Amidst the Backdrop of a Troubled Nation Post- Charlottesville, Philanthropy Assesses Its Role

Friday, August 18, 2017 - 4:42 pm
Vikki Spruill

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unloved, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again."
-Maya Angelou, "On The Pulse of Morning"

I saw this passage as a chapter heading in a book by Steve Pemberton, titled, "A Chance in the World". Steve is Divisional Vice President and Chief Diversity Office for Walgreens-Boots Alliance and was the keynote speaker at the Council's HR Summit this week. How poignant and timely that we gathered with HR professionals from around the country to explore what equity means to our foundations just as our nation is grappling with its own diversity  conversation in the backdrop of the recent troubling events in Charlottesville, the latest in an increasingly racially-polarizing environment. In the Charlottesville incident, Heather Heyer was killed after a car plowed into counterprotesters of a white nationalism event.

This week, Steve reminded us that his job as a leader in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is often to "comfort the neglected and afflict the comfortable" with his message of hope and action. 

As I've spoken to leaders across our membership and beyond this week, his phrase rang true for me. Each of you as philanthropic leaders are standing for core values deeply imbedded in your organizations and translating those values into programs and partnerships that make life better for so many. After all, the definition of philanthropy is to love and promote the welfare of others. I've also felt your frustration, anger and anxiety as our nation grapples with how to react to what appears to a disturbing trend of polarization. 

I want to state unequivocally that there is no room in this nation for white nationalism, racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism and hate. Fighting injustices and promoting racial equity and justice have been core principles of philanthropy for decades. Many have shared with me a reignited passion for their work and see philanthropy as a bridge builder, creating an environment that nurtures civil society. 

Over the last few days, I spoke with various leaders throughout the philanthropic sector and asked them, “What is philanthropy’s role in this? And how can philanthropy bridge this growing divide?” We offer their thoughts here. This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list but rather is a brief snapshot to lift up how we as a philanthropic community are reflecting and responding to these times. I invite the rest of the philanthropic sector to share your reactions, thoughts and ideas to as we move forward to build a more just and equitable future for all.

Anne Scott
President and CEO
The Charlottesville Area Community Foundation

Our Foundation offices are located midway up a hill on a Charlottesville side street, the one you have seen pictured lately on the television. The pavement below my window is now covered with carefully placed candles and flowers, a vigil to Heather Heyer who died from a terrorist attack that took place on our doorstep. It’s reported that the 20 year-old man, who drove his car into the crowd of anti-protesters gathered there, admired Adolf Hitler.Anne Scott, president and CEO of the Charlottesville Area Foundation shared a photo of the growing memorial outside her office where Heather Heyer was killed while protesting against white supremacists.

Lying above us toward the top of the hill are the city’s downtown pedestrian mall, lined with high-end restaurants and shops; its historic courthouse, continuously used for 200 years, including by three early American Presidents, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and James Madison; and Emancipation Park, previously Lee Park, which contains the statue of Robert E. Lee. Charlottesville’s one synagogue lies a few blocks to the west of the courthouse.

Friendship Court lies below our offices on the other side of the railroad tracks that come from the eastern ports of Virginia and link us with the mid-west across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Friendship Court is one of eleven public housing sites that are scattered across our city and whose residents have a direct, historical connection to Vinegar Hill, the predominantly African-American neighborhood that was annihilated in the name of urban renewal starting in the 1950s. Twenty-nine businesses, 154 dwellings and one church were razed, and the residents thus displaced and impoverished. 

Although our offices are in the city, the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation’s service area encompasses seven, largely rural and predominantly white, counties. In them many households are experiencing food insecurity. Family members are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, caring for an elderly or disabled family member because health and care services are not available, or trying to hold close a loved one battling opioid addiction. Some family members are absent due to incarceration, while at the same time prison guard jobs are available and relatively well paid.

The landscape is similar in cities and towns across America, and the story unfolding here is a national one. It’s about so much more than civil war era statues.  We have a traumatic and unresolved legacy of actively and systematically subjugating Black people and suppressing others of different races, faiths and genders – despite the lofty ideals of our country’s noble Constitution. And, we have a rapidly emerging legacy of white people feeling deeply disenfranchised from the American contract as they understood it. Make no mistake, a minority of them are turning to solutions that have no moral standing whatsoever, and must be utterly rejected, but saying that does not negate the live experience of many, which is engendering pain and frustration to the point of despair and violence, nor does it solve their real-life problems.

As Heather Heyer said in one of her last social media posts, everyone needs to pay attention. Our society is failing today on two counts: one, of repairing our legacy of suppression; and two, of maintaining the American dream for good, hard-working people. Radical fringe groups notwithstanding, this is our urgent problem. And, in this city at least, the suppressed and the disenfranchised have no safe spaces or skilled facilitators that can help them talk to each other. So, nobody is listening to each other, and everyone is shouting.

What does all this have to do with philanthropy, which we have a mission to facilitate? At its best, philanthropy respectfully commands a neutral space. It makes connections among disparate groups and smartly channels resources across groups to create new social opportunities. Businesses cannot fulfill this role, nor can governments or educational institutions. They play other vital roles. Different generations of philanthropists are also finely attuned to the emerging social opportunities of their day.

What a difference a day, or a generation, makes. Five days ago, a young man driving a car – we can only presume he was in a state of determination, belief or rage – killed a young woman, and injured nineteen other people – all good citizens. All around them, older adults were hurling abuses at each other. And, our children were scared and uncertain, now, about their homeland.

Philanthropy can be a vital source of elasticity, opening new opportunities for flexible discovery when rigidity, conflict and confusion are all around. Daily, I am in touch with people who were attacked; city leaders trying to do what’s right; and nonprofit organizations, such as our independent Paramount Theatre, offering healing services. I am in touch with individual citizens and donors; fellow community foundations from Virginia and across the country; national organizations representing different constituencies; and major, private foundations with different areas of expertise and knowledge. Genuinely, they all want to help.

Philanthropy, whether channeled individually or through private or community foundations, can lead our community forward by carving a pathway to stabilization, acknowledgement, reconciliation, restoration and, finally, healing. This takes hard work over a period of years. Philanthropy can stay the course.

How can we be humble? The premise of philanthropy is deeply entwined with the story of those who have been suppressed and become disenfranchised. We must look deeply at our own institutional cultures, policies, practices and programs. Let’s re-engineer our field and our organizations, too, so that we may be part of the solution. I believe America will come through, and stronger, for this moment in time.

Sharon Alpert
President and CEO
Nathan Cummings Foundation

Anti-Semitism, like racism, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of hate are alive and well in American political discourse and are a major feature of white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideology. In times like these, philanthropic institutions and leaders must take a stand and clearly state what we believe. We must continue to support our partners who are directly confronting hate and working across lines of difference to build bridges, not walls. We must remember our values and what we're fighting, and use that to strengthen our resolve to stand with those working on the front-lines to counter darkness with light, and hate with love. If we want to turn this tide of hate and put it firmly in our country’s past, we must unite across the political spectrum and across communities to ensure that hate has no home here.

Sherrie Armstrong
President and CEO
The Community Foundation Serving Richmond & Central Virginia

The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia stands with our neighbors in Charlottesville affected by the recent conflict and violence in their community; and we firmly stand against hate, bigotry and discrimination. Locally, we believe in a collective approach to change. Together with donors, we are actively working with diverse leaders – both within neighborhoods and across sectors – to acknowledge and heal from our divided past while developing a unified vision for our future.

As a community foundation, we are locally focused and we maintain a long-term view of what needs to be done to create greater access to opportunity for all residents. Our work requires a holistic approach that leverages the collective knowledge, leadership and resources of our board and staff, donors and countless community partners. Now more than ever, we are committed to study the deep-rooted issues that have shaped our community, lift up under-represented voices, and lend our support to activities and initiatives that will move our region toward equity and inclusion.

Emmett D. Carson, Ph.D.
Founding CEO
Silicon Valley Community Foundation

The tragic events in Charlottesville, VA and President Trump's failure to unequivocally repudiate the ideology of neo Nazis/white supremacists/alt right groups and their violence presents American philanthropy with a unique moment to help move our country forward in achieving its promise that ALL are created equally. If military and corporate leaders can find their voice to denounce hatred, racism and anti-Semitism, surely philanthropy can set a higher bar for itself.

Philanthropy must use its voice and financial resources to engage in research, advocacy and lobbying (community foundations) to eliminate the systemic racism and other bias that permeates our policing and criminal justice, housing, healthcare, employment, voting rights and education systems resulting in unfair outcomes. Remaking these systems will provide the fairness that the country has aspired to achieve and start to upend the prevailing narrative that only white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men are deserving of the American dream.

This will be extremely hard work and philanthropy must avoid political correctness that only certain viewpoints or life experiences are valid. However, the invitation to sit at the discussion table will require a commitment to our country's ideals of diversity and inclusion. A belief in racial superiority cannot co-exist with the belief that everyone is created equally. America has a precious moment to recommit the nation to equally working for all who share its values and philanthropy has the opportunity to help lead the way.

Linda Perryman Evans
President and Chief Executive Officer
The Meadows Foundation

We cannot ignore that we are living in a contentious time with a deeply disturbing rise of divisive rhetoric at all levels of society. The appalling events in Charlottesville have only intensified the negative spotlight on our differences. Racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy are all languages of hate and our society should not tolerate them.

Philanthropy has an opportunity to be a bridge to common ground. We can use our influence to be a neutral, nonpolitical voice to bring people together who have opposing point of views. We can help mediate conversations that lead to understanding and respect. We can change our part of the world through inclusiveness and collaboration where differences are recognized as strengths, not weaknesses.

Philanthropy should also use its voice to highlight the people and agencies who are positive forces in our society. We are fortunate to see the good work being done in our communities that can go unnoticed. We need to share their stories because they provide hope that each of us is empowered to make the world a little better.

Sherry Magill
Jessie Ball duPont Fund

I grew up in south Alabama in the 1960s, 12 miles north of Montgomery, 30 miles east of Selma, 85 miles south of Birmingham.  I attended white segregated public schools. My childhood and teen years were lived surrounded by horrific violence – Klan rides, murders, Edmund Pettus Bridge, Bull Connor, police dogs, water hoses.  An interracial stabbing interrupted my 1970 high school graduation, ending the first full year of the racial integration of my school. 

Fifty years later, I live in Jacksonville, Florida. This week, our city council president announced that we should consider removing Confederate statues and monuments.  She receives death threats. Richard Spencer is thinking of coming here.African-American friends and colleagues tell me they do not feel safe; white colleagues tell me they cannot sleep.  Is our city on the verge of erupting in violence?

Our city council president wants to meet:  how can this foundation help? And what is my moral obligation as a community leader, especially since our political system is failing, too many whites have abandoned public schools and common spaces, and the poor are segregated and ignored, if not hated?

I have no easy answers.  None.

Whether violence comes to Jacksonville or not, my default seems to be that, somehow, we must help folks focus on what we have in common.  I’m not naïve:  my experience teaches me that all of us do not ascribe to this country’s founding ideals: some will never believe that we are created equal, some will never accept the idea that all are endowed with inalienable rights, some will always hold that others are lesser than and not worthy. But my experience also teaches me that breaking bread together, singing together, working together, creates bonds between folks across differences.

Grant Oliphant
The Heinz Endowments

The violence, intimidation and hateful vitriol we witnessed in Charlottesville – with reverberations across the country – is at a level so disturbing that it is difficult for most of us to comprehend that it is happening within our nation’s borders. Make no mistake, this is a critical and deeply troubling moment in our history, and it is vital that the voices of philanthropy, traditionally advocates for the underserved and underprivileged, are heard loud and clear.

This has now gone beyond politics. It is about humankind, and that means ALL of us, and the defense of the values, qualities and character formed through generations of conflict and sacrifice. It is about freedom and working to make our communities places where everyone has the opportunity to live and thrive without fear of persecution or prejudice.

Foundations should take a central role in leading their communities’ response and there is much we can do, such as organizing equity summits and community gatherings on racial and economic justice, funding social justice organizations, and using our voices to defend the values we espouse. Good communications is key, like the excellent guide produced by Communications Network explaining ways to engage organizations and individuals. And we can create spaces and venues where our nonprofits and the people they serve can air their concerns and share the challenges they face.

We should be active and vocal in our response.

La June Montgomery Tabron
President and CEO
W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Philanthropy is helping fuel meaningful change in many ways, in many places. But remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” Our work must address the root causes of the unrest and uncertainty billowing through communities after the tragic events in Charlottesville. Racial healing is needed. Real change only happens when communities come together and build relationships through truth-telling, establishing authentic narratives about ourselves, our neighbors and our communities. Once that truth is shared, and racism is acknowledged, it can allow communities to heal the wrongs of the past and move forward to address the conscious and unconscious bias in employment, education, housing, the law, and health that causes widespread disparities, and denies opportunities to our children.



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