The place that power has forgotten

By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Yesterday, I addressed a group of national funders as part of a panel discussion on the power of place. I welcomed this opportunity to speak at the Council of Foundations’ annual conference because, to me, it feels that our region is really the place that power has forgotten.

To Daily WRAG readers, how do we encourage more national investment in our region? And, to WRAG CEOs, please join us for tomorrow’s CEO Coffee and Conversation with Dr. Alan Abramson. He will also be discussing this important subject.

An abridged version of my COF remarks follows.

Good morning and welcome to my city, Washington, D.C.

I want to urge you to see Washington, D.C. and the greater region as a place that doesn’t just effect social change nationally and internationally, but a place where social change is needed.

I see four overarching challenges that impact our ability to effect social change here: financial control; the high level of transitory residents; the reality of poverty; and philanthropic investment.

1. Financial control – Washington, D.C. is an international city, the nation’s capital, and home to almost 650,000 Washingtonians. It is the core of a region that stretches nearly to Baltimore, Richmond, and West Virginia. On work days, our population soars to over 1.6 million, the largest influx of workers anywhere in the country. The District does not have voting representation in Congress and the District does not control its own budget. The federal government does. So when the Virginia members of Congress get together, they discuss Virginia. When the Maryland folks get together, they discuss Maryland. There is no regional voice in Congress because there is a sizeable hole at the core – the District. Issues that might be addressed with federal dollars, cleaning the Anacostia River, for example, often fail to get federal support because there is no powerful constituency advocating for it. The burden falls on the local philanthropic community.

2. Transitory residents – Folks who live here talk a lot about millennials in our region, their high level of educational attainment and their passion for social justice. All good, right? Except that those credentials and that passion are rarely focused on where they live. They come here focused on the higher good of the country or the world. They rarely register to vote here. They may not know the name of the mayor or other local elected officials and they still see themselves as residents of New York or Iowa or California. We have an influx of knowledge and talent that rarely truly reaches the region.

3. Poverty – You hear about this region when area counties are listed as the wealthiest in America or when Prince George’s County, MD, is cited as home to the largest concentration of black millionaires. But, the suburbanization of poverty is very real here. People were shocked when, in an open letter to funders, the county executive for Montgomery County wrote: “There are more students in our Montgomery County Public Schools who are eligible for free and reduced meals than there are students in the entire District of Columbia Public Schools system.” Significant poverty is hidden by the headlines and by the view of Washington as simply a federal city.

4. Philanthropic support – When one considers the philanthropic dollars that reside in the region, most would characterize our philanthropic sector as moderate. Last year, WRAG members who responded to a survey noted that they invested, in aggregate, $279 million in the region in 2012. But consider this: In 2011, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone invested $286 million in D.C. But what does that mean? The headquarters of major national and international organizations, like the American Red Cross, the American Federation of Teachers, the Ocean Conservancy, reside here. When we see that national funders invested hundreds of millions of dollars here, we can’t just look at the zip code where the check was sent. We must look at the geographic area served by the organization receiving that check.

So when I think about the value of place-based strategies as a means of holistically and powerfully addressing the challenges that face an area, I wonder why this region – this powerful place – is so often forgotten. I believe that our needs are masked by the wealth that you read about, the beautiful monuments that you see, and the knowledge capital that you see every evening on CNN. National investments are needed in this region, this real region where real people live in the shadow of the Capitol.