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A Conversation with Marshall Stowell on Centering Community Presence and Power

Saturday, May 15, 2021
SCG is excited to announce that Angel Roberson Daniels, Executive Director of the Angell Foundation, and Marshall Stowell, Vice President of Partnerships, Advocacy, and Communications at The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, have joined SCG’s Board of Directors effective February 23, 2021. Marshall and Angel follow Jennifer Price-LetscherRaúl BustillosShawn Kravich, Alex Johnson, and Joanna Jackson as the latest leaders to join SCG’s Board of Directors, currently chaired by James Alva and vice-chaired by Nike Irvin.

For over twenty years, Marshall Stowell has dedicated his professional life to tackling pressing public health issues and inequities. He’s spent much of his career working in international health and development, where he’s grappled with the responsibility of being an agent of change on the global stage. Regardless of the scale of his work, Marshall has always been diligent in applying a ‘people first’ approach to his work. He believes that philanthropy’s work must be grounded in community leadership and wisdom for real change to occur. 
Building a more equitable world is also profoundly personal for Marshall. “As a gay man in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a lot of my friends became HIV positive and subsequently died of AIDS complications,” Marshall shared. “I planned too many funerals for someone in my 20’s and, as a result, knew I wanted to do something more for the world and my community.”
Today, Marshall is Vice President at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, where he’s spent the last two years forming the Partnerships, Advocacy, and Communications (PAC) team. The PAC team is responsible for improving the foundation’s policies, unlocking funding, and achieving greater impact through the organization’s grantmaking. In this role, Marshall aspires to create space in philanthropy for people with lived experience to be meaningfully involved in the decisions that affect their lives. 
SCG connected with Marshall to learn more about his work in global philanthropy, how communications teams can shift the paradigm on representation, and the role of equity in his work. 


What has your international work taught you about influencing change and disrupting systems?

I’ve learned that in the global health context, resources traditionally flow in vertical silos. Funding just one issue like HIV, malaria, or water is not always effective because it’s not how people experience these problems. We need to move away from a bureaucratic and departmental approach to our grantmaking and adopt a person-centered lens instead. As funders, we need to look at the bigger picture and align around what’s best for the people we’re serving. Our outcomes will be a lot better, even if it’s more complicated and takes longer to accomplish. 

Is there a moment that changed how you view philanthropy’s role and engagement on the global stage?

Towards the end of my time at PSI, I helped create an initiative co-chaired by Melinda Gates and the Crown Princess of Norway called Maverick Collective. Our goal was to help women philanthropists invest in the health and rights of girls and women across the globe and provide them with the training necessary to become better advocates. On one occasion, a philanthropist asked if it would be helpful to speak French to the people in a community in Cote D’Ivore. Someone responded, “You’re a white woman who’s incredibly wealthy. It doesn’t matter what language you speak. People are going to do whatever you say.” She was horrified by the power differential and recognized that her words would be taken as a directive regardless of intention. This moment was striking because it demonstrated how good intentions could go sideways without more thought. It also highlighted how easily philanthropy’s outsized voice could speak over and make decisions for other people. The women I worked with were tremendous people, but the power differential created by money, power, and privilege was undeniable. 

How is the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Partnerships team centering equity in its efforts? 

Our Partnerships team has three priorities. First, to try and ensure that people with lived experience have a meaningful place at the decision-making table. We advocate for folks to have both presence and power. Second, we work to make it easier to engage community members in program design and funding decisions. Finally, we encourage funding community-based organizations directly and for the long term. The Foundation recently made a $25 million commitment across five years in general operating support to organizations led mainly by people of color and other communities often excluded. Moving forward, we’re also thinking about how philanthropy can improve its multi-stakeholder partnerships, particularly by grounding them in community priorities. 

How can teams leverage their communications strategy to affect change?

Communications teams can work to right the wrongs we’ve unintentionally committed. To start, teams can examine their communications products and take stock of what perspectives they’re centering in their tools. Are you giving voice to people who already have an abundance of it? Do the photos and copy on your website position people as “vulnerable” or as leaders? Teams often represent the communities they serve in limited ways – either sad or happy - that don’t allow them a complexity of experience. Wealthy people are permitted a full spectrum of emotions and nuance, but our communities often don’t have the same privilege. 
Mission-driven organizations need to hold themselves accountable for the stories they tell and how they tell them. Instead of speaking for communities, we can ask them: how do you want to tell your story? What’s your advice and guidance? What’s your perspective on what needs to change? By asking these questions, communications teams can shift the paradigm on representation and reframe people with lived experience as the experts they are, not as mascots for issues.


What excites you most about joining SCG’s board?

I’m looking forward to getting to know the other board members and the broader SCG network. I’ve only been in L.A. for two years, and I’ve been at home for one of them, so I haven't had the opportunity to meet my SoCal peers. I’m also excited about the potential in SCG’s work, especially as the organization continues to sharpen its focus on racial equity, homelessness, and the many other issues prevalent in our region. I'm ready to help develop solutions and look for additional ways to partner with like-minded organizations and community leaders around our shared goals. If I can walk away feeling like I’ve helped make space for advocates to have a presence and power at the decision-making table, then that would be a good thing for me.


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