Meet Faye Straus: CDT Board Member and Strategic Political Donor/ Philanthropist

Interview by Sylvie Lerner

The California Donor Table has, for over the last decade and a half, focused on spotlighting, electing, and resourcing progressive women, especially women of color. We are using this year’s Women’s History month to get to know some of the powerful women that make this work possible.

Meet our board member, Faye Straus:

Faye is a fourth generation Californian who co-administers the Firedoll Foundation with her husband, Sandor Straus, who is also a member of the CDT board. The Firedoll Foundation focuses on the environment, community development, immigrant issues and human rights, among other things. In addition to CDT, Faye is an active member of other donor collaboratives such as the Democracy Alliance. Faye is passionate about social justice, progressive politics, and protecting the environment for our children and grandchildren.

Sylvie Lerner: What moment got you into social justice and what is one moment that has kept you going?

Faye Straus: For me it wasn’t really a moment, it was a decade. I came of age in the 1960s, with the civil rights movement, and here in California, with the farm workers organizing movement. My first semester at Berkeley was the free speech movement and then I later became active in the anti-war movement. So, it was a period where issues of social justice were all around us. And then, what keeps me going…it’s not a moment, but if I had to focus on something, it’s a quote from the ’60s, which originally came from, I believe Eldridge Cleaver, but became kind of the theme of the time, which was “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” So, whatever stage of life I was in, I felt that I could do something to be part of the solution. None of us can do everything, but we can all do something.

Sylvie: That’s beautiful, thank you. That will keep me going as well! How did you get involved with CDT specifically, and what keeps you involved?

Faye: We found out about the predecessor to CDT, the Progressive Era Project (PEP), through the Democracy Alliance. Other members of the table gave a presentation on it almost a decade ago, maybe 2011/2012. At that time they were focusing on four counties in southern CA-San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange County-where the demographics had changed but the political representation hadn’t changed to reflect the demographics. CDT wanted to build progressive power in those counties, focusing on building power in communities of color, and that was very interesting to my husband and myself. We contacted them and asked how we could be part of that!

What keeps me going is that the CDT has expanded from that original focus (resulting in IE United, OC Civic Engagement Table Action, and Engage San Diego Action) to going statewide, first focusing on the Secretary of State, and then the legislature, and now looking at building power by electing people to local offices. And, progressive governance! Once you get people elected, providing a model for how they can successfully implement policies…it keeps being more and more interesting!

Sylvie: Yes, and we see your excitement as you’ve continued to participate on our endorsement committees to get progressive people in office at every level. What did 2020 teach us nationally about women's leadership, and what are you looking forward to in 2022?

Faye: 2020 was a year of progress. We had three viable women candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination- very strong candidates. That was wonderful, and one of them ultimately becoming the vice presidential candidate and being elected. We also see lots of women being elected to Congress. We definitely saw that in 2018 with the wonderful freshman class of progressive women who joined the House of Representatives. We’re looking forward to 2022 when a lot of Senate races will be up and we’ll be looking to support women. Another remarkable thing that happened in 2020 was Stacey Abrams. Her efforts to organize and her capacity as an organizer to build up the electorate and to get people to the polls is just remarkable. We’ve also seen women’s leadership in donor collaboratives too, like Way to Win being led by women. So we’re seeing women lead as candidates, but also as organizers, and campaigners, which is really exciting!

Sylvie: Now let’s think about California…how is California leading in building women’s power? And, what more needs to happen?

Faye: We certainly have a number of prominent women, having had two women senators for many years, and Speaker Pelosi being a woman from California. But more needs to be done. A couple of years ago we realized that the number of women in the legislature had fallen, and there were efforts to remedy that with organizations like Close the Gap CA. I also think the candidate development part of it is really important with Emerge CA. Also, training women not only to be the candidate, but to run campaigns. That’s really important. We had a wonderful event here in Contra Costa County called “She Ready.” It was organized by the [former] ED of Lift Up Contra Costa Action Jess Jollett and Lateefah Simon was also involved. The event was all about encouraging women of color to run for office, and spotlighting women who had run for city council and school board. Some of the people had never run a campaign before and actually had no idea how to do it, and they were learning from scratch. It was really exciting. That’s where we’ll get our future leaders, both statewide and nationally.

Now the California Donor Table focusing on progressive governance…you get people elected, and then it’s like what now? We’ll have models of things they can pass in their localities that will help people and build progressive power.

Sylvie: Lastly, a personal question. What advice would you give a woman who is looking to be active and engaged in philanthropy and political giving?

Faye: First I’ll speak about political giving. It’s important to find a donor collaborative that is aligned with your values. I know for us, before we joined CDT, we had to do all of the research ourselves on the candidates to see if they were cross- endorsed by different organizations. Having that information available from CDT is just a tremendous resource. That’s how you find out about groups on the ground. You might hear about the national groups, but not the grassroots organizations that are really important.

Philanthropy is a little bit harder. When I think about the lessons we’ve learned, one of the things we try to do is to look for the gaps in funding. When you think of immigrant rights, a lot of foundations are comfortable funding naturalization and refugee work, but they’re not so comfortable funding detention and deportation defense. I’d also say to give general support. So an organization doesn’t feel like they have to shoehorn their proposal to fit whatever the foundation is looking to fund at the moment. Lastly, I know people who are risk averse- not wanting to put money in an organization they don’t think will be able to function long-term. I would think about it like an investment portfolio. There are stable, secure organizations that are doing great work. You can put some of your money there, but at least put a portion of your portfolio into giving smaller organizations a chance, and taking a little bit of risk to help people get started who have a great idea and who are doing good work.

CDT is a statewide community of donors who make aligned investments, at a minimum of $5,000 annually, across tax statuses, in progressive organizations of color and candidates, often of color. Our goal is that communities of color have the power and resources to (1) elect candidates who champion their values and needs and (2) co-govern with those decision-makers. We believe that California can and must lead the nation in becoming a healthy, just place to live with shared economic success and a democracy that works for all our people. If you’re interested in joining please contact us!

The California Donor Table is a statewide community of donors who pool their funds to make investments in communities of color so they have the power they need.

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