On Wednesday, TIME magazine announced the "Silence Breakers" — women (and men) who have broken their silence and spoken out about the sexual misconduct they've faced — as its 2017 Person of the Year. In doing so, the magazine's editors noted that "This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight. But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries. Women have had it with bosses and co-workers who not only cross boundaries but don't even seem to know that boundaries exist. They've had it with the fear of retaliation, of being blackballed, of being fired from a job they can't afford to lose. They've had it with the code of going along to get along. They've had it with men who use their power to take what they want from women...."
TIME’s decision to honor the many women who have stepped forward is, in part, an acknowledgement of a stark reality: Women, in all societies and cultures, have long been treated as second-class citizens, denied rights and the personal agency accorded men. But the world is changing, and people like Shaun Robinson, the former Access Hollywood host, are using their celebrity and connections to lower the barriers that girls face and make sure that all girls and young women have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in life.
Recently, PND spoke with Robinson about her foundation, its focus on girl empowerment, and her thoughts on the #MeToo movement.
Philanthropy News Digest: After a successful career in the entertainment industry, you decided in 2016 to start a foundation focused on girls and young women. Why?
Shaun Robinson: I spent sixteen years at Access Hollywood — before that I was a local news reporter and anchor in five different markets. I'm from Detroit, and I was taught from a young age, by my parents and grandparents, to give back to those less fortunate. I remember, as a child, my grandmother taking me along when she would help out at the soup kitchen or do community service through our church. And even though I've wanted to start my own foundation for a long time, it wasn't until I left my job at Access that I had the time to focus on it. I also knew I wanted to start a foundation that focused on girls. I went to an all-girls college, Spellman College, in Atlanta. I served on the board of Girls, Inc., the national girls empowerment organization. I also wrote a book about girls and self-esteem titled Exactly as I Am, which helps girls believe in themselves and dream big. Empowering girls and young women has always been my space, and I feel this is where I can make the most impact.
So, about a year and a half ago I created the S.H.A.U.N. Foundation for Girls, which is a grantmaking organization that supports small grassroots nonprofits working with girls in five key areas of girl empowerment. And those areas are represented by a letter of my first name: S for STEM, science, technology, engineering and math; H for health; A for the arts; U for unity, meaning bridging girls in the U.S. with girls around the world; and N for neighborhood, with a focus on helping girls and young women in underserved neighborhoods.
PND: What is the foundation's annual grantmaking budget?
SR: We're still really new and are building our resources and getting the word out. Because of the platform I have, I was fortunate enough to secure a sponsorship from the Ford Fund, which has given us a number of grants that we’ve been able to apply to initiatives around the issue of sex trafficking, an issue that affects girls in all our cities and suburbs.
When we launched the foundation, there were so many people who reached out to me about nonprofits that were doing great work in their area. To date, we've identified grantees both through recommendations and through my own research. The first nonprofit we gave a grant to, which I found through my own research, is a group in my hometown called Alternatives for Girls, and one of the things they do is to go out and rescue girls and young women from human traffickers. The second grant we made was to Techbridge Girls, in Oakland, California. They go into low-income, underserved school districts and work to get girls excited about science, technology, and engineering. I found out about them through a friend of mine who had done some work with them and thought they were great. The third grant we gave was to Girl Up, which is a campaign of the United Nations Foundation and on whose board I currently sit, so I'm very familiar with the kind of work they do. Our fourth grant went to a fantastic organization in Durham, North Carolina, called Healthy Girls Save the World, which introduces girls to healthy lifestyle habits like eating right, exercising, setting boundaries in a relationship, and having a good attitude. A colleague’s niece had been involved in HGSW and it benefited her greatly. And we awarded our fifth grant to Saving Innocence in Los Angeles, which works to help survivors of human trafficking get back on their feet.
PND: Your focus at the moment seems to be on smaller, grassroots nonprofits. What is it about smaller organizations that appeals to you?
SR: Well, smaller organizations, even if they're doing great work, definitely have a harder time attracting sponsors and dollars, and I really like the idea of being able to help them. I talk to a lot of people who are doing great, impactful work with smaller nonprofits, and they always tell me that budget constraints prevent them from reaching and helping more girls. I guess you could say it's my way of giving back. Who knows? Maybe someday the S.H.A.U.N. Foundation for Girls will be known as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for small nonprofits. [Laughs.] But seriously, that would be fantastic, because there are just so many organizations out there that need help, and if I can be a resource for them, well, nothing could be better.
PND: We seem to be in a moment, as a culture, where traditional notions of what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace are being challenged and upended. What do you make of all the women who are coming forward with allegations of harassment, and the #MeToo movement more broadly?
SR: Well, as a woman who worked in Hollywood for close to twenty years, none of this comes as a shock to me. It's happened to me, too. But women are finally being heard. This was a culture that had been normalized, and countless women — and men — were forced to experience the trauma of sexual harassment, assault, and retaliation. It's encouraging that those who were once victims are now willing to speak up and say, "Enough, this has to stop." Our voices are important — especially for future generations of women.
PND: So what's next for the S.H.A.U.N. Foundation? What are you working on, and where do you hope the foundation will be in three years?
SR: Well, right now I'm working on putting together a human trafficking event sponsored by Ford on the campus of my alma mater, Spellman College. I'm excited about that — we're expecting hundreds of young women to attend.
Looking out three years or five years? I hope to be able to touch the lives of thousands and thousands of girls. Sometimes it's just a matter of giving somebody a hand up, sometimes it's a matter of introducing them to a role model who can help them on their path and journey through life. But, you know, it all comes back to what my grandmother said: "If God gives you a platform, use it for good." That's what I'm trying to do.
— Mitch Nauffts