The Need for Black Rage In Philanthropy
Black anger has often stoked the flames of progress in this country. Philanthropy, however it manifests itself — a national institution, a small family foundation, or individual donors with or without significant wealth — would be well served to embrace it.
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So the first part of the problem is how to control the rage so that it won’t destroy you. Part of the rage is this: it isn’t only what is happening to you, but it’s what’s happening around you all of the time, in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, the indifference and ignorance of most white people in this country.” — James Baldwin
Charles Blow is incandescent with rage. So am I — And I work incessantly to ensure I’m not destroyed by it.
Several weeks ago, I thought of James Baldwin and the rage he spoke of so eloquently. It was an early Monday morning in an affluent part of Baltimore that felt very distant from me growing up — and if I were being honest, a place that still feels a world apart today. I grew up black and working-class in West Baltimore: Neither of my parents went to college, but that didn’t keep them from driving home the importance and possibility of education. As a toddler, my mother would read me the poetry of her favorite author, Langston Hughes, most often reciting to me “Mother to Son.”
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor —
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now —
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Thinking back, it was as if my mother found in Langston Hughes the words and wisdom she felt she needed to impart upon her young son to prepare him for the world. Life ain’t no crystal stair.
As I got older, my mother’s lessons became more pointed, more specific: Like, for example, how to conduct myself as a black man in the presence of police and white authority figures.
Despite my mother’s influence, my favorite writer became James Baldwin. And so I was thinking of my mother, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes that early Monday morning, I looked around that day, taking in my surroundings, wondering, “How many parents here have had to have the life or death talk with their son about the possibility of bodily harm that may come to them at the hands of the police? How many people here intimately understand “Mother to Son” or have a visceral reaction to Baldwin’s articulation of rage?”
These were the nagging questions swimming in my head as I sat across from a foundation executive that early morning. The questions in my head had nothing to do with the conversation at hand — or so I thought. After all, our friendly get together was meant to be a productive, sincere discussion about how organized philanthropy might be able to help strengthen Baltimore City.
But then came the rage. It had been simmering since I arrived that morning, but it quickly began to boil.
The foundation executive explained that his trustees needed more time — that they were not yet prepared to make the sort of changes I — and many others — wanted to see. The pace of change was too fast for them. My simmering rage nearly boiled over.
“There is never time in the future,” Baldwin once wrote, “in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.”
I was incensed. I was incensed not merely because in the week leading up to our get together eight black men — all my age and younger — had been murdered just miles away yet a world apart from this North Baltimore outpost; no, I was incensed because, here I was, hearing yet again that my impatience was at odds with a privileged class of — mostly white — donors and elites.
Those closest to me know that for years I’ve tried to practice a muscular empathy toward well-intentioned, privileged — and mostly white — people of goodwill. But over the past several months, my empathy and patience have been engulfed by rage, and there are numerous days I fear I will be overcome and destroyed by it. Though I laugh it off in the company of empathizers, good friends, and loved ones, humor has its limits.
As a black man working in social impact and philanthropy, I spend many hours each day contorting myself to meet the idiosyncratic whims of philanthropists who move without moral urgency nor operate with a sense of righteous indignation. According to industry demographics, organized philanthropy is one of the last acceptable enclaves of white — especially male — privilege. Courtney Martin puts it quite well when she writes:
“A lot of people who are not white, male, and older are hustling their asses off to understand the sensibility of those who are. They are spending energy being tactical about how they talk about their work and build relationships, however transactional or tokenizing. I admire their commitment and acuity, but even if some get good at translating and tap dancing for dollars, that should not comfort the philanthropic world about its own inclusivity or transparency. It only means that some people are willing to put in the work to get good at the game, not that the game isn’t profoundly rigged or that it doesn’t distract from getting real work done.”
Well, I’m one of those people. And I’m exhausted.
My only quibble with Ms. Martin is she suggests that some of us are more willing to work hard at perfecting the game. It is more accurate to suggest that some of us, through a stroke of good luck — or perhaps, misfortune — are better able to endure the game. But even great endurance withers under a persistent, crushing weight.
The game is rigged — but what can we do about it?
For years, I’ve self-censored my anger, believing it to be a great liability in my efforts to help bring forth racial justice and social change. Actually, it’s what I’ve been taught — many have attempted to talk me out of my justifiable rage.
But it’s unwise to distance myself from the rage — instead, it should be accepted, controlled, and harnessed. After all, black anger has often stoked the flames of progress in this country. It stands to reason that in our pursuit of justice and progress, philanthropy, however it manifests itself — a national institution, a small family foundation, or individual donors with or without significant wealth — would be well served to embrace it as well.
But philanthropy isn’t enraged. By and large, the culture of philanthropy is academic, genteel, and composed. Last year, 344 Baltimoreans were murdered: More than 90 percent were black men — half were between the ages of 18 and 30. This year, 176 Baltimoreans have been murdered — nearly 70 percent between the ages of 18–34.
What good is composure and politeness in this context? Why is more patience required? How much more time is needed before philanthropy acts urgently?
“When people talk about time, therefore, I can’t help but be absolutely not only impatient but bewildered. Why should I wait any longer? In any case, even if I were willing to — which I am not — how?” — James Baldwin
I’m bewildered, impatient, and angry. I’m tired of being told to, in effect, “Wait a little longer.” All of us should be. We should move with righteous indignation and moral urgency, as if our lives depended on it — because in communities like Baltimore, someone’s life does.
“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
Following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the Association of Black Foundation Executives organized a conference call to give space to black foundation and nonprofit leaders from across the country to grieve. As ABFE president Susan Taylor Batten put it:
“We know that there is pain. There is rage. It’s okay to acknowledge it and, more importantly, recognize that you’re not alone.”
Indeed, as demonstrations and protests across the country illustrate, I am not alone in my anger. In public and behind closed doors, African Americans express anger, disappointment, and impatience at the slow pace of change. But throughout history, impatience and rage against injustice has often produced progress. Philanthropy should learn from this history and lean into the impatience and rage that simmers throughout Black America.
Recently, a funder cried in front of me — he was overcome with sadness and anger while reciting a story told to him by his colleague, a black mother, whose 5-year old son feared growing up, believing he’d be killed, simply, for being a black man. The funder, a middle-aged white man, acknowledged he could never understand what it’s like to be a parent — like his colleague or my mother — who had to speak to their son about the lack of value placed on his life when he stepped outside of home. But the funder knew he needed to do something, soon — now — because, why wait?
“Now,” he said, “is the time to confront structural racism. Programs aren’t the answer — racial equity is.” I saw a philanthropist possessed by rage and impatience.
How would philanthropy emboldened by black rage look? For starters, we would move beyond empty rhetoric and platitudes about the importance of equity and inclusion and move toward action:
Become accountable to the people you serve
The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy partnered with the Oregon Community Foundation to assess how the foundation worked with historically marginalized populations. NCRP discovered a history of cultural insensitivity and insufficient engagement with communities of color. Now that it’s aware of the discriminatory institutional practices it employs, the foundation can and has worked to redress them. It’s a great step forward.
Because foundations often ask prospective grantees for three years of audited financials — in and of itself a practice that disadvantages poorly resourced organizations led by communities of color — should foundations not audit themselves for how they engage and empower them? Should they not hold themselves accountable for investing in organizations governed by people and communities of color?
What if foundation boards in communities like Baltimore were governed by individuals directly impacted by structural racism and economic disinvestment?
An African American funder I know is doing a rather radical thing: Observing that her foundation rarely engaged consultants of color to support their grantmaking and strategy development, she has created a program to cultivate fledgling consultants from underrepresented populations, particularly African Americans. It’s a bold, brilliant, and brave move — rather than simply wringing her hands because there are no consultants of color qualified enough to work with the foundation, she has intentionally invested in developing a prospective pipeline of consultants.
While this investment is designed to build the capacity of underrepresented organizations, it’s also a strategy to bring diverse perspectives, networks, and skill-sets into the foundation so that it can be more effective in achieving the goals of equity, inclusion, and long-term impact it has set forth.
Similarly, individual donors might consider working with philanthropic advisors of color to expand their reach into underrepresented communities, and thus, better identify more diverse grantees to invest in.
Invest in “on the ground” leaders of color
In his critique of the #reasonsforhope campaign organized by Ford Foundation and 38 other foundations, David Callahan notes,
“I’m imagining that more than a few advocates working in the trenches on race, policing, and guns looked at the list of foundations on the ad, and then at their own list of funders, and noticed something amiss […] Foundation leaders need to be mindful of appearing hypocritical in their cheerleading role or hogging the spotlight, as people sitting on piles of money often do. It’s the change makers in the field who should be out front, and the last thing those folks want to hear are foundation CEOs giving lip service to priorities that, in practice, they’ve been underfunding for years.”
Philanthropy is rightly criticized for its inability to invest meaningful resources into leaders of color and under-resourced, community representative organizations. Foundations and high net-worth donors typically don’t have the relationships, access, or cultural dexterity required— in short, organized philanthropy often lacks the capacity to invest into leaders and communities of color.
There are two ways philanthropy can work to build its capacity to invest resources in equitable and inclusive ways that grow leaders and organizations of color: 1) hire staff and consultants of color with direct experience and relationships within priority areas, i.e. workforce development and poverty and 2) invest in intermediaries led by and accountable to communities of color. Neither strategy is radical nor earth-shattering. In fact, these are tactics regularly deployed in philanthropy, though typically not from a racial equity perspective.
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
A friend recently asked me how I’ve persisted in the work of trying to make change. I told him it was because I was angry — angry about the constant murders of black men and women; angry about the widespread epidemic of mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts black men and their families; and angry about the lack of rage from people of good will. My anger doesn’t need to be silenced — it needs to be acknowledged for its ability to drive change.
My question to donors, funders, and trustees: When will you get angry enough to stop waiting?