The Catalyst to Give Back
Keith grew up in Astoria, a working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York. Living in New York meant Keith’s father did not have to worry about Keith and the other children’s safety in the same way he would have, if they were living in Honduras. His father had immigrated to the United States from Honduras as a boy and grew up believing that every young person deserves an opportunity in life. It’s that ethic that inspired Keith’s father and mother to adopt three nieces, keeping them from foster care. “Family always comes first,” Keith’s father told Keith, “stepping up is just what you do.” Adopting the children was his father’s way of living into this ideal. The conviction that everyone deserves opportunity was what he believed democracy was all about.
Although this legacy—family first, helping others, opportunity for all—was handed down to Keith, it took Keith many years to realize that his father’s values were the bedrock for his own giving journey.
In middle school, a teacher had taken Keith under his wing. The teacher encouraged Keith to apply to the local Catholic high school and then later, a college counselor encouraged Keith to set his sites even higher—Stanford.
Stanford was out of reach financially for Keith’s working class family and on top of that, it was across the country physically. It was in one of the wealthiest counties in America. While Keith was intellectually capable, Stanford was a place for the privileged. With the ongoing encouragement of his college counselor, Keith applied anyway. He got in and he went. Keith was only able to attend the local Catholic high school and Stanford because the tuition for low-income students was paid for by alums.
Keith’s transition to life at Stanford was mixed. While he excelled academically, he was in a state of deep grief from recently losing a brother to an overdose, and he was surrounded by students whose experience was different from his own. Even seemingly innocuous questions such as “What does your father do for a living?” could make Keith self-conscious of the chasm between his peers’ situation and his working-class background. In addition to the rigor of being a full-time student, Keith held down three jobs as a student and sent money home.
Keith graduated from Stanford in International Relations. He had come a long way from his Honduran roots and from Astoria. Over the years, Keith has been the recipient of many opportunities that his family could not otherwise afford, but for the grace of philanthropic programs and people. He credits the philanthropy and mentorship of others to get him where he is today, despite the odds. Keith is grateful.
Upon graduation, Keith wanted his chosen career to reflect the gratitude in his heart. Figuring out a career to give back to the community that had given him so much was how Keith would find a way to step up for others. For Keith, it wasn’t a choice. Stepping up is just what you do.
The Strategic Giving Journey
While still in college, Keith felt the calling to teach. He applied for and was accepted to an exchange program working as a researcher and school volunteer at the Extra-Mural Education Project – EMEP. He was sent to Cape Town, South Africa where he experienced his first work in service, half of which was teaching. The experience was formative.
After graduating from Stanford, Keith was one of three recipients landing the prestigious Tom Ford Fellowship in Philanthropy where he worked at the Annie E. Casey Foundation with the Policy Reform and Advocacy Unit of the Foundation. He met philanthropist and educator Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen through a presentation he gave as part of the fellowship. This would prove to be another pivotal relationship that would shape Keith’s future.
After completing the fellowship, Keith taught for two years. He loved the career, but it was not enough money to live on—especially since he still sends money home to his family.
He and Laura had hit it off from their first meeting, and today Keith works as her Chief of Staff at the Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation (LAAF). Laura has been more than a mentor to Keith and introduced him to Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (SV2), an organization that she founded. It is a learning ground for philanthropists, and she encouraged him to join as a Partner to lay the groundwork in his education on strategic philanthropy.
SV2 supports both emerging and established leaders on their giving journey for social change through experiential learning and leadership opportunities in philanthropy. Becoming an SV2 partner gave him the perspective of viewing philanthropy from the other side, how decisions are made about where the money is placed, and the systems thinking behind those decisions. It has also given him a diverse network of empathetic community members who are working to make a real difference in the community.
The Journey Today
In addition to his job at LAAF and being a partner at SV2, Keith is active today in the Latino Community Foundation, and he mentors high school students in Washington, DC.
With the experience of losing his brother, Keith knows firsthand the poverty-addiction cycle. He wants to change the cyclical nature of poverty. He believes that breaking the cycle is closely linked with the values of democracy. “For democracy to work, everyone needs to participate and be invested in the community,” Keith says.
Keith turns 28 this year. He is on the young side of the philanthropic set, and he is still learning strategic philanthropy through his work at LAAF and organizations like SV2, but his wisdom is that of an old soul. One thing is clear, his star as an emerging leader on the philanthropic stage is rising. His voice—and others like him—are crucial in helping to solve society’s biggest challenges.
“Today we look at systems outcomes and forget the people and dignity,” he says. “For me, this is not about statistics, it’s about family.” In the field of philanthropy, he believes that it’s his lived experience that is his biggest asset.
In his own words: Keith Calix on why he gives.