Geeking Out about Digital Equity with Molly Fohn

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She Geeks Out podcast with Molly Fohn
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion


About The Episode Transcript

In this episode, Felicia sits down with Molly Fohn, Policy Program Manager at Voqal, to discuss her journey in the world of policy and her involvement in Voqal's digital equity and anti-racism efforts. Molly shares how she got started in policy work and how her journey led her to her current role at Voqal. We also delve into topics like net neutrality, the role of 501c4 organizations in policy advocacy, and the importance of policy reform in areas like prison abolition.

Molly's passion for digital equity and anti-racism shines through as she speaks about her involvement in Voqal's DEI work, including helping rewrite internal policies, supporting ERG work, and driving anti-racism efforts. She shares the challenges of implementing DEI work at a small nonprofit and the wins she's witnessed and been a part of. This episode is a must-listen for anyone interested in policy reform, digital equity, and DEI work in the nonprofit sector!

Rachel Murray (00:08): Well, hello faithful listeners.

Felicia Jadczak (00:11): Hey faithful listeners. This is Felicia <laugh>. <laugh>. I feel like we gotta get a better name for faithful listeners. <laugh>,

Rachel Murray (00:18): Loyal, supportive,

Felicia Jadczak (00:20): Um, kind. Hello geeky. Can we do something with geek? Sure. Geek astronauts, fellow geeks,

Rachel Murray (00:27): Astronauts. I love it. Let's do it

Felicia Jadczak (00:30): <laugh>. Sure.

Rachel Murray (00:31): Hashtag geek astronauts. That's, that's a mouthful.

Felicia Jadczak (00:34): Sure. Yeah. <laugh>.

Rachel Murray (00:37): So welcome. Welcome. I think Felicia's got some big personal news,

Felicia Jadczak (00:42): <laugh>. Oh gosh, yes. Huge personal news. I have finally come down with Covid after three years of outrunning it the best I could. I don't know where I got it from but I got it. So

Rachel Murray (00:52): We probably got it from your husband.

Felicia Jadczak (00:54): Probably. He doesn't listen to this so I can trash talk him while he wants. Yeah. We almost came to a fight in a immediate aftermath of learning that we both had Covid last weekend around who gave who Covid. And I had to sort of stop and just be like, we can't do this. We are about to be isolated. <laugh>, we already spend enough time together as it is. We cannot spend this time fighting about who gave who Covid. Although I think he gave it to me,

Rachel Murray (01:22): Given what I know of the context. I would agree with that assessment <laugh>. So I support you in that. But I'm glad that you are feeling better Cuz last week it was pretty rough.

Felicia Jadczak (01:33): I know everyone has their own Covid story and their own experiences with it, whether you got it or not. But yeah, you know, I mean for me, like it was rough. I thought I had allergies in a bad cold because I did test negative at the very beginning of it. As Rachel rightfully said to me, she was like, why didn't you test more? I don't know

Rachel Murray (01:51): <laugh>, it's a PSA for testing more.

Felicia Jadczak (01:53): Maybe part of me knew I had it and I just was like subconsciously trying to avoid the confirmation of it because when we tested, we tested because I, we both actually lost our sense of smell and I was like that's not usual <laugh>. So that's why we actually tested and then couldn't believe it honestly. So I tested twice. We both tested twice with two different brands of tests because we could not believe that that was possible. <laugh>

Rachel Murray (02:17): Wild. I know because it's supposed to be over, right? I mean it's three years later. It's March, 2023.

Felicia Jadczak (02:23): Well I'm here to tell you we are not in a post covid world <laugh>. We are still in a during covid world. So, but what's nice is it's still here.

Rachel Murray (02:31): Yes. And the good news is that there's lots of resources for folks feeling better and hopefully most of us will be okay and we won't get attacked by fungus because I've been watching a lot of Wow last of us. I know I'm late to the party.

Felicia Jadczak (02:46): Well, no, no, no, no. Not even that. Did you hear the CDC literally was like, yes. Oh yeah there's a fungal infection, it's killing people. Look away. Look away.

Rachel Murray (02:56): I know, I think that that I was talking with someone else about that. I think that that's only news because of this show. I'm sure that there have been fungal viral Yes. Things throughout human history.

Felicia Jadczak (03:08): I hear that. And now that I've seen the last of us <laugh>, that's what it's called, right? Yes. This is the

Rachel Murray (03:14): Last of us. The last of us. I know this is the last of us is what I want to call it.

Felicia Jadczak (03:18): Now that I've seen it, I'm like maybe we should be taking these fungal infections more seriously. <laugh> like

Rachel Murray (03:25): The

Felicia Jadczak (03:26): Mushrooms don't care.

Rachel Murray (03:27): You know what I say? We're all meat bags on a little rock floating in the middle of space. We can only do That's true's. True. We can do. But the good news about you having Covid brings me to what is exciting for us because we have our first in-person event coming up in just a few weeks. Mm-hmm <affirmative>, you probably will not get covid from that.

Felicia Jadczak (03:49): God, I hope not.

Rachel Murray (03:50): Yeah. And we might get something else but you probably won't get that <laugh>. So that's very exciting and we're just finalizing our plans. We haven't actually officially announced it, but a little sneaky peaky is that our 10th anniversary from our very first event is coming up this June in Boston. We will have another in-person event. We are finalizing the details so stay tuned for that because it's gonna be a situation a very good one. Yes.

Felicia Jadczak (04:15): So <laugh> <laugh>. So give everyone plenty of advanced notice. You can Yes. Book your travel, make your plans, get boost boosted, get covid and get immunity all however you wanna approach this situation

Rachel Murray (04:28): <laugh>, but onto today.

Felicia Jadczak (04:32): Yes. So today is one of our, I guess how are we gonna call these like I guess solo episode? So yeah, this was me flying solo with our guest who is a longtime friend of mine, Molly Fohn. I was really excited not because Rachel wasn't there. I actually really missed that you weren't there. I think you would've had a lot to add to the conversation. Aw. But I've known Molly for years, I've lived with her, we've done all the things and so I was excited to sit down with her over the virtual space and talk a little bit more about what she's involved with with her work and her DEI work and her journey. So she is currently the policy program manager at a nonprofit called Voqal and they make grants to other nonprofits who are fighting inequity. So they actually do a lot of work in the digital equity space. Mm-hmm <affirmative> and are really all about fighting, um, and promoting social justice. So we chatted about how she got involved in policy work, digital equity, net neutrality and her involvement in her organization's DEI initiatives and how she helped get those off the ground. So I thought it was a great conversation and hopefully you do too. Mine is Rachel

Rachel Murray (05:38): <laugh>. Well I can see why you think I would be a good ad to that cuz that's definitely my nerdy geeky side. So yeah, love that. Well I'm excited for it and I hope that everyone enjoys it as well.

Felicia Jadczak (05:57): All right. Very official. So hi everybody, this is Felicia speaking. I am flying solo today because Rachel is out and about, but I'm really excited to be chatting with our guest for today's podcast episode. So not only is she super cool, accomplished, intelligent, smart, all the amazing things, but also a personal friend and former roommate as well. <laugh>. So our guest today is Molly Fohn, she's the policy program manager at a company called Voqal. So Molly, hello.

Molly Fohn (06:27): Hi. So good to see you.

Felicia Jadczak (06:29): Yes, good to have you. Good to see you. Good to talk with you. Good to hear you. So I mentioned already really quickly, but you and I have known each other for, for many years now. We first met when you moved to Boston and we had sort of like mutual friends, similar social network. We started hanging out together, we started living together <laugh>. So you've seen me at all aspects of the good, the bad, the ugly

Molly Fohn (06:54): <laugh>. I actually met you within the first few hours of moving to Boston, so it was like the same day. Oh

Felicia Jadczak (07:01): Yeah. Was that the day we went to the restaurant opening?

Molly Fohn (07:04): That's right. No, it was a different day but I had landed, moved in, unpacked and met you for dinner with our mutual friends, so. Aw.

Felicia Jadczak (07:13): Yeah. Well I feel so, so special to be part of your Boston journey now you're no longer in Boston so maybe that'll be a good launching point for us to chat a little bit about who you are, what you're all about. But tell me like's your journey. So I obviously know a bit here and there, but I probably don't even know all of it myself. So you can start from wherever you'd like to start Birth, Boston <laugh>, something else.

Molly Fohn (07:36): I feel like this is an analogy that is particularly pertinent to me these days because we have a puppy and she really likes to, when we take her on walks, she'll, we don't ever really go very far, but we like to sniff every single path that is possible and then turn around and come back. So we're usually close to home but we've covered a lot of ground and so I feel like my journey has been very similar in terms of breadth. I feel like I've gone down a lot of different paths but that like the depth of it, not quite so much. But I'm really just happy to have gotten the opportunity to try out a bunch of different things. Maybe I'll just start with I am born and raised in Texas in a town called Yana but it's occupied name is San Antonio, Texas.

(08:23): Went to college not too far away in Austin but then after college got the opportunity to volunteer abroad in Central America and El Salvador and Honduras and then in Haiti. And so that experience while totally unexpected and surprising for someone like me to even realize that I was gonna be doing something like that, it was such a formative part of life. It gave me a lot of like confidence and things that, you know, I can try new things and can kind of figure out ways to communicate with people. I wasn't very good at speaking Spanish at the time, but quickly learned because there was nobody else really who spoke English around. Even though I was teaching English, I was not super effective <laugh> for everyone to catch up with me in time. So I learned Spanish and then got to come back to the United States and put a lot of that knowledge to work.

(09:17): So I worked in a nonprofit and afterschool program in Austin and then took the leap to move to Boston and ended up working, landing really in the startup scene and was working for a couple of investors in Boston, kind of doing gig work for an angel investing group and worked with learn launch ed tech accelerator and their co-working space. And so really got the experience of kind of seeing a company growing from seed to fruition and getting to see both sides of it too. Like the startup side and the entrepreneurial side as well as the investor side. And so that was again just like a really great experience that I never would've thought I would get to see firsthand, but I learned so much from that experience and just seeing like the lifecycle of a company and ultimately just like capitalism in action, <laugh> in very financial economic terms I guess. But through my experience with being in Central America and while we were living together I got the invitation to go be part of an observer organization at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. I jumped at the chance to do that unfortunately leaving you without a roommate. I

Felicia Jadczak (10:36): Know. Well it's okay, I got over it. But it was very sad at the time

Molly Fohn (10:40): <laugh>, I was really sad to leave but I was also really excited to go just gain some new experience just being in kind of a front row seat to the human Brights council at the UN and just seeing how ambassadors were interacting while things were in session and while they weren't and how you know, people were presenting their ideas and who got to speak and when and which countries kind of had more weight throughout the process was also like just a really great experience that I, I found it very frustrating in terms of like policies that were moving very slowly, but I thought it was just a really great way to see kind of firsthand how, how the world works at that level at a very high level. And it also helped me realize that I like to do more on the ground, on the ground work than to be like super high up in terms of scope.

(11:36): So after that experience I ended up moving back to Boston and being AE teacher for a little while and was doing a little bit of ed tech work on the side back with like the startup community. Then when I was teaching I was covering a maternity leave and when the teacher came back it was really a juncture for me to decide where I go from here and what to do. Cuz you know, the job was a temporary job by design. I'd heard about Voqal, I had been seeing firsthand a lot of the issues that some of these ed tech entrepreneurs were having in terms of getting people to use their products. And one of those main issues or concerns was just that a lot of times the students and the teachers in the schools just didn't have adequate internet to be able to really use the application that the entrepreneurs were working on or access the information or the tools that were being presented.

(12:33): And so I think with the, the assumption, especially in like the Boston startup scene that I had seen was just that people assume everyone had good internet and that they knew how to use it and that it was widely available and in many places that's true. The opportunity that I found with Voqal was to work for one of the projects called Mobile Citizen, which was a low-cost mobile internet hotspot company. Essentially I was hired to be like the education liaison for mobile citizens. So I got to work with a lot of schools. J we are, you know, education agnostic, so private public charter university, K-12, early childhood. It didn't really matter as long as it was an educational institute that needed internet in some way for students, teachers on campus off campus, whatever. Through part of that job I got to travel all over the country and talk to a bunch of different educators and people in that field to really kind of conduct research in a very informal way about how people are using the internet. And this was all pre covid of course now it's, it's a very well known issue that there's a lot of digital equity problems in terms of internet availability and reliability, robustness, things like that. But at the time it was still relatively, unless you were experiencing it, you may not have known about it.

Felicia Jadczak (13:58): Whew. Yeah, my goodness. <laugh> that's a lot. I feel like first of all it's a really impressive career trajectory and secondly, there's so many things I wanna dig in on with you and I'm like where to start <laugh>, but maybe let's just continue on the Voqal track for right now. So you just mentioned you were kind of working on the digital equity aspect of things with Mobile Citizen and then this was all pre Covid, of course Covid happened that shifted the landscape quite a bit. You're still with Focal but your role is a little bit different now. So you are now really much more involved with policies. So maybe could you talk a little bit about what your role entails right now and what kind of policies we're thinking about in this space?

Molly Fohn (14:41): Voqal as a company is a little bit unique because it is a philanthropy company. So in addition to having this like low-cost internet project, the main I guess function of Voqal is to fund projects and individuals. We have a fellowship program we, you know, do a lot of grant making but the way that we get the money to do that is through being a spectrum license holder. So when you think about the airwaves and when you have your cell phone and you're using broadband on your cell phone, the spectrum that your phone is using has to be governed by the fcc. We as a company historically have been very involved in policies that make the internet more available from a federal spectrum side of things. So net neutrality is a really big issue that we spent a lot of time working on, but now it's shifted more towards things like again this like digital equity reliable internet type of thing For all the, in the types of projects that we have funded in the past, because we're a 5 0 1 [inaudible] [inaudible] we're actually able to fund things like lobbying and fund ballot initiatives and campaigns around that.

(15:55): That 5 0 1 [inaudible] [inaudible] don't really have the opportunity to do with within their I guess governance as part of this process of going through covid and making internet more available for schools. We actually had a policy director working here before me who invited me to go and spend a day lobbying on the hill with him. And so it was mostly just talking with staffers. We didn't actually really get to meet any like actual representatives or congresspeople or senators much to my dismay. We got to meet a ton of really smart staffers that really cared a lot about what we had to say. We told the story like 10,000 times in one day in different versions to each person. But I found it to be just kind of a really exciting day. I was exhausted by the end of it but it was really exciting. Yeah, I'm sure <laugh>.

(16:42): Yeah, that really kind of sparked my interest in the policy work and helped facilitate the shift away from mobile citizen and on to the policy team. So now our policy director has moved on to another job. So it's me in the role and our company has also been kind of an a transition over the past few years and before we were doing a lot of work really siloed. So the grants making team wasn't necessarily talking with the mobile citizen team or working really closely, you know, not talking but just kind of everybody's kind of in their own lane focusing on their own projects. The shift now has been to really try to work across departments and really work together when it comes to things like ballot initiatives, grant making, fellowships and policy. How does the work that we are funding inform the policy that we are trying to push for?

(17:32): As part of my job it has been to really get to know what it is that we're already doing in these other spaces and find ways to support our grantees, our partners and our fellows in it helping to codify the work that they're doing. And most of the work they're doing is around racial environmental justice, educational justice, just human-centered justice that kind of puts the idea of people over profit but through the method of just like change not charity is something that our CEO says a lot. And so as philanthropy, as funders, how are we funding change in a sustainable way?

Felicia Jadczak (18:09): Oh that's interesting. I really like that change not charity cause I think that the latter is sort of what people tend to just naturally gravitate towards and that doesn't always fix the problems. Right. So I'm interested if you could maybe give an example. So you've talked a lot about the social justice aspects as well as digital equity. What does that look like in practicality when you're talking about related policies? Like what would an example of a policy related to digital equity look like on the Hill?

Molly Fohn (18:36): First of all, it involves a lot of coalition work because we are, even though we're funders, we're still very small in terms of like the playing field, but when coalition that I'm part of is Prison Phone Coalition, this movement has been around for a lot longer than I've been working in this space. So I can't really take like a really any credit for it other than just like contributing to it. But when we think about the ways our incarcerated neighbors are having to shoulder a lot of the costs for communication with their families, it could have been like the breadwinner that is incarcerated. And so the families are, I guess really it's the, it's the families and the loved ones that are shouldering cost of communications with their incarcerated loved ones. And so the FCC as a governing body has the ability to regulate the price of phone calls between people who are incarcerated in a different state than their loved ones but they didn't have the opportunity to regulate the price of phone calls or video calls when you're living in the same state for things like this where it seems like we know that the more that people are able to stay in touch with their loved ones, the less likely they are to be going back to prison or jail.

(19:49): And we also know that because there's a monopoly in companies that are able to provide communications to prisons and jails that the prices get inflated because there's no competition. It ends up being really expensive in a lot of places for people who are not getting paid much or at all while they're incarcerated. Sometimes it's like choosing between paying rent and paying for communications. And so when we have people that are working on giving the FCC the authority to do that, the fcc, the authority has to come from Congress. And so when we work through our grantees who are raising awareness on the ground and who are doing a lot of the day-to-day work in these communities that are alerting people in organizations like Voqal that this is an issue that's really difficult for their own communities to thrive, then we are able to use the power that we have to, to lobby to get meetings with Congress people and to really push that interest towards a bill that can regulate prison phone costs in for the FCC to have that ability to regulate it.

(20:57): And with the FCC and the place that it is right now with the Biden administration, it's a lot more open to making the price of communications more affordable. They actually just passed the Martha Wright Reed just in reasonable phone act at the very end, at the last congressional session. It was the last day and the last hour, it's a point of victory along a long continuum of work and now it's, you know, from at this point where do we go from here? It's getting the FCC to actually follow through on this now that they have the ability to regulate it and even working on a state by state basis, California and I think Massachusetts are both in the coming year looking to make it free. Connecticut already has free communications and a couple of other states and cities around the country are making those laws themselves that we don't think a lot about digital equity as being part of like the incarceration system or criminal justice system or legal system. But it is an aspect of that. And so when you think about people with disabilities, how are they able to communicate with families? Especially we had a lot of allies in that group who were working with deaf individuals and heart of hearing and really making sure that like video communication is not only available but affordable and free. There's a lot of intersections between digital equity and policy and justice and work like that.

Felicia Jadczak (22:22): No, thank you for explaining that further. That's super fascinating first of all and makes total sense and is not really something that I'll be honest, like I really would've thought of, normally I'll speak for myself, I am aware with you know, prison issues and justice issues in that space, but I wouldn't have until now really connected to the digital piece to it, but makes total sense and interesting that the FCC can regulate overstate lines but not within state lines. Like that's, I'm sure there's, there's probably someone who'll be listening to this who'll be like, yes <laugh> and like let me tell you about it for the next six months. Yeah. But that's wild to me that they don't yet have that power to control that

Molly Fohn (23:01): They now do. Oh they now do as of the past few

Felicia Jadczak (23:04): Weeks.

Molly Fohn (23:04): Oh with at the end of this last congressional session, they now have the power to do that. There's like a period of time where you can submit comments and reply comments and all of these like mechanical things that have to take place but they do have the opportunity to do it. And so now the coalition is focused on making sure that they can't, that they do now that they can, that they actually

Felicia Jadczak (23:26): Act on that they actually do it <laugh>.

Molly Fohn (23:27): Yes. So everything is still kind of like baby steps, however you can see like points of victory along the way.

Felicia Jadczak (23:34): Mm-hmm

Molly Fohn (23:34): <affirmative> and ultimately Voqal is really focused on abolition anyway. And so when we think about abolition being beyond just slave labor, what does that mean? It it the freedom to be able to self determine your life trajectory and so we see decarceration as an avenue for abolition.

Felicia Jadczak (23:53): Can you talk a little bit more about that? I don't think that's something that comes up a lot in sort of the startup entrepreneur small business space and I think this is what's really interesting about the work you do is that there is such a focus on justice and abolitionism and where does that come from? Does it come from the folks who you're funding who sort of have driven that? Does it come from leadership? Just curious if you could speak a little bit more to that and how that is part of Voqals I guess structure or focus mission.

Molly Fohn (24:22): That's a great question. So in the past couple of years, focal has really tried to shift the power so to speak. I mean we use it in terms of things like queering the binary. So philanthropy itself relies on a power imbalance. And so people with money who are working with people who don't have money to try to get the money just kind of sitting in that really uncomfortable place of being like we wanna be doing good in the world but also like we're contributing to this weird power imbalance situation. One of the policies that our grant making team made a couple years ago was to only fund organizations and movements that are being led by people of color. We know that there are a lot of different funding opportunities and generally white people have a little bit more opportunity to access a wider range of funding.

(25:17): And so by narrowing this focus we have specifically agreed to only fund these organizations and movements that are led by people of color and then just following their lead, looking at them as the leaders we are supporting and partnering in the work that they're doing. But the more we are finding our, you know, the grantees and the communities that we're working with we're noticing and a lot more of the issues that we also wield a bit of power to be able to influence as well as funders. We have new leadership to um, Brenda became our CEO I wanna say a year and a half, almost two years ago. And so she's really kind of helped push us in that direction too.

Felicia Jadczak (25:59): I think what's so helpful about that, just to have you clarify further is because I know from my own work with companies, this is where a lot of companies get hung up on the work where they're like, okay, I get the high level concepts. I totally am on board anti-racism, let's fix things. But then we're like okay so let's get down to the nitty gritty and at SGO we use the five P framework sometimes, which is people, policies, programs, power practices or some variation of that. And policy I think is one that I've seen some companies get really excited about it but they don't always have that ability to translate the excitement into understanding what that actually could look like for them. So this is such a example where it's like okay, here's the idea but here's what that actually looks like for Voqal. And I think what I've seen in my own practice is that companies tend to gravitate more towards people recruiting programs cause that's like much more easy in terms of getting into that conversation. But the power, the practices, the policy aspect of it are the harder aspects to really A understand and then B implement.

Molly Fohn (27:08): So yeah, absolutely and especially because this is kind of a new foray in my journey being part of this policy team, it's something that I'm also kind of learning on the job and trying to figure out like what are these connections? You can see that some of our grantees are very involved in like protests and demonstrations and boycotts and things like that. But how is that codified in a way that kind of widens the scope for other people to also be protected outside of these communities where our grantees are working and also cement that legacy so that at the very least if someone wants to change it, it's a hard process to go through to change it. It's not always like a just an easy flip to change it back to where we started. You know one of the things that Voqal is also trying to work on is trying to find those other organizations that are doing philanthropy and policy at this level. And there are a couple of groups that are out there but we're trying to find where who they are and where they are and if there are other philanthropic organizations and funders that want to be part of this to join us to hire someone who knows about policies so that they can start implementing these too and you know start to organize the philanthropy sector in a way that is also impactful beyond just giving out money.

Felicia Jadczak (28:26): Mm-hmm <affirmative>

Molly Fohn (28:27): Nurse. So if any listeners out there Yeah

Felicia Jadczak (28:29): <laugh> the call is out there <laugh>. Yes.

Molly Fohn (28:31): Come help us, come join us. Yes, we're figuring it out and we could use your help.

Felicia Jadczak (28:36): No, I love that. On that note, let's chat a little bit more about what local's been doing and what you've been involved in for the last couple years too. So I know just from our own conversations that you've been really involved with the DEI work and initiatives that Focal has been implementing that's involved rewriting internal policies, some ERG work, anti-racism efforts. Could you just speak to kind of how you got involved in this work? To start with from either a personal or professional perspective?

Molly Fohn (29:03): Our HR person has been doing employee engagement surveys at least since I started, I started in 2016 so she may have been doing surveys before that time too. Just to kind of take the temperature for how employees feel about being employed at Voqal and a lot of really standard questions like what benefits would you like to see and how can we improve? Probably around like 20 18, 20 19 there were a lot of things that were coming up around gender issues. Even though we employed more people who identify as women over men at our company there was still a lot of responses to the survey feeling that there was a gender inequity imbalance within Voqal. And so it was interesting because it wasn't necessarily a diversity issue because we had women and men and non-binary people working there. But it was also trying to figure out like how, you know, where does the equity and inclusion part fall into this?

(30:02): She kind of spearheaded a DEI committee to start addressing that. So we started doing work in 2018 to try to dig in and try to figure out like outwardly we are at this company that is trying to work on equity issues when we're having these internal issues as well. And so just kind of trying to you know, look in our own backyard and improve the working experience for people who actually are employed by Voqal two. We went through a couple of different trainings where we just focused on different aspects of inequity. Like while we started with gender, since that was the most prevalent, we looked at racial inequities, we looked at disability, we looked at ageism, we looked at all the different isms we could think of and just did some general training for staff to just even make bring up awareness And that was step one.

(30:52): And even at that point it was difficult to even start with those conversations because no one wanted to say the wrong thing. Everyone was very like uncomfortable bringing things up. There was a level of like exhaustion like oh this is so tiring, I'm so tired of talk, you know, this is using so much brain space to think about this like draining work. So I think by forming a committee the first step is to form that stamina. The stamina to be able to really talk about it and be comfortable with it and not have it be a draining conversation. Like the more you practice the easier it gets and the less like uncomfortable going to the gym <laugh>. Yes, exactly. So just really start working those muscles cuz you gotta start somewhere. Right?

Felicia Jadczak (31:39): Yeah. Quick, quick question for you, what's the sort of like generalized demographic breakdown of Voqal? Yeah. So I'm curious cuz like how that might have impacted some of what you just were touching on.

Molly Fohn (31:50): In the time that we were starting to form this, we had very few people of color who were actually working at Voqal and it was a lot of women but not a lot of, there were men who, but the men were in positions of power. The women were kind of working below that. And we are based physically just north of Denver, Colorado. It was mostly white women who are working at this organization. So gender was of course like a very big thing that was on people's minds because it was something that we felt, but racial issues were very draining because we were mostly white people trying to figure out how to solve these problems that most of us were really unfamiliar with having to think about on a daily basis.

Felicia Jadczak (32:31): Yeah and I mean that was my guess, but <laugh>. Mm-hmm <affirmative>, thank you for confirming. Yeah and I'm curious because I think that what you're speaking to and sort of that state being is where so many companies still are even today. How did it happen that you all, I guess a agreed to really lean in versus being like, ooh, we took the training and learned the isms and now we're out like check the box or you know when you started having these conversations and saying like it's so exhausting, I'm spending so much brain space on it. Like what was the impetus to keep going to build the stamina versus saying we did enough and that's good enough

Molly Fohn (33:07): Around that time that we were really starting to think about our space in the grant making space and in as funders if the work that we're trying to do is around equity and we're realizing that internally we're having these equity issues, it's something that we really need to figure out if we wanna show up authentically in these spaces. And there I can think of just a couple of members of the committee that were also very driving forces to keep us on track and keep us like, no, no, like we need to talk about this. This is important, this is really something that we need to examine. And so I think because it was an employee led initiative and it was kind of outside of leadership, it was something that the people who are working kind of clo who are closer to the work are having, you know, the most impact.

(33:56): But we did bump into issues like how much power does the DEI committee actually have? So if we are going to be proposing solutions that have to get approved by the leadership team that have to get approved by the C E O and ultimately by the board and they're sending things back saying no we can't do this, well then what is the point of us even having this committee? And so we really also had to examine like, hey guys up there, why did you create us as a committee if you're not gonna give us the power to actually recommend changes that would make things more equitable like you're asking us to do. And so it also took a lot of education upward as well say like hey, addressing those very things and saying if you want us to do this work, you need to give us the opportunity to actually make changes that we're recommending here.

Felicia Jadczak (34:44): Was there then a follow up like power shift where the committee did get more power or what does the committee look like today in terms of budget, power, voice position?

Molly Fohn (34:56): These are all great questions because like I mentioned earlier, we're in transition as a company too. So we have new leadership now and she's kind of restructuring how the hierarchy of the company works. Anyway, so the leadership team I think is now called the NSYNC team and it's a little bit more lateral in terms of representatives from each department that kind of try to align projects rather than our CEO dictating things down through the hierarchies. It's more of like a flattening. Okay. And we also have hired a, like a consulting group that works specifically with nonprofits in philanthropy that is, has been doing a lot of work at the board level, kind of coaching them through process of setting goals and they're starting to do work now at the employee level too. Before the employees were suggesting things upward and it was kind of meeting resistance at some point along the way.

(35:49): And so we requested that we don't know what the board wants, if this isn't an alignment, these recommendations that we're making are not in alignment with what you want. Then you need to figure out as a board what it is that you want us to be doing so that we can like have the ability to make recommendations and you already are aware of these issues. And so this consulting group has been doing a lot of training with our board members and finding champions there. We've created a DEI committee that now involves employees and board members that meet together. Oh nice. So that we can make sure that things don't get stopped at a certain level. We're also trying to figure out if a DEI committee is even the correct like body of not of work necessarily, but the correct body does it cuz DEI work needs to be shared across everyone in the organization. When something comes up who, who do you bring those, you know those issues to. Does there need to be a body to address specific cases? It's a place that we're really trying to figure out in the moment what what the next phase is.

Felicia Jadczak (36:53): Oh so fascinating. And the committee is all, it's like employees who've signed up for it and and board members too. And correct me if I'm wrong, but Voqal doesn't have any full-time DEI staff right now, right? Correct. Correct. And I think that's, so like to me it's such a like I love learning more because I think I hear so much companies, especially smaller companies and nonprofits where they're like, ugh, like I just, I wanna do stuff but I just am running into issues because people are tired. We're all white women, especially the nonprofit space.

Molly Fohn (37:25): Yeah.

Felicia Jadczak (37:26): The board doesn't care, they don't understand, you know, we don't have budget, we can't hire anyone. And I think those are all really valid issues and concerns for sure. But what I like is that you've sort of addressed at the organizational level like okay we can still push forward and address these issues versus saying oh it's too hard. We'll have to just sort of retreat back to where we came from.

Molly Fohn (37:48): Yeah, the temptation was certainly there but I mean credits who are committee members who really wanted to push through and just be like, no we need to solve this.

Felicia Jadczak (37:56): Mm-hmm <affirmative>, I'd love to continue on this thread but maybe switch gears a little bit talking more about sort of like your personal journey in this work because you didn't mention it, I think you sort of alluded it to it a little bit, but you're from Texas, you're a white woman

Molly Fohn (38:10): <laugh>. Yeah

Felicia Jadczak (38:11): <laugh> a a cisgender white woman And you know, obviously you've had a long career in sort of social justice aspects and equity work and things like that. But I'm just curious what's your personal journey look like for you? Especially given what we just talked about with a lot of this professional work that you've been involved with as well?

Molly Fohn (38:28): Yeah, I did kind of allude to it earlier, just spending time in El Salvador and Honduras working in schools where there were a lot of kids who didn't have like stable families or were also just like very poor. And so they were living at the school because it would cost too much money to go back home every weekend. It was too far too expensive and so they would just go home periodically. But really being immersed in their lives and being welcome to learn more about them and kind of get on an individual level, seeing like international policies play out in very like individual specific ways and seeing how the relationship that El Salvador has with the US impacts local people who are living their daily lives under these like larger international forces just really gave me the opportunity to see that where we're born, who were born to the families that we are, it's very arbitrary the jobs that are available to us.

(39:37): We have no control over who we're born to or which boundaries are drawn around us on the planet that we call home. For me it just became very obvious that a lot of the stereotypes that I may have like grown up hearing are being surrounded by, were imposed on people who really didn't deserve to have those stereotypes put upon them. And so I think being able to form friendships and a gift of being able to speak another language too and just the language is like the vessel for the culture and so being able to think in a different way and understand the world in a different way through speaking, being able to speak Spanish and French and you know, just trying to put myself in another person's shoes really sparked that for me. And it was really just like the seed of that journey, being able to be in Central America and seeing why all of the different reasons people might be leaving home, especially going towards the United States and then being on the receiving side and then being at the Human Rights Council and countries are being evaluated, like examined for their roles as source countries, as recipient countries, as transient countries where people are passing through the human rights obligations that countries have towards these individuals whether they're leaving or arriving or passing through.

(41:03): I think that also just became like an undercurrent for my own just awareness of injustices that are happening around me and my drive to, you've been there drunkenly corner someone in the bar and start telling them about immigration policy. You know, until I lucidly come back to myself and realize that they don't really need to be dealing with me in that moment. Or maybe

Felicia Jadczak (41:29): They do and that's exactly what they needed <laugh>

Molly Fohn (41:31): To, maybe they, they should actually do this work thank me <laugh>. But you know, even in just like my subconscious, it feels like it's running there and having been given this space to really develop that here at Voqal has also just been a really great gift to really strategize and think about things and have thought partners that are also in that space and access to people all over the country who are willing to share their ideas has just really fueled my interest in it as well.

Felicia Jadczak (42:02): Hmm. Yeah, thanks for sharing a bit more switching back to Voqal and sort of the, the more professional side of things. One of the other things that I know you and I have talked about in the past has been just like almost every other company, at least in the United States in 2020, there's this huge shift towards this rush to do, you know, anti-racism work. And I know Voqal also has been involved in doing pretty extensive anti-racism I guess like programming or rollout. Could you speak a little bit more to that as well? Because just as a side note, what I've found really interesting on that topic is my assumption was that over the, you know, 2020 into 2021, it was like a buzzword and everyone and their mother wanted to do some kind of anti-racist work. And then what I thought was happening was that in the last year, 2022, that that was kind of fading away and people were like, you know what, let's talk about like disability neurodiversity, other aspects, other isms. But what I've been hearing from clients and from our community is that anti-racism is still very much top of mind. And so with that in mind would love to hear more about what Voqal has done has is still doing and you know what that's looked like for you.

Molly Fohn (43:12): That's a great question cuz I know that it seems like it's kind of trending away from anti-racism work just as a attention span but as an organization of course during like the George Floyd uprising, we issued a, for lack of a better worded decree, I guess, I don't know what the official word is, but to a commitment to being an anti-racist multicultural organization. We're trying to hold ourselves to that. I mean it's not just a fad, it's something that affects people in our communities every single day. And the more that we widen our communities, the more that we see that this is still an issue that needs a lot of work, that commitment still stands, that's still something that we're really working on. It's also expansive to include things like anti-oppression and not just working against anti-blackness but working in pro-black. Like really centering that as something that is a value that we see is really important. It's not just anti-racism, it's an anti, you know, working against anti-blackness. It's centering human needs, centering black people, the black experience, the indigenous experience as something to really use as like a guiding north star in the work that we're doing. We ask a lot of our community to lead us in that way.

Felicia Jadczak (44:33): I'm curious, have you ever had pushback from either I guess internal employees groups that you're funding or folks that you're partnering with where they're like, oh we're not into this DEI work or this decree or this focus? No thanks, just curious if there's been backlash at all.

Molly Fohn (44:53): I wouldn't necessarily say backlash, but I would say maybe just like a apathy perhaps towards it. I don't know of any instance where someone has just been like, no we're very against this. I mean we've seen plenty of examples of like, well we're too busy for this. They're like, yes, yes that's important but our focus is here or yeah, yeah, we'll get to that eventually one day. And I know that even as we were working through 2019 through 2020 through 2021 as a company and trying to figure out where this like DEI committee fits in people who are not on the committee or we have like a person per department that is part of the committee. And it kind of happened that way but it was never structured to be that way. And so sometimes a supervisor would just be like, oh that's the DEI person.

(45:45): We're all busy doing this work, but they have dedicated time to do that work and so we're too busy to really focus on like on anti-racism work because we're running a nonprofit telecom company for just as an example, where do we spend our time? Who gets to participate, who maybe would want to participate but maybe has like a really big workload and just doesn't see the connection. It's been kind of trying to figure out like where we stand in that mix. But I haven't seen anyone just be like, no, we don't care about that. I mean maybe they don't care but they haven't told us <laugh> or said that they care in the opposite direction I guess. Got it.

Felicia Jadczak (46:24): <laugh>, well I guess that's a, that's a relatively good thing <laugh>.

Molly Fohn (46:27): Yeah, they're probably too smart to actually tell us that they don't care

Felicia Jadczak (46:30): About us. I mean honestly people are wild. You <laugh>. Yes. You never

Molly Fohn (46:34): Know. No, it's true. I true, true. And maybe I just like, you know, wiped it from my brain or something too.

Felicia Jadczak (46:40): <laugh>, is there anything else that we, that I haven't asked you about that you'd like to touch on with regards to sort of the work, whether it's around the digital equity piece or the DEI work at large, at Voqal or even your own personal stuff before we get into some rapid fire questions. <laugh>

Molly Fohn (46:56): Maybe just like touching on kind of a, a vision moving forward. We've kind of touched on it throughout this conversation, but we really are trying to build a community around philanthropy that is interested in perhaps sundowning their funds at some point. As you know, nonprofit philanthropy organizations, you're required to give away a certain percentage of your funds every year, but it's a very small percentage because you're able to invest back the rest so that your fund continues to grow. So your work continues to grow but it's also kind of sequestering money in a way that kind of keeps it from going out into the community and still kind of perpetuates that power imbalance.

Felicia Jadczak (47:36): I'd love to have you also explain what sundowning the fund means, especially for folks who may not be familiar with that terminology.

Molly Fohn (47:42): Essentially like the easiest way to explain it is you just give away your entire fund so you can get there's, you know, foundations where you can reinvest the money so that you always have money to give away, but sundowning essentially is coming up with a plan over a specific amount of time to give away all the funds and essentially shut down the organization. Of course with the understanding that everyone who is employed there like knows that this is happening and has plans to be able to, you know, take care of themselves and, and also making sure that the communities that you're supporting are aware of it. And if they're relying on you for something, it's like that communication and involving the community too and just saying like, Hey, we're trying to sun down this organization. So there are very few organizations that actually go through that process for various different reasons, but it's something that is a possibility.

(48:40): I mean I don't know that Voqal would ever go that route, but it's something that some staffers and have been kind of just thinking about as we think about querying that binary between grantee and funder and trying to build sustainable systems so that communities can take care of each other and they don't have to rely on philanthropy or hire a grant writing person for their team to just constantly be fundraising or for, you know, so that the money that they're given is able to go towards the mission and less to like reporting or barriers to applications and things like that. And so sundowning itself is essentially closing a fund and granting all of the money and within the lifecycle of the organization.

Felicia Jadczak (49:23): Got it. So tying back to then the big vision piece. So that's on the table but not necessarily on the roadmap, at least not yet or maybe ever for Voqal. What else is sort of big vision stuff that you all are thinking about?

Molly Fohn (49:36): It kind of ties into a community's ability to be self-determining and just where does sovereignty lie in the systems that we're working within? And so when we think about things like democracy, how do we support democracy in a way that the people are actually represented? And we have, you know, this view that we live in a democracy and when we really look at the processes, it's the idea kind of breaks down the closer you look at it, we are of course like a democracy as the country and in our constitution, but what would it really mean to be in a community where you self-determined what the community needs in that moment and throughout the cycle? And so when we think about vision, those are the kinds of people that we look to go through our fellowship program that we wanna support at really early stages so that they kind of get the funding and the moment that they need to propel their ideas.

(50:31): Looking at grantees and ballot initiatives to really point us in that direction towards that like self-determination and sovereignty. So when I think about digital equity, I feel like we're in the middle of the spectrum. We started with net neutrality, then we are into digital inclusion now we're kind of in digital equity, who needs what in terms of digital needs, but moving into digital justice beyond that, what does that look like? And essentially digital sovereignty and just thinking about it in different sectors as well. But because of my background in internet and those types of things, I think about it in that space.

Felicia Jadczak (51:09): I love that cuz I feel like even in my own practice really still stuck sort of in the, um, convincing sometimes of DEI, so the equity piece starting to move into justice, but I have not heard any of my corporate clients really talk about sovereignty or even self-determination. I think that's so fascinating. So I I love that that's something that y'all are thinking about because I can see that being a necessary part of the roadmap, but a lot of people are still stuck <laugh> Yeah. At the beginning part of it. It's

Molly Fohn (51:41): Part of like meeting people where they are and just walking beside them and trying to open as many doors for self-discovery as well so that, you know, people have the tools that they need to really see beyond what's right in front of us.

Felicia Jadczak (51:55): What's the big vision for you personally?

Molly Fohn (51:59): Well, I would love to figure out how to build out a policy program <laugh> at Voqal. I, I said I'm very new to this, so listeners, if anyone out there is doing policy for philanthropy, please reach out to me. Cause I'd love to be able to pick your brains. It's kind of a new, you know, we did have a policy person with us before, but he was more focused on legal things with Spectrum. And so as we're expanding our vision, that's kind of the next thing for me is to really follow where our grantees and fellows and partners are leading us in finding ways to codify their actions and wield the power that we have in support of their work. So for me, in this position at Voqal, it'd be really great to figure out a really great way to do that and in cooperation with other people. But I think the big vision personally moving forward is, uh, still to be determined. I mean, I feel like I keep going back to the beginning of the conversation, there might be a new path to go, like sniff down and see what's there and come back and who knows, you know,

Felicia Jadczak (53:01): I feel like you reinvent yourself every couple years. Yeah. But it's been, it's been a, a longer stretch of couple years for this stretch of Molly. So <laugh>,

Molly Fohn (53:09): Yeah, we'll see where, how long this stretch is and who the next Molly will be. <laugh>.

Felicia Jadczak (53:14): Exciting. We have just enough time for a couple, like, maybe a few quick rapid fire questions if you're up for it. So, all right. Real quick, what do you geek out about?

Molly Fohn (53:23): Well, besides things like telecom spectrum policy and immigration policy and things like that, I really love learning languages and learning to speak with people who have like different cultural a vantage points. They geek out about that a lot. I feel like I'm constantly just like, I'm an Instagram language learner too, so like in 15 seconds I wanna learn like some vocabulary in Irish and like some, you know, sign language or something like that. So I, I spend a obscene amount of time just like dabbling around in that

Felicia Jadczak (53:55): <laugh>. Who or what inspires you?

Molly Fohn (53:59): Lately it has really been my coworkers, the team that I've been working on. I feel like a lot of times I am just catching up to them and they're just, their minds are so like expansive. It's just like, ugh, I wish I just could spend all my time with them and just like try to learn as much as I can from them.

Felicia Jadczak (54:16): Well that's a great place to be with coworkers. I would, yeah. Do you have any core values that you practice or live by?

Molly Fohn (54:23): I think one is definitely just a lifelong learner. I really love to read and I really love to spend my time on Instagram following language people, <laugh>, but I also like to share that knowledge too. And so as with kind of like a bit of a teaching background. I feel like that's also a value of mine is to learn and to teach build bridges. Those are some of my core values.

Felicia Jadczak (54:46): What's your favorite way to practice self-care?

Molly Fohn (54:48): Ooh, so in moving back to south Texas had more favorable weather to do some of my favorite things. So I really love to go bike riding. I got a folding kayak, like one of our friends in Boston uses on the Charles. So I bought one of those here because I have a very small car, especially for a Texan, so it fits right in. I can just take it out and go love going on walks and I've really been into like scalp massages lately. I got this really great scalp oil because it's been dry in the winter. I just feel like, where have I been all this time? How did I not know about like how lovely a scalp massage feels?

Felicia Jadczak (55:24): I'm sure you must remember like going to the mall in the nineties with those like spider

Molly Fohn (55:29): Things. Yes, yes. That you

Felicia Jadczak (55:30): Gave. Yes.

Molly Fohn (55:31): I need to get one better. Are you like I just, no, I just put the oil in my hands and like rub it on my head. That's actually a great idea. If anybody has one of those out there, tell me. Yeah.

Felicia Jadczak (55:41): I'm like, dude mall. Still have them. Do malls still exist? I

Molly Fohn (55:44): Don't know. One of these things while, yeah, <laugh> should, I'll, I'll go on an expedition. I'll try to find

Felicia Jadczak (55:49): Him <laugh>. Let me know. Awesome. Well, Molly, it's been so fun. We could obviously keep talking forever, but I would love to just wrap up by asking where can people find you if they wanna connect, if they wanna learn more, and do you have anything that you wanna plug?

Molly Fohn (56:03): Probably the easiest way to find me is on LinkedIn. You can just disconnect with me there. And my last name is spelled FOHN, which is a little difficult sometimes to get over audio, but Molly Fohn, just find me on LinkedIn. I might be the only one though.

Felicia Jadczak (56:17): We'll, we'll put it in the show notes.

Molly Fohn (56:19): That would be, yes. There we go. That's a good way to do it. Yeah. And then if people are interested in the fellowship program, they can go to Voqal is spelled V O Q A L. And sign up for alerts around our fellowship program and just poke around our website. You can, we list the grantees that we work for or work with. And so if there are ways to support our grantees, everyone should support our grantees. We think they're really great and they always need extra partnerships.

Felicia Jadczak (56:46): Awesome. Thanks so much, Molly.

Molly Fohn (56:49): Thank you.

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Molly Fohn (57:27): Bye bye.