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SECF Member Highlight: Deanna James

Author: Southeastern Council of Foundations


Every member of the SECF Board of Trustees brings a unique perspective to the table – as the saying goes, “if you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation.”

Still, it would be hard to argue that Deanna James brings a point of view all her own to the SECF Board, which she joined in December following approval by the SECF membership. After all, James leads a foundation that serves an island, St. Croix, that is part of the larger U.S. Virgin Islands territory.

“Territory” is how James politely describes the U.S. Virgin Islands. She prefers another word that better represents the amount of political power, or lack thereof, she and other St. Croix residents have.

“Hailing from a U.S. colony, my community's political status has relegated American citizens residing in the U.S. Virgin Islands to 'other' or 'less than', by law. I think that reality has uniquely heightened my awareness and sensibilities relative to systemic inequity everywhere,” she said. “I live inequity and exclusion.”

Of course, inequity and exclusion are conditions seen throughout the Southeastern region. That commonality is what drew James to SECF membership and, now, to agreeing to serve on the Board of Trustees.

“The opportunity to connect with and build capacity for philanthropic organizations serving underserved, under-resourced communities, particularly in the rural South, was irresistible,” she said.

Serving on the Board will allow James more opportunities than ever to connect with fellow SECF members, particularly fellow Trustees.

“My overarching goal is to learn from and to share with fellow directors and members,” she said. “I'm also intent on identifying and connecting with small place-based philanthropies that are possibly building innovative practice around how to do philanthropy differently – more intrinsically rooted in community.”

This year – not just the pandemic,  but also and extremely active Atlantic hurricane season – have emphasized for James the value of place-based philanthropy.

“Just as most rural communities have learned after every major natural disaster, the closer philanthropy is to the ground, the more effective and responsive it will be!” she said.

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The Power of Place-based Philanthropy and Courageous Leadership

Author: Deanna James


While most Americans probably could not pick My Place out on a world map, St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, actually has national relevance. In addition to being the only predominantly black jurisdiction (under the U.S. flag) without any federal voting rights, my 84 square mile island was once home to the largest oil refinery in the world, based on throughput. It also has the distinction of enduring one of the largest (and quietest) oil spills in American history, to the tune of 43 million gallons that slowly leaked into the island’s largest freshwater aquifer. 

Ours is a perfectly coifed narrative, from a perfectly designed playbook wherein the economic development strategies chosen for my community followed the same patterns seen in Gulf states and poor communities around the country – stinky, dangerous refineries, steel mills, and coal mines planted in the poorest, often black and brown communities. Even national philanthropy has disenfranchised our “territory,” relegating us to “other” status, despite the fact that for over 100 years our story has mirrored the same environmentally and racially unjust models that have subjugated poor people and people of color. 

All of this historical context is offered to make the case for the power that philanthropy holds to lead differently and courageously at this moment in time when it matters most, and in the places most affected by inequity and injustice. For St. Croix Foundation, serving an isolated community has nurtured a uniquely radical brand of philanthropy and courageous leadership that we hope more in the field will adopt. 

Exhibit A: On May 13th, 2021, we hosted a highly charged Community Town Hall on an urgent environmental crisis. In attendance at our virtual convening were residents, nonprofit partners, local regulatory agents as well as federal representatives from the EPA, the CDC and national media. We developed targeted questions that we felt adequately addressed some of the concerns raised by community stakeholders and submitted them to invited guests in advance. Then, we designated a significant timeslot in the agenda to field questions from our audience. It was a powerful forum in true demonstration of one of the most fundamental roles that philanthropy should play in community – that of a neutral apolitical convener.

But we knew we were toeing the line between courageous leadership and controversy. We stepped over that line anyway. Having witnessed the suffering of residents left breathless for months from highly noxious gases wafting through downwind neighborhoods after the restart of an old refinery, we knew we had to act. Yet, even as two releases rained oil onto people’s homes, cars, and into their cisterns (rain catchment systems located under most homes which serve as the primary water source for island residents), we were shocked by how few stepped forward to acknowledge peoples’ pleas for relief or to actively attempt to alleviate their distress. 

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Southeastern Council of Foundations
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Mission: SECF strengthens Southern philanthropy, welcoming our members to listen, learn and collaborate on ideas and actions to help build an equitable, prosperous South.