Female Disruptors: How Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland Aims To Shake Up Philanthropy Among The Black Diaspora
…I really enjoy building movements to redirect, if possible, preservation and allocation of resources towards a more just, sustainable future. This means creating new visions, including others to develop them, and then establishing the infrastructure, operations and technologies needed to make the visions real for impact.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland.
A social and environmental justice leader, Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland is Founder and CEO of The Women Invested to Save Earth (WISE) Fund, an innovation enterprise, supporting grassroots Black and Indigenous women climate change innovators in Africa, Brazil, Australia and the USA. She is the Founder of Black Philanthropy Month, a global campaign to document, celebrate and promote African-descent giving and funding in all its forms that has reached 17 million people and is recognized by 30 governments, including the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent. Dr. Copeland is honored to have created the original design of My Brother’s Keeper that would eventually influence President Obama’s initiative to advance equal opportunity for disadvantaged men and boys of color and is an advocate for gender equity.
An award-winning social change visionary, she is recognized as a HistoryMaker by The HistoryMakers®, the nation’s largest African American video oral history collection, for her impactful civic contributions. Trained as an anthropologist, urban designer, and author with a long social sector executive career, her life mission is to promote the wellness and rights of humanity and the planet that we all share. Visit thewisefund.org and blackphilanthropymonth.com for more background.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As a youth I was intrigued how forces I could not name or understand could fundamentally influence conditions, employment and educational opportunities. A personal experience growing up in a limited income, highly polluted urban environment with racial segregation and earning scholarships from strangers to get a college education influenced me too. These experiences eventually morphed into a love for understanding people’s history and culture through anthropology, and applying what I learn to create novel ways to promote equal access to capital, including funding and technology, to advance human rights for all people and environmental justice.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
I have been doing my best in collaboration with others to disrupt the world for several decades now. Today, my disruption is through Black Philanthropy Month, a global celebration and promotion of Black giving in all its forms that I founded going on 10 years ago. Most people do not know that giving to help others is hardwired in African-descent cultures. The stereotype is that we do not give, although the data over 30 years now proves that we not only give; in the US we give the highest proportion of our income in philanthropy. Giving from relatively modest to larger donations of time, talent and treasure is a fundamental feature of Black culture.
I think my disruption was in helping to look at diversity within Black Philanthropy. Collaborating with others, I was among the first scholars to document Black Diaspora Giving in the US and Africa. Always an advocate-scholar, I used what I was learning to mobilize and to address the challenges facing our community in many places, eventually advising Black Philanthropists in the US, Africa, and the Caribbean since the 1990s.
These experiences led to the creation of mutually supportive networks, especially women, that inspired the creation of the Pan-African Women’s Philanthropy Network (PAWPNet) and Black Philanthropy Month.
Much of my innovation emerges from my heritage, community engagement, a natural empathy and a respect for people’s lived experience that comes from being an anthropologist trained in the cultures of Africa, South Asia, and their diasporas. I have a deep love and concern for humanity, the essence of philanthropy, including the future of Black people. Working with a Silicon Valley-based social enterprise advancing diversity in the technology field worldwide was a real eyeopener the last two years. Systemic sexism and racism are difficult to impact even in the most well-intended technology companies. Global travel and direct exposure to the concentration of poverty and destruction of our planet really came to a head for me early 2020 just before Covid hit.
I decided that this year, I needed to expand the Black Philanthropy conversation beyond giving to include the funding disparities for Black founders too. So, I wrote a concept paper for the Black Giving and Beyond Summit, including issues of the underfunding of Black founders by venture capitalists as part of Black Philanthropy Month 2020. I had wanted it to be a hybrid event with a central physical location, but livestream worldwide to increase participation. I approached my partners, Valaida Fullwood, creator of The Soul of Philanthropy, and Tracey Webb, Founder of Black Benefactors with the idea of doing such a Summit for Black Philanthropy Month. They got on board, as did my long-time PAWPNet-associated collaborators, sustaining the global and Diaspora inclusion of Black Philanthropy Month. Now we are hosting doing a global Summit including an August 1st US kickoff; an August 4th and 5th African event; as well as global women’s celebration and revival on August 29th.
At the same time, I was envisioning the Summit, I decided that I would create an organization that would address the challenges facing grassroots Black and Indigenous women and women-benefitting founders with solutions to climate change. Many of these women live in communities hit first and hardest by climate change. But as is typical for Black and Indigenous founders, it is difficult for them to get funding to try their ideas. So, the idea for the Women Invested to Save Earth (WISE) Fund was born to provide funding to renewable energy innovators in Black and Indigenous communities in the USA, Africa, Australia, and Brazil. I was planning to kick-off the Fund at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women in NYC last March. But Covid lockdowns and travel advisories hit and the event was cancelled, making the launch a virtual event.
The prominent lynchings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd combined with the devastation of Covid hit me hard as a Black woman. As an African-American woman, Covid, the continuing vigilante-style executions of Black people by both the police and everyday people, hit me hard at a very deep personal level. The warranted fears, anxieties and racial terror that I and all Black Americans endure at some point all came rushing back as surreal contemporary realities in a period of Covid physical isolation, illness and even death of loved ones, since one-third of US coronavirus mortality is Black.
After much soul-searching, I decided that the best way for me to manage my trauma and make a difference at this critical historical moment of increasing calls for racial and economic justice, was to be in the middle of the struggle. So many of my ancestors and relatives survived slavery and Jim Crow, sacrificing so much for not just my opportunities but to make the nation and world more just. I have a 30-year-old daughter and all people can be safe and well with their rights protected. I intend to do all that I can with others to ensure that she, my grandchildren, and all people can make anti-Black racism history while saving our planet. So, I now work full-time on Black Philanthropy Month and The WISE Fund, trying to advance equitable funding for human creativity and innovation as an economic justice issue. Afterall, the person who cures cancer or solves climate change, given an equal chance, could be a Black or Indigenous girl, boy or nonbinary person from a place in the US or elsewhere that is poor and unknown to most people. It is in our country’s and the world’s best interest that everyone has an equal chance to achieve their full human potential. The planet is depending on us.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
A key mentor has been a woman named Carrolle Devonish (fka Carrolle Fair Perry), who was CEO of The Philadelphia Foundation. After I did some consulting work for her in the mid-1980s, Carrolle hired me as the community foundation field’s youngest program vice president, a huge leap of faith. By example and with a lot of coaching and understanding, she taught me a great deal about fundraising and grantmaking with a gracious, human touch devoted to equity, access, and inclusion for all people. She had power as a CEO of one of the country’s largest community foundations at the time. But her empathy and humanity broke down barriers of class, race, educational level, national origin, sexual orientation, wealth and more. Everyone felt better in her presence and she taught me new skills in building shared cause and community across every imaginable type of diversity. She taught me that the role of a community philanthropy was to give disadvantaged people access to resources to fulfill their dreams for their constituents, the community, and the world. I remember her insisting that we meet with new grant applicants in their environments to actively listen and even help them develop their ideas, providing “informal technical assistance.” She taught me to be “the funder of first resort to grow the talent of women, people of color and others locked out of opportunity.” I remember that she even told me once that, “A new applicant doesn’t need a fancy grant proposal. They can write a proposal in crayon on a brown paper bag, if that’s all they have, and it’s our job to help them.” Besides my mother and aunts, who taught me very similar core values, she was my best mentor. And to this day, her approach to community intensive, respectful giving that empowers the most disadvantaged is how I approach funding for Black Philanthropy Month as well as The WISE Fund.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
There are so many that I have either been told personally or read that have had a profound impact.
The first one comes from my mother, Willette Copeland, who as a child told me that “No matter the obstacles you face, whoever hates you just because of who your are, because you’re a woman, are dark-skinned, don’t come from a wealthy family, remember this: You are a child of God and God trumps everything. The people who hate you are God’s children too. They just don’t know it.” For me as a bright elementary school student facing racism, skin color hazing, and all manner challenges, this simple statement that “I was a child of God and that everyone else was too” was deeply empowering, allowing me to imagine myself leading, traveling and doing anything I could dream up, as it was my divine right and duty to do so just as a human being. I like to think that it, along with the family principle of “never forgetting where you and your people came from,” has made me confidently humble and hopeful that I can work with people of all backgrounds to make life better for everyone. I also was blessed by my mother with an abiding faith in God and even though I am a Christian, have cultivated a deep respect for all faiths and backgrounds building on her teaching that we are all God’s children reinforced by the Biblical teaching that I should love others as I love myself and that to much is given much is expected.
Ubuntu, a word that captures a profound philosophy of the Indigenous peoples of South Africa, meaning that “I am, because you are,” also has had a profound influence on my life. I first heard about it in a speech by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the mid-1990s. Up to this point, I had an intellectual understanding of Ubuntu. But it was not until about five years after hearing the Archbishop that I fully understood Ubuntu. I had arrived early to hear Nelson Mandela do a speech at The Minneapolis Club in Minnesota, USA. I had arrived early and was in the room with just my father-in-law at the time — just the two of us.
Then suddenly, Nelson Mandela walked in with just his assistant. Initially, I just stood in awe of being in the presence of this inspiring hero, whose ANC I used to fund with other students as part of the anti-apartheid movement at Georgetown University. Then remembering my mother’s teaching that we are all just children of God, I collected and introduced myself. At the time, I was struggling with the entire notion of forgiving people in my family who had done me serious harm. Knowing his story, I asked President Mandela, “After all you have seen, endured during your struggle against apartheid, imprisonment and the evil done against Black South Africans for decades, how have you managed to forgive and move on?” And he said, “Ubuntu means that even for those who have done you injury, you understand that your destinies are linked. I forgave them, because I knew I had to work with them to set my people free in the continuing struggle for justice for all.”
Over the past few years, extraordinary friend and social justice leader, Reverend Canon Nontombi Naomi Tutu, Archbishop Tutu’s daughter, added another level to my understanding of Ubuntu. She talked about how everyone from technology companies to self-proclaimed gurus have coopted ubuntu, making it a thing and a sales gimmick. She reminded me that Ubuntu is an ancient way of living and caring for the planet that recognizes what Martin Luther King in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and most of the world’s faiths see as the inter-dependence of all life: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Excited that now her daughter< Mungi Ngomane, is continuing the tradition for our times with her new book, Everyday Ubuntu, a wonderful guide to how one can sustain Ubuntu’s timeless ethical grounding in a complex, fast-changing world.
How are you going to shake things up next?
I have big plans for Black Philanthropy Month and The WISE Fund. Black Philanthropy Month will result in New Black Funding Principles. The WISE Fund, collaborating with others, will work to make the principles real to improve access and impact of Black giving and funding for post-Covid recovery and racial justice. We also are designing ways for all people to donate or invest in grassroots Black or Indigenous women-led or benefitting renewable energy founders in Africa, Brazil, Australia, and the USA to start. We hope to be a model among a growing number of community, women’s and other funds combining philanthropy, social impact investing and venture funding into blended pools that increase capital for diverse, underrepresented leaders innovating to address the world’s toughest challenges, while increasing employment and business opportunities for disadvantaged women and people of color. Finally, we are working on expanding our Reunity™ and Renewell™ from annual convenings to a full lifestyle brand. We have a long way to go but have taken the most important steps: we’ve started, have boundless faith, endless imagination, the humility to learn, deep experience, drive and great partners. So stay tuned.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
Besides the Bible and other influential faith texts from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, as well as Indigenous Yoruba and other African, Indigenous and Asian spiritualities, there are books that have impacted my thinking but I will just talk about three briefly: Zora Neale Hurston’s, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and Bob Johannsen’s Get Their Early.
Now a part of the American literary canon, Hurston’s capacity to capture the life and folkways of people who reminded me of my elders was very influential. They were the carriers of African retentions in American culture and, like my proud Gullah-Geechee ancestors from South Carolina, created the foundation of the music, dialects, cuisine, oratory and other folkways that are the foundation of the amalgam that we call African-American culture today. The book made me want to be a cultural anthropologist documenting and empowering diverse people with what is good about their culture and sharing it with others. Hurston, who despite all her brilliance and the first African-American women to earn an anthropology degree from Columbia University, died penniless. She also became a cautionary tale about the importance of economic justice and empowerment for Black people and women as we continue the fight for equal pay for our talents and contributions.
As a high school student, I read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, my earliest exposure to the use of the social and other sciences to sense emerging trends that shape people’s everyday life and we must understand and shape to promote justice. To this day, I remember how Toffler correctly forecast that developing countries would skip hard-wired telephone systems and instead use cellular technology to communication instantaneously across the world. Although we cannot predict the future, we can certainly sense and shape it for good.
I learned more about the art and science of futurism at Palo Alto’s Institute for the Future where I got to work with the brilliant Bob Johannsen, author of the classic, Get There Early, and learned a systematic process for identifying, and acting on emerging future forces that people now call “foresight skills.” Helping companies and philanthropies such as Proctor and Gamble, Campbell Soup, Bertelsmann Foundation, and others add “future studies” to their strategic plans was a great lesson in how to use these same tools for social change and movement building.
Talking with cutting edge leaders; actively listening to their lived experience of grassroots people and innovators; reading voraciously; while reflecting on my personal lessons learned have enabled me to sometimes see emerging trends and respond in advance with novel ideas such as Black Philanthropy Month and The WISE Fund,. My hope is that these visions and co-creations with my community and networks allow us proactively to shape the emerging future instead of just being its reactionaries.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As an anthropologist studying the history and evolution of people and the planet, I really enjoy building movements to redirect, if possible, preservation and allocation of resources towards a more just, sustainable future. This means creating new visions, including others to develop them, and then establishing the infrastructure, operations and technologies needed to make the visions real for impact. Over the past 10 years, I have contributed to the development of four such movements and am still leading two of them: 1) Black Philanthropy Month; 2) My Brothers Keeper; 3) 50/50 Women’s Tech Equity; and 4) The WISE Fund
I have already described Black Philanthropy Month, which has included 17 million people and continues to grow as a global movement to celebrate and advance Black giving and funding leadership as well as equity in all its forms. Most importantly, there is a new generation of leadership emerging to take up the mantel, as economic justice to unleash the genius of all humanity to solve the world’s problems is key to everyone’s survival. Empowering fresh, next generation leadership is the key to keeping movements alive and relevant, as well as maintaining one’s own creativity and energy over the years.
I had the good fortune to be hired by a brilliant, committed leader. Loren Harris, then of the Ford Foundation and now with the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, to develop a national model for a fund to advance life opportunities for disadvantaged men and boys of color. We named it the My Brothers Keeper Fund and I was delighted to later learn that President Obama and his team used the model we developed to structure their signature initiative of the same name, purpose, and to a large extent, design. My Brother’s Keeper developed into a new field in philanthropy called the Black Male Achievement Movement led by people such as Shawn Dove, CEO of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement and others. I am a feminist through and through, but I am an intersectional Black activist, what Alice Walker would call a “womanist.” Although I am still learning, I work to advance the human rights of all marginalized people, including Black men, women, children, transpeople nonbinary persons and others, understanding that our oppression and destinies are linked. I am most proud of my humble contribution to the BMA Movement, especially as anti-Black racism targeting men is a sad, continuing reality in the US and elsewhere.
As COO of The Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology, over the past two years, I helped the CEO and board revive our founder’s original vision of diversity in tech women hiring to include equity in pay, retention, promotion and funding of technical women, including Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC). Covid and the economic downturn made our originally ambitious goal of 50/50 Equity for All Tech Women a bit unrealistic as the corporate sector and technical women adjust to the shelter-in-place recession. Although I resigned to lead The WISE Fund and Black Philanthropy Month full-time, the more inclusive and equity-focused women’s technology diversity movement now led by AnitaB.org continues with my contributions.
At The WISE Fund, we are part of a growing movement of underrepresented people becoming funders to expand capital access and innovation funding for our businesses and nonprofits towards community recovery and economic justice. In particular, we are trying to create new models of “blended funding” that mix donations with social impact investment and venture capital for promising women’s organizations that would typically not be funded due to racism, neocolonialism and other implicit biases. We also are providing coaching and connections to others for training and other supports as necessary. My hope is to promote an EcoHealth Movement, recognizing that human, animal, and environmental wellness are all interconnected. The pandemic economy is showing us that capitalism or emergent alternatives to is must be designed to sustain wellness and sustainability or companies will not have markets or the natural resources to continue business. The planet and our socioeconomic systems are at a breaking point. Through our approach to funding, our thinktanks, summits and wellness convenings, we hope to empower underrepresented people and their allies of all backgrounds to promote justice and save the planet, my life mission and purpose of my movement building career.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Sojourner Truth is an inspiration. She was relentless effort to fight for the rights of Black people and women in a context where she was often disrespected and in danger. Despite her formidable challenges, she reminds us that “Life is a hard battle anyway. If we laugh and sing a little as we fight the good fight of freedom, it makes it all go easier. I will not allow my life’s light to be determined by the darkness around me.” There are so many words to live by in this statement.
First, life is bittersweet at best. Humor and art are fundamental to managing life’s stresses. I consider my work both art and science but always make time for creative expression in my jazz vocal and Zumba practice. Along with writing, they are portable #BlackJoy that I can activate anytime the statistics affecting my community or personal life in general gets overwhelming. They have been vital sources of stress management during the current Covid and racial justice uprisings.
Second, we all need to get into what the late, great John Lewis called “Good Trouble.” We are the change and the future is now. Collaborating with others, anyone can be a change agent and innovator, creating new visions of the future and actualizing them in community with others.
Third, we all have a purpose and a life force. We have a right to explore, express and become it, despite the negative messaging and systemic discrimination faced by Black and other marginalized people. Sojourner Truth’s life and quote reminds me of L.R. Knost’s advice “Never stay in a situation where you have to make yourself small to make others feel comfortable. It also presages Nina Simone’s wisdom that And, as every grown Black woman knows, “I can do bad all by myself.” As women, especially Black women, we resist the temptation to stay in damaging personal, employment or other relationship that diminish our dreams, our basic humanity and health. I agree that the late poet, Audre Lorde, that ““Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I am a very loyal, mission-oriented person but have learned, at great cost, that sometimes, as Nina Simone said, ““We have to know when to get up from the table when love is no longer being served.”
How can our readers follow you online?
My handle is @JackieBCopeland. I am primarily active on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!