Member Highlight: Salin Geevarghese
This profile is part of an occasional series highlighting speakers at SECF’s 49th Annual Meeting. To learn more, visit the Annual Meeting website!
During this year's Annual Meeting, alumni of SECF’s Hull Fellows and Advanced Leadership Institute programs will have the opportunity to hear from one of the country's leading experts on an issue affecting many Southern cities: affordable housing and its impact on marginalized populations.
Salin Geevarghese previously worked in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as deputy assistant secretary for international and philanthropic innovation; today, he is the founding director of the Mixed-Income Strategic Alliance, a collaboration among the National Initiative on Mixed Income Communities at Case Western Reserve University, Urban Strategies, Inc., and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, where Geevarghese is a senior advisor.
During his time at HUD, Geevarghese was a proponent of adopting a place-based strategy to community development, an idea he directly attributes to philanthropy.
"We took lots of inspiration from philanthropy because we knew that philanthropy had been about supporting place-based, comprehensive, integrated work for years," he said during a 2015 conference at the University of Southern California. "I think there was as much, I hope, of a humble recognition on the part of the federal government that we were actually late to the game, and perhaps that is the case for the public sector in general."
Geevarghese's appreciation of philanthropy becomes clear when you hear him talk about working with the sector – ideas like cross-sector partnerships and elements of Passing Gear philanthropy lie at the heart of his work.
"We believed that no single actor possessed all of the resources or authority to solve all of the challenges we were talking about," he said. "We believed in the silo-busting we had heard about and wanted to model that.
"We also believed that the full toolbox had to be engaged," he added. "So even as we thought about cross-sector partnerships with philanthropy it was not just about money. It was about knowledge, it was about research, it was about your convening authority, and we wanted to construct initiatives with you that really played to that full toolbox."
While Geevarghese would merit an invite to the Annual Meeting for these reasons alone, it was a deeply personal story that brought him to the attention of the general public. As he recounted in an essay published in The Washington Post in April, he worked to fulfill a promise he made to his father, struggling with Alzheimer's, to meet President Obama.
"As Alzheimer's disease fully set in, my daily calls home assumed predictable patterns. My mother would answer the phone and ask me how I was doing, where I was going – extracting all the details that mothers do. Then, she would hand the phone to my father," Geevarghese wrote. "I could not engage him in much chitchat. He waded through my questions but wanted to know only one thing: 'Are you going to see President Obama today?'"
Geevarghese continued: "Without fail, every day for years, he would ask me this one question. He expected me to have daily, personal meetings with the president, but that was not my role."
Until it was.
In 2016, as his time in the administration was winding down, Geevarghese learned that he would, in fact, get to meet Obama. At the Oval Office meeting, Geevarghese mentioned what his work had meant to his family – and his father's persistent question.
In response, Obama wrote a note to Geevarghese's father on site.
"He thanked my father for his support and, as a proud father himself, said how great a job I had done. It was personal, powerful and priceless," Geevarghese wrote. "I shook the president's hand and walked out of the Oval Office, holding on to the card like the cherished possession it was. I was carrying a note from the president to my father."
Returning home to Chattanooga for his father's birthday, Geevarghese finally got to present the note to its recipient.
"I don't know if he understood the significance," he wrote. "Alzheimer's grip on his mental faculties raised doubts for me. But I believe that the smile gracing his face meant he understood."