Dear Exponent Philanthropy members,
For the past 25 years, I have been involved in philanthropy as an executive, board member and donor. The intense racial strife over the past couple of weeks has compelled me to share the following personal and professional anecdotes as well as suggested solutions.
Frustration, anger and fatigue are all vehemently expressed at our dinner table each evening as the never-ending cycle of racism continues to poison our country. How do we tell our Afro-Latino sons to behave when in the proximity of police officers? Should they breathe? Should they escape as quickly as possible lest they be the target of some made-up crime? Something is dreadfully wrong when neither my boys nor I can ask a police officer for help, but rather we need to run in the other direction for fear of being harmed – Just for being. Just for breathing.
As I was trying to comprehend the callous murder of jogger Ahmaud Arbery by two white ‘vigilantes’ in Georgia, within a few days there was the Central Park incident where Christian Cooper was falsely accused of harming a white woman. As I woke up the following morning, the tragic murder of George Floyd was being reported. In all three cases, there were cameras to record the heinous nature of the crimes. But if not for the footage, these crimes would receive little attention. History proves that even with taped evidence, justice may not be served, as in the cases of Rodney King and Eric Garner.
As we think about the role of philanthropy, it’s important to understand the personal effect race plays on black men. In a profession that rightfully values the importance of storytelling, I share some of my personal experiences below to shed light on the matter.
As an avid runner and cyclist, I was enraged about Arbery’s death. While vacationing in the Adirondacks, I went for an early morning ride. Within 10 minutes, I noticed that I was being following by three young white men in a car. As I turned a corner to try to lose them, they chased me off the road. I went down a grassy patch onto another road, hoping I had escaped. Just a few minutes later, they found me and repeated the same pattern. Not knowing the area, I was frustrated that I could not seem to get away. Thirty minutes after this ‘life threatening’ cat and mouse game, I lost them. So, I thought. They had retreated to a house on my path home. When they saw me pass, they all jumped out of the house and ran after me. To them, perhaps a game. To me, a death threat.
When not threatened by others, others have perceived me as a threat. When my wife and I were first married, we were excited about moving into our first apartment on the progressive Upper West Side of Manhattan. Our building was relatively small with 24 units. Though we lived there for three years and our neighbors saw me and recognized me in our shared building, outside of the building I was just another black man to fear. Every time I returned from work and tried to enter the building, I noticed that all of my neighbors – people who I had seen regularly and had seen me – would freeze and become panicked with fear. I had to adjust my entry patterns to my own home because I was upset that I was making people so uncomfortable. I would wait outside until everyone nearby would enter, until the coast was clear, and then I would make a quick entrance to my apartment.
Philanthropy can play a role in helping make people feel welcome and not like intruders or potential predators in their own communities and beyond. It can help young and old to overcome their prejudices and learn to understand perspectives other than their own, making us all stronger and more humane. Clearly from an organizational basis, the intentional inclusion of diverse perspectives on our boards and in our decision-making processes can lead to better outcomes and greater impact for communities.
How can philanthropy be part of the solution and not the problem? What role can Exponent Philanthropy play? Mentoring is key. We all attain success and security from others who offer guidance and support. Certainly, people of color who have risen to influential positions in our profession have received the backing of more senior professionals. These mentors instruct and are willing to take risks on the advancement of their protégés by challenging them out of their comfort zone so they can grow and receive protection while making mistakes. Such mentoring is not so easy to come by because people tend to mentor those who look like and remind them of themselves. People have to see the value and be willing to step outside of themselves to bring others along.
Similarly, on an organizational and community level, the answer lies in listening and developing the capacity to empathize. Learning to actively and genuinely listen is very difficult. It is especially challenging given the inequity in the traditional power dynamic of a foundation with financial resources and a community asking for those resources. The funder, very easily can get caught up in his/her ‘good’ work and generosity and dictate the terms of the grant without listening to or understanding the true needs of the community.
With respect to the sensitive nature of racial conflict, it can be even more challenging to listen because we all are vulnerable and feel threatened. Our guilt and inclination for quick fixes can get in the way of true understanding and effective grantmaking. If we want to see change, grantmaking cannot be used to assuage or guilt; rather we need the courage to face the pain, take risks and make mistakes investing in the unknown.
Listening not simply to ease our guilt, but hearing and absorbing the frustration even if directed at us can lead to impactful results. At the time of decision making, it is essential to ask whose voice is missing. Equipping leaders and community members with the tools and resources for them to lead their own community organizations and movements is critical. Knowing when to get out of the way is imperative.
Allies are sorely needed. There is no way that disenfranchised populations can overcome oppressive power structures on their own. Allies can help recruit and educate other allies. Exponent Philanthropy can help equip and empower its members to be bold. To fight. To become strategic and courageous warriors committed to transcending the deep racial legacy in our country. Without recognizing the severity of the issues and the need for radical change, little will be accomplished.
I welcome your thoughts and feedback and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Exponent Philanthropy Board Chair