With the support of  United Way’s Home For Good Funder’s Collaborative, Social Venture Partners Los Angeles (SVPLA) is launching its first Racial Equity Fellowship under its Racial Equity in Homelessness Initiative. The effort is spearheaded by Kelli Poole, SVPLA’s Director of Racial Equity in Homelessness, and it’s addressing a critical problem in the homelessness services sector: while people of color are overrepresented among people experiencing homelessness, they are underrepresented in the highest levels of leadership of the organizations who serve them.

Kelli envisions the homeless service system with an “inclusive workplace culture centered in ways that honor people's experience.” To get there, she wants to elevate leaders who have experienced homelessness. As she puts it, “we solve problems by being in community and proximity to the people closest to the problem.”

The Racial Equity Fellowship is designed for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous & People of Color) leaders in the homeless service sector who are committed to racial equity and justice. The fellowship will support individual leaders through peer interactions and mentorship opportunities. “The initiative is not just a talent pipeline,” says Kelli, “it's about organizational culture change and ultimately change at the systemic level.”

SVPLA is accepting applications for the initial fellowship cohort through early March. The fellowship plans to work with at least three cohorts over the next three years, ultimately training about 45-50 leaders that as Kelli describes “feel connected to each other and the sector and ready to step into an executive leadership role.” 

Why this fellowship and why now
The pandemic changed the model of the fellowship program by disrupting in-person connections and putting shared meals on hold. At the same time, as Kelli says, “the reality of COVID and its disproportionate impact with communities of color and the events of last summer validated the urgency of the program.” And the 2019 report for LAHSA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness “laid the foundation in understanding the racial disparities in the system and highlighted the need for culturally competent care and reflected leadership.”

Kelli acknowledges that the homeless services sector “grew quickly with the infusion of public funds through Measure H... this urgency didn’t always allow for the most thoughtful approach or strategic planning.” While some Black and Brown leaders have been recruited, “for a range of reasons, the organizational culture often was not equipped to accept their leadership.”

SVPLA has seen immense interest in the fellowship. “This dispels any myths that the talent pool isn’t big enough,” Kelli remarks. “So many people want this. They want support. They are raising their hands to say I’m ready.”

United Way as both partner and model
United Way's Home For Good Funders Collaborative is proud to support and partner with SVPLA. Two UWGLA staff serve on the initiative’s advisory board to help shape the work.

“The Funder’s Collaborative was one of our earliest funders and champions,” Kelli remarked. She’s also encouraged by United Way’s three-year commitment to the fellowship. Kelli hailed the simple grant process and overall trust-based relationship the Funder’s Collaborative as key to the “principles of equity-based philanthropy.”  

She credits United Way for developing a philanthropic model for building capacity in public services. “When the Coordinated Entry System launched, deep relationships between organizations developed and there was an incubation of leadership with shared experiences and relational bonds,” she recalls. “The Home For Good infrastructure and collective impact model that United Way built was the catalyst for the cohort model and powerful in shaping the initiative and fellowship.”

“Our hope is to bring leaders together like this, as courageous leadership begets courageous leadership,” Kelli remarks. “We want to support leaders through shared experiences and shared values centered in a racial equity framework. We need this for the next generation of leaders.”

Kelle Poole Head ShotKelli Poole, SVPLA’s Director of Racial Equity in Homelessness

A personal note
The fight to advance women and people of color in the workplace is personal to Kelli. “As an emerging leader, a woman of color, people have told me not to say or do this or that. I’ve been sidelined and put on the back burner.”

As United Way deepens our commitment to racial equity, we look to invest in important initiatives like this that build up community leaders of color. We are excited to see Kelli and the SVPLA team move this work forward. We are hopeful and encouraged by this new diverse cohort of leaders who will help strengthen and improve our homeless service system.

To those who would join the Racial Equity Fellowship or take on other leadership roles, Kelli offers this: “When the world says you’re not good enough? That’s noise. It isn’t you. The system is the problem. 

“You can do it, but don't do it alone... Be in community with people who can support you. Together we are powerful and have what we need.”