Cris Lira, MRG’s grants program director, just hit her 8th anniversary with MRG Foundation. Over that time, Cris has taken on increasing and incredible leadership of our General Fund, Critical Response, and Travel grant programs and has seen Oregon’s social justice movements grow and change.
1. When and how did you first get connected to MRG?
Cris Lira: My first time hearing about MRG was when I was serving on the board of directors at the Rural Organizing Project and Marcy Westerling invited me to go with her to Presentation Day, where general fund applicants present their work to fellow activists and MRG’s grantmakers.
My first reaction at presentation was, “OMG! Where did all these amazing people come from, where have you been hiding?” All I saw was a very diverse group of people in the room who were interested in what I had to say. And they were all so pleasant, smart, caring, progressive people. A decade later, and that’s still how I feel about the people I get to work with at MRG and our grantees.
2. What is your favorite part about working at MRG?
Cris Lira: Whenever I get this question, I always say the same thing: the activist-led grantmaking is what inspires me and keeps me motivated and helps me do my best work. I really believe in our process of putting on the ground, grassroots organizers in the decision making seat. And the way that people from all over Oregon can come together, have really hard conversations in a respectful manner, and make these tough decisions, it’s pretty incredible.
3. What advice do you have for potential general fund applicants?
Cris Lira: What I try to emphasize is that we want them to succeed. We see ourselves as a learning foundation – we will give grantees feedback and we will take time to listen to them and to talk to them and to help them build a stronger proposal so that they can keep trying in hopes of succeeding.
The area that is most often challenging, especially for new applicants, is our identity grid. I think it’s challenging because applicants don’t fully understand why we ask for it. We’re not trying to pry into their lives or ask invasive questions out of the blue – the identity grid is how we understand who’s leading the organization, how we ensure that the work we’re funding is truly being led by those most impacted by injustice, and how we hold ourselves accountable to meeting benchmarks and investing deeply in work that is led by people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks.
4. You’ve been at MRG Foundation for eight years. How have you seen Oregon’s social justice movements grow in that time?
Cris Lira: I certainly have seen growth! Groups like the Center for Intercultural Organizing, Causa Oregon, Momentum Alliance – these were small or brand new grantees when I started at MRG now they’re known nationally, with victories under their belts, and able to attract resources from larger foundations.
I remember when CIO first started to think about how to reduce and eliminate police profiling in Oregon and watching that evolve into planning, and base building, and an organizing campaign, and then victory this year – that’s been very cool and I feel lucky to be able to witness all that.
5. What recent social change victories are you most excited about?
Cris Lira: I feel pretty excited about gay marriage. I think part of why I’m excited about it, is because I remember the early struggles here in Oregon and throughout the country. To go from NO on 9, one of my earliest efforts in organizing, to marriage equality across the country – that’s pretty incredible.
And it’s more than marriage. There’s Ellen and football players and baseball players – for more people, in all walks of life, to be able to be themselves is pretty exciting. There is so much more work to do, especially around deeper inclusion and leadership of trans folks and people of color in queer movements, but it’s incredible to see the progress and makes me feel such a sense of hope.
6. What are you most passionate about?
Cris Lira: I’m really passionate about kids and I pay a lot attention to education issues. In doing the work that I do at MRG Foundation, I think about leaving this world in a better place for the next generation. I feel like that’s what MRG is about – creating a more just world and protecting a clean environment for every future generation.
7. Who is your mentor/who do you look up to? How have they influenced your life?
Cris Lira: I’ve had many mentors throughout my life. A mentor from teen years at the YMCA, my daughter, and my partner definitely come to mind.
But the person that’s most influenced me is my mother. Her story, her hard work, her focus on education all really inspire me. She was a migrant farmworker as a child and went to school in the winter when they couldn’t be in the fields. She raised three kids as a single parent and while she was raising us, she went back and got a GED, she went to nursing school, and when she turned 40 she became a nurse! She worked and she worked hard.
She cared so much about education. There was never a doubt that I would go to college – it was a given. She didn’t know how it would be afforded, but she knew that her children would go to college and that her grandkids would go to college.
8. What’s something about you that might surprise people?
Cris Lira: Most people don’t know that my first pet was a monkey. Somehow, it doesn’t come up in conversation. His name was Jack-o and he was so cute!
9. What’s your social justice theme song?
Cris Lira: The song that always seems to make me jump up where ever I’m at is “I will survive.” That’s my theme song. I think about it in terms of my life and my work and being a person of color in this world.
10. If you had a social justice super power, what would it be?
Cris Lira: Speed like The Flash – so that I could go anywhere super quickly – and I’d have the power to transform hearts and minds as I moved past people. So I could move through a crowd of haters and they’d jump across the line and rally for justice with the rest of us.
Don’t forget: We’ve increased the size of General Fund grants this year — up to $12,000 for community groups and up to $25,000 to leadership groups! Applications are due Friday, August 28th and they must be received in person in MRG’s office by 5 p.m. or postmarked by August 28th. Late, faxed, or emailed grants will not be accepted. Contact Cris (503-234-2338 or 1-800-489-6743 toll free or firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have questions.