CEO James Head Brings a Revolutionary Approach to East Bay Community Foundation
Under Head’s leadership, the foundation has engaged in direct campaign work, and has asked its donors not only for their money but also their expertise.
Photo courtesy James Head
Tall, with a natural air of authority, James W. Head could easily embody the classic trope of “heroic leader.” But Head, president and CEO of the East Bay Community Foundation since 2014, is also disarmingly humble, something he says he learned from his mother and has never forgotten.
Both his leadership skills and his humility are warmly attested to by those who know and have worked with him. “James is a very thoughtful leader,” said former Akonadi Foundation president and current EBCF board member Quinn Delaney. “He does not strive to be in the limelight, but he is sought out for his wisdom.”
Born and raised in Georgia with four siblings in a single-parent household, Head watched and learned as his mother put all five of her children through college. “She [also] told us two things: We could do whatever we wanted to do, and we were as good as anyone else,” he said. For an African-American child growing up in the South in the ’50s and ’60s, this was a powerful message.
Head went on to earn a juris doctorate from the University of Georgia School of Law. Influenced by his upbringing and the example of Martin Luther King Jr., he wanted to use his legal acumen to provide legal services for those who could not afford them and to impact public interest and civil rights issues, and did so for a number of years.
He and his wife, Bernida Reagan, moved to California in the mid-’80s, first to Alameda, then, in 1988, to Oakland, where he headed an organization now known as the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. “One of the first people I met here was Cesar Chavez. The approach he took to interacting with people influenced me greatly,” Head recounted.
Head also met Arnold Perkins, former Alameda County public health director and current California Wellness Foundation board member. “He was doing a lot of work with people who were struggling financially,” said Perkins. “His word is like a written contract, and he thinks in a collective fashion. It is never just about James Head.”
Head spent 18 years as president of the National Economic Development and Law Center, then moved in 2003 to the San Francisco Foundation, where he was vice president of programs for 10 years, creating and leading initiatives on race, equity, poverty, housing, economic development, and youth development.
But in 2014, the opportunity to lead the almost-century-old East Bay Community Foundation was irresistible. “The East Bay is, in some ways, the country’s center of social justice consciousness,” said Head.
“He was a godsend to the foundation,” said Perkins. “It was when he moved to EBCF that I was recruited to be on the EBCF board,” said Delaney. “[I agreed] because I believed James would do great things as leader of that organization. We share goals [that] focus on people of color to improve overall life outcomes, and to lift up power, and access to power, embedded in these communities.”
Head’s vision for the foundation was quietly revolutionary. As the foundation-published report Towards a Just East Bay explains, it included no less than “implementing totally new ways of partnering with donors, social movements, and the community at large.”
“The community needs to be a driving force in what projects we take on,” said Head. These projects include “looking at the systematic barriers that limit people from achieving, building voices to advocate for themselves, holding public officials accountable, and moving power down to communities,” he said.
For the first time, the foundation engaged in direct campaign work, including supporting Oakland’s Measure AA for early childhood education. The measure’s failure to receive a supermajority of votes by a very small margin was a disappointment, but, he said, “The experience told us we could do these kind of efforts.” The foundation is now active in attempting to ensure that the 2020 census will be a fair accounting of all East Bay residents.
The 2017 launch of the Accelerating and Stabilizing Communities through Equitable Nonprofit Development: Black-Led Organizations program is another initiative Head has championed. “Nonprofits that served communities of color were facing frailness and financial strain because of the Great Recession,” said Head. Several prominent BLOs closed in 2015, according to the Towards a Just East Bay report. Head led the foundation’s commitment as an anchor organization, joining with other funders to pledge $1.5 million annually in support of the program and its three components: the BLO Network, encompassing Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties; the BLO Accelerator, and the BLO Stabilizer.
“We just graduated the first Accelerator class of five organizations,” Head said, citing as an example the “Hidden Genius Project,” founded in Oakland in 2012 by five young black tech professionals determined to increase the access of other young black and boys to careers in technology.
ASCEND-BLO has attracted nationwide attention. “It’s already being copied in other parts of the country,” said Perkins, pointing to Head’s innovative leadership. “He is a quiet risk-taker who has taken on things other people won’t.”
Yet, “If something doesn’t make sense, he will kindly but firmly say, ‘That doesn’t make sense,’” said Perkins, chuckling.
Head has also been successful in convincing the foundation’s donors to become even more personally engaged in social advocacy movements. “Donor organizing” is emerging as a significant change in the way foundations interact with their donors. Instead of just asking for their monetary contributions, donors are asked also for their time and skills. Again, the foundation has emerged as a pioneer in this shift.
Amid all this, Head remains cognizant of the opportunities and challenges faced by the foundation’s home base, Oakland. “It was inevitable that Oakland would be identified as a place people want to be in. Can we maintain our excitement and diversity, and at the same time, address our issues?” he said. He believes the answer is yes — but only if the city, and by extension, the whole East Bay, is “willing to experiment with things that have not been tried, that can empower the community to be seen as an equal voice in the room.”
According to the testimony of those who know him, few are better qualified both by experience and temperament to help mold those experiments.
“He has the ability to see the big picture and then zero in on specifics. He is trusted for his thoughtfulness and humility,” said Delaney.
“James is a servant leader. He is very smart, but he is not flashy. He is a quiet giant,” said Perkins.