll hear about their personal stories of transformation, their life inflection points, and their surprising leadership moments. You'll hear insights about what's behind the title, those less than perfect moments, those overcoming the odds moments, and those moments where you reach down and find something within you that you didn't know was there. I'm your host, Dave Biemesderfer.

Dave Biemesderfer (00:38):

For more than three decades, Daranee Petsod has devoted her career to fighting to advance justice and equity for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers working primarily in the philanthropic sector. She started her career working for such a philanthropic organizations as The Sophia Fund, the United Way of Metro Chicago and the Field Foundation of Illinois. Since 1998, she has served as president of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, also known as GCIR, an influential national network of funders dedicated to uplifting the contributions and addressing the needs of our country's immigrant and refugee populations. GCIR was named the funder affinity group of the year in 2017 by Inside Philanthropy. Daranee has authored and co-authored numerous research reports on immigration. She currently serves on the board of Northern California Grantmakers and as board chair of United Philanthropy Forum, which is the organization I run. Daranee, welcome to Form Nation.

Daranee Petsod (01:48):

Thank you so much Dave. Thank you for inviting me to be here.

Dave Biemesderfer (01:50):

You spent pretty much your entire career fighting for the rights of immigrants and refugees and asylum seekers in our country. So why do you have such a dedication and passion for this issue? What really drives you to be focused for so many years on the same issue?

Daranee Petsod (02:16):

Yes. So I came to the US at the age of 10 after a six year separation from my parents who immigrated earlier.

Dave Biemesderfer (02:28):

Tell me more about that. How did that come about? From Thailand?

Daranee Petsod (02:31):

From Thailand, yes. And it came about in part because of the immigration system that we have. In order to sponsor a family member you have to establish yourself here first. And so family members have to wait until it is possible to migrate. And we did not come from a wealthy background and so my parents had to save and they had to prove to immigration that they had the resources to support me.

Dave Biemesderfer (03:07):


Daranee Petsod (03:08):


Dave Biemesderfer (03:08):

So you came first?

Daranee Petsod (03:10):


Dave Biemesderfer (03:10):

You waited. You waited in Thailand.

Daranee Petsod (03:13):

I waited in Thailand.

Dave Biemesderfer (03:13):

So they came first.

Daranee Petsod (03:14):


Dave Biemesderfer (03:14):

Who did you live with in Thailand for those six years?

Daranee Petsod (03:18):

I lived with my extended family. So I'm very close to my aunts and uncles as a result.

Dave Biemesderfer (03:24):

Yeah. And are they still in Thailand?

Daranee Petsod (03:26):

They are.

Dave Biemesderfer (03:27):

So tell me, you're age 10, you've lived the first 10 years of your life in Thailand, you come to the US, and when you moved to the US, where were you living?

Daranee Petsod (03:37):

My parents settled in Chicago and it's where a number of Thai people have resettled. And I grew up in a low income neighborhood in Chicago, largely with immigrants and African Americans in the community. And I think what has given me passion about this work is that in that experience of migrating and being separated from my parents before migrating here, and in living in a community where I lived, the economic disparities, I lived the racial disparities and I saw injustices for myself and my friends. It really awakened my consciousness about what's not right in the society and gave me a drive to really right the wrongs. And I started that very early on by volunteering. So when I was a teenager in high school, I volunteered with Laotian and Cambodian refugee children serving as a mentor to them.

Daranee Petsod (04:56):

And I did that through college. And although my experience was hard, I really feel like my parents, despite humble beginnings and modest means, did have some resources to come here and they were not displaced and forced to migrate due to war and oppression, persecution and so forth. So I had a lot of empathy for essentially folks who are my neighbors in Asia and I also know a little bit of Laotian. We did live there actually during the Vietnam war. So Thai and Lao are pretty close in language and so I have some of that. And I think it's interesting you asked this question because throughout my experience at GCIR, I rarely share my own story. And my work has been to uplift the experiences of others who are experiencing migration in different ways.

Daranee Petsod (06:10):

And working in this space is really, really hard. And when I get a little bit overwhelmed or disillusioned or down, I really think about the young Cambodian girl that I mentored when I was, I think this was in college. So she was about 12 years old at the time, and I can't remember why, but she received a scholarship to a really prestigious private school. And while I was able to help her keep up with her schoolwork, I really wasn't able to mitigate the social aspects of her life. And I think seeing how she struggled to fit in into an elite school, feeling ashamed of her secondhand clothing, feeling ashamed of her poverty, of her skin color, of the genocide of her people and really not fitting in, in that place. And so I think of her, that keeps me going.

Dave Biemesderfer (07:14):

Yeah. Wow, that's so powerful. And thanks for sharing that. I really appreciate it. Why don't you often, you said you don't often share your own story in your work. Is it because it just brings up a lot of memories or why is that?

Daranee Petsod (07:31):

Because I think it's about me. It's about the larger issue. And I know that at times it is powerful to share your story. But I'm not one of those people, because I am also so emotionally connected to this work and I am a crier. I don't want to lose my zen and cool composure.

Dave Biemesderfer (07:54):

Nothing wrong with crying.

Daranee Petsod (07:54):

And my tough exterior.

Dave Biemesderfer (07:56):

Yes. You think you have a tough exterior?

Daranee Petsod (07:58):

I do.

Dave Biemesderfer (07:58):

Okay. All right.

Daranee Petsod (07:58):

Is there a poll that's going to be take?

Dave Biemesderfer (08:02):

We won't argue that. So, by 10 years old, you're remembering things. So just for you, what was that transition like? You're 10 years old, you spent your entire life in Thailand and Laos as well. And now you're in Chicago and do you remember your initial, what was going through your head as that young 10 year old? And what's the adjustment like for you?

Daranee Petsod (08:31):

The adjustment was difficult. I knew hello and goodbye. Those were the words I knew in English when I arrived here. So I had to learn how to speak English. And it's interesting, so in the community we lived in, I went into a majority/minority school with very few resources. But because there's a lot of immigrants in that school, they did have an ESL program. The teachers took me under their wings and I was able to learn English. But even as a 10 year old, I saw differential treatment of myself as an Asian immigrant and friends who came from Africa, friends who came from Latin America. And in some ways, I didn't know it then, I benefited from the model minority myth and so I am very mindful of that and I see that as, there's a lot of mixed feelings about that for sure. And just the feeling of never fitting in.

Daranee Petsod (09:55):

It was such a diverse school and the majority were Latinos. And so as I was learning English, I was also learning Spanish because that actually was the dominant language in our school. And really confused about how to fit in with very different cultures and not understanding the norms.

Dave Biemesderfer (10:21):

So, that connects to your work today. I know GCIR, you do work with them [inaudible 00:10:27] Association For Black Foundation executives working around issues with African immigrants. And I know you've been doing work with Hispanics and philanthropy around Latin X immigrants. You must carry with you some of that life experience.

Daranee Petsod (10:42):

Absolutely. I think this is why I'm a bridge builder. Initially as a 10 year old it was survival. I had to connect with kids from other backgrounds because there were no other kids from Thailand. I think there was another, there was a kid from Korea, also differently. No really spoke English that well at school, so the bridging part and I actually have a very special, feel like I have a special connection to the African American experience because it's actually an African American family that took us under their wings and that's with whom we spent Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter and all the traditional American holidays.

Dave Biemesderfer (11:33):

They were neighbors of yours?

Daranee Petsod (11:40):

No, I mean it's actually a really funny story. My mom and I are shopping for a couch or a rug or something. And this young African American salesman is helping us and he just took a liking to us and it was like a holiday job during college or something. So I was about 13 at the time and I think he's like 18/19 and he's like, "Do you want me to try to use my store discount so you guys can buy this a little cheaper?" And we're like, "Okay." And somehow we just connected and he's like a big brother to me. And then after that we went for all the holidays and with that family.

Dave Biemesderfer (12:29):

So this African American family helped you learn about American traditions and culture, it sounds like.

Daranee Petsod (12:37):

It is very true. And imagine my surprise when I went to a more traditional mainstream Caucasian Thanksgiving where there were no greens, no Mac and Cheese, no sweet potato pie, no chitlins. I was like, what is this? So that was my perception of what Thanksgiving and all the holidays were.

Dave Biemesderfer (13:06):

Right, right. Wow. That's a really great story. Thank you for sharing that. You did end up moving on to college and went to university. I know you got your Master's at University Chicago, so clearly, attained higher education goals, I assume, that you had for yourself and even from then you were involved in social policy. That was your Master's. So you sound like you knew then, this is what I want to be doing.

Daranee Petsod (13:38):

Actually it's interesting because when you come from a family where you're the first to go to college and you're in an inner city school where you, at the time, girl of color are seen as somebody not with so much potential. And so you don't really have many role models. And so how I ended up in grad school, actually relates a lot to philanthropy. So after college-

Dave Biemesderfer (14:12):

Where did you go to college?

Daranee Petsod (14:14):

I went to DePaul University.

Dave Biemesderfer (14:15):


Daranee Petsod (14:16):

And so after college, my first job was at a rape crisis center. I was hired to start a program to serve Southeast Asian women who are survivors of sexual assault. They were either assaulted during the war and while fleeing or in the camps. I had some language capabilities, cultural competence, et cetera. So I was hired for that job at the age of 20, so I do not recommend that job. Not unless you have a certain kind of character.

Daranee Petsod (14:54):

So that was-

Dave Biemesderfer (14:56):

Not easy work I would imagine.

Daranee Petsod (14:59):

No. It was a job where I went home crying every night. I take in other people's pains and experiences and just really felt like, oh my gosh, all these horrific things happen to them and I don't really know how to help. I'm 20 years old.

Dave Biemesderfer (15:15):

Right. Yeah, that's a big load for a 20 year old to carry.

Daranee Petsod (15:18):

Yeah. And of course, there was training and all that stuff, but when you're 20 it's like, dealing with the atrocities of war and put in a position of trying to make things better for somebody who's just disclosed very painful information. It was really tough. But anyway, through working in this job, I was able to meet the funders who seeded the program. And that's the Sofia Fund.

Dave Biemesderfer (15:52):


Daranee Petsod (15:52):

Yeah. So that's the connections. And I was immediately impressed by Sonny Fischer, who ran the Sophia Fund at the time. She was really a trailblazer in the women's fund movement.

Dave Biemesderfer (16:08):

It was one of the first women's funds in the country, I believe, right?

Daranee Petsod (16:12):

Absolutely, yes. And Sonny cared about the work that we were doing. She was funding our organization to change police practices towards sexual assault victims, to advocate for them in the courts, to provide counseling, and was really very attuned to the experiences of women of color even though she herself is not one. So she had gone to the University of Chicago for social policy and actually my supervisor at the program also went there. And they became my role model. So I was like, oh, well I think I'm not good at providing counseling to sexual assault survivors because I don't have the training. So I'm going to go to grad school and they also have a clinical program.

Daranee Petsod (17:06):

And so I first went into the clinical program and did an internship working with abuse and neglected children. And that's when I realized, you know what? It's not the lack of training. It's not my constitution to do this work. So I sought Sonny out for an internship. They've never had an intern before. And I said, "Sonny, you remember me from this program. I am really interested in learning about the woman's funding movement about philanthropy. May I do my internship here?" And so she created an internship for me and it was such a remarkable experience. And so the Sofia Fund had a single donor, Lucia Woods Lindley, who is also an extraordinary woman.

Dave Biemesderfer (17:55):

And was she still living when you were working [crosstalk 00:00:18:00]?

Daranee Petsod (17:59):

Yes. She constituted the board. She went with us on site visits. But what I really appreciated about her was that she wanted her dollars to affect change and she wanted the resources to be put in the hands of the people who are affected most by economic injustice, by gender and justice and so forth. And entrusted me to be part of that decision making. And so it was such a unique experience, very close mentorship by the two women.

Dave Biemesderfer (18:39):

Well and we're talking the late eighties here. I mean, that seems pretty forward thinking because we're still talking today in 2020 in philanthropy about the need for more funders to be doing that kind of grant making, aren't we?

Daranee Petsod (18:52):

Absolutely. Yeah. They were really pioneers in saying, you tell us what you need and we'll provide the resources for that. And very understanding about when things don't go as planned, which is often the case for small grassroots organizations. And they actually allowed me to focus on building the capacity of organizations that are led by women of color and that serve women of color. So it's pretty remarkable.

Dave Biemesderfer (19:23):

Yeah, absolutely. So, that was your introduction to philanthropy.

Daranee Petsod (19:27):

Yes, it was.

Dave Biemesderfer (19:31):

Coming up in part two of my interview with Daranee Petsod, she shares what it's been like for her organization to be thrust into the front lines of our country's immigration debate, starting with the 2016 presidential elections.

Daranee Petsod (19:45):

Since the campaign leading up to the 2016 election, and since the election, staff wellness has been really top of the mind because we are assaulted every day and three quarters of our staff have a direct connection to the immigrant experience. And so we feel that extremely directly.

Dave Biemesderfer (20:13):

Continue listening to part two of my interview with Daranee Petsod on ForumNation.