Looking Inward and Outward: Two Philanthropic Leaders in the Nation’s Capital Share their Stories about Liberating Philanthropy

This blog was originally posted to Justice Funders’ “Liberate Philanthropy” blog series. The series is intended to re-imagine and practice philanthropy free of its current constraints — the accumulation and privatization of wealth, and the centralization of power and control — to one that redistributes wealth, democratizes power and shifts economic control to communities.

By Tamara Lucas Copeland, WRAG’s president and Yanique Redwood, chair of WRAG’s Board of Directors and president and CEO of Consumer Health Foundation 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” In recent days, some suggest that an addendum to that quote is needed.  The addendum would encourage philanthropists to recognize the injustices that have created their philanthropic dollars – i.e. the social, economic and racial inequities that have allowed for extreme wealth accumulation by some at the expense of others

In the Greater Washington philanthropic community, there is an increasing awareness about the role of philanthropy in addressing issues of injustice as well as a growing realization of how philanthropic wealth has been acquired.  In recent years, a group of us have been collectively learning and taking action on these issues under a very explicit banner: “Putting Racism on the Table.”  The recognition of the privilege of the philanthropic community is not new, as many have explored the power dynamic between funders and grantees. What is new is the conscious overlay of learning about racial inequity and working toward racial justice.

We recognize that our work to liberate philanthropy requires both inward and outward change. Foundations must be radically different, thus leading them to take radically different actions. Even foundations on the leading edge of justice must evolve their practices and culture. In this blog post, the president and CEO of the Consumer Health Foundation shares one aspect of their evolution—community leadership in governance—and the president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers shares how the philanthropic sector’s actions are changing as a result of centering racism and addressing root causes of injustice.

The Internal Work to Liberate Philanthropy

Yanique Redwood

I joined the Consumer Health Foundation (CHF) in 2012 as the foundation’s second president and CEO. After several meetings with trustees, staff members, external stakeholders and grantee partners, I shared my observations in a 90-day report to the Board, including this one:

CHF board members are highly educated. All board members have advanced degrees in the areas of public health, law, education, policy, and medicine. This level of education and experience allows us to have cross-cutting dialogue to guide the foundation’s grantmaking and strategic alliances. There may be even greater opportunities for different types of dialogue by involving persons with lower levels [I would now say different levels] of education and income on the board. CHF has done an excellent job of involving the perspectives of those in our community with lower levels of income and education using Speak Outs and other community engagements; our next frontier could be in the area of board governance.

Even though the CHF board was diverse, progressive and activist, I felt that we were too removed, in many ways, from the oppression of communities living at the sharpest, most painful intersection of race and class. Until people with that lived reality are stewarding foundation resources, I knew that we would not be able to liberate philanthropy and align with the priorities of the most oppressed communities.

As I talked to board members in one-on-one conversations about this observation, I was not met with resistance, but there was certainly reticence. Questions abounded about whether community members would even want to serve on the board and could take time away from their hectic lives for the purpose of governance. I thought these were all “how?” versus “yes” questions. Author Peter Block states that asking how “keeps us safe,” “is a defense against action,” and “is an indirect expression of our doubts.” Understanding that this was a new idea that may have needed processing time, I negotiated. We agreed to recruit community organizers with direct experience working with communities of color who were struggling the most in our region.

Then, a confluence of factors in 2017 – such as the broader national climate, increasing acknowledgement about the need for community stewardship of philanthropy and racial tensions on the board – led us to re-examine our board culture. While diverse in so many ways (e.g. race, gender, age, religion), we were still unable to talk to each other about tough issues related to these identities. We could talk systems and structures with the best of them, but when it came time to look a colleague in the eye and say that something that they said hurt, we were not able to do it well—or at all. How could we expect to be advocates for justice out in the world if we couldn’t do it in our own institution? How was the culture that we had developed—shaped by our socialization as educated and middle class—hurting our chance of community members feeling safe enough to join, stay and fully participate on our board?

We are in the throes of these questions and recently spent a day learning about how implicit bias, racial anxiety and stereotype threat are operating in our midst so that we can create the kind of environment that is honest, authentic and empowering for all who serve. As we are doing our work, community members are developing their own leadership through an effort that we funded called the Health, Economic and Racial (HER) Equity Community Leaders Program.  We hope that some will be interested in serving on CHF’s board. We know we have a long way to go, but saying “yes” was the first step.

The External Work to Liberate Philanthropy

Tamara Copeland

When the nationwide wave of cell phone videos emerged a few years ago depicting the murders of African-American men and boys by police, it was no surprise that the Greater Washington philanthropic community, including Yanique Redwood and the Consumer Health Foundation, wanted to act.  They wanted to make a difference immediately and called on all of their knowledge of what had made a difference in workforce development, in educational attainment, in quality housing. Then they stopped.

Sitting around a conference room table at the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG), a quote was shared by a local philanthropic leader that prompted a revelation: “The first step in leadership is not action; it’s understanding.” Until then, almost on automatic, these seasoned professionals had immediately started thinking about the tried-and-true strategies, relying on their decades of knowledge. Then, profoundly, they recognized the dimension of institutional racism in these incidents, an overlay rarely acknowledged publicly by those working for societal change.

While racial justice was not their typical focus, these grantmakers still had their theories and assumptions. They felt the incidents were rooted in systemic or structural racism and implicit bias. They talked about prejudice and discrimination, equality and equity, and realized that not only were they not all using the same language, they didn’t understand the racial realities of America sufficiently to decide on effective actions to take.  Wisely, instead of addressing symptoms without understanding root causes, they decided to step back.

Their first step would be focused solely on learning. Some would say that taking time to learn is a privilege that foundations have, and we were criticized for it. However, I believe it was a step that needed to happen to liberate philanthropy from its dangerous habit of assuming that those with institutional power are the “experts” with all the right answers.

From this small convening emerged first a six-month, three-hour/month, structured learning journey called “Putting Racism on the Table” for philanthropic CEOs and trustees, and then additional training on grantmaking with a racial equity lens and effective communication about race. In my tenure at WRAG, never before had organizational leaders devoted this amount of time to focused learning. And never had the community elevated a topic as ingrained, taboo, and impactful as understanding racism. The output of the sessions was important, but the impact has been transformational.

WRAG members are increasingly undertaking their grantmaking using a racial equity lens. They are asking grantees and potential grantees about their work on racial equity. They are funding those who are active advocates for a just society, not only those delivering services to a largely black or brown community. They are looking internally at their policies, practices, and organizational cultures to determine how they may be inadvertently perpetuating inequities. “Putting Racism on the Table” has launched critical attention and action to move the Greater Washington DC region toward racial equity. I am proud of the work that our community has done together thus far and look forward to how much farther we can go to achieve justice and liberation for our communities.