Sit in It: Philanthropy Must Embrace Discomfort and Rapid Change on the Road to Achieving Equity

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Schott Foundation

by Edgar Villanueva and William Cordery

When Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered last summer, they joined a long list of Black people slain through state-sanctioned violence, a pile of dead Black and Brown bodies for whom no one was accountable. We also watched in horror as police used pepper spray, rubber bullets and concussion cannons, and dogs to fight peaceful protestors at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who were protecting their land, cultural sites and water from the Dakota Access Pipeline. These processes are becoming so familiar to the modern American psyche that their almost now as rote as arithmetic. Black and Brown and Native communities demanded justice. The headlines sensationalized and stirred passions. Leaders gave empathetic, but careful speeches.

And then we ultimately went back to what we were doing the day before.

Ever slow and unwieldy, philanthropy—even progressive philanthropy—was in danger of performing the same mechanical response ritual. Some foundations’ first impulse was the typical knee-jerk reaction. There was a desire to help, but the insistence on applying structure, instituting logic models and gathering more data for an appropriate public-facing response. We know that that isn’t the right approach in these times. Social justice-minded philanthropies help create systems change by empowering local leadership and supporting grassroots movements to move the needle for poor communities and people of color. However, philanthropy isn’t always bringing the right tools to the task to solve these big problems rooted in social inequity, and sometimes our field perpetuates inequities in the communities we claim to care about. We also witnessed well-heeled investors and donors turn away from philanthropy to band together and get resources on the ground faster than our organizations ever could. And while we proudly champion equity, we were, as a field, guilty of not practicing it.

To achieve the equity we all claim to be in search of, philanthropy must have a look (no, a deep long gaze) in the mirror and have some very uncomfortable conversations about who we are, what we believe, and how we could adapt our approaches to new realities and environments where change is constant.

Walk the Talk

Someone once said, “There is nothing that points out inequity more than working in a philanthropy.” It’s true that while we profess grand goals of leveling playing fields, altering big systems and improving life chances for people who have been systematically left out and left behind, philanthropy’s workforce is overwhelmingly white. Foundation boards, where the real power resides, are even more so. And they’re solidly male and middle-aged. And they hail from mostly privileged backgrounds. This isn’t equity, and we look like the pot calling the kettle black. Diversity and differences are strategic tools that help us see our blind spots, make better decisions and be more effective as we co-create new realities with communities seeking change.

Getting there starts with a commitment by the chief executives. In every case where we’ve seen equity not only emerge as a philanthropic priority but also thrive and make headway, there is a CEO and a board of trustees, who have stepped up to the challenge as engaged and responsive leaders and willing spokespersons on equity issues. And in so doing they apply a little friendly peer pressure to their colleagues at other philanthropies, and so begins a movement. Justice demands that we be who want our funded communities to be. We can no longer preach equity from a perch of hypocrisy. Leadership needs to be all in, or we can’t call what we’re doing equity.

Which Equity Are You Talking About?

Equity is trailblazing work. Although inequity has been with us since the founding of our nation, we haven’t always operated in this environment, with these political realities, these demographics, these power dynamics, these technologies and these blossoming pockets of power in this generation. That means we have to define some of the issues we’re working on without relying on guidance from previous experiences. Equity is one of those issues. We all seem to be talking in similar themes, but individual foundations mean different things when they use the word equity. That’s okay. We’re all chipping away at different pieces of the same stain on our society. What’s important is that we each have an explicit definition of equity for ourselves. Defining it is important to galvanize our staffs to move equity work forward, to measure our progress and to hold ourselves accountable. Intuition won’t cut it here. Say what you mean when you talk equity.

As an example, although the Schott Foundation for Public Education was founded on an unwavering commitment to equity and justice that guides its mission to support a movement to achieve fully resourced, high-quality public education for all children, our sense of equity has evolved. We used to talk about reducing disparities and closing gaps. Now we talk about creating an educational landscape with outcomes that are indiscernible by race, ethnicity or gender. We specifically call out eliminating race-based differences in educational outcomes and we fight and fund so that every school in every community is properly equipped to meet the whole needs of the children and families who attend.

Work Within

Having foundation leadership set the tone is critical, but the work won’t get done without having the right staff in place. It’s paramount that philanthropies hire staff who value equity. We don’t just mean programmatic people; we mean finance staff, administrative staff, and even contractors, partners and suppliers who believe in equity. This moves the foundation much farther and faster along the culture-shift curve. By not tapping into networks that will bring talented people of color within our orbits, we do ourselves and our communities a great disservice and valuable resources go wasted.

Many philanthropic leaders will take this as a message to hire people of color, and check off “diversify staff” from their equity to-do lists. But tokenism is a greater threat to credibility than many organization leaders realize. Yes, hire and promote people of color, but ensure you are appropriately leveraging their lived experiences to direct work rather than setting them up for failure or burnout. Create opportunities for staff members of color to earn pathways to real power in the C-Suite and board levels, and recognize the route they take will differ from white people’s experiences. Connect them to new networks, an important privilege that got many foundation leaders to where they are. And, hear them when they bring uncomfortable news from the work on the ground.

Will Grantees See It That Way?

Our funding decisions and policy priorities also have equity implications. Many foundations have dropped funding lines, radically shifted their strategies and abandoned communities they’ve worked in for years. We understand many realities require difficult decisions, but they must be made soberly and they must be made with full recognition of the consequences for the communities that are caught in the middle.

One bright spot is that many organizations are now using equity policy tools that help them think through the development of policies and initiatives with an equity frame. In other words, more foundations are asking the question when they are considering big decisions: How will this impact people of color in this community? What could the unintended consequences be? It’s also important to have a robust feedback loop between the funder and the grantee, and that funders take action based on that feedback.

Will Yourselves to Lean into Difficult Conversations

To achieve equity, philanthropies must make space for deeply troubling and uncomfortable conversations—and keep having them. This work is long and hard. Feelings will be hurt, alliances may shift, and success may seem elusive. Know that discomfort is a catalyst for growth. Organizational discomfort makes us work hard for something greater than what any individual among us could imagine, and it forces us to stretch, change, grow and adapt.

Consider discomfort a sign of progress. Theories of change and other academic tools offer important intellectual context and a safe space to discuss equity. But true shifts in equity only come from very personal and interpersonal discussions about life experiences and the effects of racism or inequity have on our personal lives. Such discussions are how we make the cruelties of inequity real for people who’ve only had a textbook exposure to it, and when it’s real for all of us, we do what is necessary to make change happen.

If you’re ready to begin or deepen the conversation your philanthropy is having about race and equity, check out the Schott Foundation’s latest webinar on the topic, where you’ll learn from funders and community organizations grappling with these issues and follow us on Twitter to keep the conversation going.

Edgar Villanueva (@VillanuevaEdgar) is vice president of Programs and Advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education. William Cordery (@WilliamCordery) is a national grantmaker focused on racial and economic justice.

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