Organizer, Connector, Storyteller: Virgil Parker, Summer 2020 Hearst Fellow
Virgil Parker ushered in a new era for the William Randolph Heart Fellowship in summer 2020: he was the first to begin and end his internship virtually. He and his PSI teammates at the Aspen Institute learned to navigate the new realities of the COVID-19 workplace together. But the distance didn’t diminish the fellowship’s impact or Parker’s link to the team. “Aspen,” he says, “was a catalyst.”
Parker leveraged his journalism major at Howard University to keep PSI informed of daily news in the social sector. This was critical as society began to turn to philanthropy to respond to COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. The twin pandemics of illness and social justice — often intertwined as COVID underscored healthcare inequities — were a call for philanthropy to act. Parker’s news tracking gave him a deeper view into the field’s challenges. “The team welcomed my input. I was able to voice my concern about things that were happening in the industry.”
He also worked on PSI’s Nonprofit Data Collective, which promotes open IRS Form 990 data use and access. All nonprofits must electronically file their 990 as of 2021. Parker compiled guidance on the e-filing process, laying out the information in an initial design. This guidance is available on PSI’s website.
The Hearst fellowship helped Parker realize that the best solutions for pressing problems happen when multiple sectors come together. He tapped into the Aspen Institute’s convening power and sister programs to bring about needed conversations and collaborations.
During his senior year at Howard, Parker organized an online panel series, The Future of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the COVID Era. The series featured leading HBCU presidents in conversation with higher education experts, alumni, and students. The Aspen Partnership for an Inclusive Economy, the College Excellence Program, and Weave: The Social Fabric Project co-hosted the series. Aspen Institute President Dan Porterfield joined Parker for the opening panel.
After graduating from Howard, Parker moderated a panel for Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. PSI’s Executive Director and Aspen Institute Vice President Jane Wales joined the discussion on Increasing Philanthropic Impact for Communities and Institutions of Color. In 2021-22, he was named a U.S. Fulbright Scholar. He centered his research at the University of Windsor on diversifying trade and growing cross-border social responsibility between the U.S. and Canada. The experience culminated with Parker’s moderation of an event with the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute.
Parker traces a line from his Hearst fellow experience to his current role at the Rochester Area Community Foundation. As the program officer for equity, he focuses on investing in nonprofits that serve the eight counties surrounding the foundation. His program supports organizations that aim to close academic achievement and opportunity gaps; foster racial and ethnic understanding and equity; and partner against poverty. “At the end of the day, we want to cause systems-level changes in our region. We want to take innovative approaches with an equity lens that help more groups in our community rise and thrive,” Parker says.
Outside of his program officer duties, Parker is generous with his time and organizing strengths. As chair of the Greater Rochester Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, Parker helped coordinate events in 2023 to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., Day in January and commemorate Dr. King’s assassination in April. He promotes and raises awareness of Sustainable Development Goal 4—Quality Education as a Global Goals Ambassador for the United Nations Association of the USA. Parker leaned into his journalism experience to produce a commemorative video project for the 45th Anniversary of Education and Sharing Day.
Although the Hearst fellowship shifted Parker’s interests, he still aspires to one day have a career at the intersection of film, television, and activism. He cites the work of Ava DuVernay as an influence. “She rallies the talent of the industry and brings them together to tell stories you’ll want to listen and respond to,” he says. No matter where his career takes him, Parker says that helping and supporting people will be a key aspect of it. Yet it’s easy to find that the connective thread is already there for Parker. Whether tapping into an organizing, journalism, or philanthropy lens, he brings people together to partner, combine efforts, and effect change.
For upcoming Hearst fellows, Parker offers this advice: “Be a sponge. Take initiative and ask yourself: ‘What can I get involved in?’ Finally, stay engaged with the team after you leave. The accomplishments and relationships you walk away with will stay with you for the rest of your life.”
Spectrum: Stories of the Hearst Fellowship at PSI is a blog series that features current and past holders of the William Randolph Hearst Endowed Fellowship for Minority Students at the Program on Philanthropy & Social Innovation (PSI) at the Aspen Institute. The support of the Hearst Foundations makes possible this fellowship, which helps diversify and strengthen the social sector. PSI is grateful for the Hearst Foundations’ generous commitment.