Working “at the intersection of culture and cause,” Tolu Onafowokan ’05 talks about philanthropy, social justice, and making a difference
“My whole family went there!” Tolu Onafowokan ’05 says about Williston. “Me. My brothers, Tosin ’02 and Timi ’11. Two of my cousins.” Onafowokan spent her whole childhood in western Massachusetts—and her parents, who originally moved to the United States from Nigeria, still live in the western part of the state. Onafowokan herself now lives in Brooklyn. After graduating from Williston, she went first to Columbia University, where she studied history and American studies, and then to the London School of Economics, where she got a master’s degree in public policy and management. Since then she’s worked in communications at what she calls “the intersection of culture and cause,” at DKC, BerlinRosen, and Sunshine Sachs. Now, as a strategic communications officer at the Ford Foundation, Onafowokan amplifies campaigns for civic engagement and government initiatives; diverse arts, film, and journalism organizations; and place-based policy work. We got a chance to catch up with her.
Tell us a little about the work you’ve done.
When I was at BerlinRosen, I was working on New York City- and state-level public affairs campaigns. That was really exciting to me—working with grass-roots organizations. New Yorkers against Fracking, which successfully passed a statewide ban. The Raise the Age New York Campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility. A lot of child welfare and health organizations. I got to be involved in causes that were having a real, tangible effect on people’s lives, and I found it very fulfilling. It set me on the path. Then I worked at Sunshine Sachs, and that was where my past interests came together—a lot of projects with a focus on getting the public involved: The annual festivals in Central Park to address extreme poverty. The Red Nose Day annual fundraiser to end child poverty. It was a very whirlwind period of being at the forefront of a lot of social movements and pressing issues.
A year ago I joined the Ford Foundation, which is a social justice–focused organization. I support our work in the arts and culture and journalism space, in civic engagement, voting rights and redistricting, and also our work with corporations and in impact investing—thinking more holistically about how investments are made, and prioritizing purpose alongside profit. A lot of the focus in that space is on diversity and equity, affordable housing, and the quality of jobs. It’s possible to create businesses that turn a profit and still make these considerations.It’s wonderful to wake up every morning and feel like your work has purpose. Hopefully, at the end of my career, I’ll be able to say I left New York and the world a better place.
What’s your favorite thing about working in philanthropy?
You’re doing a lot of listening and learning from folks who are just so educated on these issues, so smart, so deeply invested in doing the right thing and in the potential of others. Changing the way the world works is something I’m passionate about. If someone says, “This is how this thing works. Are you going to change the whole system?” My answer is, “Yes, we are!” [laughs] If someone can write Lord of the Rings—something that isn’t rooted in any reality—then why can’t we imagine other systems in new ways?
What’s it like, doing racial justice advocacy work in this moment?
The last project I worked on at my last job [the “One World: Together At Home” campaign] was focused on COVID-19. And it was really amazing to get to say, hey, I’m trying to make a difference in this small way. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a nurse, but I know how to do this one thing. Likewise, during this upswell of protest activity around racial justice, it’s that same feeling because I’m confident that my colleagues are working toward a more equitable future—and working, too, toward a reality where we can say that justice has truly been served. It’s dismaying as a Black woman to wake up and see the news about how people are treated, but I get to convert those feelings into action, which is wonderful. It helps to give me a sense of balance and purpose in troubling times.
How does Williston fit in?
We learned a lot about civic society and civic engagement, and that helped contribute to my investment in those types of issues. I wrote very passionate op-eds for the school paper. It was during the Bush presidency, the Iraq war. I got a journalism prize from Williston… [Googling] Oh! It’s the H. Thomas Wood prize, apparently! I always loved the news and I loved to argue, debate—my dad still thinks I should be a lawyer. I thought I was going to work in the music industry, as a journalist. But after working with this one publicist, I realized I like telling people about the things that I like, rather than having to do criticism about them.
You like to cook! What are your inspirations?
Nigella Lawson! I’m also a big Bon Appetit fan. The Food Network—Ina Garten is obviously a legend. My next challenge, because I live in a heavily Caribbean neighborhood, is trying to make more Caribbean food on my own instead of just ordering it out.
You read advice columns.
Yes! I like Dear Prudence on Slate. I’m really nosy, and it’s a really interesting slice of life. People are going through things that are really serious and heavy—it’s good to be reminded of the privileges I have. But it’s also good perspective on the challenges people are dealing with that are [laughs] self-created.
What books are on your night stand?
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I’m also reading Luster by Raven Leilani.
Your favorite thing about Brooklyn?
The people! I’ve always loved living in New York because there’s an energy in the street that doesn’t exist in other places in the same way. The energy of the city just carries you. Since COVID-19, there’s a sense that my community is invested in a project, and the project is living here. Those of us that are here—we want it.