The data are consistent: increasing racial equity and strengthening social justice remain challenges to our society. But to close gaps or disparities in racial equity, those involved with philanthropic organizations must be able to talk about the problem and build trust with others if they are to create opportunities to address these problems.
Barriers to progress include:
- The terms “social justice” and “racial equity” can trigger emotional reactions which can get in the way of making progress. It’s typically difficult for African Americans and European Americans to talk about fairness and justice, especially on those occasions when they’re together.
- It’s very easy for people to feel threatened by “the Other” and to stop listening. For example, it’s easy for both Black and White to feel threatened by the other, or isolated, or dismissed. Talking out loud about inequity or injustice can put us at risk; we may each fear repercussions from our superiors at work, our neighbors at home, or the community we “represent.” The social and organizational pressures to be silent can be substantial, chilling progress.
- Many people, especially of a dominant culture, often don’t see the problems of disparities. For example, White Americans are far more likely than Blacks to think that everything is working just fine, and to ignore the facts shown in virtually all the data showing unequal performance in how our systems and markets work. Complicating the problem, data presented by African American organizations are too easily dismissed by Whites as “biased.”
Benchmark Practices. Progress is made when philanthropic organizations get good at these benchmark practices:
Creating opportunities for safe conversation that can lead to relationships built on trust
Creating conversations that reveal people’s similarities more than their differences helps to create trust. Most people want the same things for their families and communities. Acknowledging this out loud helps to create connections and build trust. Trust is a 2-way street, regardless of who’s bigger and stronger.
Faith traditions and song-writers express this sentiment on the prerequisites to trust, here quoting Otis Clay: “Before you abuse me, criticize me, rebuke me, walk a mile in my shoes.”
Wrestling with potentially charged language is an on-going concern. The terms “racial equity” and “social justice” carry a lot of weight and often get tempers flaring. They have a way of getting to personal and historical issues that we as people have to learn to get beyond.
Using the language of “disparities” avoids discussion of personal attitudes, and is a way to get beyond many of the language and attitude problems. The language of disparities focuses on where our systems and markets are broken, and invites us to fix them for the benefit of all.
Some organizations find it easier not to talk about race, and instead to talk about “all people.” That can work for awhile, but if there’s not respectful and appreciative talk among partners, the partnership breaks down.
Learning a variety of ways to “frame” equity or justice or to use different “lenses” for viewing the world can help to get around or through the problems with language. Some people are comfortable with a “racial equity lens,” others with a “need” or a “class” lens. Others see things as “rural” versus “urban,” or “haves” versus “have-nots.” “Poverty” is a label that sometimes works because it does not refer directly to race or class or place, but can imply it. Many are helped by learning about their “white privilege.” In philanthropy, there’s a “social justice” versus “charity” lens; choosing one leads to very different grantmaking than choosing the other.
Supporting conversations that bridge divides — getting people together who wouldn’t ordinarily get together — has the potential of creating social capital that can be spent on efforts to reduce disparities. Building on existing capital to create more capital is also useful if then deployed well. Not using social capital to further just and fair ends, however, is a waste.
Supporting the development of working relationships and productive partnerships
Creating relationships built on trust and reaching across divides helps build on common interests and create common cause, the stuff of partnerships. One can’t fix broken social systems alone; one has to get good at partnering, finding those who bring something special to the effort. As in, “With my money and your brains, experience, and connections, maybe we can get something done.”
Strengthening networks in rural areas, where the usual disparities are made worse by relative isolation from markets, other people, and various amenities for keeping up in today’s world is especially necessary to create conditions for equitable development.
Helping to connect local nonprofits with local government, local nonprofits with national nonprofits, local nonprofits with local business associations, this coalition with that coalition — all helps to synergize their effort and catalyze new development.
Being able to say, without flinching, that you have an interest in maybe trying to help with these issues of fairness and justice
Showing an interest invites progress (in the form of relationships that can lead to partnerships) considerably more than showing none.
Promoting an agenda of learning, for your organization and your community, also advances the possibilities of trust.
Naming an issue for consideration and possible action by your organization in which questions of justice or equity are obviously present takes this trust-building another step.
Promoting reflection and healing — the pinnacle of trust-building
Exploring issues of equity and justice takes many people to a personal level. For those willing to go there, an unfamiliar part of one’s self is revealed, which is almost always worth exploring. This seems true for those from a dominant culture, those from an oppressed culture, and for all those (most of us?) who are part of both. There’s just something about “justice” and “fairness” that provokes both anger and love, both indignation and patience, heat and light. Recognizing this could make us all better “philanthropists.”
Helping a process of reconciliation is part of the philanthropic tradition, especially those rooted in faith. The Rev. Jim Wallis defines philanthropy as “faith in action.”
Discussing whether we’re in a “post-racial society” now that a bi-cultural man has been elected President belong in this section.
Benchmark Signs of Progress. Philanthropy gets high marks for progress achieved on this pathway when you can see signs that…
- The terms “social justice” and “racial equity” are less likely to trigger emotional reactions which can get in the way of making progress, especially with those you would want as allies.
- There is a greater sense of safety for yourself and others to speak up.
- More people, especially White Americans, are more likely to see the problem of disparities, and more likely to acknowledge that something should be done.
Examples of Good Practice
Asking the board of Community Foundations of Canada what they meant by “social justice” generated this remarkable list: “helping others, leveling the playing field, dealing with dis-advantagement, giving a hand up-rather than a hand-out, system change, root causes, and dealing with the causes of poverty.” Some organizations find it easier not to talk about race, and instead to talk about “all people.” Others find talking about race necessary to achieve a level of trust that attracts partners and support.
When meetings convened by Jacksonville Community Council, Inc . focused on “race relations,” finger-pointing and acrimonious discussion was the result. But by focusing on “institutional practices that create gaps,” the conversation turned to a productive search for solutions.
The Jessie Ball duPont Fund supports dialogues to promote understanding across racial lines.
At the Foundation for the Mid South, a group of African American and White leadership traveled to South Africa, Brazil and Chicago, and throughout their own region, to create awareness of poverty and racism. Participants developed an extraordinary compassion for what they saw and bonded among themselves, setting the stage for further developments.
In conjunction with neighborhood-based organizations, three North Carolina community foundations, Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro , The Winston-Salem Foundation, and Foundation for the Carolinas , created local civic engagement projects. The resulting discussions on justice and equity “cultivated the civic soil.”
The goals of the Facing Race/We’re All in This Together initiative of the Saint Paul Foundation fall into two categories – addressing racism at the individual level and addressing racism at the institutional level. The initiative is organized into phases because it will take time to address the deep-rooted problem of racism. In the first phase, the emphasis will be on individual action and change. Over time, the initiative will expand to include organizations and institutions.
As one board member of the Black Belt Community Foundation , a start-up foundation based in Selma (Alabama), said, “We chose the right White people and the right Black people. Being able to talk about race issues is paramount… We have had the right White people at the right time. They understand that this foundation will not accept past structural inequities. They will be powerful ambassadors for the foundation.” From these conversations comes a foundation of trust. From trust come opportunities for partnership and leadership. From partnership and leadership come strategies for closing key equity gaps.
The Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, N.C. sponsored a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the wake of 15-year-old atrocities in the city. The Commission conducted many sessions of public testimony and compiled a report. The Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro amplified the Commission’s impact by sponsoring a series of community discussions.
At the South Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations , organizers understand that their region’s history both supports progress and scares people away. This is a powerful dynamic that can become a useful tool for community development.
ERASE Racism , an independent organization spun off from the Long Island Community Foundation, studies opportunities for reducing inequities in fair housing practices and public education on Long Island. By cultivating relations with local news media, ERASE Racism is able to educate the public and be seen as an able ally.
The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, two prominent regional family foundations in North Carolina, and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation in Arkansas explicitly name a concern for equity and justice as funding priorities. These issues gain legitimacy for all to see and become a priority for the foundation’s use of grantmaking funds.
White Privilege: An Account to Spend and White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths that Keep Racism in Place. Both by Peggy McIntosh, 2009, produced for The Saint Paul Foundation.
A Social Justice Discussion Guide: Addressing Our Toughest Challenges.Produced by Community Foundations of Canada as part of its efforts to “deepen our understanding of how community foundations might help to ‘level the playing field’ for all Canadians by tackling the root causes of social problems.” See http://www.cfc-fcc.ca/link_docs/pf_4_SJ_Discussion_Guide.pdf
Moving Past the Silence: A Tool for Negotiating Reflective Conversations About Race, produced for this project by Vanessa McKendall Stephens, Ph.D., posted on this site under Resources.
Creative Community Builder’s Handbook: How to Transform Communities Using Local Assets, Arts, and Culture. Available from Fieldstone Alliance. See http://www.fieldstonealliance.org/productdetails.cfm?SKU=069474&disccode=ALLSITE
The Dangers of NOT Speaking About Race, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 2006
Thinking Change: Race, Framing and the Public Conversation on Diversity. What Social Science Tells Advocates About Winning Support for Racial Justice Policies. Center for Social Inclusion, 2005.
Race: Are We So Different?, hosted by the Science Museum of Minnesota, produced by the American Anthropological Association, funded by Ford Foundation and National Science Foundation and several Minnesota foundations. The exhibit examined the topic of race from scientific, historical and cultural perspectives, and invites people to various discussions. See http://www.understandingrace.org
Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, an award-winning film by Katrina Browne based on her troubling discovery that her New England ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history, was screened at a national Council on Foundations meeting. Now, efforts at community engagement and discussion are underway, supported by a variety of government, civic, and faith-based organizations. See tracesofthetrade.org
White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, by Tim Wise. See http://www.TimWise.org