Today, we are highlighting Alejandra Ruiz, the Executive Director of the Youth Engagement Fund. Alejandra started with the Youth Engagement Fund at the end of 2018 and soon after became actively involved with FCCP. Last year, Alejandra joined FCCP’s Advisory Board and is supporting our work with a unique eye toward youth engagement and racial justice.
Q: For those who don’t know you, tell us a little about your journey into philanthropy. What drew you to your work with the Youth Engagement Fund (YEF)?
As a formerly undocumented youth turned voter, my role of service at the Youth Engagement Fund is personal. I was born in Colombia and came to the United States when I was seven years old with my mother and younger brother. As I was navigating the journey into higher education, I learned about the DREAM Act legislation and became involved in organizing and advocacy work. Through the support of organizers, mentors, and leadership development programs, I learned to define my identity from a place of strength and empowerment. Since then, much of my social justice work has focused on youth organizing and leadership development, immigration, education justice, racial equity, and civic engagement.
Philanthropy is crucial to advancing movement efforts. The Youth Engagement Fund has provided me the opportunity to use my personal mission, knowledge of organizing in communities at the frontlines, and my understanding of fundraising to shape a civic engagement agenda that builds power for young people and guides us towards a United States that is dignified for all of us.
Q: Can you tell us more about the Youth Engagement Fund?
Led by a team of women of color and gender expansive people of color movement organizers, the Youth Engagement Fund (YEF) is the only donor collaborative focused on deepening and expanding youth civic engagement led by and for young people of color. YEF’s grantmaking strategy centers young people of color as we believe their lived experience and transformative visions hold the key to an inclusive democracy that truly values and cares for its people.
We work with state-based organizations, state tables, foundations, organizational and donor partners to highlight the importance of emerging youth of color leaders in a continuously shifting political landscape. Through grantmaking, capacity building and philanthropic leadership, we aim to support the growing generation of Black, Indigenous, young people of color in the South and Southwest who are activating their communities into civic participation by engaging philanthropic and organizational decision-makers to invest in them to ensure US democracy is reflective of all people. The Youth Engagement Fund is here to support them by investing in efforts that increase the civic participation of new voters and building a cadre of new youth leaders. I like to think of YEF as a megaphone in philanthropy for the voice of youth organizing in civic engagement.
Q: You continue to lead the Youth Engagement Fund through some of the most consequential years for our democracy in recent memory. What do you hope to share with our FCCP community?
Almost five years ago, when I joined the Youth Engagement Fund YEF as its first immigrant woman Executive Director, I committed to a vision of creating an organization building power for young people of color and putting a much needed spotlight on the South and Southwest. To building a space that acknowledges the history of disenfranchisement in our country, that understands how this generational history of oppression, discrimination and voter suppression continue to treat non-white people as non-citizens in the voting booth, and thus, also understands that the path to people of color owning that they are not only “compatible with democracy”* but that they have ownership in shaping their democracy, is work that goes beyond cost per vote tactics.
Almost five years later, I am proud of the community YEF is becoming. We have built a community of partners and a team that has nurtured a space of grounding, stability, innovation, inclusivity and sustainable action. At YEF, we have no doubt what is capable when young people – especially Brown, Black, Native, Asian, Latinx, LGBTQ and immigrant youth – take the lead in guiding our country towards solutions to today’s crises, solutions that protect the humanity and well-being of us all. Our own staff team is testament to that.
As we step into this next phase of YEF in our vision towards 2024, we have doubled our team in the past year, and are doubling down on fundraising efforts to make sure we can invest more money and in more groups of young people of color. We are partnering with philanthropic organizations ready to engage in bold movement-building with the trusted and diligent support of YEF. And we are so incredibly proud of the impact that youth of color leaders and organizations are having in their communities across the South and Southwest.
Today we are at a turning point, as a country and as philanthropic leaders. 2024 is right around the corner. I personally have never had more faith in the power of year-round movement-building, in investing in engaging communities that have historically only been considered come election time, and in letting young leaders show the way.
Trust, fund and follow the leadership of young people of color. Periodt.
As funders, it’s important for us to understand that not one size fits all and thus, it’s important for us to be flexible and responsive in our grantmaking. With our democracy changing so rapidly, we’ve got to support the needs of frontline organizations led by and for their communities. We can be strategic and respond to arising needs. Youth people of color are the largest growing population in the electorate and we should continue to trust, follow, and fund the leadership of youth of color as key stakeholders and leaders in ensuring that historically disenfranchised communities and youth have access to, and shape inclusive democratic processes. We have identified that through funding, capacity building and movement infrastructure, we can disrupt and transform philanthropy using emergent strategies by an all directly impacted and women of color and gender expansive people of color team. We have also learned how critical access is – access to funding, capacity building resources and philanthropic spaces where decisions are made. Philanthropy can be powerful partners to youth of color when they act as connectors to the philanthropic and nonprofit communities. Our primary role will continue to be that of a grantmaker and resource mobilizer, serving as a megaphone and co-conspirator within philanthropy.
When we (funders) see ourselves in 10 or 20 years, what will philanthropy say we did to meet the urgent demand of the moment we are living in? What will you (funder colleague) have done in your privileged position within philanthropy to make this country a true and just democracy?
*Quote by Nikole Hannah-Jones in conversation in New York City on March 15, 2021 about her book The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story.
Q: You are an active FCCP member. What keeps you engaged in our work?
For me, it’s all about collaboration. FCCP provides convening spaces and facilitates critical discussions on a wide variety of issues that we can look at through a civic engagement lens. Together, we are able to learn more about each other’s work. As a newer young leader in philanthropy, sharing space with strategic partners and thought leaders advancing a collective vision is helpful to build community and be exposed to other grantmakers’ learnings and best practices as I think about my own work. I am looking forward to our FCCP Convening in New Orleans and being with more than 250 people discussing issues like civic engagement and equity, and coming together around a shared vision for civic participation. As the iconic Selena once said, estoy muy excited!
We can’t wait either! Thanks so much, Alejandra, for your time and support of our network. If you’d like to reach out to Alejandra directly to talk more, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.