Practicing the Note ‘til it’s Perfect

Practicing the Note ‘til it’s Perfect

Armando Castellano is a professional musician and teaching artist. He plays the French Horn and founded Quinteto Latino, an ensemble to uplift classical works of cultural significance. Building community while advocating for classical musicians of color is very close to Armando’s heart. He’s also a trustee on his family foundation’s board, along with his two sisters Carmela and Maria. His family came into money when they won the California Lottery in 2001. Armando and I first spoke over a decade ago, when I was a new donor organizer at Resource Generation and Armando was an outgoing member. We finally met last year in Phoenix, at the Donors of Color Network gathering, where he’s a board member and I’m a consultant. Luckily, we got along well in person too. 

NR: What’s new Armando?

AC: I was practicing right before you called, I have been trying to get this passage just right and I finally got it right before I got on the call with you, yay! In thinking about how I practice, a lot of the music I play I don’t really need to practice, I usually end up just needing to practice the most difficult of passages, like this one.

NR: Congratulations! That sounds satisfying.

AC: It was!! It was satisfying. I’ve been practicing it for a few weeks.

NR: I’m also hearing you say that what you really have to work on is what’s difficult, and taking new actions is always that. This sounds like it could be relevant for practicing philanthropy. Can you elaborate?

AC: Music is the ultimate metaphor. You’re trying to get a pitch, a note to represent an emotion or a feeling or a story. It’s very abstract, and it’s the process, a fine art – very refined. We just keep practicing that one note within the context. Playing at a very high level, incremental change is very tiny. So it’s a very refined, slow process of getting better. That’s what philanthropy and social change is like. A very slow incremental step to change philanthropy as a whole. It takes a lot of hard work – weeks on that one note – for the change to happen. It’s yin and yang, music and philanthropy.

What’s really on my mind is this initiative I started via my family’s foundation – Blueprint for Change. We did convenings and asked questions of our grantees about what they need. What can make it better for Latinx serving non-profit organizations? They picked five things – 1) more support for general operations 2) leadership development 3) staff wellness 4) access to philanthropy, and 5) innovation. There’s a big move towards innovation here (Santa Clara/San Jose/San Francisco Bay Area) but foundations won’t fund it. Non-profits need trust and flexibility and funding to innovate.

NR: That sounds fantastic. How much money are you hoping to raise for this initiative?

AC: $50 million in 5 years. We’re talking to foundations for entry points now, it feels palatable regionally at the moment. We are building awareness of the issues Latinx non-profits face. It’s official, with the 30 page report we produced. The new fund doesn’t have a name yet, but it will be held at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Now you might think that Armando is simply a loving genius with a heart of gold born to redistribute excess wealth. While he’s all those things, and more, he readily admits he had a ton of learning opportunities and role models.

NR: What was the beginning of the beginning of this journey for you, before becoming a donor or funder?

AC: It was definitely steeped in my parents growing up and their activism as Chicano activists, and social change agents, volunteers, non-profit leaders. That was one of the best examples – a lifetime of seeing them do that. There’s a Cinco de Mayo festival in San José, a Mexican American (he emphasizes American) holiday and a parade. My dad was a very big part of creating that and keeping it going. My parents are big art lovers. Dad’s big thing was having art and artists at the festival. He would convene artists, have a gallery, display their stuff. Now that lives in me. I didn’t see it then, I was a teenage boy, but I see it now. 

NR: Did they fund the arts even before winning the lottery?

AC: Oh yes, they always did. Dad was retired and in his mid-60’s when that happened.

NR: So the lottery! Tell me about your family winning – how, when, how much money was it?

AC: So they won the lotto in 2002. It was either $147… or $174… or $179 million.

NR: You forgot how many millions that was? We need that number.

AC: (laughs) Yeah we do need that number. The story is that my mom immediately wrote down a list of all the non profit organizations she wanted to support. And that was the first grantee list. I wish we still had that paper! It was implemented and they started 6 months later – the foundation and giving. And their own journey around learning philanthropy.

Armando shared this SF Gate article with me later – it looks like the amount was $141 million. When Alcario and Carmen Castellano chose to do the one-time cash out option that amount became around $70 million, and after taxes it was $42 million. 

NR: What changed for you after this moment?

AC: I’m 49, so this happened when I was around 32. By 33 I was learning about Resource Generation (RG). They really shaped my journey, learning about wealth, investing, giving, about second-gen money, family dynamics – all that seed was planted at RG. Then my time there ended at 35. I wasn’t involved with my family foundation yet. It was more about living with wealth, and what that feels like.

NR: What came next, as you went from accepting yourself as a wealthy person to recognizing yourself as a donor?

AC: I always say three things to new donors and funders  – 1) Power sharing 2) Listening – how to be quiet and not talk (which was very hard for me) 3) Listening to learn

My process as an artist and philanthropist are similar. It’s about giving voice to people who don’t feel heard. There’s a similarity in power sharing. Both in teaching and musician-ship, and in philanthropy, there is a center around cultural competency. We are dealing with communities that aren’t necessarily asked their opinion, or asked to share, or asked to be heard, or asked about their feelings about things, or asked about their lives. In philanthropy, I’m listening to my grantees, to under-served communities, or communities that need to talk. 

I teach my sons this too, about using my privilege to be open hearted, to have the energy to be open hearted and listen to someone who feels they’re not listened to, whether that’s by other philanthropists or white philanthropists or someone else. Be someone who understands where they’re coming from culturally. I’m using my privilege as a person who has the opportunity to be centered and therapied and to be loving. It’s a privilege to work on myself, so the way I share myself with others is to listen carefully.

You can see a timeline of their family foundation’s formation and milestones here, created when the Castellano Family Foundation turned 15 and held a Quinceañera. A significant moment was the next generation leadership transition in 2012.

NR: What was it like to step into leadership on the board of the Castellano Family Foundation?

AC: Six or seven years ago, my parents wanted me sisters and I to be involved, and to hand it over. I remember the conversation with my dad in the kitchen. I said, “no problem, but we’re not going to do this together.” It’s really hard for him to hear my opinions about things. So I’m happy to do it but we can’t do it together, or it’ll be me just being quiet. Without hesitation, he immediately said okay.

NR: That’s a big deal. You said what you needed, and he trusted you, so he could let go.

AC: Yes, and he stuck to it. That’s why I feel really committed to the process and involved, I’m very involved. He was so vulnerable in giving it up. So we started with a blank slate. We hired a consultant and went through a new strategic plan to re-do funding areas. My mom stayed on the board for continuity. We hired a staff person who leads the programs and operations. 

My dad said it would bring our family closer together, working on the foundation. I wasn’t sure about that, but it did. All the stuff in the family, all the family dynamics, also come out in the foundation! But maybe with the formality of the foundation, we have to work it out, so that’s come back into the family dynamics in a good way. It’s been positive, spending time together, solving problems together.

NR: So where did you go then for support and learning as a trustee? And how did you meet the Donors of Color Network?  

AC: I could see right away that I started doing the same thing in philanthropy I did in classical music – Advocacy, building awareness around DEI (Diversity Equity Inclusion) issues and Latinx giving. I started going to conferences and speaking up, always asking a question, or making a comment. I found myself talking about brown issues as a family member trustee of color. I think that voice became more developed. I started curating more carefully about what I’m saying and when. It turned into doing some workshops and panels, being asked to be on some committees. I got into more networks of philanthropy folks, and started being super conscientious and curating who I’m talking to or not, who I’m spending time with or not, and where I think I can affect change and my voice is heard. Having my ear to the ground in terms of color issues and other folks of color and where I would find them.

Donors of Color appeared when I got an interview. You connected us Nitika! After an hour and half of talking to Hali and Tuhina I said “Please, I need to meet the other ones as well”. Because that’s what I’m about! I do the same thing in classical music. 

NR: Since you’ve found the other brown unicorns now, what would you say to your community of donors?  

AC: How can we as a cohort wield power? How can we as a cohort share our findings within the field, to create change? Donors of Color does that, I do that with my organization. The strategies DOCN takes on are so close to my heart. Influencing and wielding power as people of color is incredibly powerful for us and for the field at large and society at large. This board I sit on is the most hopeful place for me. This is gonna be the one that is going to create some really impactful change, that already is. Being a member and sharing that in communities with people who don’t know about it yet, it’s already very influential.

People ask me “What? That exists?” “It would need to exist?” It acknowledges my uniqueness within a lot of rooms. You are a person of color, there’s a different perspective there. In its existence it creates change, especially around white principals. “Oh shit!! Everyone is white here except you.” I wonder how that impacts the world, and how we give. It empowers people to talk about race. It’s not just Armando, it’s a whole national organization of Armandos talking about it.

NR: Armandos of many races… 

AC: I’m very excited about that part. I was very dubious about it at first. When we met, I got sold.

NR: What sold you?

AC: I was worried about cross-race communication, cross-race problem solving. I’ve been completely proven wrong. Being part of a cross-race collective changes how I do things, how we solve problems. I do a lot of cross race things, but this felt different. Something I grapple with as a teaching artist, I jump in and jump out of communities all the time. In this community, I’m with a lot of people who already have their own systems. They’re all ready to meet in the middle, very easily. That feeling, that approach is overarching, overriding any culture-specific trend or need. There’s  a collective – we see the power in the collective voice.

As you can see, it took a long time for Armando to become who he is – first a person with wealth, then a trustee stewarding those resources, while continually seeking/forming community and learning opportunities to do it better. But the seeds were planted at home at the very beginning through his family’s values centering community, generosity, activism and organizing, and arts and culture. He also moved through many different organizations, from donor networks to community foundations to rising into leadership in his own family foundation and now on the DOCN board. This is one donor/funders journey of finding his path and using the full power of his voice. If you have a story to tell, we want to hear and highlight it. And Armando wants to meet all the donors of color out there, so feel free to comment or write to him directly.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Armando, I loved learning more about your story and your family’s! Thank you for sharing it, for all you do for DOCN, and for the beautiful example you set every day for how to live with such openness and heart. Jeannie

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