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Fighting Sex Trafficking and Domestic Violence, Championing Youth Leaders


JaMel Perkins

Forward Global Member since 2004


Empowering women and children through improved public health and education; working to end domestic violence and human trafficking



Small grants to local and international non-profits that focused on domestic violence intervention programs, reproductive rights as well as the environment, and education



After not finding organizations to fund that were focused on changing systems impacting sexually exploited youth, partnering with fellow TPW member Natasha Dolby to found Freedom Forward, which works to address systemic failures and change these systems for San Francisco youth

Background and Evolution

I grew up in Chicago, married my high school sweetheart, and stayed home to raise our family. I was always involved in my community, and also joined the League of Women Voters to learn about the local issues and politics. Around this time, I founded an organization called SHARE (Service for the Handicapped through Advocacy, Research, and Endowment), which supported parents of developmentally delayed children.

When we moved to California, I had to find my place and purpose again in my new community. I read an article about a domestic violence organization that needed volunteers, so I showed up for their basic training. That was my introduction to the issue of domestic violence, and also where I became a paralegal, helping victims of violence with legal papers and restraining orders.

As our capacity to give grew, so did my investment of time and funds in the domestic violence space, serving on boards and raising funds for shelters and transitional housing. My husband Tom, on the other hand, was involved in reproductive health in developing countries. He approached this through a climate and environmental lens.

We didn’t know how to formalize our giving as our resources grew. At first we mostly gave to the organizations friends and family suggested. When we learned about The Philanthropy Workshop, we felt it was a perfect way to develop a more formalized giving strategy. The hardest part was creating a mission statement. It was difficult to narrow our focus, but the discussion with our family was worthwhile as we could share our values and priorities.

What have been the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from TPW?

My two big takeaways are the importance of having a theory of change and tackling root causes. I saw many organizations dealing with domestic violence and trafficking. But if you don’t tackle prevention—starting with early childhood education and addressing trauma in broken families—what’s the point? Learning that from TPW was pivotal for me, and when I later connected with my partner Natasha Dolby (another TPW member), that was our starting point for founding Freedom Forward.

Can you share some successes in your work?

67% of youth that are exploited have been in our foster care and child welfare systems. Shortly after founding Freedom Forward, we finalized our Foster Care Pilot, which was a collaboration with other service providers working in this space. We applied for a grant from the California Department of Social Services, and were beyond thrilled when we were granted 9 million dollars over a three-year period. Then just recently, the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women has adopted and funded our FAM (Family and Me) program for the next three years, and hopefully will be scaled throughout the Bay Area. This just happened!

A long-ago success was when we were investing in reproductive health in Ethiopia. A project came to us for a $25,000 investment to set up a reproductive health program in a small town. It educated women about healthy pregnancies and provided women with contraception options. It trained local people and created a hub for women to gather in this community. That pilot was recognized by the Packard and Buffett Foundations, and was scaled throughout Ethiopia, which was another lightbulb moment – seeing the power of seed fund investments.

What challenges have you faced?

Three of us—a brilliant MIT engineering graduate and Rhodes scholar, Natasha Dolby with her incredible business sense, and me with a depth of history working in the space—founded Freedom Forward.

During the time of the 2020 George Floyd murder and Covid, our Freedom Forward staff, who are 80% people of color, were agitated and angry about diversity issues, including the organization being led by a caucasian woman. All founders and the Executive Director had a deep history of being involved in and supportive of organizations that embrace diversity, but that was not the defensive tone we wanted to take. We were being criticized because we were caucasian women, and that was hard, because we felt we were trying to help people of color with our work. But listening and having facilitated open transparent conversations with staff and letting them express themselves got us through that hard time.

How do you grapple with criticisms of philanthropy?

The 5% distribution from foundations is currently a big topic. Tom and I have never adhered to it and, as we’ve gotten older, we’re giving around 20% each year. If we spend down, then we spend down, because we need to address the problems now. Giving too little, or not making a serious investment, it’s like peeing in the ocean. With the climate issue, if you’re involved—spend now. And trust that the next generation can earn their own money.

Where have you seen your perspective on privilege differ from others?

I remember years ago having a conversation with a group of women who came together to talk about their family philanthropy. Being new to California, I thought it would be a great way to get introduced to a giving circle. But they were mostly discussing how difficult they were finding giving, and how stressed they felt. I thought, well, go to TPW! Tackle it from a professional perspective. Yes, it can seem hard, and yes, you need to do your homework. But make it easier by being prepared, and having a plan and tools and professional guidance. People have to know it’s not about them, it’s about the work and the good they could be doing.

Why do you remain involved with TPW?

TPW creates a safe environment. When you didn’t grow up with wealth, it’s uncomfortable talking about your financial situation. We’d been less involved in recent years, but there’s something to be gained through learning and having access to professional tools for giving. I’ve been more involved in the past year thanks to Terry Gamble Boyer with the Climate Action Lab, and we’ve shifted some of our funding toward more climate and democracy as a result.

It’s also very much about the people and connections we’ve made. We’re still involved with our original 2004 cohort—some of whom I’m involved in their philanthropy or nonprofit efforts, and others who I’ve become personal friends with. We’ve had wonderful experiences with the TPW Journeys, where you see both the good and bad of our world. That’s the price of privilege where you see the worst situations and then we go back to our hotel and have a $20 cocktail. The juxtaposition is hard, but you also learn to acknowledge and deal with it. It exposes you to something you need to see.

What advice would you give to someone just beginning in philanthropy?

Find mentors. Invite people for a cup of coffee. I actually do this a lot. Lots of young women call and I’m an open book—I’m not the expert, but I can direct you to somebody who is. Women are great networkers and sharers—take advantage of opportunities to connect with people you admire in this world. It constitutes a different kind of collaboration. And there’s comfort in being able to have someone you can call to check in with about your strategies or projects from time to time.