By Justin Chapman

U.S. Senator Cory Booker recently Zoom-bombed an all-staff meeting of Michelson Philanthropies to tout the organization’s achievements over the past year.

“I am a huge fan of your work and I have a deep gratitude for what you all do,” he said. “I want to thank every one of you for the work you did in a very difficult year, 2021. You all are stepping into the breach and into the gap of the work that we need to do. You’re facing the challenges of a broken criminal justice system with work to improve it. You are improving animal welfare, which is a reflection on our humanity.

“Unfortunately, we know that this coming year, there’s no time to rest,” he continued. “Because of the work you all do every single day, I know we can make this year better than the last. We can advance the highest ideals of humanity. We can bring more love and justice into this world. I look forward to working with you all in 2022.”

During the meeting, Michelson Philanthropies executive director Geoffrey Baum highlighted the organization’s top 10 moments of significant impact in 2021, highlighted by the $115 million in the state budget allocated for the Zero-Textbook-Cost degree program and the 50,000 pets served by the Better Neighbor Project—even as the network of foundations planned to achieve even more in 2022.

10. Dr. Gary Michelson representing the organization and talking about its priorities

Dr. Michelson, founder and co-chair of Michelson Philanthropies, shared insights from his career with the Latino Medical Students Association and spoke to a group of students about what physicians need to know about intellectual property. He also appeared in national and state forums on digital equity including with the Financial Times to discuss breakthroughs in medical research, and participated actively in Michelson 20MM Foundation’s digital series Connecting California.

9. Saving Pets Challenge

“What we consider catalytic investment, such as the Saving Pets Challenge, especially in a pandemic year, was a remarkable success,” Baum said. “With a catalytic start, led by Jonathan Chavez and his team, they were able to raise nearly $1.2 million from over 7,000 donors for multiple nonprofits across the country. About 120 or so organizations all across the country participated and were able to use our matching or catalytic grants to raise even more money.”

8. Historically Black Colleges and Universities IP Futures Collaborative

“About the same time as the Black Lives Matter movement, there was a change in consciousness amongst all of us that ‘not being racist’ is simply not enough anymore, and that there needed to be more than that,” Dr. Michelson said. “We had to take actions that were, in essence, anti-racist.”

Michelson 20MM launched the HBCU IP Futures Collaborative to increase intellectual property education. Howard University is currently in the process of becoming the eighth member of the cohort.

“There’s just been amazing validation and appetite from the students, administrators, and faculty on these campuses for this type of education, and it’s only encouraged us to double down and go further for the second cohort,” said Phillip Kim, CEO of Michelson 20MM. “Everyone will be hearing much, much more about this in 2022.”

7. FirstGen Initiative

Alya Michelson launched the FirstGen Initiative and made a grant to an organization called Upwardly Global, which helps train and provide workforce skills to immigrants. Through the FirstGen grant, Upwardly Global created its first cohort of immigrant women in Los Angeles. They started out with a modest goal and nearly tripled the number of people they were seeking to serve with this inaugural grant.

6. The Michelson Institute for Pet Professions

The Michelson Institute for Pet Professions, which provides workforce training to people pursuing professions in the pet care industry, secured employment for everyone who has gone through the program.

“We knew that the animal welfare industry was underrepresented by people of color,” said Brett Yates, CEO of the Michelson Found Animals Foundation. “This was exactly an effort to address that. So we’re going into low-income neighborhoods, to LGBT students, to anti-recidivism students and we’re trying to fill this program with people that fit those needs with the goal of changing the face of the industry.”

In 2022, MIPP plans on graduating between 75 to 100 people in both grooming and dog training.

5. Microchip Registry

“While we closed a division of Michelson Found Animals in the last year, the pet registry—and we are all working through the restructuring of that—we didn’t abandon our commitment to making sure that everybody in this country has access to free pet microchipping and other services,” Baum said. “Dr. Michelson has been at the forefront of advocating for that, and we will continue to be a resource on that.”

4. Senate Bill 416

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that was spearheaded by the Michelson Center for Public Policy, which is designed to increase educational access to incarcerated students.

“At a very high level, with the reinstatement of Pell and a refocusing on educational opportunities for incarcerated students, SB 416 makes some very meaningful changes and put some significant protections in place to ensure that those incarcerated students have their best shot to transform their lives with education,” Kim said. “It’s a great win for the organization this year.”

3. Pet Sterilization

“We are on the verge of a very important research breakthrough in the Michelson Prize and Grants Program,” Baum said. “Reproductive biologists Patricia Donahoe and David Pépin are funded by Michelson Found Animals and coordinated by Thomas Conlon and Rebecca Cyr. They have been researching and making a real advance in the development of a single-dose sterilant for dogs and cats.”

Such a sterilant would revolutionize animal shelters, as it would dramatically reduce the number of dogs and cats that would be euthanized. Conlon said they received the first draft of Donahoe and Pépin’s paper on the same day as the meeting, which they are currently reviewing.

“We’re really excited about it,” said Thomas Conlon, chief scientific officer of Michelson Found Animals. “It’s going to be presented at a conference in Milan, Italy, in July, as long as we’re able to go to that.”

2. Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative Report

The Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative launched with the publication of a major research report in partnership with the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, which led to Congressman Adam Schiff and a group of bipartisan congressional leaders introducing a bill supporting eliminating breed restrictions in public housing. The bill is called the “Pets Belong with Families Act.”

“Now that that’s been introduced, and they cited our research as a foundational piece of that bill, we’re working actively with Congressman Schiff and a coalition of members of Congress to advance that piece of legislation,” Baum said.

1. Number one is a tie: $115 million for the Zero-Textbook-Cost degree program and the Better Neighbor Project

“Governor Newsom took a historic step in response to a decade-long effort from Michelson 20MM to focus on college affordability and specifically on textbook prices as a barrier for students,” Baum said. “Governor Newsom put into the budget, not $5 million as five years ago, or $15 million as he announced a year ago, but $115 million to fund Zero-Textbook-Cost degree pathways for California’s community college students so that they can get their degree and not pay a penny for textbooks. That was a direct outcome of work done by Dr. Michelson, Phillip Kim, Ryan Erickson-Kulas, Cailyn Nagel, and others over the course of years and it’s a signature achievement. It’s just so gratifying to see the governor as such a powerful ally in this effort.”

Kim said Michelson 20MM and the Michelson Center for Public Policy will work to make sure the $115 million is shepherded responsibly and optimized to reach as many students as possible.

“Here’s another signature achievement: the Better Neighbor Project and the thousands of people and pets served by this program, delivering food and providing health care services to people who otherwise might not be able to afford it,” Baum said. “We’re going to double down on serving even greater numbers of folks in the coming year.”

Since the program started in May 2020, nearly 50,000 pets and their families have been served through pet pantries and through Pet Wellness events. Yates said communities are asking them to come back and host BNP events again.

Yates and Kim also provided additional updates on their respective foundations.

Michelson Found Animals Foundation

Michelson Found Animals CEO Brett Yates reviewed two programs that the organization sunsetted in 2021: the Microchip Registry and Adopt & Shop.

“Regarding the registry, we had over 6 million customers in the database and over $27 million in sales,” Yates said. “Through that program, we were dramatically able to change the industry. It was really amazing to be able to see what we’ve done. Through Adopt & Shop, we had over $7.3 million in sales, over 400,000 volunteer hours, and we were able to adopt out over 17,000 animals. These are really remarkable programs that we’re all sorry to see go, but just like Dr. Michelson says, we achieved what we wanted to achieve and now we can have other people take them on so that we can focus on some of our new programs.”

Those new and continuing programs include the Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative, the Michelson Institute for Pet Professions, the Better Neighbor Project, Return to Home, Michelson Prizes and Grants, Leap Venture Studios, and more.

The Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative team has been working to make sure changes in housing policies in Los Angeles, California, and nationwide are implemented.

“More than 50% of U.S. residents live in rental housing, and about 80% of those live under some kind of restrictions against pets in their facilities, from a total ban on pets to a limit on the number of pets allowed,” Dr. Michelson said.

If those restrictions were removed, over 8 million people would be willing to adopt an animal or an additional animal, which is well more than the animals that are in shelters.

“We knew that the animal welfare industry was not represented by people of color. Our goal with the Michelson Institute for Pet Professions was to change the face of the industry.”

—Brett Yates, CEO of the Michelson Found Animals Foundation

MFA has also championed Return to Home, a set of best practices for shelters to return pets to their homes.

“Through that process, we’ve seen the Return to Home rates throughout America have almost doubled during the last year alone,” Yates said.

Through the Michelson Prizes and Grants program, MFA has secured more than $19 million in grants through 40 different programs.

Leap Venture Studios is a program that has been so successful that it has become a well-known name throughout the industry. Yates said MFA has decided to mirror this program in Europe.

“The European program will handle all Asian countries, European countries, and everyone else outside of North and South America,” he said. “We’ve developed a big name in the industry in coordination with Mars and R/GA, and we’re looking forward to great things this year from this program.”

Michelson 20MM Foundation

“Despite the headwinds of another year in COVID, the Michelson 20MM Foundation had a pretty strong 12 months,” said Phillip Kim, CEO of 20MM.

Much of the organization’s attention and excitement has gone towards Governor Newsom’s historic investment of $115 million in the Zero-Textbook-Cost degree program, but Kim pointed out there have been other equally impactful projects in the areas of intellectual property education, Student Basic Needs, digital equity, and in particular Smart Justice.

“For decades now, our society has accepted that about two-thirds of justice-involved people will be back in prison within three years of release,” he said. “If we look at the five-year horizon, that figure is actually closer to 77% that will be back in prison. And those are, by all measures, daunting figures. But ‘daunting and doable’ is still doable. We are working to dramatically alter that reality through increased access to educational programs.”

He added that the successful passage of SB 416, led by the Michelson 20MM and Michelson Center on Public Policy teams, represents a drastic improvement to in-prison educational programming.

In 2016, Michelson 20MM launched the Smart Justice Initiative with the goal of supporting the educational attainment, employment, and economic opportunity for all system-impacted individuals, including those who are incarcerated and those who are reentering their community. There is significant research that supports the positive linkage between education in prisons and lower recidivism rates, which yields enormous economic, fiscal, and social benefits, some of which include increased employability, higher wages, and better quality of life for the people who are re-entering the community.

“The most significant impact moving SB 416 forward was the phenomenal outreach and advocacy by the Michelson Center for Public Policy, in particular, Dr. Michelson himself. I know lots of incarcerated students across the state are going to be able to reap those benefits.”

—Aaron Brieno, former deputy chief of staff for state Senator Ben Hueso

Mayra Lombera, vice president of programs and operations at Michelson 20MM, said her team partnered with organizations such as Project Rebound, Rising Scholars, and other prison education advocates in 2020 and 2021 to establish quality control measures and support scholars behind bars.

Governor Newsom’s proposed budget, released in January 2021, included a substantial appropriation for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for technology for inmates participating in academic programs.

“This was a signal to us that they were going to further enable incarcerated students to engage in remote academic programming outside of the classroom,” Lombera said.

In December 2020, Congress lifted the 26-year ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students, which drew the attention of private, for-profit colleges and universities and essentially opened the floodgates for predatory, low-quality college programming to start coming into prisons. Pell Grants is a federal aid program for low-income students, and the reinstatement of Pell required CDCR provide instruction only by qualified, regionally accredited, non-profit colleges and universities.

“Both of these underscored the need for a bill that could institute some protections to ensure that the 14,000 incarcerated students across California’s prisons continue to receive quality college programming,” Lombera said.

SB 416 essentially did three things: it established guardrails against predatory, for-profit institutions after the reinstatement of Pell Grants; it instructed CDCR to start prioritizing those colleges that were providing face-to-face classroom-based instruction; and it amended Title 15 in the California Code of Regulations to recognize that full-time college enrollment could count as full-time work assignment.

“The bill secured strong bipartisan support, and it made its way through the committees and floors of both chambers without a single ‘no’ vote, which is no easy feat,” Lombera said. “But this could have just as easily gone awry if it wasn’t for the strength of the coalition and state Senator Ben Hueso’s staff.”

Kenia Miranda-Verdugo, who worked as legislative director in Senator Hueso’s office and recently joined Michelson 20MM’s staff as Smart Justice Program Manager, said they faced a number of hurdles in getting SB 416 passed.

“When we started diving deeper into digital equity work, we found that nobody was serving as a flagbearer, especially within the philanthropic sector. Being the tip of the spear, getting from conversation to action, is the role that we’ve set out to play.”

—Miguel León, project manager of Michelson 20MM’s Digital Equity Initiative

“We were surprised when CDCR released a fiscal analysis asking for a $22 million appropriation for SB 416 to be put into effect, as this bill was written to be cost neutral,” she said. “What we believed was going to be an easy bill could have actually died in the process due to this outrageous fiscal analysis from CDCR. What we take from this is that stakeholders with vested interests will do what they can to preserve and advance their own interests or agendas. This could have actually prevented a lot of incarcerated students from being helped the way that SB 416 was designed to do.”

She added that it was the work of many stakeholders, the coalition, and sponsors like the Michelson Center for Public Policy that allowed SB 416 to get to the governor’s desk for his signature.

“I cannot stress how impactful it was and how powerful it was to have such a large and strong coalition, from the community college system to Project Rebound and Underground Scholars,” said Aaron Brieno, former deputy chief of staff in Senator Hueso’s office who is currently completing his master’s in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Each of those organizations played a phenomenal role in the strategy as well as the phenomenal resources they helped to provide us with as far as incarcerated students. But the most significant impact moving this bill forward was the phenomenal outreach and advocacy by the Michelson Center for Public Policy, in particular, Dr. Michelson himself, by placing those instrumental calls to the chairs of the Appropriation Committees. I know lots of incarcerated students across the state are going to be able to reap those benefits.”

Kim and Miguel León, project manager of Michelson 20MM’s Digital Equity Initiative, also provided an update on their efforts to expand broadband access to close the digital divide.

“When the world first shut down in the wake of the pandemic, almost overnight we all developed a new appreciation for online connectivity and began to recognize broadband access as a 21st century right and vital lifeline for everything from education to health care to participation in our democracy,” Kim said. “Many of us also realized that a huge portion of the population, often along racial or socioeconomic lines, were not connected as a result of years and decades of systemic exclusion.”

León pointed out that digital inequity existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic certainly exacerbated the problem.

“We wanted to continue the conversation but set a platform for that conversation to impact a broader audience, hence the creation of Connecting California: Solving the Digital Divide series, which has been a means for us to uplift all of the different nuances and challenges within a complex and multifaceted issue,” he said. “When we started diving deeper into digital equity work, we found that nobody was serving as a flagbearer, especially within the philanthropic sector. Being the tip of the spear, getting from conversation to action, is the role that we’ve set out to play.”

He added that Michelson 20MM’s goal has been to make sure equity is at the forefront of how broadband dollars are expended in California.

“We need to make sure that the voices of communities most impacted by this issue are part of the rulemaking processes and the decisions about how these dollars are going to be spent,” he said.

“I just really would love to thank everybody from the bottom of my heart who stays with us, who believes in us. I really believe in our team. We have achieved so many unbelievably great things. Let’s double it up this year.”

—Alya Michelson, co-chair of Michelson Philanthropies

In that spirit, Michelson 20MM established the digital equity pooled fund, a catalytic investment of $25,000 that will result in a 12-times return on investment because their partners will contribute a minimum of $300,000 to do grantmaking in the most needed spaces in the digital equity space.

Dr. Michelson concluded by highlighting the successes that the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations have so far achieved.

“In many of our efforts, it is truly asymmetrical warfare,” he said. “It’s us against industries that have an almost unlimited budget. Every time we achieve a victory at the government level, it is a David versus Goliath situation. It’s all the more remarkable for the victories that we’ve secured.”

Alya Michelson thanked the Michelson Philanthropies team for their dedication to the causes that she and Dr. Michelson have set out to impact.

“I just really would love to thank everybody from the bottom of my heart who stays with us, who believes in us,” she said in closing. “I really believe in our team. I find it truly remarkable. For the last two years, we have really achieved so many unbelievably great things, even though we were and still are in a pandemic situation. We’ve made such great progress. Let’s double it up this year and for all years to come.”

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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