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A conversation with Alice Ito

An interview with Alice Ito, who leads Seattle Foundation’s Center for Community Partnerships. Ito’s experience spans more than 25 years working in community-based nonprofits and philanthropic organizations.


February 16, 2017

This article was originally published in Seattle Foundation's Heart and Science magazine.

Alice Ito leads Seattle Foundation’s Center for Community Partnerships. Ito’s experience spans more than 25 years working in community-based nonprofits and philanthropic organizations. She has served as Distinguished Fellow at the Center for Community Change, a national nonprofit building people’s capacity to improve their communities and public policies, particularly low-income and communities of color. She also has co-founded several organizations including the Asian Women’s Shelter in San Francisco and Nonprofit Assistance Center in Seattle. Ito has served on various philanthropic boards and is currently a board member of Social Justice Fund Northwest.

Q. What’s an area that Seattle Foundation is addressing to close the widening divide in the Greater Seattle region?

A. Seattle Foundation is deepening our civic leadership and supporting efforts to strengthen our democracy. When I think about the Foundation’s new Vibrant Democracy Initiative, aimed at strengthening the voice and participation of underrepresented communities, I feel greater hope for the future. If we had the active participation in our democracy of everyone in society, I think we would come out with better outcomes for everyone. Of course, there’s a big gap between the ideal and where we are now, and the Seattle Foundation is helping to close that gap.

Q. What do you see missing in philanthropy today?  
A. I believe our region and nation are losing – wasting -- a large portion of our population who have no access to the opportunities for learning, working and leading that many others have. This creates a lack of ownership, public will and support, and therefore a lack of sustainability. If we want to turn things around and be a part of efforts that will have a long-term impact and support from the public, then we [as leaders in philanthropy] need to adjust our approaches. A strength that Seattle Foundation has been developing is an authentic relationship with grassroots groups, communities that are affected by poverty and under-represented communities – under-represented in terms of who makes decisions on policy and systems that affect their lives and everyone else’s.

Q. What personally motivates you to do this work?  
A. I believe that we can all do a much better job of living up to our country’s ideals. Carrying out Seattle Foundation’s commitment to equity and opportunity is one way I can help do this.In my office is a photo of my dad from 1943 who’s about 21 at the time, and his extended family. Almost every person in the photo is of Japanese ancestry and born in Bellevue, Washington – they’re U.S. citizens. They were all incarcerated by our U.S. government as part of a mass incarceration on the basis of ancestry. They were never charged with any wrongdoing, and there wasn’t any due process of law. This treatment of my own family, my own community, and more than 110,000 others is only one small example of terrible injustices in our country’s history. This isn’t all in the past. People are still losing their lives, their homes and communities. Here in our region, entire Native nations were forced from their lands, and families torn apart, with traumas continuing into the present. The Black Lives Matter movement has increased people’s awareness of ongoing injustice. I feel a great responsibility to be a part of changing patterns of negative policies and conditions, which help create a truly fair, inclusive society.

Q. What role does art and culture play in building the democracy you see as so critical?  

A. I really believe that arts and culture are the key to almost everything. In some ways art and culture-based work is one of the only activities that can reach people at such a deep level that they can see and experience their community in new ways. Around the world, we can see where there are very oppressive governments, which actively suppress dissent and civic activity.  This suppression of expression usually begins with artists and restrictions on cultural expression. We know how important arts and culture are to individual, spiritual and family life, as well as community growth and development. They are just essential.

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