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Smith Medalist Vanessa Daniel ’00
“Work hard at what you love, and the resources will follow”
Vanessa Daniel ’00 is the founder of Groundswell Fund, a 501(c)(3), and Groundswell Action Fund, a 501(c)(4), both of which have been top funders of women of color–led social justice organizations in the United States. Its breakthrough model features supermajorities of women of color movement leaders and grassroots organizers on its staff and boards of directors.
Daniel has worked in social justice for 25 years as a labor and community organizer, freelance journalist, researcher, and funder. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, among other publications. Through her innovative leadership and vision, she has transformed the world of philanthropy. In 2017, The Chronicle of Philanthropy named Daniel one of 15 influencers changing the nonprofit world, and Groundswell received the National Committee of Responsible Philanthropy’s Impact Award for smashing issue silos. A lifelong champion of reproductive justice, Daniel is a recipient of National Network of Abortion Funds’ Abortion Action Vanguard Award.
On Wednesday, Feb. 22, from 12:15 p.m. to 1:15 p.m., the Study of Women and Gender department will present a lunchtime talk with Daniel, titled “Organizing Grassroots Power for Racial and Gender Justice,” in Dewey Common Room. Lunch will be provided.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
I founded and, for 17 years, ran a foundation that partnered with 2,000 individual donors and 40 foundations to move $100 million to 200 organizations across the United States, the majority of them were feminist grassroots organizing efforts led by women of color and trans or gender non-conforming people of color. These grantees, in turn, helped pass scores of progressive policies, block many regressive ones, and bring hundreds of thousands of new people into social justice movements. I’m especially proud to have been a part of a community that modeled what it is for humans to reach across differences of race, class, and gender to stand in solidarity with each other.
What Smith lesson continues to impact your life today?
Women are powerful and will accomplish extraordinary things if we follow our passion, work hard, and support one another.
What advice do you have for seniors graduating this year?
Work hard at what you love, and the resources will follow.
What does being honored with the Smith Medal mean to you?
My time at Smith—the professors and friends who influenced me, the skills and work ethic I learned, and the world-class education I received—shaped me into the person I am today. It is truly an honor to be acknowledged by an institution that played such a key role in my life and in the lives of so many women. I am also humbled to be honored alongside such phenomenal fellow Smithies, whose work I respect and admire.
Rally Day is a celebration of the many ways Smithies have changed the world. What do you see as major issues today that you would like to see Smithies tackle?
No era of humanity has faced challenges this great or stakes this high. There is no guarantee there will be enough time left on the clock of the planet for some future generation to do the things we were too timid to do, to act where we hesitated. The time is now! Smithies: Let’s reverse climate change through a just transition to an equitable and green economy; realize a multiracial, feminist democracy here in the United States; get rid of the Electoral College and voter suppression; ratify the Equal Rights Amendment; secure full reproductive freedom and gender equity in all areas for all people; smash the gender binary; and eradicate white supremacy once and for all—let’s go!
In conjunction with Rally Day, the Smith board of trustees is planning to collectively donate $500,000 in support of student scholarships. Why is it critical to support Smith philanthropically?
The more racially, economically, and geographically diverse its student body, the better Smith prepares all of its students to be kind and innovative citizens of the world. Scholarships are essential to this.