Shaady Salehi: Active Voice’s 2nd Executive Director

How do extraordinary leaders optimize their practice over time? Looking back on our 20 years of “story, strategy and sustained impact,” Sonya Childress, Shaady Salehi, and Sahar Driver reflect on their early days at Active Voice.

We still rejoice at how, in 2004, we lured Shaady away from pursuing her Ph.D. Instead, she brought her anthropological gaze to our growing portfolio of social justice driven impact campaigns. And less than a decade later, she took over as executive director.

Sorry, academia.

And thank you, Arij Mikati from the Pillars Fund, for prompting this lively exchange. 

I know that you were with Active Voice for quite a long time. You’ve seen some things in the time you spent leading the organization as the executive director, and now you run a social impact consultancy. You’re also the director of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project. So there are a lot of exciting things going on in your world.

Yes, my work has evolved into a hybrid of strategy and communications support for visionary organizations, with a growing emphasis on alleviating the power imbalances in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Much of my passion for this work comes from my experience as an executive director, where I had to juggle the responsibilities of making sure we stuck to our values and our mission, leading a team, collaborating with the founder, and of course cultivating and maintaining relationships with funders.  While I probably couldn’t necessarily name it at the time — because I was in so deep — my years as executive director helped me see the many challenges that are in play in the nonprofit sector — and that they are further exacerbated when you factor in race, gender, and age.  [Read more about this]. Since then I’ve been doing a lot of work helping nonprofits and foundations think about how they’re telling their story, how they can use strategy to achieve their goals. 

Even though the work at Active Voice was very focused on using film, my time there really helped me hone and cultivate the understanding of what a strategy is and how it can be leveraged to advance social change. How do you get from point A to point B? What is the current dominant narrative, and how can we collectively get behind a new narrative that better serves our goals? 

Two and a half years ago, I started consulting with The Whitman Institute to help them think about their legacy-building strategy as a spend-out foundation. They had coined this concept of trust-based philanthropy and wanted to use their remaining time as a spend-out foundation to work toward making trust-based philanthropy the norm. And story is so central to this, because it adds a human dimension to these theoretical concepts, and helps others see the possibility of a different way of doing things

How do you think about making sure that you’re finding stories from voices we don’t often hear? Or making sure that the stories of those that aren’t often told do serve your ultimate goal?

Yeah, that’s a great question. One of our key communication goals is to demonstrate that trust-based philanthropy can be embraced by any funder — regardless of size, history, issue area, etc. So I seek out stories from funders that fundamentally get the underlying values of a trust-based approach and that have taken steps toward making changes at their own organizations. I also make it a priority to seek out stories from BIPOC leaders in philanthropy — because the sector is still overwhelmingly white — and the majority of these leaders have had to confront their own power imbalances in one way or another. [Then,] how can we lift up different stories that will resonate with the range of audiences that exist in the philanthropic space so that they can see themselves in the story? How can we activate that and hand them a tool that helps them take a few next steps? That is the Active Voice model: give them something to do and to go deeper.

That’s actually very, very cool to recognize those parallels. I know there are a couple of tools in particular that you feel you’ve carried specifically from Active Voice into your current work. Can you tell us a little bit about the braintrust model and how you’ve applied that to creating change in your current capacity?

Yeah,  I would say the braintrust model, which was designed by Ellen at POV, has become such a standard for how social impact film strategy works now. Fundamentally, if you’re trying to influence change in a particular sector, you have to work with the people who you think would want to incorporate the story into their work. So before designing any film campaign, we would bring together a group of hand-picked stakeholders to watch the film together and have a detailed conversation about strategy: how could this story help people understand the issues you work on, or not? What audiences might connect to one protagonist or another? We learned so much, and then we would distill the ideas, and often continue to work with the participants who were enthusiastic.  And a lot of them continued to work with each other!

What was also fascinating in the braintrust process is that we might go in with an assumption, as we did with the film Made in L.A. It was about garment workers in Los Angeles who are working in sweatshop conditions and they rise up against [the former retailer] Forever 21; a three-year campaign to get their rights.

And when we first saw the rough cut of this film, we were thinking, oh, we can do a consumer-focused campaign and get people to not buy from places that use sweatshop labor. We were just so excited about the potential. 

When we did the braintrust, we had folks in the room who had been doing some of that consumer advocacy work, and others who were organizing garment workers, and people working on relevant policies. Just organically, they identified the need for a space and a story that affirms the experiences and collective power of undocumented workers and can raise awareness of what their rights are as workers in this country. And that shifted and shaped the whole focus of the campaign, which became heavily focused on worker education, organizing, and mobilization. In fact, the filmmakers eventually secured the funding to create worker organizing toolkits that were translated into 12 different languages.

So I knew that before we launched [the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project] in January, we needed both foundation and nonprofit leaders to weigh in and have some space, reflection, and insight to support this and inform the strategy. So even though I didn’t pull together a formal braintrust where we had different stakeholders around one table, we couldn’t launch it effectively without having a series of conversations with not just funders, but also philanthropy-serving organizations and nonprofit leaders. The braintrust model really emulates one of the principles of trust-based philanthropy, which is to solicit and act on feedback. There’s always expertise and lived experience that can inform your strategy to be more effective. In my consulting work today, I wouldn’t ever propose a strategy without hearing from those who would be influenced or affected by that strategy — either directly or indirectly.

What I hear from you is the importance of building trust as you do this work. So I’m curious: what are some other ways that you do build trust in your work? And how has Active Voice helped to shape the way you do that?

You know, I think I learned very early at Active Voice that, any social change effort requires ongoing collaboration. That it’s inherently about building a relationship, which takes time. And it helped me recognize the valuable contributions of multiple players. I approach these conversations with a lens of curiosity and vulnerability. Active Voice helped me recognize that in being curious and transparent, it helps you get that back.

And I think similarly with trust-based philanthropy, we have the narrative of trust-based philanthropy, of sharing power. Our work is stronger when we share power with grantees and communities.  That gives us a kind of narrative that we can build a relationship from.

Rashad Robinson from Color of Change often says that we should never confuse presence with power. I love the phrase “sharing power” because you’re talking about a redistribution of something that is exclusive to a certain group. As a woman of color, I’m sure you’ve experienced that.  

Another tool that you talked about that you really benefited from at Active Voice is this concept of the ecosystem of change. Can you tell me a little bit about that and how that’s impacted your work?

Yeah, in a lot of ways. I remember my first assignment at Active Voice was a project about juvenile justice. My job was to identify all the different sectors and organizations in the Bay Area that are working on issues related to juvenile justice —  and that was like, the most fun research project because I got to imagine the whole ecosystem surrounding “juvenile justice”. The issue isn’t just about the young people who get caught up in the system, but also schools, social workers, law enforcement, and of course families and communities. This early project helped me understand if we’re going to move the meter on this issue, we can’t just work with one sector. There’s research, there’s policy, there’s advocacy, there’s grassroots work, there’s philanthropy, there’s media makers. All of these sectors play a role in influencing — and changing — the narrative around a particular issue.

That, I would say, was an orientation to really understand the shared interests of all these different groups, even if it’s not always obvious. And in forging collaborations, my time at Active Voice taught me the importance of clarifying expectations and communicating often with partners in order to build trust and relationships. 

I’ve brought all of this ecosystem thinking and relationship-building into my work today. 

This tool is almost inviting you to shift out of a white supremacist paradigm of hyper-individualism and scarcity into this world of abundance and what could be accomplished together if we just think about interdependence and abundance as a way of being. The story you just shared is just such a powerful example of that.

“If you talk to anyone who ever spent time at Active Voice, I would imagine those values and those philosophies are probably core to who they are, whatever they’re doing now.”

Yes, and interdependence is it was a word that we used a lot at Active Voice. We’re all in this kind of ecosystem together. And, you know, you can talk about these concepts, but we were able to put it into practice in active ways and really see the power and potential of that. Honestly, if you talk to anyone who ever spent time at Active Voice, I would imagine those values and those philosophies are probably core to who they are, whatever they’re doing now. 

And it’s just so clear from our conversation today that evolution and experimentation and risk-taking is such an important value of the organization. It’s really exciting to think about how that’s going to benefit the entire ecosystem and the entire narrative ocean that all of us are working in.

“Working there was like being in grad school because we were always thinking deeply…We were part of an early movement of using films for social impact, and we witnessed in real-time as more people were becoming excited by the power of films to make change. A lot of that early groundwork has influenced the way the field sees this work today.”

A former Active Voice colleague once told me that working there was like being in grad school because we were always thinking deeply about what we can do differently. We were part of an early movement of using films for social impact, and we witnessed in real-time as more people were becoming aware of and excited by the power of films to make change. You had funders stepping in to be more involved and support this type of work. You saw nonprofit leaders really seeing the value of stories. A lot of that early groundwork has influenced the way the field sees this work today and hopefully, that inspires continued funding, too.  I’m beginning to see the same thing with the trust-based philanthropy movement. At first, it was a little radical and unknown, but increasingly it is being embraced by many — some who are all in and others who are adopting pieces that make sense for them.

Read about Active Voice’s 2015 transition to Active Voice Lab

Shaady Salehi is a strategist, facilitator, and network builder who has dedicated nearly two decades to using media and communications for social change. She currently serves as the director of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, a 5-year learning and advocacy initiative to make trust-based practices the norm in the philanthropic sector. She also is the Principal and Founder of Skyview Strategies, a social impact consultancy for nonprofits, foundations, and changemakers. Previously, Shaady was Managing Director of Distribution and Impact at ITVS, where she led a team to advance the reach and impact of documentaries on public television. Prior to ITVS, she was Executive Director of Active Voice, a pioneering organization that uses storytelling to catalyze social change. Shaady is a 2014 Aspen Institute Fellow and sits on the board of Let It Ripple, a nonprofit that experiments with collaborative filmmaking for the common good. She holds an M.S. in Strategic Communications from Columbia University, an M.A. in Anthropology from UC Davis. She is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, and currently lives in San Francisco. 

Arij Mikati is the Managing Director of Leadership and Culture of the Pillars Fund. She strives to ensure that Pillars’ values are woven into every aspect of our leadership and programming both internally and externally, as well as oversees Pillars’ efforts to create and support opportunities that advance our storytelling and culture change work. Prior to joining Pillars, Arij led the persistence team as the Managing Director of Persistence at OneGoal, an organization whose mission is to close the degree divide by establishing a world where all children have an equal opportunity to attain their highest educational aspirations. With more than 10 years of nonprofit, education, and anti-racist organizing experience, Arij’s work can also be read and heard on outlets such as NPR, Al Jazeera, and Teen Vogue. Arij earned her B.A. in theatre and political science at the University of Minnesota and holds an M.A. in education from the University of North Carolina, where she taught English as a Second Language at Tuckaseegee Elementary School. She is also on the leadership team of Chicago Regional Organizers for Anti-Racism.