By Kate Lucas
Trista Harris (M.P.P. ’02) has known since she was 8 years old that she wanted to make the world better. As a kid, she got an up-close view of that kind of work at the Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis, where she spent a lot of time with her mother, who was a volunteer costume designer. She nursed a dream of running a similar community center, but when she got to the Humphrey School, her advisor, the late Bill Diaz, bluntly but kindly planted a new one in its place.
“You’re a little intense for most organizations,” Harris recalls Diaz telling her. “If you work one place, you’re going to drive people nuts. This constant ‘what’s the better way we can do this, what else could we try’ wears people out.”
Diaz suggested a career in philanthropy, where she could have a 20,000-foot-view of the community and help strengthen many organizations at once. That advice is clearly bearing fruit. The Chronicle of Philanthropy named Harris to its “40 Under 40” list earlier this year, and she was awarded a Bush Fellowship for 2016-17.
Harris’s rise in philanthropy was swift. After a few years working in fundraising, she landed her first foundation job, a tough nut to crack, becoming a program officer at the Saint Paul Foundation. Two years later, she became executive director of the Headwaters Foundation; five years after that, in 2013, she was named president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations (MCF), where she oversees a network giving away more than a billion dollars a year to support so many efforts like the Pillsbury House.
One of MCF’s key issues is racial equity, including Minnesota’s achievement gap—one of the big reasons Harris took the job. She stresses the importance of equity for individuals and for society as a whole. “Often when you talk about equity, people worry about what they will lose in that process,” says Harris. “But really what happens is you have a better functioning system.”
Harris doesn’t mince words about the change needed. “We [minnesotans] have always seen ourselves as ‘above average,’ in the Garrison Keillor sense, so it meant that for a long time we ignored the fact that when it comes to racial gaps across health, education, incarceration, life span, we have some of the worst gaps in the country.”
One of MCF’s equity initiatives, the Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellowship, prepares promising leaders from underrepresented communities for philanthropy careers. Another initiative, the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge Action Plan, written in collaboration with the St. Paul and Minneapolis mayors, strives to close opportunity gaps for boys and young men of color. Challenge areas include improving third-grade reading levels, high school graduation rates, and employment rates.
At times, in her role of convener and connector, Harris may seem removed from the up-close action of nonprofit work. Her father, who lives with her, her husband, and two children, often asks when reading the newspaper, “Did you help with this? ‘Cause it looks like something you would do, but I don’t see your name in the article.” Many times, she will say yes, she helped convene the funders or move the project along. But for Harris, “it isn’t about me or MCF being in the front of it all. Being the supportive fabric that integrates those connections is really fulfilling.”