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

Episode Summary

In Part 3 (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 three of my interview with Daranee Petsod on ForumNation.

Daranee Petsod (00:14):

You know what we're experiencing, the trauma that we're experiencing at GCIR is 500 folds for the field. Many of the activists are actually being targeted by the administration and by the anti-immigrant forces that are very powerful and very strong because their funders have over the years invested big, invested long, invested flexibly in their development and so that is why they have been able to implement so many policy changes so quickly because for decades they have been building a playbook and when the opportunity came they were ready with that. This is our vision for America and we also need to be doing that so that when our opportunity comes, we are ready. In the meantime we have to fight at the rapid response level, think midterm and really invest in the longterm and the field doesn't have the capacity for that right now.

Dave Biemesderfer (01:27):

Right, and it needs to because it's not going to just, even if there's an election that will change something, it's not like overnight everything will go back to the way it was right?

Daranee Petsod (01:38):


Dave Biemesderfer (01:38):

Because it's long-term work to move back forward again right? Right.

Daranee Petsod (01:45):

Yes. And actually a lot of what's happening now, immigration is not a partisan issue. It really transcends partisanship. So some of the policies actually built on the 1996 laws that were put in place under a Democratic administration and expanded upon.

Dave Biemesderfer (02:06):

So you announced recently that you're stepping down at the end of the year from GCIR after 22 years there right?

Daranee Petsod (02:15):

I just celebrated my 21.

Dave Biemesderfer (02:18):

21 years.

Daranee Petsod (02:19):

Yes. It's adulting time

Dave Biemesderfer (02:22):

You become an adult in GCIR.

Daranee Petsod (02:22):


Dave Biemesderfer (02:25):

So talk, can you share with me a bit, I know we've talked before a little about this, why you think this is the right time to step down?

Daranee Petsod (02:36):

Yeah. You know, when you hit double digits in your tenure in any job, right, you start thinking about how do I create room for new leadership, etc. But the attacks on immigrants actually preceded this administration. We've been volatility for a very long time. The field honestly has been in rapid response probably since the 1986 immigration law. You know, sometimes the rapid response is for the good, for positive, so say for the DACA program more recently. And so for me the time has never been... For me, I've sought alignment between what my personal professional goals are and where GCIR is at in its stage of development. And those two have never aligned until, I think now because we have, despite the challenges over the past three years, we now have an amazing board, not that we didn't before, but we have an amazing board, an amazing staff, very strong programs and solid finances all at the same time, which is really hard for an organization to achieve.

Dave Biemesderfer (04:00):

Kudos to you for that.

Daranee Petsod (04:02):

Thank you. Definitely a team effort. And I also actually think the 2020 election is a good time to welcome new leadership. And I'm not saying I want to leave because it's going to be hard. Another hard four years regardless of the election outcomes. I actually feel like I have several years left in me for this work, but I don't want to leave depleted and I don't want to be a disservice to GCIR, to the Immigrant Rights Movement, to PSL sector, etc. So I want to be able to leave when I can help facilitate the new leader's ability to take this to the next chapter. And things are so up in the air right now that we're a little bit in holding pattern's not the right word, but there's so much uncertainty that we really do have to wait until after the elections to kind of see what opportunities there are.

Daranee Petsod (05:19):

That doesn't mean we don't have a long-term affirmative vision of this country, for this country, but it does mean that the new leader has the opportunity to come in when there's more knowledge about what the situation will be and be able to make those decisions about how GCIR's going to lead going forward. How are we going to support the field, how are we going to engage with our partners and so forth. And so that's why I feel like the timing's perfect for new vision, new energy, new leadership to come in and you're going to need a lot of all of that in the coming years. To your point about regardless of the election outcomes, it's going to be a long, long road ahead.

Dave Biemesderfer (06:11):

That's really thoughtful that you clearly put a lot of thought into this so kudos to you for that. And I know that next year you plan it out at least for a year, live in Thailand, which sounds exciting. And I know you're also an avid surfer and that you plan to enjoy a lot of that in Thailand. And I've known you for a number of years. I didn't know about this, you were a surfer until more recently. So I just would love to know what it is, how long you've been surfing and what is it about surfing that really appeals to you? I've never been on a surfboard in my life so I'm really interested.

Daranee Petsod (06:56):

Well you have to try. It's actually a really interesting story. So, I actually was legally blind and-

Dave Biemesderfer (07:08):

You were?

Daranee Petsod (07:08):

... Yes, until about five years ago. And I'm of course functional with contacts and glasses and so forth. But I can only see really about an inch in front of me.

Dave Biemesderfer (07:22):

I did not know that about you, Daranee.

Daranee Petsod (07:24):

Yeah. And so watersports was really off limits because if I lost my contacts, I would panic and I would drown and perish.

Dave Biemesderfer (07:35):

We don't want that.

Daranee Petsod (07:36):

No, no, no. That is not a good way to go. But, so when they removed the cataracts, they put in new lenses resulting in 20/40 vision for me.

Dave Biemesderfer (07:48):


Daranee Petsod (07:49):

And when I had this new vision, it was just a whole new world.

Dave Biemesderfer (07:53):

I can only imagine. Wow.

Daranee Petsod (07:57):

And you know, before when I... I love the water, so I would go snorkeling and I would get the strongest prescription goggles possible. And I could only see a vague shape or the colors. But that was good enough for me. You know, like I still enjoyed it. I could tell it's a fish.

Dave Biemesderfer (08:17):

A fish.

Daranee Petsod (08:18):

Yeah. But I couldn't really see much more than... It's like a watercolor painting or something, an impressionist painting. That's how the ocean looked to me before. And so, when I had my new eyes, I went snorkeling and I also kayak before. So I did that and then I was like, wow, this is really boring. I have new eyes now I can try something different and new. So I was like, I want to try surfing. And I just fell in love with it. And I actually had the worst possible instructor. There was no land lesson. We just went out and I was like, "How do I do this?" And he's like, "When a wave come just get on." And I was like, "I don't know how." And he was like, "I just want to see how you do it and then later on I'll teach you." And so he's like, "Go."

Daranee Petsod (09:23):

And I somehow got on the board and I rode the wave and I was approaching the beach and I'm like, "Holy moly, he didn't tell me how to get off." You know, so I just jumped off and quickly cut my foot on coral because I didn't know. But that aside, I caught the bug.

Dave Biemesderfer (09:50):

Well yeah, and for your first time even doing it that you even got that far. I mean, that even though you don't know how to get off it just getting up on it.

Daranee Petsod (09:57):

Right. Exactly.

Dave Biemesderfer (09:57):

It's like maybe you're a natural for it or something.

Daranee Petsod (10:01):

Yeah, I think well many of you listening will know that I'm only five feet tall. So the center of gravity is pretty low. So, I think there's finally an advantage in my stature. But the reason I love surfing so much and windsurfing as well is because you must completely focus when you're out there or you're going to get injured. 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 and even when you're ready you might get slammed. So they are both sports that require a significant amount of focus.

Daranee Petsod (10:50):

And windsurfing, you have the water element, you have the wind, you have to manage your sail, you've got to figure out how to turn and if there's a gust. So it is a complete focus. And it really has been my savior these past three years because when I'm out there on the water, I forget about all things immigration. I forget about the existential questions about the future for our democracy, I forget about grant report and so on and so that's why I love it so much.

Dave Biemesderfer (11:27):

Yeah, that makes... Just completely focused on the task at hand.

Daranee Petsod (11:34):

It is like as a form of meditation.

Dave Biemesderfer (11:38):

Right. Right. Wow. That's cool.

Daranee Petsod (11:39):

So you're going to try it, Dave. I'm getting you on record.

Dave Biemesderfer (11:43):

Yeah. If we ever are near the waves together I will. I will take you up on you giving me a lesson. But we'll see. So what other than surfing in Thailand do you plan to do when you leave GCIR? Other plans?

Daranee Petsod (12:02):

I really plan to lead a more sustainable pace of life, significantly reduce stress and of course not having become independently wealthy as a PSO leader.

Dave Biemesderfer (12:22):

No, you haven't.

Daranee Petsod (12:22):

I haven't. It's shocking. I do want to...

Dave Biemesderfer (12:29):

Pick a lottery. You really should.

Daranee Petsod (12:30):

Exactly. I'm going to play the lottery. I do want to take on some projects on a part-time basis, but really continue to work on issues that align with my values that I'm most passionate about. You know, immigration's one of them. But I am also, want to get back to my roots of working on gender justice issues. Racial justice will always be there. And certainly migration, climate justice is another one. And I feel like all of those things together would be amazing because they are so interconnected, especially when you look at our global society. So, I'm really hoping to be able to do some projects that allow me to be in that intersectional space of bringing together migration, climate, gender, and race into one.

Daranee Petsod (13:30):

But you know what the funny thing is, my daughter gave me my horoscope prediction for 2020 and let me read it. It's, if you don't believe in horoscopes, you will after this. So my horoscope prediction for 2020 says, this will be the year that brings peace, calm and serenity to your batshit crazy life. And I'm sorry, you probably have to beep some of that.

Dave Biemesderfer (13:58):

We might have to... Yeah. Okay. All right. Excellent. Excellent.

Daranee Petsod (14:02):

So that's what I'm seeing for my future.

Dave Biemesderfer (14:06):

Wow. Wow. Yeah. So climate justice, it doesn't seem to me the philanthropy is anywhere near addressing it enough, do you? Or am I missing something?

Daranee Petsod (14:18):

No, I don't think so. And certainly not connecting it to migration. You know, the influx of central American refugees is for a multitude of reasons including climate change. People who are farmers are not able to live off their land anymore. And you know, in some places where the ocean levels are rising, people are losing their habitat. So these issues will be intertwined. I think that's an area where we are continuing to see silos. But I'm heartened that our members are actually talking about this.

Dave Biemesderfer (15:00):

Oh, good, good.

Daranee Petsod (15:00):

So we're working now on developing a new framework to guide immigrant related grant making. And in talking to our members, they are thinking about global forces including climate change that will increase migration. And I talked yesterday with Rachel from Environmental Grantmakers Association. Their members are looking at migration as an outcome of climate change. And then there's a range of environmental justice issues that disproportionately affect communities of color, including immigrants in the US particularly, undocumented immigrants who are fearful of reporting things like hazardous waste in their community and pesticides and so on.

Dave Biemesderfer (15:58):

Well Daranee, thank you so much for being here today. It was just wonderful having you ForumNation. It's been wonder... I've really, we'll just say here, even though I know you're still going to be in your job for the rest of this year, just been so wonderful getting to know you since I've over the last four, maybe four or five years, we've known each other or six years. You've been just a great leader, great friend, colleague. It's been wonderful having you as my board chair and so thank you for that. And for your really positive outlook. And a lot of people may not... They got some sense of it today maybe. Your sense of humor is like very, very appreciate it a lot. And I don't know where you get that from, but that's really a great attribute of yours as well. So.

Daranee Petsod (16:58):

I think is part of the immigrant resilience experience,

Dave Biemesderfer (17:00):

I was wondering if was. It's like you guys either laugh or cry. Is that part of it?

Daranee Petsod (17:05):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dave Biemesderfer (17:06):

Yeah, yeah. But anyway, thank you for that. And thank you for being you. We will miss you in your role at GCIR, but I know you'll be back doing something amazing. So thank you.

Daranee Petsod (17:20):

Thank you so much for having me on ForumNation.

Dave Biemesderfer (17:29):

ForumNation is a podcast of United Philanthropy Forum. ForumNation is produced by Buoyant Partners and producer Eric Rigaud. Many thanks to the entire United Philanthropy Forum team, especially Courtney Moore, Brandon Iracks-Edelin and Ivana Bikombe. Subscribe to ForumNation on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.