Category: A Voice from Philanthropy…on Racial Equity

Putting Racism on the Table

Tamara Copeland’s article is the latest in Successes of Philanthropy, a sponsored project of the Washington Monthly magazine.  To learn more about the series, please contact Alice J. Gallin-Dwyer at

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
WRAG President

It started soon after the death of Freddie Gray.

Not the civil unrest that ensued in neighborhoods in Baltimore, Maryland, but the elevated racial consciousness that emerged within the philanthropic community in Washington, DC.

Philanthropic leaders here wondered if they should support neighboring Baltimore or work to lessen the likelihood of such an event occurring in their own community. It was 2015. Cell phone videos of other police-involved incidents across the country were the backdrop. Everyone knew that it wasn’t just Freddie Gray, but also Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and other African American victims. As foundation leaders began to dissect the situation in Baltimore within the context of these other deaths, topics of race, racism, and bias emerged side-by-side with issues of poor housing, poor schools, and poor health care.

What was new to the conversation, surprisingly, was the overlay of race. This was a significantly different conversation for the members of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers(WRAG), and a bit of a treacherous one. Those who attended the first meeting to discuss a response and possible next steps were comfortable talking about affordable housing, teacher preparation, and gang violence. They had discussed these topics and many others innumerable times, but race itself had been taboo. Now, these philanthropists—black and white, mostly women—were acknowledging that race and racism may have been a major factor in the death of Freddie Gray and the unrest that followed in his city.

The conversation stopped when one participant acknowledged a true lack of knowledge, not just about how racism and bias may have played a part in these events, but about racism and bias—period. The group members didn’t know much about what they were trying to discuss. They had a sense of it, but at no time in their professional lives or academic training had they sought to learn deeply or been taught about race and racism. A quote from John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause and the Independent Sector, was mentioned casually by one participant. It resonated and became the framing for everything that followed:

“The first step in leadership is not action, it’s understanding.”

Seeking Understanding Together

From that comment was born a year-long initiative boldly labeled “Putting Racism on the Table.” Organized and hosted by WRAG, it started as a series of six learning opportunities for philanthropic CEOs and trustees, once a month, for six months. The first three sessions focused on topics: structural racism, white privilege, and implicit bias. The next meeting explored a case study to show how those factors presented in one system (mass incarceration), followed by a review of the racial mosaic of America. The series ended with a session on the role of philanthropy in addressing racism and racial inequity. Each three-hour session began with a lecture by a nationally-known expert on the topic, followed by a conversation, all facilitated by the same person chosen for her adeptness at leading deep conversations on race.

After the learning series, there were five more training sessions: on grantmaking with a racial equity lens, on communicating about race; and a concluding session asking what this philanthropic community would do because of what they had learned over an exceptionally focused year. Participants called the initiative “transformational,” “thought-provoking,” and “eye-opening.”

Exactly what had been revealed? What in the thinking of these philanthropists, individuals committed to addressing the needs of their community, had been transformed? And, how had their approach to grantmaking been altered by their learning experience?

I offer two examples. Together, we learned that mass incarceration is the result of structural racism, white privilege and implicit bias in the criminal justice system. We started with a historical perspective, considering the consequences of slavery, followed by a host of racialized laws and practices that criminalized everyday behaviors and prevented African Americans from obtaining the skills and opportunities to rise, continuing their subservience to the prevailing white, economic system. Combine that historical reality with an understanding that some crimes have been penalized differently (possession of cocaine vs. crack is a classic example), and that prisons have developed into economic engines for small, rural communities, and you may begin to see mass incarceration differently. With this insight, what explains the disproportionate number of African Americans in the U.S. criminal justice system? Are they inherently more criminal or are they victims of a system that has criminalized them?
Or, consider the education system.

We explored how starting as early as preschool, black children, particularly boys, are disciplined for “acting out.” At the same time, black girls are disciplined for being “disrespectful” and perceived as “less innocent” than their white counterparts. Even at this young age, black children are suspended disproportionately from school. Is bias at play? Are teachers perceiving, perhaps unconsciously, normal behavior on the part of black children as being negative, even violent? Studies suggest that this is the case. Unless you have been made aware of this possibility, your focus as a funder remains on “fixing” these boys and girls when the true need is to “fix” the biases and prejudices held by teachers and school administrators.

Making Equity a Grantmaking Priority

Without the formal, structured learning series offered by “Putting Racism on the Table,” the local philanthropic community would not have looked deeply into the historical, psychological, and policy realities that contribute to the social ills they are trying to address. Many participants acknowledged that without this deep dive into structural racism and implicit bias, they would have continued to focus on symptoms without understanding causality. Learning together as a philanthropic community gave the experience a credibility and offered participants a critical support network.

Over the past two years, funders have continued to develop a deeper appreciation for the pervasiveness and impact of racial bias. In WRAG’s annual check-in with members, one year after the series, roughly a third reported that they were applying a racial equity lens to their grantmaking, and thirty percent were seeking additional learning and training opportunities for their staff and leadership around racial equity. Two years after the program, the progress continues: More than half of the funders are talking with their grantees about racial equity. Many more are seeking additional learning opportunities or changing their grantmaking priorities and practices—including, for example, setting aside dedicated funding to support this portfolio—based on a greater understanding of how they can work for racial equity. The importance of the collective learning experience remains, as a third of the WRAG membership are participating in learning and action via WRAG’s Racial Equity Working Group.

This progress now extends beyond the local philanthropy community. Leadership Greater Washington (LGW), a well-respected association of high-level, cross-sector leaders in the region, reached out to WRAG to broaden their understanding of this issue. Together, in 2018, WRAG and LGW hosted another six-month learning initiative. This time called “Expanding the Table for Racial Equity,” it culminated in September in a trip to Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, locales at the core of the civil rights movement. This experience strengthened participants’ understanding of the history of racial struggles and their connection to current racial reality in our country.

Today, in the Greater Washington region, there is a growing group of philanthropists that have been joined by elected officials, nonprofit, and business leaders in recognizing the depth, breadth, and impact of racism. They acknowledge the legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow policies, of the unfulfilled promise of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that separate was indeed not equal. They know that as a society, we have not legislated or mandated our way to equity, nor taken the time to understand how we got here. Until that occurs the path to equity remains unclear. But, they have taken important first steps. By putting racism on the table, they have acknowledged a wound and a reality. Now, they are working toward necessary policy change and racial healing.

Sharing my past to inspire a racially just future

By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Last September, I introduced you to a personal project I have been working on for several years, a book entitled Daughters of the Dream. I am pleased that my book has been published and was released today on, and at other bookseller’s websites.

The death of Trayvon Martin may have been the catalyst. It seemed to elicit shock among many in the white community. In the black community, it elicited deep sadness – not shock.

When I wrote a post for this blog about how I had experienced this tragic event, large numbers of my white colleagues expressed surprise that I talked with my son about ‘shopping while black, driving while black, walking while black.’

“You still have to do that?” they asked.

I thought about how different our worlds were and that while I had to comprehend the white world to succeed, white people have not had to understand mine.

I started writing the book the same month that Trayvon was killed. The idea for it, however, had been percolating among a group of my childhood friends for several years. Originally, it was to be about our decades-long friendship, but it evolved once I began writing. Daughters of the Dream is a series of vignettes woven into a story recounting our lives. The story is told against a backdrop of segregation, integration, civil rights, and the long journey toward racial justice with what I hope is just the right sprinkling of history that you may not know.

Some black people believe it is the responsibility of white Americans to learn and understand the black experience. But learning how it feels to walk in someone else’s shoes is difficult. Even with sincere empathy and desire, without a guide to point out and explain the nuances, the level of understanding can be superficial.

In hindsight, I think that being one of those guides is part of my calling, my psychic price for occupying a place on Earth. I am not a historian or a sociologist, nor am I a researcher or a journalist. But I am black and have a specific perspective. Just as I hope WRAG’s Putting Racism on the Table initiative has opened people’s eyes to the truths of structural racism and implicit bias, I also hope that Daughters of the Dream will give a glimpse into the experience of one black American and her friends.

This book is not about THE black American experience. I do not speak for an entire race. This is a recounting of the life’s experience of someone with whom, I think, many can relate. On paper, we—some white and black Americans—may share many demographic similarities. This fact might lead you to think we walk the same path. We do not. Daughters of the Dream will reveal just how different our lives have been and how different they continue to be. My America is not yours, at least not yet. I hope that Daughters of the Dream can bring us closer together as more Americans recognize the racial injustice in our country and work for the change that is needed.

Advancing Equity by Undoing Nonprofit Power Dynamics: An interview with Amanda O’Meara of the Weissberg Foundation & Adventure Theatre’s Michael Bobbitt

June 21 is Get a BEER* and Undo Nonprofit Power Dynamics Day (GBUNPD) – a day when funders and nonprofits across the country will get together without an agenda. GBUNPD is the brainchild of nonprofit leader and blogger Vu Le, who has long recognized that the power dynamic between funders and their grantee partners gets in the way of social change. The only rule of GBUNPD events is that there can be no agenda!

Since WRAG is committed to advancing equity in the social sector and in our region, we were happy to sign on with the Weissberg Foundation, GEO, NCRP, and United Philanthropy Forum to co-sponsor a local GBUNPD happy hour (details!). To shed light on why undoing funder-nonprofit power dynamics is critical to advancing equity, we talked to Amanda O’Meara, program officer at the Weissberg Foundation, and Michael Bobbitt, artistic director of Adventure Theatre. Amanda and Michael are participating – together – in WRAG & LGW’s Putting Racism on the Table: Expanding the Table for Racial Equity learning series. We thought that this shared experience may have revealed new insights for them on the relationship between funders and nonprofits.

WRAG: How has participating together in these challenging conversations about race and equity changed the dynamic between the Weissberg Foundation and Adventure Theatre?

Amanda: I have been fortunate to participate in several trainings and conversations with Michael around racial equity through this series and through the Weissberg Foundation’s Diversity in Theater cohort. I have learned so much from Michael and continue to be inspired by what he does on a daily basis to advance equity. I think learning alongside him as a partner in this work has been beneficial. It has allowed us to have open conversations about how challenging this work can be, and helped to build a stronger relationship where we rely on each other as thought partners.

Michael: The Weissberg Foundation staff have provided such amazing training and educational opportunities around racism, equity, diversity, and inclusivity, that I came into this series with a strong foundation for deeper learning, activism and a more sure-footed ability to add to the conversation and perhaps help others see and hear more deeply. What I love most is that Adventure Theatre’s board and staff have increased their knowledge and our EDI efforts have shifted from conversation and placation to excitement and operationalizing.

WRAG: What would you say, Amanda, to grantmaking colleagues about the value of attending an event like GBUNPD?

Amanda: As an introvert, it is easy for me to stay at the office and communicate via email and phone, but it is harder to build meaningful relationships with grantees and other funders that way. Attending an event like GBUNPD is a great way to break out of my usual routines and get to know our grantee partners and colleagues on a more personal level. As it turns out, the people on the other side of those emails are fun to connect with in person!

WRAG: Michael, it probably goes without saying that funders often get unsolicited asks for support, and that those encounters can be really uncomfortable. What would you say to your colleagues from nonprofit organizations that see GBUNPD – inappropriately — as an opportunity to pitch potential donors?

Michael: This event should be a day to get to know people. Get to know them on a personal level and hopefully, you’ll find a connection that may lead to support for your organization, but make the personal contact first.

WRAG: What do you think is the biggest barrier to correcting the power dynamic between funders and nonprofits? What do you think would be the most effective way to get funders and nonprofit organizations to see each other as true partners for social change?

Amanda: I think one of the biggest barriers is the willingness to engage in honest conversations. We have tried to break the power dynamic by participating in our Diversity in Theater convenings with our grantees as a cohort member. As a group, we have all shared our successes and our shortcomings, and I believe that openness and vulnerability has been powerful. It has helped to build more meaningful connections and opportunities for collaborations in the future.

Michael: Money is a difficult conversation. Funders have money and nonprofits need money, so it’s just awkward. Get to know each other and share in the conversations, obstacles, vulnerabilities, joys, accomplishments. This relationship has a common goal – to make the world a better place. Funders need nonprofits to do this work and nonprofits need funders to support this work. It’s easy when the vision and goal is shared and the relationship is deep.

Funders: Click here for event details and to register yourself and your grantee partner(s). We hope to see you on June 21!

*According to Vu Le, BEER stands for “Beverage to Enhance Equity in Relationships,” and does not have to be alcoholic


By Tamara Lucas Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

On June 19, 1865, almost two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a notice of the emancipation finally reached Galveston, Texas.  Until Union Army General Gordon Granger read the announcement, there was either no knowledge of this event or no recognition of its significance in this outer edge of the U.S. So, it was on June 19th – Juneteenth – that freedom was finally announced to, and embraced by, the last enslaved people in America. Until the early 1900s, this day was marked by major celebrations in black communities across the United States. It was referred to as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day. After the passage of Jim Crow laws, dictating how black people were treated in America, they were afraid to gather for this celebration.

For some reason, this all came to mind in February 2017 when many offices closed for “A Day Without Immigrants.”  This was a day in which immigrants and their allies were encouraged not to work to recognize all that immigrants give to the economy and culture of the United States, and to protest deleterious federal immigration policy proposals. The fact that immigrants form a large bedrock of the workforce in America was immediately apparent by their decision not to come to work. That was at the crux of this recognition for me. It was about money.

To my knowledge, there is no such day that recognizes all that African-Americans give and have given to this country. I suspect that some might suggest that the federal holiday in recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. is such a day. Maybe, but that holiday feels more like a recognition of the leadership of one phenomenal person, not a recognition of the economic and cultural contributions of a people. Juneteenth came to mind as the closest, symbolically, to being a day for this type of recognition. It acknowledges the pivotal role of enslaved people in undergirding the economic health of this fledgling country and the ongoing role that black Americans have played in building America’s wealth – literally and figuratively. It recognizes the cultural influence of Africa and subsequently of African-Americans in shaping this country.

So, am I suggesting that all black Americans not work on June 19, 2018? No, I don’t believe we are organized enough – YET — to have a visible impact. Today, I am simply urging everyone to stop and think about the wealth that was created by the free labor of black enslaved people, the profits that were made by black people being underpaid in Jim Crow America, the racial wealth divide that had its roots – and continues – in inequitable treatment.  Perhaps this post will plant a seed and by 2019, our community – philanthropy and beyond – will know what Juneteenth is, how slavery impacted the viability of this country, and will want to acknowledge this reality. Perhaps on June 19, 2019, black people will not go to work and others will close their doors in support.  Together we can make this happen. This year, on June 19th, let’s start by having a pause, a moment of silence, in recognition of what African-Americans have given (willingly and unwillingly) to this country.

How Philanthropy Can Work to Give All Black Men an Opportunity to Succeed

Over the past few days, I keep hearing — and thinking — about an important new study whose results the New York Times summed up in its headline, “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys.”

I was drawn to the study’s coverage for two reasons: The focus on black boys is of personal importance to me, and it’s part of my position supporting professionals in philanthropy. And I have long tried to encourage grant makers to award money for social change based on data about what works and what matters.

But what surprised me was the number of people who told me about the New York Times article, which distilled the findings in attention-grabbing graphics and words.

I had to wonder: Were those who shared it with me surprised by the Stanford, Harvard, and U.S. Census Bureau findings? Or were they just aware of my interest in the topic? I think it was a little of both, an FYI to a colleague and an “aha” moment similar to those engendered by recent cellphone videos of police violence.

And that’s what disturbs me. The evidence that black boys are not succeeding in America has been stunningly apparent for years — test scores, graduation rates, incarceration rates, income disparities, the list goes on and on. The desire to tackle this challenge even emanated from the White House with President Obama’s 2014 launch of My Brother’s Keeper. Don’t we know this data already?

Perhaps many do, but this new work demonstrates that the struggles of black boys and men in America really are about race, not class.

And it might have a powerful resonance because it shows that structural racism and implicit bias harm the sons of the black upper class, underscoring the reality that we — black people — are still judged by the color of our skin. This is not a problem that solely affects low-income communities. Although poverty compounds the effects, this study makes clear that in America, race determines our life outcomes far more than class.

Black Boys Aren’t Broken

The concept of race enters our thinking earlier than we may have assumed. Some suggest that the sense of racial hierarchy has been shown to be evident in 3- and 4-year-olds. And that notion of a racial hierarchy is reinforced by messages that portray black boys as criminal, weak learners, and lacking ambition. These messages have been inculcated into the American narrative for decades. We cannot pretend that it doesn’t exist in the postracial America that some imagine.

So now that this study has gotten people shocked enough to act, what will we do?

In my role as head of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, we will continue our Putting Racism on the Table effort to educate leaders about a side of our society — one built on structural racism and implicit bias — that many people do not know exists.

We started with grant-making executives, but we knew that even though philanthropic dollars can be catalytic, they alone cannot solve any problem, particularly one as entrenched as racism. Recently we joined with Leadership Greater Washington to expand Putting Racism on the Table to business, government, and nonprofit leaders.

The importance of helping leaders fully understand the realities of racism should not be minimized, but it often is. We feel the pressure to act fast, without taking the time to learn. But consider this: At no time have most of us received any formal education on structural racism and implicit bias. Some of us have firsthand experience with it, but we may not be able to identify it or know how insidious it is. And without this knowledge, we direct resources to the wrong places. We try to fix black boys. They aren’t broken. What is broken is the education system, the criminal-justice system, and many of the other societal structures that surround them with a false sense of racial hierarchy.

Steps to Take

America has made little effort to understand structural racism and implicit bias. Philanthropy has many opportunities to change that. It can:

Support research on how best to have difficult conversations about race. What strategies are most likely to work with business leaders, elected officials, and community leaders? How can we have the conversations that we have avoided for decades, if not centuries?

Commit to supporting broader and deeper educational efforts about structural racism and implicit bias. These sessions must be tailored to key audiences to ensure they receive the information in ways that will be meaningful. Those in positions of authority need to understand the reality of racism and its ramifications. It will be difficult and perhaps uncomfortable, but with skilled discussion leaders, these conversations can be had. This part of America’s past and present must be faced.

Award grants to media watchdogs. The media’s role in defining how we see black males in America is undeniable. We must begin to call out instances of prejudicial coverage and seek to support more balanced portrayals of black people, especially men and boys. The bias that exists has been nurtured and reinforced by media images and media coverage.

Finance examinations of how black people are portrayed in American history textbooks.Foundation grants can encourage and enable the creation of texts that present a comprehensive and more accurate recounting of the role that blacks have played in the making of America. As long as this role continues to be minimized, the position of blacks in the country can be, and will be, marginalized.

Examine racial equity in your grant making. You may be inadvertently perpetuating racial inequities unless you undertake an analysis to determine the racial impact of the projects you support. Positive intentions can sometimes lead to negative impact.

Establish scholarships for black men who want to become teachers. It is especially important to get more black men to become classroom instructors. As part of offering financial support for their training in teaching, organizations should urge them to commit to working in schools with high black populations.

Support research to examine systems in our country, such as education and criminal justice. Foundations can support work to determine how key systems across the country provide advantages and disadvantages to Americans based on their race. It can then support efforts to change those policies and practices that have led to these realities.

Beyond such efforts, grant makers can and must explore their own implicit biases — ones that may have contributed to a lack of support for grass-roots and black-led organizations working to correct racial disparities. And grant makers should examine their own policies and practices that may be grounded in implicit biases.

This is just a small sampling of the multiple ways in which philanthropy can promote racial equity. If it has the will, philanthropy can move this country to examine and to act on a topic that has been taboo.

When apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, the government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, not only to reveal and understand the atrocities that had occurred but also to facilitate movement toward healing. South Africa publicly acknowledged the wound and actively worked to foster understanding and healing. In the United States, we have never fully acknowledged the wound of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, redlining, preferential lending practices, and mass incarceration — some examples of structural racism and implicit bias that existed years ago, but continue, in some form or with vestiges today — all factors that bring us to the statistics revealed in the study.

We have been immersed in that all-encompassing sense of white is good and black is bad. We may not want to say those words out loud, but that is America’s truth. We must be explicit in our commitment to confront, to learn and to unlearn, and to build a just and equitable society. Government may not pave the way to healing in the United States as it did in South Africa. That’s all the more reason why philanthropy must lead the conversations and the actions that will contribute to America’s healing.

Understanding History: It’s NOT Just Academic


By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

For whom is the Shaw neighborhood in DC named?

What role did People’s Drug Store (now CVS) play in the rebellion in Washington, DC in 1968?

What did Howard University students and then-Rep. John Conyers have to do with the creation of Black History Month?

Those were just a few of the questions posed by Dr. Bernard Demczuk, retired professor from George Washington University, and presenter at the opening reception for Putting Racism on the Table: Expanding the Table for Racial Equity. Whew. That is a mouthful, but what Leadership Greater Washington (LGW) and the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG) are trying to do is a mouthful, too. Our task is formidable. We are trying to build a network of leaders in our region who recognize and understand the impact of structural racism, white privilege and implicit bias on our communities and who believe that we can change it.

Some suggest that there is no need to talk about slavery. “There is no need to understand what happened during Reconstruction,” they say. “Why are we talking about redlining?  Let’s just start where we are and help people of color get to that level playing field.”

Well, I share Dr. Demczuk’s view that until we fully understand the past, we cannot create a just future. Why?  Because we must understand that it is not happenstance, laziness, lack of intellectual aptitude or a whole host of other commonly suggested falsehoods that have caused people of color to be on the bottom rung of the ladder to American success. Until we acknowledge how this has happened – and is perpetuated – with intentionality, well-meaning people will direct their interventions to the victims, not to the systems that have victimized — the real structural racism that has created the problems.

Understanding history is not just an academic undertaking. It is a way to unearth the foundation that has created what now exists.  In many cases that foundation is strong. We must dismantle it and start fresh to truly create a level planning field. WRAG is committed. Are you?

P.S. – If you want to know the answers to the questions above, listen to Dr. Demczuk’s talk.

Racial Healing: A National Day, but a Personal Journey

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers 

I was at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation conference in 2016 when the idea of a Day of Racial Healing was first mentioned. It seemed to emerge organically from the conversation at the conference.

Now, in its second year, LaJune Montgomery Tabron, the Kellogg Foundation’s CEO, reminds us that “in healing, we acknowledge the truth of past wrongs and the authentic narratives of people across communities. The National Day of Racial Healing is a call to action for people to come together and begin the dialogue.”

The Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG) began that dialogue in 2016. We called it Putting Racism on the Table. Based on our work, we now know:

  • 36% of our membership is applying a racial equity lens to their grantmaking and another 34% are considering adopting such a frame;
  • 30% sought additional learning for staff and leadership on racial equity;
  • 22% engaged trustees in conversations about race and how it relates to their organization;
  • 18% engaged grantees in conversations about racial equity;
  • 16% changed their grantmaking priorities; and,
  • 16% changed internal operations, policies, procedures and/or organizational culture.

I am proud of this. These actions didn’t come from one day of racial healing. Multiple conversations with many philanthropic leaders led to a multi-pronged, multi-year learning journey. But, my sense of urgency to do this work did emerge from one day of racial healing.

I was personally devastated when Trayvon Martin was killed. I couldn’t watch news coverage or read stories about it. Every time that I did, I thought, this could have been my son – roughly the same age and the same experience. My healing started when I wrote a blog post about my feelings. I let others into my experience as the mother of an African-American boy in this city, this country, at that point in time. The feelings that I would have normally kept bottled up, I shared with my professional community. That was not the only event that put WRAG on the Putting Racism on the Table learning journey, but it was pivotal.  For a movement like WRAG’s to start, someone in a leadership position must lead.

In order to heal, we must admit that there is pain and suffering. We must see or create a path to lessen or completely alleviate that pain. The depth of my pain – and my denial of racial realities — was revealed in the death of Trayvon. My healing continues. It is a process, not an event. For some, the National Day of Racial Healing may be that catalytic event that Trayvon Martin’s death was for me. I simply urge you to start on your path to racial justice, to understand the need for racial healing and to use your position to encourage others to do the same.

Why government needs to put racism on the table

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers 

Somewhere in elementary school, we all learned how a bill becomes a law. What we didn’t learn was how bias, perhaps unconscious, affects the decisions of lawmakers or how structural racism has been essentially hardwired into so many of the public policies that shape our lives.

Without stepping back to understand history, as Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, reminded a WRAG audience last week, we continue to perpetuate inequities while falsely believing that certain realities are created by happenstance or natural preferences. In reality, it is with intentionality that, throughout history, the federal government has played a powerful role in ensuring or preventing racial equity. Examples include presidential actions like the Emancipation Proclamation and Executive Order 9981 that desegregated the armed forces; Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sandford or Brown v. Board of Education; and, Congressional decisions like the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution and the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1964 to name just a few.

The governmental role is not limited to the federal government. State actions related to criminalization of offenses have been shown to have a disparate impact on people of color and even local level policies and regulations, particularly zoning regulations, have had a negative impact on communities of color. Efforts to address racial inequity will only succeed with the active engagement of government officials, both elected and appointed.

Toward that end, WRAG is pleased to partner with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) to begin a deliberately focused conversation with government officials in our region on this important topic. On December 1, 2017, WRAG and a larger coalition, is bringing GARE trainers to our region.

Our challenge is to get government officials to attend. The default response often is “I already know that. I know about redlining. I know about school segregation. I know. I know. I know.” The reality, however, is that without a structured examination, few of us really know what contributed to these realities, what the impact has been, and the imperative that must be expressed and acted upon to consciously make a change.

Government responds to the will of the people. We hope that you will use your voice to encourage your elected and appointed officials to demonstrate their commitment to racial equity by participating in this important training.

Last year, funders began their Putting Racism on the Table learning journey based on the insight of John Gardner: “The first step of leadership is not action; it’s understanding.” It’s time for government to begin this journey.

Statues, History and Social Justice

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Last Friday, I passed by Columbus Circle in front of Union Station as journalists prepared to film their Columbus Day news segments. I was reminded of the role that statues play in setting the stage for conversations.

That has definitely been the case with statues of Confederate soldiers. Some suggest these statues represent pride for those whose ancestors were a part of the Old South. Others note that that their ancestors were also a part of that same Old South, but pride is not their emotion when viewing these statues. Anger and sorrow are. So, what should happen?

Here’s what one group of young men thought when they visited Monument Avenue, home to a number of statues to Confederate soldiers in Richmond, VA,

“Today me and my peers decided to visit the monuments to see what all the fuss was about and we came up with this.Is it more convenient to take down some statues than to improve the real problem of society? … From living in low income areas we have our own ideas about society. Everybody pointing blame at monument avenue and statues that reside there, but those statues never did anything to me or people that i care about. The only thing that ever harmed people in low income areas is the violence that reside there …In low income areas 5 kids each [the five who visited the monuments today] from a different area [different apartments] collectively knows twenty-two dead [over the past year], where the protest about that, where are the reporters, where are all the organizations that claim to be to alive to better the lives of blacks. … Instead of using money to knock down statues that most people in low income areas never even seen how about using that moving to improve schools,fix up the community that we see everyday, or why not protest in our neighborhoods where we see violence and hate the most. We all was taught about pride and loyalty, but why nobody ever taught us not to die over the neighborhood that our mother renting…Everybody wants to help but nobody is really helping are they?”

– Excerpted from a Facebook post written by Daquan (age 17), on behalf of the following RCC Youth: Cahlee (16), DaMonte (16), Tawante (17), William (16).

As someone who grew up in Richmond with these statues, I get it. They are a bit like landmark wallpaper. But, isn’t that what normalizing is all about? We may think we don’t notice, but subconsciously, we do. And, now, a variety of events have caused those statues to rise in our consciousness. They are no longer benign wallpaper. We have been forced to think about what they mean, what they represent.

Seventeen-year old Daquan faces challenges much bigger than taking down a statue of a Confederate soldier, particularly a statue that is not a part of his day-to-day environment. He wants resources invested in making his community better. I understand his perspective, but it doesn’t have to be either or.

The reporters came to stand in front of Columbus Circle because the statue created the right backdrop for their story. What backdrop do these larger-than-life statues on stately Monument Avenue create for those driving by every day? Even subliminally, vital messages about power, justice, and history are conveyed by those statues. As individuals committed to improving the lives of people in our region, we have to think both about the direct day-to-day needs of Daquan and his neighbors, but also about the long-term implications of subliminal messages that perpetuate the false narrative of racial hierarchy. Advancing racial justice requires us to work on both fronts.

Why aren’t there more leaders of color in the nonprofit sector?

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

I’ve been reading a lot recently about white flight and residential segregation. Generally researchers used to agree that a white neighborhood could “tolerate” (yes, that was the term frequently used), 5% people of color, maybe 10%, and still maintain its stability. If any more were to move in, the neighborhood was considered to be declining.

Today, in many cities across the country, and especially here in DC, we aren’t seeing white flight. In fact, just the opposite. Whites are flocking to urban areas and displacing blacks, but the sentiment that is engendered now is the same as a generation ago. As more whites move into communities, the neighborhoods are seen as pretty, safe, desirable, and worthy of investment. Where neighborhoods remain majority black, the areas are perceived as blighted and dangerous. White is good. Black is bad.

I think this same dynamic holds true when you think about the lack of diversity in the leadership of nonprofit organizations.

Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, a report recently released by BoardSource, had as its first finding, “Boards are no more diverse than they were two years ago and current recruitment priorities indicate this is unlikely to change.” Anne Wallestad, president of BoardSource is quoted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, as calling this finding, “really disappointing.”

I would agree that it is disappointing, but it is not surprising. I believe there is a fear of organizational leadership integration just as there was a fear of residential integration. Now, hear me out. I believe that there is a fear, perhaps unconscious, of what will happen to the organization, just like some white homeowners in the past feared what would happen to their neighborhood. Will the organization’s prestige decline? Will donors, who are primarily white, have the same level of trust in the organization? Will the work of the organization change in a way that won’t be supported?

For over a year, the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers has looked at issues of structural racism and unconscious bias. Certainly, recruitment strategies are critically important to enabling a diverse pool of candidates. Nonprofit salary levels are also a consideration not always discussed when trying to recruit broadly. But based on what I’ve learned over the last 18 months, the reason for a lack of diverse leadership in nonprofit organizations may be much deeper and more entrenched. Remember: White is good and Black is bad. You may not think of it consciously, but the sentiment surrounds us like air.

If you are truly committed to diverse boards and increased people of color in nonprofit leadership positions, I urge you to put racism on the table and actively discuss and explore unconscious bias. Having that type of fundamental conversation, along with training, might make a difference.

*Make sure you read Anne Wallestad’s statement on the lack of diversity on nonprofit boards.