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Leena Barakat was still a young child when she began learning about life’s injustices.
One of her earliest memories is straddling her father’s shoulders while she waved signs during protests of human rights violations, and Barakat grew up with stories about the discrimination that drove both sides of her family to immigrate from Palestine to the United States.
The oral history sensitized Barakat to the sufferings of others and galvanized her to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector.
“(It’s) in my DNA,” Barakat said of her determination to right the wrongs she saw. “I am so deeply driven by justice.”
Barakat’s focused energy has paid off, and on Sept. 6, the 33-year-old will mark a career milestone by becoming president and chief executive officer of Women Donors Network.
The success makes her the first Palestinian American — as well as the youngest person — to take the helm of a philanthropic organization this size in the country.
The San Francisco-based nonprofit’s board of directors last month chose Barakat to oversee the day-to-day operations of its philanthropic organization, which has been pursuing its vision of an equitable society for all since it was formed in 2003.
Barakat, who has been on the board since 2017 and currently serves as its vice chair, will be replacing the organization’s longtime leader, Donna Hall.
She also will oversee WDN’s sister organization, WDN Action, which works to fund political initiatives and organizations.
Barakat has been championing the rights of the downtrodden since her undergraduate days at UC San Diego, teaming up with other minority student groups to work on social justice issues. The students demanded that the University of California include Fairtrade coffee and other products among the merchandise sold on campus and persuaded the university system to divest its investments in U.S. companies that profited from human rights violations.
Upon landing a job in nonprofit management after graduating from college, Barakat noticed that foundations routinely gifted the same, white-led organizations with the lion’s share of money.
Moreover, those grants came with plenty of strings attached: Recipients were limited in how they could spend the short-term gifts, were required to achieve certain results and had deadlines for reporting those outcomes.
The assumption was that the benefactor knew better what was needed than those on the front lines doing the work, Barakat said.
The situation got her thinking: Who was determining how the grants should be spent? And how could she become one of those decision-makers?
“I wanted to change the landscape,” she said. “The point for me is being able to be … where I could build enough influence that I could help shift the direction of funding to better reflect the needs of communities that are often left out of these conversations.”
That includes the minority groups — Black, Brown and transgender — that will be affected disproportionately by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Friday to reverse its nearly 50-year-old decision protecting abortion rights, Barakat said.
But she noted that WDN already works to uphold women’s access to abortion as part of its commitment to protecting their reproductive health rights, so overturning the Roe v. Wade law won’t change the organization’s priorities.
“For us the work continues and, if anything, amps it up,” Barakat said, explaining that Supreme Court justices are discussing other 14th Amendment rights, such as people’s entitlement to marry whom they choose, which could result in these laws being rolled back as well. “Our strategy isn’t shifting. If anything, we’re doubling down.”
And that’s what Barakat will be doing when she assumes leadership of WDN, which comprises an all-female, multiracial membership that she says is bucking tradition by awarding money — and not just for one year at a time — that recipients can spend as they see fit.
The idea for Women Donors Network originated with a group of women who wanted to put the assets they had inherited toward furthering the common good.
When WDN officially became a nonprofit in 2003, it began giving grassroots organizations the financial help they needed to defend the labor rights of farmworkers, domestic laborers and women.
It also supports efforts to ensure that historically marginalized groups have equal access to ballot boxes and that everyone can live in a healthy environment.
WDN currently has 261 members in 32 states who donate anywhere from $4,000 to $25,000 or more per year — a few even contribute more than $1 million annually in multiyear grants.
That giving enabled the organization in 2021 to give $19.1 million to 170 groups from Washington to New Hampshire and Puerto Rico.
WDN grant recipients work to ensure that voting laws — 47 states introduced several hundred such bills last year alone — don’t make it more difficult for some groups to cast their ballot by requiring them to present multiple forms of identification, limiting the number of polling places or doing away with the convenience of mail-in ballots altogether.
They also fight for workers such as in-home health-care providers, housekeepers and farm laborers, who often lack the same government protections as white-collar employees.
In addition, WDN funds efforts to protect the environment, which can affect low-income communities more adversely than others. It’s why the nonprofit donated to a law firm that helps Gulf Coast residents at no cost if they’re struggling to get government aid following natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which climate change made more destructive.
When Barakat isn’t thinking about weighty matters like how to make Women Donors Network a model for philanthropic foundations nationwide, however, she makes time for fun.
She manages to squeeze in hikes and tennis games on the weekends, and her 4- and 8-year-olds keep her busy (“They’re my hobby,” she said with a laugh) along with the family’s 6-month-old Bernedoodle.