Ciarra Adkins formed the first Black-founded and Black-led community foundation in West Michigan with a primary goal to shift the narrative about Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities and philanthropy. Specifically, she wants to advance the notion that these residents are not simply “receivers” of funds, but also serve as “distributors.” Adkins, a trained attorney who leads the AQUME Foundation and AQUME Law PLLC and serves as the city of Grand Rapids’ equity analyst, recently received the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s ATHENA Young Professional Award for her efforts. While she founded it in 2021, the Aqume Foundation has been years in the making for Adkins, who aims to use philanthropy to tackle systemic economic injustices in West Michigan. She recently spoke with MiBiz about the challenges and opportunities with taking on this work.
How did the AQUME Foundation come together?
Our formal incorporation was in August 2021, but this work started so long ago. I always had a vision of what an entity could look like to help the community, but it was kind of small then — maybe a community center. As I went to law school and became a government employee, I saw the city and community on a more systems level. I realized my dream had to be bigger. Throw in COVID, and the (2015) Forbes story ranking Grand Rapids second-worst in the nation for people of color (economically), and my work fundamentally across the board is racial justice and economic equity.
The idea of the AQUME Foundation sprung from the fact that we are the second-most philanthropic place in the nation but we don’t have a Black-founded and Black-led foundation in West Michigan. We’re the first in West Michigan, from what we’ve been able to find. That’s exciting, but also sad: It’s 2022. It’s a heavy burden, but I think it needs to happen. People have told me I’m ‘brave’ for trying to break into this space. That’s a unique word. I think it speaks to our systemic barriers in the community.
Aside from the obvious distinction of being Black-founded and Black-led, how does the AQUME Foundation stand out from other community foundations?
First is acknowledging all of the great work being done by our colleagues in this space and has been done for a long time. What’s different is we are lifting up voices who typically haven’t been at the table when it comes to philanthropic decision making. Systematically in West Michigan, people of color are taught to be the receiver of funds. They’re not taught to be distributors of funds. It’s about autonomous decision making and being propelled and propped up in the community as money-movers. That’s a sad narrative in the BIPOC community we’re trying to change.
How do you plan to go about building up those financial resources to distribute in the community?
We are a grassroots foundation: Our start speaks to the systemic barriers. There are no grants for software development, donor software — all the things you’d need to start a foundation. I’m blessed and privileged that I self-funded the foundation for over a year before we sought funds in the community. We’re new, I’m a young leader, and I have to build trust with constituents who are older than me who don’t always see the vision and value of going against the status quo. But it’s been a wonderful journey. We have had some colleagues provide working capital dollars. We are building our endowment at the grassroots. We have a gala in November to build that up so we can be grantmaking in 2023. It’s also hard being a grassroots foundation. People expect us to have millions of dollars to give out. They don’t realize we weren’t seeded like most foundations.
For Grand Rapids and West Michigan, what do you see as the necessary first steps for building generational wealth in the BIPOC community?
I say we have to really build a strong economic ecosystem. Within that ecosystem, we need foundations, banks, credit unions, insurance companies, venture capital firms. When you look at our counterparts, they have many options for everything I just named. We barely have one or none in the categories I mentioned. We don’t have that strong economic ecosystem to foster economic wealth. BIPOC communities are not engaged in the way we should be on traditional levels of wealth creation. Most money is transferred through estates and trusts. For BIPOC, less than 30 percent have those plans, meaning we are half as likely to use those vehicles compared to our counterparts. The stock market is one of the greatest generators of wealth in the past 10 to 15 years, but I don’t really see folks going into our community and trying to teach us how to get in the stock market, or utilizing estate planning before they retire.
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