Meet Kendall Clawson
Kendall Clawson is joining Group Health Foundation in September as a portfolio director. Bringing more than 32 years of nonprofit management and public service experience, she will help shape our leadership strategies, identify opportunities to leverage the Foundation’s status as a 501(c)(4) organization, and build an ecosystem of connected leaders and organizations working for equity and justice.
“We are taught to climb that ladder and work that food chain,” says Kendall. “But, what we don’t recognize is that the higher on the ladder you get, the more isolated you are. We don’t know how to be in community with one another when we’re in leadership. My work is about helping people be their authentic selves. That’s my jam.”
Kendall started community work in the late ’80s when a close friend was diagnosed with AIDS. She cared for him and began organizing with a Black coalition working on issues related to AIDS in San Francisco. She learned through this experience that she no longer wanted to study law as originally planned; instead, she went to work for several community organizations. Years later, she became the first executive director of the Q Center, the Pacific Northwest’s largest LGBTQ+ community center.
“We were kind of a stereotype of what an organization like ours looked like at the time. We were just short of a secret knock,” she says. “I wanted us to be out in the open and available and ready to be part of the broader community.” Kendall led the center through an expansion by increasing space, offering more services, and extending programming to friends and families of the LGBTQ+ community.
Four years into her time at the Q Center, Kendall was invited to meet with incoming Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. “I had a conversation with him and learned he was really interested in changing the face of who leads in Oregon, particularly when it comes to people who have been historically left out of civic spaces.” He offered, and she accepted, a role on his executive team as deputy chief of staff for community engagement.
She had many responsibilities, but perhaps her most impactful role was overseeing the recruitment, appointment, and management of the 3,000-plus members of Oregon’s state boards and commissions. When she started, only 6 percent of members were people of color; 17 percent were women. “This is the type of thing where people with power and privilege were given these opportunities to climb ladders, get connected, and drive decision making,” says Kendall. “The governor gave me carte blanche to change things up.”
By the end of Kendall’s eight-year tenure, the state’s boards and commissions were 25 percent people of color and 53 percent women. “We got people like the first African American to ever serve on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. He was also LGBTQ+. We introduced everyone to the great people who had been left out.”
Having also experienced being the “first” several times in her life as a Black and queer woman, Kendall hopes to bring to the Foundation what she learned along the way. “To me, this work is more than about grantmaking,” she says. “It’s also about building a community and shifting power to be more inclusive of the people who are both influencing and impacted by what the Foundation does.”
Kendall is currently the president and CEO of Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington and was previously the executive director of the American Leadership Forum of Oregon. She is deeply involved with several community organizations and boards, and organizes as an elder care advocate. As the child of a Navy family who grew up in California, Virginia, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, Kendall loves the ocean. She also enjoys playing tennis, traveling, and going on Sunday drives with her wife Michele and their dog, Blazer.