(Part 2 of 3) Daranee Petsod: Advocate for Immigrants, Bridge Builder, Surfer

Episode Summary

In Part 2 (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 (00:06):

This is part two of my interview with Daranee Petsod on ForumNation.

Dave Biemesderfer (00:14):

So now thinking back 30 years later, it sounds like you've already shared some of your initial impressions of what philanthropy is all about and how has that changed over the last 30 years for you from your initial thoughts about the field and about philanthropy? Or have they not, have they stayed pretty similar?

Daranee Petsod (00:38):

Having my first experience with the Sophia Fund, gave me a very idealistic view of philanthropy, because they were definitely trailblazers. After that I went to United Way, which is much more corporate and traditional. I was in the government affairs office working on public policy issues and actually that's when I also realized public policy is too remote, frontline direct services is too close. And the Sophia Fund working in philanthropy felt just right because I felt like I brought on the ground experience. I brought lived experience, and I can help bridge philanthropy to understand what that's like and inform better grant making.

Daranee Petsod (01:29):

After that though, I went to a very mainstream blue blood foundation, the Field Foundation of Illinois, who at the time was led by an African American man who is really trying to shift this philanthropy. This is a foundation that is generations old at the time that I was there, and I believe he's still on the board is Marshall Field V?

Dave Biemesderfer (01:56):

Oh, okay, this is the Marshall Field ... Okay.

Daranee Petsod (01:58):

Yes. The department [crosstalk 00:01:59]. Exactly.

Dave Biemesderfer (01:59):


Daranee Petsod (02:02):

And everyone who was the fifth, the fourth, the third, second junior, senior, et cetera, and I was still super young.

Dave Biemesderfer (02:15):

Right. Totally different world from how you grew up with.

Daranee Petsod (02:18):


Dave Biemesderfer (02:19):

The second, third, fourth generation doing this or that.

Daranee Petsod (02:22):


Dave Biemesderfer (02:22):


Daranee Petsod (02:24):

And felt such a weight of responsibility because here I am, even though I'm very grounded in the community, I didn't have a lot of experience and for Andy to also trust me and invest in my leadership and have me at the board meetings-

Dave Biemesderfer (02:44):

Andy Lindsey [crosstalk 00:02:45].

Daranee Petsod (02:49):

Yes. Yeah. That's also another mentor.

Dave Biemesderfer (02:50):

He's a great philanthropy leader, absolutely.

Daranee Petsod (02:52):

Yeah. Yeah.

Dave Biemesderfer (02:53):

So then you wind up eventually at G-Serve in '89 I think. I read you had written ... I can't remember where I saw that when you started at G-Serve, you were, I think the words were highly skeptical of the value of a philanthropy serving an organization, a philanthropy association network to really have an impact, although you took it up anyway and that ... Speaking of evolutions, you're now a firm believer over your time there of the power and impact of PSO. So talk to me about that evolution for you, coming in highly skeptical and now sort of the opposite firm believer.

Daranee Petsod (03:42):

Yes. And I think the evolution of my thinking reflects the evolution of the sector because when I was at the Sophia Fund and at the Field Foundation, so when I engaged with affinity groups and regional associations back in the day, they were more about networking professional development, member services. Those were really early days in the development of PSOs and most didn't see themselves as change agents or leadership organizations. My thinking about them has evolved over the years because PSOs now are squarely in the leadership space with very deep expertise, with strong points of view and deeply rooted as well in values that are about equity and justice. I think we have more power and influence than we did back then, when we were more service oriented.

Dave Biemesderfer (04:44):

I think so too.

Daranee Petsod (04:45):

Yeah. But I do have an issue with the term PSO, philanthropy serving organizations. I would vote to rename them PPOs, philanthropy partnership organizations. Not to be confused with PPO-

Dave Biemesderfer (05:01):

[crosstalk 00:05:01] organizations.

Daranee Petsod (05:04):


Dave Biemesderfer (05:05):

Yeah. Yeah. That would be the issue maybe with PPO.

Daranee Petsod (05:09):

Right. Right.

Dave Biemesderfer (05:10):

People think we're in the healthcare and-

Daranee Petsod (05:11):


Dave Biemesderfer (05:14):

But yeah. So definitely PSO has definitely [inaudible 00:05:16], absolutely.

Daranee Petsod (05:17):


Dave Biemesderfer (05:18):

Yeah. Yeah.

Daranee Petsod (05:19):

Yeah. Yeah. And in terms of the evolution to 20 years ago, diversity was barely a thing that people discuss, and when they did, it was largely a black and white issue. And fast forward to today, racial equity is top of the mind for many of us in the sector. I mean, I think in the PSO sector it is absolutely top of the mind. And we're trying to make that top of the mind for philanthropy writ large. And the discussions around race and racism and white supremacy, et cetera, is really front and center now and it is inclusive of Brown people, it's no longer a black and white conversation. So that some of the evolution that I've seen.

Daranee Petsod (06:15):

And I've also seen evolution of issues that before that were really not even on the radar, so 20 years ago issues like mass incarceration, criminal justice, immigration, people were not talking about that. And today PSOs are leading the charge on these very issues that are the most insidious in society and really the most defining issues of our time and a reflection of who we currently are as a nation and to push it to be who we should aspire to be.

Daranee Petsod (06:56):

Yeah, and I think also 20 years ago with PSOs, how PSOs worked pretty much mirrored the way philanthropy worked was in silos. And today we are working much more inter sectionally as PSOs and challenging funders to do the same and really modeling what that looks like. So I think that's the kind of change that I've seen. And I want to give a plug to the forum because earlier this week, actually yesterday-

Dave Biemesderfer (07:31):


Daranee Petsod (07:32):

We were together with various CEOs from PSOs across the country. I think-

Dave Biemesderfer (07:39):

They're 40, I think. Yeah.

Daranee Petsod (07:42):

Yeah, and the love of the conversation was just incredible. We were talking about participatory grant making, we were talking about helping philanthropy take a more ecosystems approach and really truly understand how the work of the various PSOs connect in a deep way and that we're no longer working in parallel tracks but really in a cross cutting and collaborative way with a deep generosity of spirit and uplifting each other.

Dave Biemesderfer (08:25):

Yes, absolutely. And we were talking about funding of it and trying to raise that as an issue right. And I've seen this too and since I got into the field in the mid 90s, a lot of the PSOs, particularly regional PSOs were probably others were more, they viewed themselves as neutral containers to provide service to members. Had no perspective, no point of view, and I that's totally gone 180 for I think most and not all of the PSO. So I totally agree with that, perception of yours.

Daranee Petsod (09:03):

Yeah. Wholeheartedly agree. Regional PSOs have been some of our most biggest cheerleaders and have created space for us to talk to their members about these issues and to integrate immigration into the conversations around racial equity or around health equity or whatever issues that their membership is interested in. And that's really elevated our work and our mission. So, and on immigration, I also want to give a shout out, I don't want to name all the regional PSOs because I think literally we have worked with so many, but also yesterday CEO summit, I was so thrilled to hear the national committee on responsive philanthropy say they are tracking immigration funding and doing a statewide report card for each and every state.

Daranee Petsod (10:09):

And over the years I've seen our national colleagues, funders for LGBTQ issues, Hispanics and philanthropy, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in philanthropy, neighborhood funders group, change philanthropy, and now I'm in trouble because I know I've forgotten someone.

Dave Biemesderfer (10:29):

You have, I am sure.

Daranee Petsod (10:30):

Yes. And that they are taking immigration on as an issue on their own and they don't need to partner with us and they're amplifying the critical importance of this issue and connecting it to other issues that are core to their missions. And we collaborate with these organizations, but we also support their ability to work on their own and push on immigration issues. Yeah, and that's been really heartening to see. When I started working at G-Serve Dave, we could not say the I word and we really had to have a bit of a stealth strategy.

Dave Biemesderfer (11:15):


Daranee Petsod (11:16):

Yeah, much less the U word, which is undocumented. And so it has really-

Dave Biemesderfer (11:23):

So I you mean immigrant?

Daranee Petsod (11:25):

I as an immigrant.

Dave Biemesderfer (11:26):

So you would just talk about refugees?

Daranee Petsod (11:28):


Dave Biemesderfer (11:29):

[inaudible 00:11:29] as I word, what were you talking about?

Daranee Petsod (11:32):

Housing, homelessness, poverty or whatever it is. We connected ourselves to two other issues and couldn't really lead with immigration. And yeah, and it really wasn't until 2000 when the demographics shifted. It was significantly that we were able to use the census data to say, "Hey, you really need to pay attention to this community, they're growing and they're growing not only in the States and cities that you normally would think, New York, Chicago, LA, and so forth, but they're growing in places like the South an the Midwest and so on."

Dave Biemesderfer (12:23):

You're mentioning racial equity and definitely how the philanthropic sector is talking about it much more in recent years than they have before, ever before. And can you talk a bit more about how that intersects with your work with immigrants and refugees and how G-Serve has been thinking in new or expanded ways about that and with your members and with others in the field? How has that increased emphasis on racial equity change how you're approaching or talking about or advocating for your work?

Daranee Petsod (12:54):

And racial equity is so central to our work and in the current environment, the toxic narrative that dehumanizes criminalizes and demonizes immigrants are result of racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and all the other phobias that you can list. And so we really have a long way to go on the racial equity piece of the immigrant rights work. And at this time, I don't think immigrants and refugees are fully a part of philanthropy's analysis around racial equity, but like I said before, we have PSO allies who are really pushing on this. You mentioned our work with AFI earlier and that's actually who I did not mention, but we have worked together at the intersection of immigration and racial equity specifically around the experience of black immigrants.

Daranee Petsod (14:04):

And so while I say that philanthropy has a long way to go to be inclusive of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in its racial equity funding analysis and leadership, the immigrant rights movement also has a long way to go and has a lot of reckoning to do with it's own racism, particularly anti-black racism. And so the partnership with Susan and AFI has been really critical in increasing our respective networks, understanding of these dynamics. So I think for AFI they now have an immigrant lens and a couple of years ago AFI specifically included black immigrants as part of their national convening. And we have our members talking about anti-black racism and how that is not only harming immigrants and the immigrant rights movement, it's harming our overall effort to advance racial equity.

Dave Biemesderfer (15:10):

You mentioned, referred to the increasing sort of, I would guess toxicity of the national conversation recent years around immigrants and refugees, and tell me how that's really impacted your work and also you personally since 2016 election really even while even during the campaign, I think it was already new evident that something's going on here and I'm not in a good way, so I know you and I ave talked before about how this is challenging for you personally for others working in this space, but share with us a bit about that.

Daranee Petsod (16:01):

Yes. So as I mentioned earlier, I felt like philanthropy was a good place for me because it is removed from the front lines and the current toxic environment has placed what is an intermediary organization squarely on the front lines.

Dave Biemesderfer (16:20):


Daranee Petsod (16:22):

About three quarters of our staff has a direct lived immigrant experience and so that's been really, really hard 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. So we have really had to focus on what we call co-care as an organization, caring for each other, being mindful of when somebody needs to step away and being there to continue the work for that person.

Daranee Petsod (17:19):

But I think because we are so close to the experience, we understand what's going on in the field and really have been mindful of not overtaxing the field, especially when there's crisis after crisis. I will say that one of our funders during this time, I think it was in 2017 made a self care grant to us, it was not a significant amount, I think each ended up getting about $250 to do whatever we needed to do to regain equilibrium and to persevere and to have resilience in doing this work. And that small amount of money meant so much to our team because it was recognition.

Dave Biemesderfer (18:21):

Yeah, that's awesome.

Daranee Petsod (18:22):

Yeah, that this work was also hard for us. And yeah, so we've had to focus a lot on resilience over the past three years in particular.

Dave Biemesderfer (18:36):

Now anyway, it seems almost relentless, like you said every day there's something being said or something happening.

Daranee Petsod (18:44):

Absolutely. And we've been so heartened by philanthropy stepping up over the past few years and making a lot of rapid response grants and that too has been hardening that has lifted the spirits of our team as well. But three years into this, we also want funders to really think about investing in longterm strategies to turn the tide. And in some ways when we react to every manufactured crisis we play into the hands of the opposition, they have us right where we want to be pulled in a million directions and not able to think strategically about how to shift the narrative, shift culture, shift policy, shift public opinion, and really do what needs to be done to humanize immigrants again and to see them as part of our communities.

Dave Biemesderfer (19:54):

Yeah, they have you right where they want you, right?

Daranee Petsod (19:56):


Dave Biemesderfer (19:56):

Right. The distractions prevent all that from happening.

Daranee Petsod (19:58):


Dave Biemesderfer (20:01):

Right. Coming up in part three of my interview at Daranee Petsod, she explains the connection between philanthropy and surfing.

Daranee Petsod (20:13):

The reason I love surfing so much and wind surfing as well is because you must completely focus when you're out there or you're going to get injured. You know, like if you're thinking about work, you're thinking about the future of our country, the attacks on our democracy and a wave comes and you're not ready for it, you're going to get slam.

Dave Biemesderfer (20:42):

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