Anybody who spends more than five minutes with Arnold Perkins invariably leaves with a smile on their face. Arnold has packed many lifetimes of experience into his 79 years and has been honored by organizations across the region for his leadership in public health, community organizing, and philanthropy. As a fund holder at the East Bay Community Foundation, Arnold continues to serve his community not only through his own giving, but through his wisdom, personal service, and the many examples of a life well lived.
“I come from an activist family,” he says. “We were active in our church, which gave me a sense that I had a responsibility bigger than myself.”
The journey was by no means smooth. Arnold stuttered as a child and would intentionally misbehave in school so he’d be sent to the principal’s office rather than be called on to speak in front of his classmates. One teacher stepped in and refused to let the students make fun of him, giving him confidence to finish high school. “That experience changed my life,” he said.
Following high school, Arnold enrolled in the Navy, where he learned core concepts about leadership and stewardship that served him over a strong, diverse career spanning the restaurant industry, education, family counseling, philanthropy, and the sector where he has probably spent most of his career – public health. In 1994, he was hired to be Director of Alameda County’s Public Health Department despite having no public health experience. Instead, Alameda recognized that what they needed was someone with a deep understanding of the community. Arnold’s work was so influential that the Arnold X. Perkins Award for Health Equity is now awarded to California health departments that develop the most innovative health equity strategies.
Through it all, he has been unafraid to take risks and try new things. “If you want to have what you never had before you must do what you’ve never done before,” he says. “’No’ does not move you forward.”
Arnold has also spent his career devoted to promoting racial justice and racial equity. “When you talk about race in an honest way it’s freeing. We have these myths about each other. We make assumptions about who you are and what you must be like based on your skin color. This has to be something we talk about on an ongoing basis. It has to be a practice so we can talk about it and not be uncomfortable.”
While he is well known as an important leader, “I think of myself as a servant who brings people together. My gift is as a connector.” One of those important connections is the Brotherhood of Elders Network, which he co-founded, and whose Donor Advised Fund is supported by the East Bay Community Foundation through the African American Response Circle Fund. The Brotherhood of Elders Network is an intergenerational network of men of African descent whose mission is to foster environments where Black males are empowered to flourish.
Arnold also created his own Donor Advised Fund at EBCF to be able to easily distribute funds to as many organizations as possible. “It gives me joy to be able to share what comes my way. As long as you give it comes back to you. And the culture of giving is really important. For me, it’s all about coming together collectively to address the needs in our community.”
When asked what advice he has for his fellow donors, he replies, “Don’t just give, engage. Go and visit some of the places where you give. Volunteer. Get a sense of where you are choosing to put your money and what that organization is all about. Give freely and make this world a better place. You could also be a resource in other ways. It’s not just about the money – it’s the personal interactions you have. They can benefit from you and you can benefit from them.”
He is quick to point out how the East Bay Community Foundation has supported his philanthropic goals. “I love that EBCF is willing to house dollars for new ideas, like the African American Response Circle Fund. It gives donors the chance to reach people they might not know how to reach.”
Even though he is about to celebrate his 80th birthday, Arnold doesn’t appear ready to slow down, and continues to serve on countless boards of directors, including the California Wellness Foundation, the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Commission, and the University of California Helen Diller Comprehensive Cancer Center Community Advisory Board.
Looking back at his life and career, he observes, “Even on the darkest days my life has had sunshine. I have a 96/4 rule. Ninety six percent of the things in my life go well and four percent don’t. I choose to focus on the 96 percent. I am blessed, I am blessed.”
To learn about the African American Response Circle Fund pleach click here.