by Jonathan Haynes '20 and Esha Jain '23
LISD's Project on Gender in the Global Community hosted a conversation with Carmen Rojas, founder of The Workers Lab and incoming President and CEO of Marguerite Casey Foundation, on Friday, November 8, 2019. The session offered GGC student fellows the opportunity to discuss issues related to gender justice and economic security with Rojas who was visiting the Woodrow Wilson School for two days as a Leadership through Mentorship Visitor. The session was organized as part of the GGC student fellowship in Gender and Security. Student fellows are chosen annually from a variety of departments and programs and meet twice monthly during the throughout the academic year, and pursue independent, academically rigorous research on which they present and publish.
The conversation began with Rojas discussing how she came to be part of the founding of the Workers Lab. After completing a Fulbright and working at a tech foundation, Rojas recounted her feelings of being disconnected from social change and being cognizant of “contradictions in philanthropy.” This prompted Rojas to establish The Workers Lab to act as “buffer between movements and social change.”
One of the Workers Lab projects Rojas discussed in depth is the Innovation Fund. The Innovation Fund, one of The Workers Lab’s key programs focuses on distributing $150,000 to five selected applicants for their respective projects. According to Rojas, this program is a part of the organization’s intentional incorporation of underserved populations. Last year’s applicant pool was made up of 80% of women of color, reflecting the Innovation Fund’s intentional employment of tech language to “shift the narrative about who works and whose work is valuable in this country.” Rojas noted that there is an “increasing number of women and people of color entering the labor market and corporations don’t care, leading to the fraying of our economy.”
On the question of neoliberalism in the Workers Lab, Rojas admitted, “initially we were a neoliberal organization. We used it to raise money from people to do both remarkable and unremarkable things. I am not sure if I can say that we have never done harm. It is my work as a person who created this thing to figure out ways it can be weaponized against working people.” The role of The Workers Lab, Rojas says, is to divert “money from people with money, to give money to people who wouldn't receive funding otherwise and justify to funders.” Rojas pointed out that The Workers Lab is uniquely positioned because it is the “only organization that is entirely people of color, first generation, and queer.” Therefore, they are often the only non-white people in the room on conversations on work.
Moving forward on the future of work and labor organizing, Rojas hopes that there is more room to learn from other countries’ approaches to labor solutions, especially with the rise of technology and artificial intelligence integration. Ultimately, Rojas explained that it can be difficult to find non-exploitative solutions to labor-related issues, but that “the more robust a country’s labor movement, the more equal the economic society is” and the greater the democratic participation.
Dr. Carmen Rojas is incoming President and CEO of Marguerite Casey Foundation and Co-Founder and former CEO of The Workers Lab which invests in entrepreneurs, community organizers, and government leaders to create replicable and revenue generating solutions that improve conditions for low-wage workers. For more than 20 years, she has worked with foundations, financial institutions, and non-profits to improve the lives of working people across the United States. Prior to building The Workers Lab, Rojas was the Acting Director of Collective Impact at Living Cities. She supported 22 of the largest foundations and financial institutions in the world to invest in improving economic opportunity for low-income people by supporting projects in the fields of economic and workforce development, energy efficiency, and asset building. From 2008 to 2011, she was the Director of Strategic Programs at the Mitchell Kapor Foundation, where she oversaw the foundation’s Green Access and Civic Engagement programs. Alongside her work at the foundation, Rojas also taught in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to this, she was the Coordinator of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s Taskforce on African American Out-Migration to address African American displacement from the city. She currently sits on the boards of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, Neighborhood Funders Group, General Service Foundation, JOLT, Certification Associates, and on the Advisory Boards of Fund Good Jobs and Floodgate Academy.
Rojas holds a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of California, Berkeley and was a Fulbright Scholar in 2007.