What We're Learning
Our daughter Max turned five years old just a few days ago. And so did the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
We didn’t know it back in 2015 but becoming new parents and starting a philanthropy actually have a lot in common. You’re simultaneously exhausted, overjoyed, and full of adrenaline. You stress over every little detail and decision. When you’re up in the middle of the night, you’re filled with both hope and concern for the future—their future.
Five years later, Max and her sister, August, have grown so much. So has CZI—and so have the tremendous challenges facing our communities, from the longstanding inequities caused by systemic racism to new hardships inflicted by a global pandemic and economic crisis.
In crisis there are always silver linings—and lessons learned. If there was a silver lining in 2020, it was the extraordinary people and organizations who came together to fight this virus and the scourge of racial injustice—and the inequitable impacts of both on communities of color. We’ve been inspired by grant partners who have responded in countless ways—from scientists and researchers fighting the spread of the virus, to those working to support people disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system, to educators helping students navigate challenging times, to county election officials working to ensure we had a safe, free election process in the midst of a pandemic. We are humbled by their work—and their example.
2020 taught us many lessons, too. We have a responsibility to engage with a spirit of learning, a commitment to accountability, and space for growth. Now more than ever, we feel the urgent call to step up, do better, and help accelerate change. And today, as we reflect on what we’ve learned over the last five years, and the values at the heart of our work, we’d like to focus there.
Lesson one: Build the right infrastructure
Over the last five years, we have invested in the long-term in a big way. CZI is now one of the largest funders of scientific innovation in the world, criminal justice reform in the country, and housing affordability efforts in California. We have also made significant education investments aimed at helping every student reach their full potential—regardless of background or zip code.
But these investments are not just targeted to achieve far-off goals. They are helping to create the infrastructure needed to tackle the here and now.
In 2016, we founded the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a collaboration between CZI, Stanford, University of California, San Francisco, and University of California, Berkeley. Our vision was to bring scientists and engineers from different institutions under the same roof, so they could build new tools and technologies to help fight a wide range of diseases.
In 2020, our partners and teammates came together to leverage these long-term investments in scientific research, infrastructure, and technology—quickly and in entirely new ways, in order to help understand and slow the spread of a fast-moving pandemic.
One tool that came out of the CZ Biohub and CZI collaboration is Chan Zuckerberg ID (formerly IDseq), invented by Dr. Joe DeRisi. The software can help researchers identify a virus by its genetic sequence—and help scientists detect and study disease outbreaks with the aim of preventing future pandemics. In January, researchers in Cambodia used the tool to identify and confirm the country’s first COVID-19 case and trace it back to Wuhan.
Weeks later, when Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that provided more flexibility in how diagnostic laboratories were staffed, CZ Biohub sprung into action. In just eight days, it transformed an empty laboratory into one of the nation’s leading COVID-19 testing facilities—a process that would normally take months to complete! With a focus on communities in our own backyard, CZ Biohub began serving hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters, and nursing facilities across the state, and eventually, every county health department in California. Serving as a critical bridge for the state as testing capacity ramped up, the lab processed more than 165,000 free tests for Californians.
CZI and CZ Biohub also launched the California COVID Tracker to analyze the data and better understand where the virus is spreading across the state. The goal is to give local health authorities the timely information they need to protect their communities and slow the pandemic’s spread.
For us, the lesson of the story is clear. There’s a lot about the future we cannot predict. But if we gather the right people in the right place, and give them the freedom, infrastructure and tools to do their best work, they can rise to meet any crisis—and put their focus where it is needed most.
This has been a central lesson in our education work, too.
From the beginning, CZI has supported the Summit Learning program, which is being developed by Gradient Learning (formerly T.L.P. Education) to help teachers build deep relationships with their students and engage them in meaningful learning.
When we began our work in education, we never imagined a future where the physical classroom would disappear, and teachers would have to find a way to reach their students miles away. But thanks to the learning platform we built with teachers and researchers for the Summit Learning program, that transition has been easier. When the pandemic forced schools to close, St. Louis-based public school partner, Kairos Academies, was able to quickly pivot to remote learning and support their students’ evolving social and emotional needs and well-being.
What our partners have achieved with Summit Learning has helped inspire other investments too. One of them is Along, an interactive video journal that we are piloting which makes it easier for teachers to forge strong relationships with students, whether they’re back in the classroom or learning remotely. This tool recognizes that an important part of learning is making sure students know that their teacher sees them and knows their potential, and is invested in helping them reach it. By creating space for real conversations about topics like organization, motivation, and stress management, Along is also helping students develop key life skills to support their well-being—in stressful times.
Lesson two: The world only changes when we change it together
All year, we’ve seen unlikely partners—scientists, researchers, frontline health workers, organizations working with system-impacted populations, educators, and so many more—working shoulder-to-shoulder to fight the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial inequity.
We’ve been proud to support this work. And to us, it demonstrates a fundamental principle that’s guided CZI for the last five years: progress requires partnership. No single organization can change the world—nor should they try. Our solutions are better, and our impact so much greater, when we join our efforts and drive change together.
That’s why, as the pandemic’s shockwaves rippled outward with an outsized impact on communities of color, we teamed up with our education partners to help schools transition to remote learning and support the well-being of teachers and students. It’s why we joined with the California government and other philanthropies to help provide emergency funding for both undocumented immigrants and those struggling with re-entry after being released from prison due to the pandemic. And it’s why we support the Eviction Lab, which is helping our country understand and curb evictions in the face of the pandemic.
We also supported organizations across the Bay Area, such as Puente de la Costa Sur and the Rafiki Coalition, who are helping individuals and families hit hardest by the pandemic, including Black and Latinx communities, and other communities of color. These organizations offer critical programs, like health and wellness services, rental assistance, food and education resources, COVID-19 testing, internet access, and more. CZI has been proud to give more than $100 million in pandemic-related response funding. And as November’s election approached, we also contributed more than $400 million to nonpartisan organizations working to support county election officials across the country—to ensure voters could cast their ballots safely and securely.
We believe so strongly in the power of partnership because we also know that a lack of collaboration can hold progress back. Five years ago, we saw how the world’s best problem-solvers were working in isolation from each other—learning scientists from teachers, prosecutors from community leaders, researchers from other researchers. We wanted to help change that. So, as soon as we opened CZI, we started building collaborative networks across our initiatives. By bringing together unlikely partners, we hoped to drive rapid innovation on problems that would otherwise be intractable.
Today, those partnerships are exceeding even our own expectations.
The Neurodegeneration Challenge Network, for instance, is bringing bold, creative investigators, doctors, and patients together to change how we understand diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The Rare As One Project is helping patients build collaborative research networks that could unlock new treatments for rare diseases.
This year, in the wake of unprecedented disruptions to the nation’s education system and the need to strengthen relationships with Black male students and their families, Equal Opportunity Schools partnered with educators to design responsive back to school plans. Their work includes helping schools develop anti-racist educational environments as well as tracking their progress toward ensuring equitable access to and participation in academically rigorous courses.
There are countless models for collaboration. The Partnership for the Bay’s Future gathers housing experts, developers, faith and business leaders, elected officials, and residents together to design new solutions to the housing crisis. PilotED puts the mental well-being of their students first by leveraging community partnerships and centering the identities of students and teachers in their work. Prosecution Leaders of Now, a new collaboration of partners that includes For the People, Right on Crime, and the Vera Institute of Justice, brings together emerging leaders to advance a more inclusive vision of safety and justice in America. And, our partners in the South and Appalachia—from the ACLU of Kentucky to the North Carolina Justice Center—are building a strong advocacy movement to tackle COVID-19 in prisons and drive reforms across their states.
Again and again, we’ve seen people who have come together from very different contexts do amazing work—and, sometimes, forge incredible friendships.
Earlier this year, we invited Kris Steele, the former Republican Speaker of the House in Oklahoma, to talk about the advocacy work that led to the largest single-day commutation in U.S. history—and reunited more than 500 incarcerated people with their families.
Afterward, Aly Tamboura, a CZI program manager who advocates for incarcerated citizens, got up from the audience and told the story about how he and Kris first started working together. They had almost nothing in common—but they really hit it off in that first conversation, and Aly said he left the meeting “feeling like my soul was glowing.”
By the time Aly was done sharing his story, he was in a huge bear hug with Kris. While we can’t lose sight of the larger, systemic injustices that remain to be tackled, it was a powerful reminder of something we learn over and over again at CZI: unlikely partnerships can open up incredible possibilities.
Lesson three: A future for everyone begins with racial equity
We started CZI because we believe everyone deserves the chance to reach their full potential. But systemic barriers have long denied many Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people that chance. So, as we work to build a better future for everyone, we know it requires centering on those who have been politically, socially, and economically marginalized and disenfranchised.
While we have made some key investments in the last five years to advance equity, we must go further to consistently and systematically apply a racial equity lens across all of the areas in which we work.
That’s why CZI has set in motion an enterprise-wide effort to center racial equity in our work. We have begun critical internal work and will engage community leaders and partners in the field who are already steeped in this practice to co-create a racial equity grantmaking framework that will guide our efforts moving forward. We are committed to ensuring that racial equity is reflected across our grantmaking. We will lead with humility and ensure that Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color have a stake in CZI’s initiatives and a voice in guiding them—shaping our work, challenging our assumptions, and improving the way we operate.
Racial equity cannot be a siloed goal. It needs to live in all of our work—across science, education, criminal justice reform, housing, immigration, and community. To that end, we are excited to announce an initial $500 million over the next five years to support organizations and leaders which are leading the fight for racial equity in CZI focus areas. We look forward to convening a broad set of partners in the coming months to help guide us in this effort.
As we said in last year’s annual letter, we truly believe that bringing together people with divergent worldviews and experiences isn’t just a good way to help solve our world’s biggest challenges—it might be the only way. That principle is core to our external work and how we engage with partners and grantees, but it also has to live within our own walls. We have much more to do to support diversity, equity and inclusion at CZI—beyond just being a diverse workplace. This is a journey, but we’re committed to it—and we’ve made key staffing and other investments in this space and launched a series of initiatives, working closely with Black employees, our Employee Resource Groups, and others across the organization to ensure all of our teammates feel empowered.
The lesson we’ll never forget: Hold onto the power of hope
By any measure, 2020 has been a difficult year. Globally, more than a million people have lost their lives to a pandemic that is sadly far from over. Here at home, political infighting has undermined the science we need to contain COVID-19. Black Americans continue to be senselessly killed by the police with little or no consequence. And at times, democracy itself has felt at risk.
What the last five years have taught us, though, is that none of this is cause for despair. It can’t be. Because for the people at the heart of these issues—the people who have the most at stake—despair simply isn’t an option.
A rare disease advocate named Julia spoke at a Neurodegeneration Challenge Network event a few months ago. She’d spent years trying to find out why her daughter Mila seemed to be getting weaker as she got older. Eventually, she got a diagnosis: Mila had a rare form of Batten disease, which itself is extremely rare. Julia was told it was fatal, there is no cure, and there was little research being done—and that for Mila, there was no hope.
“I looked over at Mila at that time, and she was radiant,” Julia said. “She had fully lost her vision. She was losing her ability to walk. She was losing her ability to talk… All of this, and she was still smiling and laughing all day. And I looked over at her, and I just thought, if she’s fighting, I can fight, too.”
Julia eventually found Dr. Timothy Yu, a physician-scientist in Boston. Together, they developed a new, personalized treatment for Mila that has prolonged and improved her life—and could one day ensure that children born with Batten disease never experience symptoms at all.
Kids like Mila and parents like Julia are why we’re in this work. As Julia puts it, there are tens of millions of Milas out there. If philanthropies like ours can gather the right people together, and build the right infrastructure, we can join them in their fight. As we dig into the work, we are focused on people, their lives and how we can effect change together.
That’s what we’re going to keep working to do, in partnership with our community and partners in science, education, justice and opportunity. Not just for the next five years, but the rest of our lives.
Priscilla Chan & Mark Zuckerberg
Co-founders and Co-CEOs
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