(Part 1 of 3) Amanda Misiko Andere Is Fighting to End Homelessness

Episode Summary

Amanda Misiko Andere has spent her entire career fighting to prevent and end homelessness and break the cycle of poverty. She has worked in the nonprofit sector, the public sector and now the philanthropic sector. For the past four years, Amanda has served as Chief Executive Officer of Funders Together to End Homelessness, which is the only national network of grantmakers working to end and prevent homelessness, and she sits on the Board of Directors of United Philanthropy Forum. In her ForumNation interview, Amanda shares with David how her longtime devotion to helping people in need has been strongly influenced by her immigrant parents’ experience getting help from virtual strangers who greatly improved their lives. She also explains why addressing racial equity is an imperative to ending homelessness in America, how her theater experience has come in handy throughout her career, and why “surrender” is her word of the year for 2020.

Episode Transcription

Dave Biemesderfer (00:05):

ForumNation is a podcast of United Philanthropy Forum, the largest network serving philanthropy in America. On ForumNation we interview amazing philanthropy leaders that we want more people to know about. We'll hear about their personal stories of transformation, their life inflection points, their surprising leadership moments. You learn insights about what's behind the title. Those less than perfect moments, those overcoming the odds moments, those moments where you reach down and find something within you that you didn't know was there.

Dave Biemesderfer (00:38):

I'm your host, Dave Biemesderfer. Amanda Misiko Andere has spent her entire career so far fighting to prevent and end homelessness and break the cycle of poverty. She has worked in the nonprofit sector, the public sector, and now the philanthropic sector. For the past four years, she has served as Chief Executive Officer of Funders Together to end Homelessness, which is the only national network of grant makers working to end and prevent homelessness. Amanda currently serves on the Board of Directors of the United Philanthropy Forum, which is the organization I happen to run. Amanda, welcome to ForumNation.

Amanda Andere (01:19):

Thanks so much for having me Dave.

Dave Biemesderfer (01:20):

Yeah, we're thrilled to have you here. Welcome to our studio.

Amanda Andere (01:23):

This is great [inaudible 00:01:24].

Dave Biemesderfer (01:23):

Yes, yes. So as I just said, you've spent your entire adult career so far fighting for people who are less fortunate in our communities and our country. Specifically working to prevent and end homelessness and break the cycle of poverty. So I just really curious, what's behind your passion for this work, and why do you do it day in and day out?

Amanda Andere (01:48):

That's a good question Dave. And I think there's many reasons that brings me to my work. First and foremost, my faith. I am a Christian and I believe that it's our duty to do for others, but not for others in a charity type of way to work on justice, on behalf of people and with people. And so I feel like I've been blessed with so much and that I need to give it forward, pay it forward, and create a more just world around me.

Amanda Andere (02:20):

But when I think about the roots of why I care so much about poverty and housing insecurity and ending homelessness, I think about my parents. They are both immigrants to this country. And they came at a time during the end of the civil rights movement. And for them coming from predominantly black countries, it was a shock to their system. They didn't quite know where to fit in. They experienced racial discrimination in ways that still jar them to this day.

Amanda Andere (02:52):

And there were people, strangers who helped them along the way, and those people made a lasting impression on their lives and on my life. And my parents always said, "If it wasn't for those folks who provided them with opportunity is just were a friendly, warm place for them that we wouldn't be where we were as a family." And as a family growing up in a pretty upper class neighborhood in Northern Virginia, right outside of DC. It was always striking to me, and now I realize more what I saw that while we had a lot, there were kids in my class who didn't. And I'm sure that there were nights that they didn't have food to eat, that they were wondering how they were going to stay in their home. And that impacted their education and impacted their ability to do the fun stuff that I got to do.

Amanda Andere (03:43):

And my parents instilled in me that we can't live in a community where that is happening, that we should have a diverse community where everyone feels stable and welcome and is included. And so that really drove my passion to seek out why that doesn't happen for people.

Dave Biemesderfer (03:58):

Right. And where did your parents immigrate from?

Amanda Andere (04:01):

My mom is from Jamaica. My dad's from Kenya. They met while going to school in California.

Dave Biemesderfer (04:06):

Oh? Oh, how very cool, very cool. What university? Do you know?

Amanda Andere (04:11):

Well, my mom went to a small, which I don't think is still around, Catholic university called Notre Dame. So not the big Notre Dame. And my dad went to community college for a while and then went to University of Northern California.

Dave Biemesderfer (04:24):

And then they ended up in Northern Virginia?

Amanda Andere (04:26):

We ended up a lot of different places.

Dave Biemesderfer (04:28):

Okay, okay.

Amanda Andere (04:28):

So they actually went to graduate school in Washington State. And that's actually one of the families that had the most impact on our lives in my younger life. A white family who had never met a black person in their life. They're from Walla Walla, Washington. Took in my mom and dad when they were in graduate school, they were their host family and they, I call them grandma and grandpa and we had a lot of interesting discussions around race from when I was a young age.

Amanda Andere (04:59):

But their openness and kindness and sense of justice also impacted my family in a great way. So those are the examples I'm talking about, like just people who took in my family in communities where that was not the thing to do. So then my parents checked over to the East coast. My dad was in banking, my mom is in food service and that was another way that I started to do this work.

Amanda Andere (05:25):

My mom was a director of cafeterias and companies that employed mostly low income workers. And just seeing my mom have a real commitment to taking them on a career path that would make them stable and doing things for her employees to help them in their life, not just professionally, but personally, was really important to me. And I saw my mom do that in a way where she didn't have to. I mean, she worked in corporate America, she was very successful. But she really cared about her employees and wanted them to have a safe place to go home to, and a family that felt stable and nurtured.

Dave Biemesderfer (06:06):

So those kinds of values obviously carried over to you clearly.

Amanda Andere (06:10):

Yeah. Yeah. Well I hope so.

Dave Biemesderfer (06:11):

It seems like it, yeah. Clearly, clearly.

Amanda Andere (06:14):

And the sense of justice really came from seeing so many injustices, even when times when my mom would try to help people and knowing that like of that time, things like health care and the way that we have it now, we're still fighting for it and had an impact on the people that she was trying to help. And so just knowing that even when you help people, there's injustices in the world. And so we have to think of, for me, fighting for a policy change and systems change and it felt like not enough for me to just help one person, which is great. I think that's can be a lot of people's life's work. But I just wanted to see things change for many more people in a long-term way.

Dave Biemesderfer (06:56):

So you're in Northern Virginia. What kind of high school was it? A diverse student body?

Amanda Andere (07:01):

It was, it was a diverse high school. We ethnically, racially, economically, I think though people think of Fairfax County or places like that is really wealthy. And that's actually where I started my career in working in preventing and ending homelessness. And people would always say like, "There's poverty and homelessness in Reston, one of the highest income counties in the country?"

Amanda Andere (07:26):

And actually that is, I thought when I graduated from school, I wanted to work in DC, and what I didn't realize is there was the suburbanization of poverty was happening right in my backyard. And people didn't know about it and people didn't know that there are people suffering in this wealthy community and why. And that became my passion too, like waking up people that poverty and housing insecurity was actually, because of the success of areas that many of the people who supported the business growth were still struggling to maintain their housing and just live right in their backyard.

Dave Biemesderfer (08:10):

So, it can be easy for somebody who are living in those communities who is better off to only see the good parts and not the sort of downsides of that. But you have an ability or an interest in seeing that, but not everybody does. Everyone else can say, "Oh, Fairfax." Like you said, what a wonderful community. Everything's just A-OK with everybody. So, but you were able to see the other side and I guess that seem, it sounds like something you've always done in your life is to be sensitive to everything. Even though you grew up in a more well off family as you said, you saw students who weren't and you and you noticed that. So I see a trend here in your work.

Amanda Andere (08:53):

Yeah, it's uncovering what is really happening behind what we sometimes see is okay and also re-imagining what is okay. So to me like the fact, not that people are suffering in my community, but we recently moved back to Reston and it was because we wanted to be around a diverse community, diverse incomes. I believe a community is thriving when people don't all look alike, don't all come from the same background. And people are trying to move up in the world, or figure out their North star, their success. And that to me feels like community.

Amanda Andere (09:33):

And so I think in those circumstances now in the country we live in, that means that some people do suffer. But what would it look like? How do we imagine a community where someone doesn't need to go to a high stress corporate job just to be able to be stable in their home? And that we value people at every income, at every ability to at least have a safe and decent place to live.

Dave Biemesderfer (09:58):

Right, right. Wonderful sentiment. Wonderful. So then you went on to get your BA in Political Science at James Madison University. And what made you decide Poli Sci was the way you wanted to go?

Amanda Andere (10:13):

Well, I think like most things in my life, I'd never have a straight path, so things ... But they always work out the way that they want to. So I actually transferred to James Madison University from the University of Richmond because I wanted to pursue a theater career. I had done theater all my life-

Dave Biemesderfer (10:30):


Amanda Andere (10:31):

... and when I went to University of Richmond, I was very focused on doing political science. And in that program it was a lot of theory and I didn't feel like I was doing something, like really understanding what was happening on the ground. And I thought, "You know, the last time I felt there's a passion was during theater and maybe I should just go to JMU and do their theater program and become a theater teacher." Well, what I figured out was that theater is still a great passion of mine. Performing is a great passion of mine, but sometimes your passions are not always your professional careers or your professional journeys.

Amanda Andere (11:09):

And I still had a sense of wanting to do policy and justice and what I found at JMU and their Poli Sci program, it was really centered around what does it mean to do campaign work? And they had the first political communication program and professors who were on the ground, and amazing Washington DC semester where I got to live in DC in a neighborhood that I don't think any student or any person now could afford. And be surrounded by people who were doing internships in amazing places.

Amanda Andere (11:43):

And so political science to me was just figuring out how does it all work? And you know, most people who get a BA in Political Science go and work on the Hill. I did that for a very short time, but working on the Hill really again to like seeing something that wasn't there. What I saw was not the right people coming to do policy and advocacy and really wondered, where were the groups that I had volunteered with as a kid and as a teenager who were working on the ground, where were they? They had stories to tell.

Amanda Andere (12:17):

And so I really wanted to see what was happening in the nonprofit human services area and why they didn't have the ability to do policy and advocacy. And the reality is, is a lot of those organizations it's changing now. But gosh, 15 years ago didn't have the resources and the capacity to do the policy and advocacy, even though they wanted to. They wanted to work themselves out of a job. And you can only do that sometimes through policy change.

Amanda Andere (12:44):

So I got into doing fundraising to build the capacity for organizations to think about doing policy and communication and working together at the state level and at the federal level. So that's a little bit about my path and my journey. I still sometimes feel like there's a little bit of theater in political science and policy. And so, and I get to do a lot of public speaking. And so bringing in my theater background. And then also just being able to have fun in my work is really important too. And I think that comes from my theater background as well.

Dave Biemesderfer (13:18):

So you were doing theater in high school?

Amanda Andere (13:22):

In high school and a little bit in college.

Dave Biemesderfer (13:22):

Acting, doing the front plays and-

Amanda Andere (13:24):

I did acting, I was in our show choir and I did backstage stuff as well, which is actually what I did and I was an assistant director, did backstage work. It's where I learned a lot of my leadership skills. You had to rally your peers together and we thought we were pretty professional in our high school theater productions. And we did everything from the marketing to the directing and it was a really eyeopening experience and it still sticks with me, those learning skills still. The skills that I learned stick with me today.

Dave Biemesderfer (13:57):

And there's definitely a lot of theater in policy. Not a little, I think there's a lot-

Amanda Andere (14:01):

Yeah absolutely.

Dave Biemesderfer (14:06):

... in politics. So they do still dabble in it like community or have you thought about that?

Amanda Andere (14:10):

I thought about it, quite frankly, I don't have the time to do it.

Dave Biemesderfer (14:12):

I was going to say it, yeah.

Amanda Andere (14:13):

But every time I go see a production, recently I saw a chorus line at Signature Theater and I just wanted to leap and jump on stage and instead I went home and watched the movie and singing, and my husband was like, "Oh my gosh, who did I marry?"

Dave Biemesderfer (14:29):

So you get it out at home, you get it out.

Amanda Andere (14:30):

Yes, exactly. And a great supporter of theater as well.

Dave Biemesderfer (14:33):

Yes, sure, sure. And then you at some point got your MPA in nonprofit management so at George Mason, so by that time you knew nonprofit management and that was going to be your career path, not theater.

Amanda Andere (14:47):

Yeah. So I'm actually really glad. A lot of people take the path of getting their master's right after their BA, which is great. I'm glad that I did. And I probably would have gotten my master's in Political Science, which would have been fine. But there was something about that really intrigued me about what are all ... What does it take to actually make a nonprofit run and what is the mechanics behind it? How does it interface with the world?

Amanda Andere (15:16):

And so the nonprofit MPA program at George Mason was also a great, because we had a lot of professors who were working in the nonprofit or policy or public works field. And so they would be rushing into class from their day job and tell great stories about how it actually worked and happened and also got a lot of practical skills. Shortly after I went back and started teaching nonprofit studies, not in the master's program but in the BA program.

Amanda Andere (15:48):

And so total full circle in terms of my career path. Yeah, it's a lot of fun. I taught for, oh I think like eight years there and it's something that I really do miss. It was one of the greatest joys of my career is teaching students who way before I knew I wanted to get into the nonprofit field. I think that's what's so exciting about our field now. There's young people who are like, "No, this is what I want to do." And I think sometimes in my generation or older people were like, "Oh, I kind of fell into it."

Dave Biemesderfer (16:17):

That's what I say a lot.

Amanda Andere (16:18):


Dave Biemesderfer (16:19):

Yeah, yeah. And there's theater in being a professor, right? Performing in front of the students.

Amanda Andere (16:25):

Yes, yes, absolutely. Theme, you see a theme here.

Dave Biemesderfer (16:30):

I do see a theme here. And then you as I mentioned, at the outset, you've been working in nonprofit sector. You've done work in the public sector and now for the last four years in the philanthropic sector. What brought you to decide to do work in the philanthropic sector? How did that path happen for you? And four years in, you and I think we both met within, I think we're both on our jobs a couple months.

Amanda Andere (17:02):

Yeah, that's true.

Dave Biemesderfer (17:04):

And so I remember that clearly. So since then, now to what are your impressions, your initial impressions of working in this sector?

Amanda Andere (17:15):

Yeah, it's interesting. I always debate when people say, "Oh, we work in philanthropy." I know we had some of these discussions when we all gathered as CEOs of philanthropic serving organizations. Like what's our exact role? So I always start by saying, "I work in ending homelessness." And for me that's the most important thing. And there's a lot of pieces to ending homelessness and philanthropy and funders are one of those sectors and pieces.

Amanda Andere (17:40):

And so that was another path that I kind of fell into, if I want to just be candid and vulnerable. I was running a national organization that was in the process of merging with another organization and closing. And it was probably one of the most difficult times in my life. I had run organizations before and always was the person or the CEO who could fix any problem and make it a success. And now I know in reflection that sometimes failure is not failure.

Amanda Andere (18:12):

Sometimes organizations need to close and go in a different direction, but didn't have that perspective at the time. And you know, I thought that I wanted to do policy and advocacy and kind of move away from doing homelessness. But there was something about first job that spoke to me, Funders Together to End Homelessness had always had a presence at the national lines and homelessness conferences when I attended, leading my Virginia team to do federal policy and advocacy.

Amanda Andere (18:40):

And I thought again, I thought back to when I first started working on the Hill, "What is philanthropy doing? What are funders actually doing in this space that would be interesting to try to influence?" And so it was kind of a, well, why not kind of thing. I mean obviously I have a passion around ending homelessness. But as I started to meet the now my board and saw their thoughtfulness for a different vision for ending homelessness, a real vision around not just a charity mindset. But really thinking about investing in systems change and policy and engaging in advocacy and being able to influence that and bring people together.

Amanda Andere (19:23):

It felt like the right place. And at the time I also was really focused on wanting to do racial equity and racial justice work. And I did not know that we got to do that at this organization. And I've been able to do it in a deeper way than I could have ever imagined with people who really care deeply about it. So I think what I've learned is that in the last four years is that funders can have an incredible amount of influence and power. But they can also learn and be critical of themselves and change in ways that, slowly, but change in ways that allow for us to imagine new ways of doing things that start to examine how we have all these inequities. And why we have a country that is deeply rooted in structural racism and just the humbleness and the honestness of that philanthropy has been a cause of a lot of those structural inequities.

Amanda Andere (20:28):

But wanting to fix it, I found an incredible amount of joy working with leaders who know so much, are so willing to learn and are so deeply caring about changing the community around them. And it is an incredible job. What I find that I like the most about job, which I didn't know was that a lot of my job, a lot of my work, my passion is just helping people. I feel like I'm a coach, a lot of times coaching organizations, their board, our members, our individuals to see the possibilities, to see that they can send a racial equity in the work to understand that they do have a voice in policy and advocacy.

Amanda Andere (21:12):

And just the working one on one and being a confidant for folks and building the capacity for other people to do their work. It feels weird but it really does bring me joy and it's a gift that I think that I have and it's been great to see the field of philanthropy really changed to be more honest and vulnerable. And understanding where they've enabled some inequities and starting to unpack a lot of that.

Dave Biemesderfer (21:44):

In part two of my interview with Amanda Misiko Andere she recounts how her organization raised the issue of putting a racial equity agenda at the core of their work to end homelessness.

Amanda Andere (21:56):

First day on my job my all white staff gave me a list of things that they thought that we should focus on, and on the top of that list was addressing racial equity. My board took me out to dinner at my second week on the job at our first big conference and said, "If we're not addressing structural racism, we won't end homelessness." And so I always tell that story, because I think people want to believe that me as a black woman came into this job and said like, "Oh, we should be talking about race," and not realizing like a lot of black leaders that's not the first thing they want to address because they're black and all the things that come with that.

Dave Biemesderfer (22:37):

Continue listening to part two of my interview with Amanda Misiko Andere on ForumNation, presented by United Philanthropy Forum.