‘My Passion, My Philanthropy’: Deborah Santana Carries Forward Stewardship Tradition

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As did many African Americans, my paternal grandparents left the Jim Crow South to make a better life for themselves. From Louisiana, they settled in Oakland, California, and devoted themselves to church ministry.

I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area into a family tradition of stewardship. I was taught the teachings of Jesus, which were to be loving, kind, generous and community building. Love was the theme and stewardship an essential expression of that love—“philanthropy” means, literally, “love of people.”

Our congregation regularly shared what we had. It was woven into our daily lives. Pound Fridays, for example, were a time to anonymously deliver a pound of flour, a loaf of bread, a macaroni and cheese casserole or a dozen eggs to a struggling church member. Other times stewardship meant our presence. We visited the homes of those who weren’t well. Some women in the congregation were in their 90s and lived alone. I remember time spent with two elders: Nanny and Sister Fields. We brought homemade cookies and sat with them. Their stories formed the basis for my faith as I heard how they overcame hardships.

My mother wore the gift of sharing as a light shawl. She was the main financial support of our family, as a social security administrator. My father was a successful jazz/blues musician who chose to stop touring to be home with his wife and two daughters. He cared daily for my sister and me, getting us to school and being there when we returned, a rather revolutionary act as a stay-at-home father in the 1950s and ‘60s. My mother was always a feminist. She clearly saw that the face of poverty was often female, and she also knew that women were the pillars of their communities.

Family Foundation

I brought these deeply rooted values to my adult life and my own family. Professional success led us to see the needs of people around the world. We established a family foundation to support the causes and values we cared about.

After I divorced, with my children grown and launched, I wanted to engage more deeply in philanthropy with my entire self—not just by writing a check. My passions were education and health, and included wanting to support women whose lives were impacted by domestic violence.

I established my foundation, Do A Little, to help women and girls in these areas. Do A Little supports each woman’s story and potential to live creative and free, believing each of us is equal, and no amount of fame, fortune, beauty or acclaim makes one person more important or significant than another. I want women to live from their inner power and to transform their lives from a dream into a reality of purpose and success as powerful and strong leaders. As the Dalai Lama writes, “I believe everyone has the responsibility to develop a happier world. We need, ultimately, to have a greater concern for others’ well-being.”

San Francisco to Kenya

The causes I support stretch from those in the San Francisco Bay Area to distant nations. In Kenya there’s the Daraja Academy, a school that is transforming the lives of girls and equipping them with a full array of life skills necessary to rise from poverty and return to their communities as advocates of change. The 224 young women, some currently attending and others graduated from the secondary school, have all received scholarships provided by generous donors.

One student, Benny, was born in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi. She came to Daraja with her mother believing she could grow beyond her beginnings. She is now studying to be a nurse. Faith came from an elementary school with a mud floor and few supplies. She blossomed into her class valedictorian and is now at university studying to become a teacher. Two young women at Daraja live with HIV/AIDS and foster open communication about this health challenge.

In the United States, Do A Little works with centers for domestic violence that provide groundbreaking programs, policies and campaigns to empower individuals and organizations to end violence against women and children.

Through this work my intention is to quietly and purposefully serve others. The experiences of my life have taught me that we can all reach out to strengthen and uplift another person. Throughout this time, my heroes have inspired and helped guide me. A few of them include Marian Wright Edelman, CEO and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, the luminous freedom fighter Nelson Mandela and Bryan Stevenson, who is steadfastly working to challenge bias against people of low-incomes and people of color in our nation’s judicial system.

Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu, a dear friend and a source of lasting inspiration, said it best: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

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