The Reconstruction | February 3, 2021

The Reconstruction: Carmen Rojas on practicing truth in the service of freedom

David Bank
ImpactAlpha Editor

David Bank

ImpactAlpha, Feb. 3 – As founder of The Workers Lab, Dr. Carmen Rojas led a nonprofit incubator and investor with the tagline “building power for working people.” As president of the $800 million Marguerite Casey Foundation since 2019, she is seeking to be “a servant to leaders who are on the journey to be free.”

On ImpactAlpha’s new podcast series The Reconstruction, host Monique Aiken engages Rojas on the nature of such “servant leadership” – and of freedom, and truth.

“It’s listening!” Rojas says. “Listening to the people who have the greatest proximity to the pain, to the communities, to the policymaking, to the practices that are holding communities that have historically been marginalized back, as well as actively seek to create and build a better future for us.”

Rojas, the daughter of immigrants from Venezuela and Nicaragua, grew up in San Jose, Calif. At The Workers Lab in Oakland, she helped develop models to redistribute wealth, to increase wages, and expand benefits for low-income workers. That meant In reforming building-permit rules in Texas to ensure training and fair wages for construction workers, linking procurement to job-quality standards in New York City and helping retiring small-business owners sell their companies to their employees in Boston. ImpactAlpha profiled Rojas in 2018 as part of our series on “New Revivalists” who are reviving entrepreneurship across the U.S.

At the Seattle-based foundation, she says she has not only material freedom – access to resources – but “positional freedom,” as in the freedom to tell the truth.

In taking the job, she says she made a choice to use the position “in service of a collective truth that ties victory not only in me in this role, but to us in our collective role, to us tethered to each other, to us having a depth of love and creativity and imagination for a future that can actually hold us, that can actually care for us.”

Emblematic of that new style of leadership, the Marguerite Casey Foundation and Group Health Foundation, last year gave a dozen “Freedom Scholars” $250,000 apiece to “help these leaders be freer” to  turn their scholarship toward building what Rojas calls “a truly representative economy.” 

Rojas sees herself as a link in a long chain of changemakers building. Off-microphone, she held up mentors and allies, including Nichole June Maher of Group Health Foundation, also in Washington state; Rashad Robinson of Color of Change; and Marisa Franco of Mijente in Phoenix, Ariz.

Racial justice, she says, “is the point of the spear.” A lingering misconception is that a rich and robust democracy will lead to racial justice. “That’s not true,” Rojas says. “Racial justice will lead to a rich and robust democracy.”

In that, she has been digging deeply into the radical Reconstruction after the Civil War. “The moment post-emancipation is like a 10-15 year period in which black people in this country were fully afforded the right to participate – not without white violence, not without white supremacy, but there was a fulfilling of promise, in this moment of radical reconstruction that many people don’t know about.”

In our own Reconstruction, Rojas says, “I want to be a servant to our freedom.”

“I know we can be free. We have so many examples, snapshots, in our long history as the world of what breathing deeply feels like, of what stretching out fully means for our bodies, our communities. 

“I want to be a servant to the leaders who are on the journey to helping our community get free.”

This podcast is part of ImpactAlpha’s new podcast series, The Reconstruction. Host: Monique Aiken. Editor: David Bank. Producer: Isaac Silk. Special thanks to Lyneka Little and Cesar Chavez.

Find episodes of The Reconstruction podcast, and all of ImpactAlpha’s coverage of racial justice and inclusive prosperity, on The Reconstruction landing page.