Privilege, Pessimism, Optimism & Equity

©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Barbara Kinney

Scratch a pessimist and you find often a defender of privilege (William Beveridge, 1943). Only the privileged can afford to give in and give up.

Let me explain.

By accident, through no effort of my own, I was lucky to be born into circumstances in Chicago where the odds were already in my favor. No matter what I might do, I was probably going to be OK.

I did some things that I’m not proud of — like dropping out of high school — but my family and community were a built-in safety net. In an affluent community with the best public schools in the nation, I had loving parents and teachers who convinced me to go back to high school and held me to high expectations.

Had I been born in a different neighborhood in Chicago, in different circumstances just down the road, my environment would not have been so forgiving, my safety net would not have been as secure, and my future would surely have been much different.

Chicago Skyline. ©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Mark Makela

Lessons in Disease & Vaccination

I was born in 1954. In the mid-1950’s, polio was still rampant and across the nation, parents feared this incurable disease. It was a scary time and it was easy to feel pessimistic.

By accident of birth — luck alone — I was born in America in the year that Jonas Salk created the first polio vaccine, and my generation would be the first to benefit from this scientific advancement. While my uncle lived with an iron lung and leg braces because of the polio virus that dominated his life, my generation, and the generations after me, would soon forget.

In 1952, there were 58,000 cases of polio in the U.S., leaving thousands paralyzed. By 1962, there were less than 1,000 cases; by 1972, less than 30 cases; by 1982, just a handful of cases in the U.S.

It took 64 years for the solution to reach less developed nations. In 1985, over 30 years after the vaccine to prevent this crippling disease was discovered, Rotary International committed to massive vaccination campaigns all over the world. In 1988 there were still over 350,000 reported cases of polio in 125 countries. As part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation contributes technical and financial resources to this effort — and by working together toward a specific goal, the number of people harmed by polio is down to less than 100 in just a few countries.

©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Prashant Panjiar

No more paralysis, no more iron lungs or leg braces; we’re creating a new freedom from this disease. Right now, we are on the verge of eradicating polio entirely, worldwide.

Lesson learned: When compassion is combined with drive, science, and conscious, collective, intentional action, then the possibilities are limitless.

Or, the opposite: “scratch a pessimist and you often find a defender of privilege.” A pessimist would have given up, or kept the freedom that a vaccine provides only for the people who could afford it, or only in developed countries, instead of making the effort to share it with the world.

Lessons in Education & Integration

The year I was born was also when the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Brown v. Board of Education, that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” When it comes to public education, the law brought us one step closer to the ideal: Every child — regardless of race, color, or background — deserves an equal opportunity to succeed.

A pessimist would have given up long before that momentous decision — after all, the Supreme Court validated “separate but equal” and the Jim Crow rules it spawned back in 1896. Some said the law was already settled. For our African-American neighbors, and for those of us who believe that all lives have equal value, it’s hard to have faith in the American ideal of “equal justice under the law” when the law and the government had allowed generations of slavery, followed by the oppression and terror of life under Jim Crow.

But the law changed. And, over time, the schools, the opportunities, and the people changed too. We may not have reached our ideal of racial equity yet, but we’re many steps closer.

After a Federal court ordered the desegregation of schools in the South, U.S. Marshals escorted Ruby Bridges to school / Photo: Department of Justice

This past year, I met Ms. Ruby Bridges, the very first black girl to walk into a white school in 1960, when she was just six years old, flanked by four federal marshals. Not a single white student was willing to sit in the same room with her for the entire school year.

Imagine your child’s first day of first grade, the warm and welcoming environment that our teachers and principals strive for, the colorful classrooms with books and posters about being your best. Now imagine Ruby’s first day. Young Ruby Bridges did not have the luxury of privilege, or the luxury of pessimism. And the world is a better place because of her, and because of the strength, courage, and faith in change that brought her to the schoolhouse door and that inspired the millions who watched.

None of this is easy. Progress never is.

Progress is Intentional, not Inevitable

One of my most vivid memories growing up is of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. coming to my all-white neighborhood to confront all the “enlightened” and “progressive” white people who thought that, with time, everything would be OK. But it wasn’t OK. Dr. King was shot down in 1968 and Chicago and many other cities went up in flames.

Every year, I re-read Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Every year I am able to draw more meaning from it, and over the years, one passage continues to stick with me:

All that is said [in this letter] grows out of the tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of people willing to be co-workers to God, and without this hard work time becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

That brings me to today, and my reflection on this past year and my 64 years. Sixty-four years after finding a polio vaccine, we are inches away from eradicating the disease worldwide. Sixty-four years after Brown v. Board of Education, and 153 years after the 13th Constitutional Amendment abolished slavery, we as a nation and a state have not even come close to eradicating racial discrimination. In fact, we have only barely evolved, shifting away from discrimination by law to discrimination in practice, through structures and systems that disadvantage certain groups.

These days, white people live in predominantly white communities with strong social ties and support networks, attending predominantly white public schools — those kids will be just fine. Down the road, the stressors of housing insecurity, poverty, and under-resourced schools and communities are creating hurdles and barriers that make it harder and harder for some kids, often children of color, to get ahead. The system isn’t fair, and it isn’t equitable.

So, what is to be done?

Does the world’s largest foundation have all the answers? Well, no, we sure don’t. We’re still learning. But we do know some of the essentials.

The Power of Community

It might seem contradictory, but at the Gates Foundation, the biggest funder in the world, we believe deeply in community philanthropy.

The problems of the world are too big for us; the paradox is that our best hope is at a local scale — in our communities. We believe in community and we know that philanthropy is essential for a strong, resilient, and fair community. We also know it’s long past time to check our own privilege, invite more diverse lived experience to the table, and be better listeners.

To me community philanthropy looks like this:

  • People who care about a place or an issue come together to make it better.
  • We engage in deep listening, an honest and respectful exchange of views, and acting in trustworthy ways.
  • We face up to history and reconcile with it.
  • We are generous in spirit and wealth.

It’s messy. It’s slow. It requires people to set aside their agendas for the good of the community. There are no silver bullets. After my 64 years, I know it requires an odd blend of urgency, courage, optimism, stamina, and patience.

Community leaders gather to launch the “Schoolhouse Washington” collaboration to help Washington’s homeless students find the support and stability they need to thrive. ©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Mike Kane

At the Gates Foundation, we see our role as advancing equity in educational attainment — closing the persistent opportunity and achievement gaps that reflect a 246 year history of slavery and 153 years of a struggle to overcome the legacy of racism.

In the foundation’s home state of Washington, we helped catalyze a collective effort among community foundations, United Ways, and other funders serving specific diverse communities across the entire state to face up to these challenges. We also see our role as helping our public schools adapt to these realities, supporting adults so that they can better support children, and giving every student — regardless of race, income, gender, or ethnicity — a fair chance to reach their full potential.

Scratch a pessimist and you find often a defender of privilege. But we pride ourselves on being impatient optimists, and we will work tirelessly, for as long as it takes, to achieve equity for all.