Dr. Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter
Executive Vice President
Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust
All of us have a story. Of the people, places, and experiences that shape who we are across the life span. Of opportunities afforded or denied based on where we were born; our race, gender, and class; or where we currently live.
My story began as a baby girl placed in a cradle on the steps of Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Kanpur, India. Through international adoption, I was brought to the United States on an immigrant visa for orphans and raised by a white single mom in a rural Minnesotan town. Transracial adoption provided me proximity and insider access to white dominant culture, along with experiences of difference and othering as an Asian American. In adulthood, I lived in the Twin Cities then moved South to Columbia, South Carolina; Charlotte, North Carolina; and most recently, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Where I was born, my immigration story, the places I have lived, and my experiences as an Asian American woman and mom shape my perspective and fierce commitment to advocate for racial equity and justice. Navigating the complexities of race in the South as a woman of color and mother to a Black daughter and son with African American and South Asian heritage compels me to work toward a just America where people of all backgrounds belong.
I have worked in philanthropy for over a decade—and believe we are at a pivotal time in our field’s history when taking action for equity is our only option in our quest for a just future.
Today, I am Executive Vice President at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, where we work for a North Carolina where all residents and communities are thriving. We are on a journey toward racial equity and justice, partnering with community to change the systems that have denied people of color opportunity for far too long.
In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that racism is a threat to public health, given its profound and negative impact on communities of color. The past year magnified deep inequities in health care access and outcomes throughout North Carolina, which we are working to change.
For example, North Carolina’s infant mortality rate ranks 39th nationally—a challenge embedded in structural racism, income inequality, and persistent racial disparities. At the state level, Black children are more than twice as likely as white children to die in their first year of life. And in Forysth County, where the Trust is located and invests 25 percent of all funding, Black and Hispanic infant mortality rates are higher than infant mortality rates for whites. Lack of access to affordable health care limits opportunities for Black and brown moms to get access to prenatal care on time, have healthy births, and stay physically and mentally well, , in order to raise healthy babies. COVID-19 has exacerbated economic and social conditions that influence individual and group differences in health status, widening gaps among communities of color.
At the Trust, we know we cannot address health improvement without equity, particularly racial equity. This requires courage and commitment to explicitly name racial inequities, and then address, set, and advance internal and external processes to change trajectories and outcomes.
Our commitment to center equity is a journey and ever-evolving process. I am proud to champion our efforts as we deepen our work. Internally, we began with one-on-one equity conversations among our team who have diverse perspectives and lived experiences. The Trust also joined a philanthropic learning cohort through the Southeastern Council of Foundations, utilizing Equity in the Center’s “Awake to Woke to Work” Race Equity Cycle to explore how wealth, power, and privilege intersect in our field.
Since last summer, we have used our voice and influence externally to call out racism, support systems change, and advocate for a healthy democracy. Over the past year, the Trust has invested more than $5 million to respond to COVID-19 and ensure that marginalized communities have access to testing, tracing, and vaccinations, as well as to basic resources. We opened new funding opportunities to help immigrant families respond to the pandemic and narrowed our focus on racial disparities for equitable birth outcomes in Forsyth County. We are deepening our investments in grassroots capacity building, which includes directing additional funds to grassroots leaders, especially Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other people of color. This past year we also began actively investing in community leaders’ personal health and well-being as they in turn pour their heart and soul into our communities, every single day. In Forsyth County we supported an initiative for Black women in nonprofit leadership roles to come together to connect, build community, and center their own well-being.
Only by partnering with community can philanthropy be a catalyst to ensure everyone has opportunities to build upon their inherent strengths and achieve their dreams. We strive for a future where residents can tell their own stories and are positioned at the table to ultimately direct investments in their own community. Philanthropists working toward racial equity must disaggregate health, education, and economic data; listen to and invest in communities of color; and focus on changing community-level systems—rather than investing in only programs—in order to disrupt the status quo and dismantle white supremacy, racism, and other inequities.
May this be our philanthropic racial equity legacy: one of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and belonging—for all our children and generations to come.