Normal Wasn’t Working: Raising the Bar at Leading Together 2021

Monday, June 21, 2021 - 11:30 am
Donita Volkwijn

The idea of raising the bar in the philanthropic sector is a great one, but we need to acknowledge some potentially hard truths first: a) the bar is actually set pretty low, so the idea of raising it shouldn’t be the pinnacle of our aspirations; b) we haven’t reached the goals represented by the positioning of the current bar; and c) there are policies, structures and behaviors in our sector that act as weights holding the bar down. 

In one of Thursday’s Leading Together 2021 sessions, “The Family Giving Lifecycle: Orienting Toward Effective Outcomes,” Bainum Family Foundation CEO David Daniels was asked about the components of the organization’s strategy that have led to its continued evolution.  Part of his response that resonated deeply was his sharing of a question that the organization always asks: “What more do we need to acknowledge before we can do?”

Somehow in the last 16 months, we’ve managed to convince ourselves that the open secrets of racism, inequity, and power-hoarding in our sector began only when the twin crises of the pandemic and racial injustice collided. The summer of 2020 seemed to jolt a large swath of the sector awake. Immediately, the webinars, convenings, and statements declaring support for the Black community -- and more recently, the AAPI community -- began to pop up.

But as Leticia Peguero, Vice President of Programs at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, reminded us in “Designing Women: Why Women of Color Hold the Key to True Equity,” these conversations have been happening in marginalized communities for decades.  The murder of George Floyd became the inflection point for the rest of the world finally to pay attention.

If we continue to turn a blind eye to what was happening long before the pandemic was even a concern, we risk falling into the trap of “getting back to normal.”  Inherent in that strategy is the misguided notion that the placement of the bar at that time was acceptable.  We also cannot aspire to finding the next big thing that’s going to solve the broken parts of the sector without ever acknowledging the part we played in allowing it to remain broken. 

As Yvonne Moore, Founder and Managing Director of Moore Philanthropy, stated in the same session with Leticia, “Equity is an outcome and a process.”  By ignoring what allowed us to set the bar so low to begin with or by trying to raise it now, without acknowledging the complicity that holds it down, we set ourselves up for the Sisyphean task of changing our sector without insisting on our own evolution.  The conversations we should be having are painful and ugly, but without them we cannot forge the trust necessary to build the foundation upon which we’ll raise that bar.

I’ve been referencing one quote almost exclusively for the last couple of months, “Nothing should go back to normal. Normal wasn’t working.  If we go back to the way things were, we will have lost the lesson. May we rise up and do better.”

First, who gets to decide what normal is?  Without the grotesque interruption of the last 16 months, I’m convinced that many in our sector would have been happy to continue with the way things were, because their “normal” allowed them to thrive and grow.  And that normal is seductive because it doesn’t make us examine how we got where we are. The lesson that we cannot lose in this moment is that the normal many of us were experiencing before the pandemic was one that was constructed by white dominant culture. 

What would happen if, as Ada Williams Price of Pivotal Ventures suggested, we started trusting and funding women and girls of color, not just as our funded partners, but as key members of our organization?  What if we listened to Sandy Ho, Research Associate at the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, and adopted her suggestion of leaving the model of the table altogether “because the table is getting a little boring”?  What if the Castellano Family Foundation’s Armando Castellano’s mad idea, “I always believe what [our funded partners] say and I learn from them,” caught on? 

What would that normal look like?  How much easier could it be to raise the bar in those circumstances?

Paraphrasing James W. Head of the East Bay Community Foundation in the closing plenary, “Raising the Bar: How Can Philanthropy Help Build a Better Future for Everyone?” we cannot achieve the future we’re dreaming of without first rooting ourselves in the past and viewing the present through an honest lens of equity.  The bar we’re trying to raise is mutable and can serve as a cautionary tale, an aspirational goal, and a reminder of what we can achieve when we work together. 

May we (and the bar) rise up and do better.

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