Jan 19, 2023 · 11 min read
CZI Head of Community Ruby Bolaria Shifrin Wants Everyone To ‘Begin Life at the Same Starting Line’
Explore how Ruby Bolaria Shifrin, CZI’s head of community, and her team are finding and funding solutions to the challenges communities face, and partnering with movement leaders to build a better future for everyone.
The people closest to our society’s most pressing issues should be the ones to inform solutions and drive change. Our teams partner with diverse educators, families, community leaders and organizations, scientists and more to ensure the voices of those most impacted are always heard. So when we say to “stay close to the work” at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we mean it.
In this edition of Stay Close to the Work, get to know Ruby Bolaria Shifrin, CZI’s former head of housing affordability, who recently became our head of community. Ruby has spent her career searching for ways to solve inequity so everyone can access what they need to thrive. From producing, protecting and preserving affordable housing to supporting organizations addressing challenges in our communities, Ruby and her team work in service of a more just Bay Area, California, and beyond.
I realized I had won the genetic lottery simply by being born into a relatively stable home. I knew then I wanted to work on figuring out how to ensure everyone can begin life at the same starting line. It’s unacceptable that some people are born with so many more obstacles perpetuating intergenerational poverty.
Tell us about what you do at CZI.
As the head of community, I lead CZI’s Housing and Homelessness and Bay Area Giving programs. In our Housing and Homelessness program, we are working to improve housing affordability and access so people from all backgrounds and income levels can live, work and thrive across California. Our Bay Area Giving program is a mix of more responsive giving to meet the needs of our local community with more targeted investments in economic mobility and inclusion.
Across the community team, we aim to center equity in our approach and develop trust and authentic partnerships with organizations working on the ground to bring solutions incorporating community members’ knowledge, lived experience and expertise.
How did you come to be a part of the CZI team? Tell us about your journey.
My journey to CZI is not linear, but I’ve been driven from an early age toward justice and redressing the inherent unfairness of our world. My parents were both born in India. My mom immigrated to the Bay Area when she was around 13, and my dad immigrated to England before coming to the U.S. after marrying my mom. They instilled essential values in me: work hard, get an education, and be grateful for the opportunities and everything you have.
When I was 15 years old, I visited India for the first time and started to understand what my parents meant by gratitude. The overwhelming poverty struck me. I knew about it, but it was different to see it up close — like witnessing kids younger than me houseless and counting out dry beans for dinner.
I realized I had won the genetic lottery simply by being born into a relatively stable home. I knew then I wanted to work on figuring out how to ensure everyone can begin life at the same starting line. It’s unacceptable that some people are born with many more obstacles perpetuating intergenerational poverty. You don’t have to travel abroad to come to this realization either — we have some of the same inequality right here in our backyard — as evident in widely disparate incomes, education access and outcomes, and high housing insecurity and homelessness rates. I’ve spent my career trying to figure out the best ways I can contribute to solving inequity so everyone has an equal opportunity not just to survive, but to thrive.
First, I thought I wanted to be a public interest lawyer. But after working a few years for a nonprofit law firm, I saw how litigation felt like an endless battle of David and Goliath, and that big corporations had mountains of resources to keep fighting. However, I noticed that the cases we won had strong community support and public awareness.
Around this time, I also learned about community organizing and the impact of “people power.” I was hooked. I became an organizer — my most challenging and rewarding job to date. I learned a lot, including how the “built environment,” or where people live, impacts their ability to access good jobs, quality education, healthy foods, and so much more. I learned how communities are segregated by design and how housing and transportation can divide neighborhoods. It became clear that housing was a lynchpin issue that was both a means and an end to building thriving, equitable communities.
I decided to attend UCLA for a master’s in urban and regional planning to learn more about how we plan, build and finance cities and how community economic development can create more unity instead of division.
Afterward, I went into real estate development and learned how to build housing from the ground up. It was a transformative experience and helped me understand, from a practitioner’s lens, how things work, where the pain points are, and what needs to change to create more equity. A co-worker told me about CZI, and I was intrigued by the organization’s mission and innovative approach to philanthropy. Never in a million years did I think I’d end up in philanthropy. But, this organization felt different — willing to try new things, fail, iterate and learn in a way that would result in meaningful change at scale.
Also read: A Day in the Life of a Housing Affordability Advocate: Fernanda De Velasco
Balancing the demands of work and life can be challenging. What are some of your favorite ways to prioritize your self-care?
Self-care and balancing work and life are week-to-week challenges. Some weeks feel more balanced than others, so it’s a constant tug-of-war! I try to meditate and exercise regularly — those activities are baselines for me to feel grounded and secure. I think it’s also important to unplug and have time away from technology — phones, computers and TV. I enjoy going to concerts and comedy shows, hiking and being in nature, watercolor painting, wine tasting, and socializing with friends.
I’m a people person, so I get energy from being with others and in community. If I don’t get friend time or go to a local show or art exhibit, I start to feel isolated and my anxiety ticks up. Honestly, I’ve had to retrain myself to better embrace self-care as a part of my mental health practice. I’ve learned that self-care and work-life balance make me a better colleague and manager, and able to serve others effectively.
How does your work at CZI relate to who you are and your values in life?
I value authentic communication and transparency, and I believe I’ve been able to live those values at CZI. I know I am in a position of power and privilege, and I don’t see a lot of folks that look like me in similar positions across this industry — I’m a renter, first-generation American, and woman of color. I’m also from the Bay Area and have a practitioner background. I don’t have an Ivy League degree, come from wealth, or have any prior experience in philanthropy. I love that I can represent a different viewpoint, bring my lived and professional experiences to the table, and authentically add value. Part of that is being a translator and leading with vulnerability when sharing what I can to build collective knowledge.
I’ve noticed throughout my career that those in power have ways of excluding through language, credentials and lack of transparency, intentionally or unintentionally. I’ve always tried to demystify topics as I’ve learned them. From housing to economic development to philanthropy, the language we use is coded and I’ve had to learn how to speak those languages. I want to shed light on these subjects and bring more people into the conversation, so we aren’t excluding folks simply because they didn’t have the right words, presentation, or understanding of how philanthropies make decisions. I share what I can with our partners and grantees and I think knowledge sharing is a key component of my role. I want to bring a mindset of abundance and collaboration instead of scarcity and secrecy. Sharing information and trusting each other are critical parts of making that shift.
What do you enjoy most about the community team?
I love my coworkers. They all bring such unique perspectives and experiences to the team and it’s a joy working with every one of them. I am lucky to be able to learn from others and continue to build my skills and experience. I also love working with our grant partners — building their trust so we can openly and honestly discuss what’s going well and what’s not.
We need to embrace failures more. To me, every failure is one step closer to figuring out what works. I get joy from being a thought partner to our grantees and building long-term strategy together. Building solidarity with the folks on the ground — doing the work — is what motivates me to keep going.
What’s a project that you really enjoyed and why?
I love doing strategic development overall. How do we take a massive problem — like housing affordability or economic inclusion and mobility — and build a strategy that is comprehensive, focused and realistic, but still ambitious and aligns with organizations doing the work?
We never develop a strategy in a vacuum. There are a lot of input from community leaders, nonprofits, practitioners, academics, etc. Then, we have to synthesize those points of view into a coherent strategy that utilizes both what CZI can offer and is best equipped to do. I’ve learned a lot from trial and error and am grateful for the opportunity to keep doing this work in my new role with our entire community team.
Also read: The Powerful Experience of 2 Community Fund Review Panelists
How do you hope to see CZI evolve and grow over the next five years?
CZI is a young organization and we’ve grown tremendously fast! I would love to see CZI keep the flexibility and risk-embracing nature it started with, while growing and professionalizing into a leader in the space. We wanted to do philanthropy differently. So, I hope we continue to ask important questions: How can we learn from past mistakes of philanthropy and help build a more equitable, inclusive philanthropic field? What issues do we want to lead on and what practices do we want to lift up or be known for? We’ve done some amazing things including participatory grantmaking, innovative impact investing, funding organizing and providing training for the field (not just our grantees) — what areas do we want to grow more into and lead the field in? How do we see our role in organizing philanthropy?
What does staying close to the work mean to you?
Staying close to the work means listening to people on the ground doing the work, including the people most impacted. It’s easy to get disconnected from the actual work of our grantees or from how the problems we seek to address are evolving. For me, it’s useful to stay close to the work through casual meetings with our partners where I can learn what they’re seeing, how they’re thinking, and what barriers they’re facing.
I make sure to attend our partners’ and similar organizations’ events and volunteer. Sometimes that looks like supporting a housing development in my community or going to speaking events to hear from community leaders, researchers and practitioners about their experiences or new evidence-backed learnings emerging in the field.
The best thing I can do to stay close to the work is to get outside of CZI and be an active participant in my community.
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Want to help us build a more inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone? Explore CZI career opportunities now. And for more Stay Close to the Work content, visit the series page.