Three women with a shared experience reconnect through Women of Color Give

Kim Koeman, Robyn Afrik, and Rebekah Bakker had similar starts in life that have given them a shared experience. They were all adopted from Korea and grew up in Holland. Afrik and Koeman lived on the same street. The women all graduated from the same high school, although years apart.

Decades later, the women say their friendship has deepened as they have worked together in Women of Color Give, a philanthropy collective designed to change the power dynamic of giving by expanding the role of people of color from receivers of funds to donors. 
Kim Koeman as a child.
“I knew Robyn and Rebekah from when we were younger, but it wasn't until I moved back to the U.S. in 2018 that we reconnected and I became friends with them,” says Koeman. “For me, my involvement in WOC Give was the catalyst for how we reconnected, but our friendship extends beyond the organization.”
 
The three women say their shared childhood experiences put them on a similar path as advocates for diversity and inclusion. Afrik became Ottawa County's first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion director in 2019.

A year earlier, Afrik co-founded WOC Give with Yah-Hanna Jenkins Leys and Lucia Rios. In a few years, the group has grown to more than 50 active members. The group's fund has nearly doubled in the past year. The amount granted annually is 80% of the existing fund. In 2020, the investment group issued its initial distribution of $21,800, which was spread among five nonprofit organizations. 

“We’re taking a future-forward approach to community development and social innovation,” says Bakker, who was brought to the United States for adoption at 16 months of age “We’re centering the voices of women of color and providing them with an opportunity to invest in the causes closest to them.”

Afrik says WOC Give hopes to spur a critical conversation about making charitable giving — always a driving force in community development in West Michigan — more inclusive and equitable. Too often, philanthropic efforts to help women and minorities are funded without input from those they are intended to serve, Afrik says. 

Women of color comprise 19% of the U.S. population, but this group is on the receiving end of only 2% of charitable funds awarded. Studies show that women of color make choices in how to give based on their own race and ethnicity, underscoring the importance of increasing their numbers in the funding role, Afrik says.

“It’s not that good work is not being funded,” says Afrik, who was adopted by a Holland couple at 6 months of age. “It’s that there are ways to do great work even better.” 

Historically, philanthropy has been a white world

According to a 1990 study released by Women and Foundations/Corporate Philanthropy, the 75 largest philanthropic foundations in the country were run by older, wealthy, white men who were members of prestigious clubs and churches. 
Rebekah Bakker as a child.
Strides toward diversity have been made in the past 30 years, but they could be considered baby steps.

A 2017 Alliance for Board Diversity study shows that almost 70% of Fortune 500 company board seats are still held by white men. Nevertheless, women and minorities comprise an all-time high of 30.8% of board seats among Fortune 500 companies, up from 26.7% in 2012.

If the typical fundraising source remains a white man whose living room is 10 times bigger than the average minority woman’s, the income disparity and gender difference can discourage women of color from sharing their vision of a better world, studies concluded. 

Here’s how it works

WOC Give takes a holistic approach to fundraising in which each giver considers her gender and ethnic background as an asset in the process of addressing social change. 

Participants draw upon their own unique qualities — and their own resources.

Robyn Afrik as a child.WOC Give members contribute at least $75 each quarter to a donor-advised fund held by the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area. They intend to award competitive grants annually to fund nonprofit projects that will benefit and advance Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities along the Lakeshore.

Donations from corporations and foundations — as well as contributions from “allies” from inside and outside West Michigan — are also accepted. WOC Give’s unique fundraising structure has spurred interest and financial support from beyond West Michigan, Afrik says.

Membership in the organization is open to anyone who identifies as a woman of color. Others who want to support the work can come alongside as partners and allies.

Last year, WOC Give members chose a shortlist from grant applicants to invite to a “pitch night” to deliver personal appeals for funding. Members then voted on how to distribute the available funds.

Woven into WOC Give’s funding rubric are the gender and racial makeup of applicants’ leadership boards. The group believes that diverse boards are most likely to drive projects that truly benefit communities of color.

Lakeshore living — not always a picnic

“Women of Color Give is a safe community where we can learn, grow together, and collectively impact our larger community,” says Koeman, who was 4 months old when brought to West Michigan for adoption. 
Women of Color Give members Kim Koeman, Rebekah Bakker and Robyn Afrik. (Photo credit: J.R. Valderas)
Travels as an adult — and living a decade in London — broadened Koeman’s worldview. Initially, she was hesitant to return to Holland because of its minimal diversity, Koeman says. Involvement in Women of Color Give has assuaged that concern, she adds.

Koeman, Bakker, and Afrik acknowledge that, at times, it was difficult looking different than a typical light-haired, blue-eyed Hollander.

All attended Holland Christian Schools, where the few students who looked like them were also adopted. Bakker loved her Korean-born Spanish teacher — the only teacher of color she ever had at Holland Christian High School— but the adoptee moved on after a couple of years, she says.

Rereading journal entries she wrote as a teenager made Koeman realize how much she struggled with her racial identity. Not until her first trip to Korea, during her Calvin University years, did Koeman experience the feeling of “blending in” — a feeling that suddenly ended on a city bus when she answered a cellphone call and revealed herself as an English speaker.

Bakker says, growing up, she and her non-biological sister, who was also adopted from Korea, were drawn to peers from families with Southeast Asian roots. However, they really didn’t mesh in that community because they were being raised by their adoptive, white family.

A group of Holland families that had adopted Korean children held weekend meetings where the children could learn their native language and celebrate its culture with their adoptive families. Still, Koeman, Bakker, and Afrik say that, as kids, they were more interested in trying to “fit in” to the dominant culture than learn about Korea.

In Women of Color Give, Afrik hopes she has created a way to embrace her ethnicity, as well as help the Lakeshore feel more like home to more of the people who live here. 

Looking for answers
 
Koeman, Bakker, and Afrik have all been back to Korea and have searched for family members. Bakker has found her brother, sister, and mother, and they remain in close contact. 

Koeman says she is in the early stages of initiating contact with her birth mother.

Newborn Afrik was abandoned on a city sidewalk with no name or identifying marks. While she has been featured on a Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) show to help people connect with long-lost relatives, she has accepted that she may never know anything about her birth parents or their circumstances.

Read more articles by Kym Reinstadler.

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