On a sunny Friday morning in St. Paul, the Nexus Community Partners conference room was eerily quiet. Sitting in the small space was Avi Viswanathan, Director of the Community Engagement Institute at Nexus Community Partners. He was one of the first people to arrive for YNPN’s Breakfast of Champions, where he spoke to young professionals from across the Twin Cities.
Around 7:15 am, the room began to fill and Avi busied himself by making coffee for the group, grabbing more chairs, and greeting everyone who entered. As the YNPN participants quietly chatted amongst themselves, Avi made sure everyone had what they need to be comfortable.
As the breakfast began, Avi broke the ice with a joke about the early start. The room snapped out of its 7am stupor and erupted into a sea of laughs and smiles.
In an hour long conversation filled with more jokes and laughs, Avi documented his social justice journey from childhood to his current position at Nexus Community Partners.
Recognizing privilege and race
Avi began with the story of his parents’ immigration to the United States from India in the 1970s, and the birth of his brother, who is an individual with intellectual disabilities. Shortly after, his parents moved to Singapore, but once his mother realized she was pregnant with him, his family moved back to the United States.
“I think my parents moved back because they wanted me to be president one day, a dream at which I am failing at masterfully,” Avi joked. “But I feel deeply rooted in the United States, even though as a person of color, society and institutions don’t want me to feel that way.”
“We moved to a small town in Connecticut when I was five, and it was a white, wealthy place—and I was neither. At five, I had a friend over my house and he said, ‘People at my church think I shouldn’t be friends with you because you aren’t white.’ That was the first moment I became conscious that race was a thing.”
For the next 12 years, Avi navigated the intersections of class and race in his small town, until he moved south to attend Georgia Tech. The distance from his hometown gave him the space to reflect on how oppressive Connecticut had been for him. He joined campus protests, immersed himself in the world of social justice, and was inspired to go to law school.
“I thought the best way to learn more about social justice was to go to law school,”Avi said, pausing before delivering the punchline: “Which it isn’t.”
But during his time at law school, Avi worked with a clinic that served people with disabilities. “It brought back thoughts of my brother and made it really personal,” he said. “Doing this was tremendously fulfilling, but it also left me saying: ‘I’m helping one person at a time. I could do more.’”
Struggling with oppressive systems
As the breakfast continued, Avi told stories about his struggles working to dismantle oppressive systems and institutions, and how he often found himself at odds with the organizations through which he’d hoped to do that work.
He worked as a political director for legislative candidates who were pro-choice, then went to work in Al Franken’s office after Franken’s 2009 election to the U.S. Senate.
“The U.S. Senate and our political structure is a massively racist institution,” Avi said. “Also, as we’re seeing, it’s a massively sexist institution. It was an oppressive environment, and does not give you the freedom to be who you are.”
By May 2010, Avi had left the Senator’s office and had decided to run for a seat in the state legislature. He didn’t win.
“I ran against nine other people and lost,” he said. “One of the other losers also works at Nexus now. This is a place for recovering politicians.” Avi said jokingly.
After a four year stint working on racial equity in employment for the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, Avi began the Bush Foundation’s Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellowship in January 2015. He worked on the Community Innovation team for two years, and though he loved working with Bush, their partners, and grantees, Avi has some criticisms of philanthropy.
“Bush is on the 25th floor of this tall building in downtown St. Paul, so I would stare out the glass windows into my neighborhood, but was hesitant to turn and look into my office,” he said. “Philanthropy is a white institution and [Bush] was not immune. When Philando Castile was murdered, that was probably the biggest moment for me where I realized I couldn’t be in that space anymore. There wasn’t room for healing that I felt like I needed, and it was hard working in an institution that I wanted to change faster.”
Coming to Nexus and next steps
For the final part of the conversation, Avi discussed his role at Nexus, and answered questions about building community while dealing with a competitive funding structure.
“Nexus is an intermediary, so we receive grant money and redistribute it. So one of the ways we try remove that structure of competition is to fund coalition building between organizations.”
Avi then talked about history, trust, and healing. “There are historic relationships between philanthropy and nonprofits, government and communities, often creating community-based trauma,” he said. “So we try to move into this space of building relationships and that takes time. Nexus has community healers that we use to help get through this trauma.”
The final question for Avi was about next steps: both for his career and for Nexus.
“Nexus is super dynamic, so it’s hard to know what’s next. We’re continuing to develop our work around cooperative development and our staff wellness program,” he answered. For me, I went to London School of Economics last year to do something different. Their motto is, ‘to know the cause of things,’ which led me to this self exploration. I want to learn more about myself and develop those things because it will take me to wherever it is next. I’m controlling my process and not worried about the outcome.”
Mai Vang, GiveMN
“It was a relief to have someone in the same room as me who shared the same experiences I did around oppressive structures and white institutions, say it out loud. Sometimes I am in a room, and I can’t say that, so that was really cool to tell his story.”
Dustin Moertz, The Saint Paul and Minnesota Community Foundations
“I was really struck by Avi’s comments on philanthropy. It is a very white space and I was happy that he pushed back in his experience. His ability to talk about it and challenge philanthropy is really useful and helpful because philanthropy does have a lot of power.”
Katrina Becker, Humphrey School – MDP Program
“What resonated most with me was when Avi spoke on being able to control your process and not your outcomes. That is something I can take with me in future work, and life in general.”
Nichelle Brunner, Writer
J Olson, Photographer