Recently, staff from the Meyer Foundation gathered with 22 of our grantee partners to participate in a two-day Undoing Racism Workshop led by the People’s Institute. This was the kick-off to the next stage of our internal racial equity learning agenda, led by Senior Director for Strategy & Equity Aisha Alexander-Young. Our racial equity learning agenda is one component of the Foundation’s commitment to continually build our staff’s capacity to analyze and challenge internal and external systems that uphold racial inequities. Below, Aisha reintroduces her role at the Foundation, and explains why the principle taught in Undoing Racism, “anti-racism”, is so important to our work. This is part of an ongoing series where Meyer will share our learning journey, as well as resources that have been helpful for us along the way.
by Aisha Alexander-Young, Senior Director for Strategy and Equity, Meyer Foundation
Just over 10 months have gone by since I first took on the role as senior director for strategy & equity at the Meyer Foundation. My role is complicated, mostly because systemic racism and the work to undo it is, within itself, complicated. Working in a system like philanthropy that has contributed to the oppression of people of color — particularly Black people — while simultaneously trying to undo the impact of this oppression, is complicated and fraught with contradictions.
But I am a pragmatist. I believe that systems change is needed to achieve racial equity, and I believe we all have a role in getting there. I’ve long been a community organizer and have never seen the work of organizing as something that stops the moment I cross the threshold of my workplace. I organize within existing systems guided by well-intentioned missions, helping them to realize that a strategy that denies or ignores the realities of race and racism is at best incomplete, and at worst perpetuating the very issues it seeks to solve. The latter is quite often the case. And so, when I began to look at joining the team at Meyer, what was most important to me was that the Foundation was walking the talk of racial justice, not asking grantee partners to do work that they weren’t willing to do themselves.
I believe the Foundation’s sincerity in doing the work is in part evident in two of the primary functions of my position: helping our full staff and board understand the history and perpetual nature of systemic racism and how it undermines any attempt to eliminate disparities in the issues the organization cares about; and acting as a thought partner as everyone at the Foundation works to undo racism within our internal operations, policies, practices, and relationships. This includes how we act in solidarity with local leaders of racial justice through acknowledging our privilege and leveraging it to remove barriers in their efforts to shift systems to an equitable future for the Greater Washington region (more on that in future pieces of this series).
I often find when people in philanthropy and other fields talk about diversity, inclusion, and equity, they are talking about non-racism. But when racial inequities are glaringly entrenched in our country’s most fundamental systems (as referenced above), being non-racist is not enough. Diversity, inclusion, and equity are outcomes of what our mission really requires of us — to be anti-racist.
Diversity, inclusion, and equity are outcomes of what our mission really requires of us — to be anti-racist.
When speaking with people new to the term, I often liken anti-racism to love. Like love, anti-racism is much more of an active verb than a noun. Love requires you to get to know someone’s experiences with the world, how the world has treated them, and how these things combine to impact the person they’ve become. Love requires you to change how you think, what you consider, the decisions you make, what you will and won’t do. Love requires you to sometimes center others over yourself. It requires you to constantly rebuild, even as external factors may seek to destroy. Love requires that you move back and follow someone else’s lead, sometimes into the unknown; or move in-between and be a supportive shield providing cover, even when it seems overwhelming or difficult. Most of all, love requires that you work side by side, unwavering in your mutual commitment to the future.
Anti-racism functions just like this. It’s about knowing the history and current realities of systemic racism in our communities, developing a racial equity analysis and putting that analysis to work. When you’re anti-racist, you’re thinking differently, taking new approaches, and making decisions, big and small, in every opportunity, to undo racial disparities. Whether racism be structural, institutional, or interpersonal, ill or well-intentioned, anti-racism requires that we move up, step back, and work side by side in solidarity in unapologetic, active pursuit of racial justice.
In his classic collection of essays, “Notes of a Native Son,” James Baldwin (a favorite author of mine) famously wrote “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
This is the work of anti-racism. If we at the Meyer Foundation, our partners, and anyone else love this region we call home, we must criticize its systems, institutions, and policies — as well as our contributions to them — through a racial equity lens. We must seek to find our humanity through the daily pursuit of racial justice. Only then can we truly shift our region and erase the inequities that are a detriment to our home being a place where we all thrive and flourish.
If we at the Meyer Foundation, our partners, and anyone else love this region we call home, we must criticize its systems, institutions, and policies — as well as our contributions to them — through a racial equity lens.
- Report finds $23 billion racial funding gap for schools, Washington Post
- How rising U.S. income inequality exacerbates racial economic disparities, Washington Center for Equitable Growth
- Housing Discrimination Against Racial and Ethnic Minorities 2012, Office of Policy Development and Research
- Systematic Inequality: How America’s Structural Racism Helped Create the Black-White Wealth Gap, Center for American Progress