Step Up. Now. Before It’s Way Too Late.

Tyler Nickerson
Oct 6, 2017 · 7 min read

Four ways White people in philanthropy can respond to Vanessa Daniel’s call to action.

For those working in philanthropy, there is no shortage of problems to solve. In addition to the all-out assault on vulnerable communities and the clear threats to the foundation of our democracy, the institutions of philanthropy are grappling with their own relevancy in this moment. The theories, processes, and norms of the sector are not living up to the needs of our present day. As the conversation within philanthropy on issues of equity and social justice grow — along with leadership by grantees and people of color — White people in philanthropy are faced with an opportunity and urgency to lead.

Vanessa Daniel, Executive Director of the Groundswell Fund, recently wrote a call to action titled America is burning: White people in philanthropy, what is your move? in which she invited White leaders in philanthropy to step up into our leadership role in moving philanthropy to support social justice work. She eloquently writes how philanthropy needs, “more White people abandoning timidity for boldness, comfort for justice, and cowardice for courage.” She’s right and I felt compelled to respond in this public way, echoing her invitation for leadership. In doing so, I am proposing a path forward for White people in philanthropy to become true co-agitators.

Photo by William Ferguson on Unsplash

Let’s set the stage. I am a White man, raised in a squarely middle class home in the South and Midwest, from a politically moderate family. My parents, both college educated medical professionals, taught me to treat my neighbor as I would want to be treated and that Jesus loves everyone the same regardless of skin color. What was missing in this approach, even as my mother would welcome a diverse set of guests to our dinner table, was the awareness that White people benefit from a legacy of power and dominance over communities of color. I wasn’t taught at home or in school the authentic and devastating experiences of Black and Brown people in this country and how my actions as a White man can help either perpetuate or dismantle racism. We’d discuss the hard times that others faced through a charity and fellowship lens, but never in the sense of solidarity needed to fight for justice.

The opportunity of philanthropy is often not realized. There is amazing work happening right now that is not sufficiently funded, if at all. As Vanessa notes, 95% of all philanthropic resources go to White-led organizations. There is broad recognition that philanthropy is not built to change easily. Dollars are locked up in issue silos or cumbersome grantmaking processes. It’s competitive and disconnected. Even with its ability to skirt the consequences of shareholders or market performance, philanthropy remains overly cautious and risk adverse.

And yet, Philanthropy is run by people and we the people, have choice. We can accept Vanessa’s invitation (and from so many other women of color asking us) to step into leadership. As a White person in philanthropy, it is clear to me that we can no longer accept the status quo or wait to step forward. Many can agree that this is a dark moment in our country’s history. While the threat and pain of this moment is real, so too is the capacity of those rising to resist and spark bold progress. We can seize this moment to do our work in more impactful ways. But only if we are willing to risk relative comfort and be open to doing things differently. What got us here is not what’s going to bring us our future.

If philanthropy is our society’s risk capital and we are being called to lead, what risk am I taking and what is my role when people put their bodies on the line to save their communities? And can we partner and collaborate in a new way that further leverages our collective impact?

The answer is resoundingly Yes! Vanessa’s call to action both pushes and inspires White people to make our move. As White people in our sector, we need to understand how there is opportunity to co-conspire from our positions of privilege and power in greater solidarity with grantee partners. It is on us to tackle White supremacy and the biases that many of our White friends and all of our institutions hold. Time is up and if we don’t address these issues head on, we will keep trying to use bandaids and wonder why the wounds don’t heal. We will keep trying to fund status quo leadership and wonder why the breakthroughs don’t come. Black and Brown issues aren’t just for Black and Brown people to worry about — our collective health, stability and liberation is wrapped up with each other.

I am ready to answer Vanessa’s call. This moment threatens everyone’s health and livelihood, along with the values of the beloved community that brought me to a career in philanthropy. For too long I haven’t played to my full potential in the important conversations that matter. Fellow White people in philanthropy, will you join me in accepting the invitation to step into and truly share our power? This work is for us too and, as Vanessa noted, leaders of color are ready to receive our leadership.

Here are four steps in my practice to deepen racial equity and better respond to the call for leadership :

  1. Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable: There are times I become uncomfortable when issues of elite White male supremacy are discussed. While these conversations hit close to home, I have learned, it’s not all about me. Part of my own fragility around these issues is to hyper-personalize the criticism of the system from which I have benefited, in a way that can make me defensive or resistant to what is being said. When I recognize those feelings of defensiveness or guilt rising in conversations, I pause, receive the discomfort and stay present to what this moment and my reaction is trying to teach me. I don’t have to understand everything or even react to each critique — being uncomfortable is ok.
  2. Step Up, Step Back: We each have a role to play and a story to tell. It is important that we step up and have our voices heard on issues of race, particularly if other White people are listening. It is also important to know when to step back and hold space for others to speak for themselves. If there are few or no people in a room from communities being discussed or otherwise impacted by the conversation, name that missed opportunity to listen to those voices and invite commitments to ensure their inclusion going forward. The idea is to create, share, and take up space with dignity and humility from our position of relative privilege. You have the power to step up, say things others won’t, and let your voice be heard in a way that welcome others to the room.
  3. Keep Your Integrity: It can be hard to stay grounded. If you’re doing this work, traversing across many different audiences is an important skill. The way I talk with my friends or my boss is very different than how I speak with members of my family who voted for Trump. We know that our tone and language needs to shift depending on who is receiving our message. As White people, we sometimes serve as the best messenger in rooms that aren’t considering the possibility of doing the work differently. Even as your framing and language shifts depending on the audience, staying grounded with integrity and in solidarity with partners on the ground is key. Ask for honest input or feedback, follow through on their insights, keep your commitments, or respond to requests to carry their voice with you. This is a chance to lift up their expertise in your own words and ensure that the things for which you are advocating align with their stated needs. As you shift and shape to take risks, always know where your values lie.
  4. Find A Friend: Whew! This is big stuff and can feel like too much. I hear you. What you feel is a glimpse of what a person of color feels everyday in this country without the option of “turning it off”. When I am overwhelmed, feeling attacked, or not ready to let go, I go back to square one. I call a friend who I can trust with my authentic self, emotions and words. I write. I ponder. Eventually, I turn the anxiety into action. It’s a continuous cycle and there are moments I need to go back to the first step. So, start with a friend or colleague who may be asking the same questions. Test out your strategy or thoughts with them first. Taking small risks lead to big leaps and will help you meet Vanessa’s larger call to action.

This clearly is an all hands on deck moment. Our political climate is forcing philanthropy to wrestle with its historic practices and strategies. I see this as an opportunity to do our work differently, including White people taking leadership inside their institutions to push forward a social justice funding model. Vanessa is calling us to go beyond our comfort zones and DEI language to address the real bias and power dynamics in our organizations. White people can no longer wait to engage. This moment is calling all of us to act if we wish to see collective liberation towards a just and sustainable planet. Your move.

Tyler Nickerson

Written by

#Philanthropy & #Finance @AmalgamatedBank | “your fight is my fight” | contributor @philanthropy | Co-Founder @CityBuilt | #foodways nerd | Toughts are my own

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