Smita Pamar, Director, Creating Possible Fund, Gilead Foundation
Kate Wilson, Executive Director, Gilead Foundation
While the COVID pandemic and most recent racial reckoning galvanized the traditional health philanthropy community, many corporate funders made their first foray into supporting racial and social justice efforts as well as health equity. Corporate social responsibility efforts were, and continue to be, scrutinized as merely cosmetic public relations efforts with no real long-term, institutional commitments to driving meaningful change in Black and Brown communities that have long been historically, intentionally marginalized. When Gilead Sciences endowed and re-launched the Gilead Foundation with $200 million in 2021, it did so with the intention and institutional commitment to not only address the upstream drivers of health inequity but also change the way traditional corporate funders invest support in the most heavily impacted communities.
Because education and educational attainment is one of the most significant, well-documented drivers of future health status, the Gilead Foundation established the Creating Possible Fund to support innovative approaches to changing systems, practices, and policies that unjustly impact students, especially Black students who are overrepresented in carceral systems and underrepresented in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) programs. School systems have become increasingly policed and militarized: 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. In addition, while it is known that having teachers who reflect students racial backgrounds improves graduation rates, there is a significant lack of diversity in the teaching workforce: only 7 percent of the public school teacher population is Black, and Black men make up only 2 percent of the country’s teachers. A 2017 study by the Institute of Labor Economics found that low-income Black students who have a Black teacher for at least one year in elementary school are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to consider college.
Traditional health funders, that is, those who fund health services, health care access, and disease prevention programs recognize the role of upstream drivers of health disparities but often do not fund changing them. In addition, funding is often siloed—health funders fund “health,” civil rights funders fund “civil rights,” and mental health funders fund “mental health.” The Gilead Foundation took an intentional systematic approach in its inaugural funding of 13 organizations, each of which focuses on different levers of change and collectively can move the needle on improving educational and ultimately social, economic, and health outcomes for students, their families, and communities. As part of a holistic approach to student well-being and health, the Gilead Foundation chose organizations that worked across the education system, from law and policy to community clinics, arts, and media, to local governmental agencies.
Through the Creating Possible Fund, the Gilead Foundation aims to address systemic barriers in education and student experience that health funders often typically do not support, such as narrative change and the use of storytelling. For example, organizations like Represent Justice use visual media, art, and documentaries to challenge and change the school-to-prison pipeline. In addition, there are efforts that seek to shift problematic social and self-perceptions of young Black men. For example, Kingmakers of Oakland’s comprehensive, African-centered, and culturally relevant school-based curricula challenges problematic narratives and promotes an affirmative view of Black boys as “beautiful, brilliant, and possessing an innate greatness.” Also, understanding that the civil rights of young people, especially from Black, Brown, and LGBTQ communities, are fundamental to health and well-being, organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center are working to reform severe disciplinary policies that disproportionately punish young Black students for minor, behavioral issues which often can and should be addressed through mental health services. In addition, while the Gilead Foundation is supporting more traditional STEM preparatory programs such as Xavier University of Louisiana, an HBCU, it also recognizes the need to build a pipeline of Black teachers by supporting the Morehouse College Center for Excellence in Education as well as innovative approaches to providing support for young students of color to move into professional pathways such as what Pulse of Perseverance is doing through digital mentorship.
Though the inaugural cohort of grantees has just received three-year funding and programming is just getting underway, the approach and bedrock strategies of the Gilead Foundation are ones we hope will have an impact over time:
- Intentionally develop a cohort model and learning community where organizations compliment and build off each other’s strengths and capacities;
- Prioritize Black- and Brown-led organizations with the lived experience of the communities which they serve (two-thirds of the cohort are Black-led organizations);
- Harness the power of non-traditional evaluation measures such as storytelling and qualitative indicators such as a “sense of belonging” to assess impact and success;
- Seek grantee feedback that informs the Gilead Foundation’s future roadmap and a move away from donor driven, predetermined agendas to community led and informed ones;
- Ensure multi-year funding that allows for flexibility and an iterative process of program design, implementation, and evaluation that allows organizations to pivot program strategies in new directions if needed;
- Allow organic learning and action collaboratives to emerge from the cohort;
- Understand and accept that impact and outcomes may not result at the end of the funding cycle, especially in an area like education that can have a significant lag time and take many years to manifest; and
- Create opportunities for sharing, convening, and continuous feedback among the cohort.
In the coming months and years, the Gilead Foundation hopes to work with and learn from others in health and education philanthropy in our efforts to address education equity as a driver of health equity. Although it has been a traditional health funder, the Gilead Foundation realizes and is committed to addressing the upstream, systemic drivers of health inequity and inequality. We are hopeful that this approach will become more commonplace among corporate funders and will receive greater investment. In order to create a world where young people thrive and are able to actualize their dreams, corporate funders will need to move beyond traditional funding and institutional comfort zones. This is what the Gilead Foundation hopes to continue doing as it learns, visions, and continues to develop a strategic funding agenda that prioritizes the upstream drivers that need to change to achieve health equity for all.