My Experiences as a Filipino/Black Woman with a Disability in Philanthropy

Nikki Brown-Booker, Program Officer, Disability Inclusion Fund, Borealis Philanthropy

by Nikki Brown-Booker, August 2020

I am a Filipino/Black woman with a disability who works in philanthropy. When I enter a room no one looks like me. This is my life experience.  It doesn’t change except for the rare occurrence when I attend an advocacy meeting or training that people with disabilities would attend.   

My story is exclusively American. My mother immigrated from the Philippines after WWII at the age of 18 along with her 6 siblings and her parents. She worked as a domestic worker, nanny, and housekeeper. Her father fought in the Philippine army defending America against the Japanese. My father grew up outside of Jackson Mississippi and moved to California in the sixties because he could no longer tolerate being a black man in the South. He went to trade school in Mississippi to become a chef. When he moved to California, he worked his way through kitchens before eventually owning his own successful restaurant.  That was good food. My parents both had previous marriages with children before they met.  They blended their families and they had me. 

They were two of the hardest working people I have met. My father fed his community and would not turn away a hungry person. He was a member of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) and never crossed a picket line. My mom worked alongside my father in the restaurant while also running the household of eight children.  Her father organized with Cesar Chavez and my grandmother was the first director of the Filipino community center in Vallejo, home to one of the largest Filipino populations in the U.S.  To put this in perspective 44% of all U.S. Filipinos live in California. My family taught me the importance of social justice and organizing others who felt the same.  Through example, I was taught never to leave others behind. 

I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis as a child.  It is an autoimmune disorder where the body attacks its own cells in a way that can result in loss of cartilage, reduced bone growth, and even problems with lungs, eyes, the heart, or the nervous system.  Since I have only lived this life I have nothing to compare it to. I had many challenges and victories.  

I was extremely strong-willed despite my poor health and chronic pain.  My parents never put limits on me. They raised me to be generous, strong, kind, and to be proud of who I am.  I was taught that we are all equal and that my actions need to reflect that belief. This is what brought me to philanthropic work. 

As an advocate who promotes racial and disability justice, I can tell you that organizations engaged in philanthropy have a lot to learn before they can effectively serve intersectional communities.  I come from many marginalized identities. My presence as the Program Officer for the Disability Inclusion Fund is one example of inclusion but so much more is needed.  I am uniquely qualified through education and personal history to make decisions that can affect the community I was born into.  I am a stakeholder.  In order for the field of philanthropy to successfully help marginalized people they must be working at the foundation level and in the boardroom.  We need to see those faces in the room.  We need to hear their voices.  We must advocate from a place of experienced insight and true empathy.  I am working to witness this in my lifetime.  I hope you will join me.