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In June 2024, Sandy Ho assumed the role of Executive Director of the Disability & Philanthropy Forum, a philanthropic network of organizations committed to combating disability discrimination. Ho succeeds the first Director, Emily Willis.

The Disability & Philanthropy Forum was formed after the Ford Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation brought their foundation leaders together in 2019. These foundation CEOs, in turn, founded the forum, responding to calls from disability activists and also investing in disability communities through the Disability Inclusion Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, where Ho previously served as program director.

The Forum includes nearly 900 individual members, over 75 signatories of the Disability Inclusion Pledge, an employee resource group for disabled people and disability inclusion advocates working in philanthropy, a staff of disability professionals, and a President’s Council of leaders from affiliated foundations.

It aims to reduce disability stereotypes by increasing funding for disability justice, strengthening disability leadership in the sector and promoting philanthropy to build a culture of inclusion. The Forum provides learning resources, advocates within the sector and cultivates peer networks at all professional levels, from program and support staff to senior leadership.

Ho is proud to come from the movement that organizes. She was a member of the inaugural Obama Foundation USA Leaders program in 2023 and a Disability Futures Fellow in 2022, supported by the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

IP recently spoke with Ho about her story, her work and her philanthropic hopes. Here are some excerpts from the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about your background.

I am a woman of color with disabilities and the child of immigrants. My mother is from North Vietnam and my father is from Hong Kong. My parents always championed me and taught me what I needed to succeed, and I definitely picked that up throughout my childhood. After my grandparents immigrated, they worked for the Boston Public Library, so I grew up in public libraries. That has a lot to do with my love of reading and my curiosity.

I was born and raised in Massachusetts and have spent most of my life in Boston. We didn’t come from a wealthy background; we grew up in public housing. I benefited from the public school and health care system in Massachusetts. Massachusetts was the model for (the Affordable Care Act), and that definitely had a lot to do with how I experience my disability and how I advocate for myself now.

What did you learn about philanthropy throughout your childhood?

My first experience with gift-giving was in my family. As a Chinese and Vietnamese American, it is a tradition for the older and younger generations to give red envelopes containing money as a symbol of good luck during the Chinese New Year.

Like many other children of immigrants, I was often the translator for my parents. I remember writing letters to local nonprofits sharing my story as a child with disabilities and explaining how it would impact my family if we had a handicap-accessible minivan or a ramp to the house. That’s how I learned that there were these organizations that had resources that my family lacked and that they were working to get those resources.

As I grew older, I realized that families of color had to turn to organizations because our government support systems were inadequate. I wish I had known much earlier that I was not the only one experiencing these inequalities. It was only after I graduated college that I found a more solid place in the disability community.

Can you tell us some highlights from your movement work as a disabled activist?

I hope I never lose the perspective of approaching this work as someone who is and has been an organizer of the disability movement. For me, that means creating spaces where people with disabilities feel comfortable showing up as they are.

I started working with disability in the community by serving as a program manager of a mentoring program for young women with disabilities. This got me thinking critically about the intersections between disability and gender. I kept asking questions and building connections with older mentors with disabilities.

Before becoming a philanthropist, I was a disability policy researcher. I was the incendiary community organizer who bridged the gap between the community and the importance of data-based, community-led research. How do we get community stories in front of decision makers in policy and resource allocation? I saw that there continues to be a huge gap in our country because more people with disabilities are not in decision-making positions, whether in politics, health care, or philanthropy.

Can you talk about entering a sector where there aren’t as many openly disabled leaders?

Before becoming a philanthropist, I had the privilege of working only for and with teams that worked on the issues facing the disability community. For me, it was normal in the workplace to not be the only person in the office who was openly disabled. When I came into the sector through Borealis Philanthropy, I was at one of the few disability-led funds supporting disability communities nationwide. My current position as Executive Director of the Disability & Philanthropy Forum was made possible by the disability rights leaders who came before me and moved the sector forward. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Ryan Easterly of the WITH Foundation, as well as Rebecca Cokely of the Ford Foundation, Catherine Townsend (also at Ford) and Adela Ruiz (formerly at Ford).

Part of the work of combating disability racism in philanthropy is about bringing societal priorities to the sector, but it’s also about making the sector more attuned to leaders with disabilities in the field. Visibility is important; I learned that from the queer and trans movement. I know there are many other people in the sector who aren’t ready to publicly identify. We need to change the systemic issues in the sector that revolve around why it’s hard to get disability benefits in the workplace. How can we make philanthropy a welcoming place, not just for those already in it, but for those who come after us?

What attracted you to the opportunity to lead the Disability & Philanthropy Forum?

The Disability & Philanthropy Forum seeks to mobilize the sector to direct more funding and resources directly to disability organizations. Historically, philanthropy has contributed to harm, disabilityism, and eugenics. We need to recognize this harm and know where we came from to know where we are going. We know this from peer movements like the queer and trans movement, the racial justice movement, and the Black liberation movement. I look forward to continuing the momentum of advocacy already started by former Executive Director Emily Harris.

When we say we are prioritizing an area of ​​concern, sometimes people interpret that to mean we need to perfect it and solve it immediately. I think that sometimes holds us back. Prioritizing doesn’t mean perfecting it. We are here as a team at the Disability & Philanthropy Forum to learn together. The opportunity to bring more people together and strengthen the bridge between the disability movement and funders is something I want to take even more advantage of.

What are some promising trends in philanthropy?

I want to highlight the Black Disabled Liberation Project at Borealis Philanthropy, which has committed $1 million to support 10 Black disability organizations working for disability justice. The team at Borealis Philanthropy shifted their approach to prospective grantees from written narratives to more relational interviews. The project was overseen by two disability justice organizers who are Black women with disabilities: Naomi Young and India Harville.

Participatory community grantmaking, ensuring that funds are distributed in a way that reflects the community, is a core principle of the disability movement. Funders can achieve a lot by simply saying they welcome applications from disability communities or organizations that do disability community work. When communities see themselves reflected in the call for applications, they are more likely to apply.

What is your greatest hope for the future of philanthropy?

When we talk about social justice and equality, we need to be aware that this includes the disability community and dismantling disability stereotypes. When we talk about systemic change, we need to focus our policy analysis on disability stereotypes and how they are intertwined with anti-Blackness, white supremacy, and racism in this country. The way racialized work is targeted is inseparable from how it impacts the disability community, especially when we know that disability is more prevalent in communities of color.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

Check out the Disability & Philanthropy Forum website, where they have a commitment to disability inclusion. Change starts when a commitment is made, and organizations can look at the funders and nonprofits that have already signed the commitment.

To all community members and advocates: We will continue to be open to the priorities of the movement and will do our best to bring funders together and get people excited about the work. I look forward to any changes that can happen!

Michelle Dominguez (they/them/elle) is a queer and trans professional born to Colombian immigrants on Tongva land, known as Los Angeles after colonization. After a decade-long career in higher education, they transitioned to the nonprofit and philanthropic sector in 2021. You can find them on LinkedIn.