Charlottesville to Boston: Why philanthropy must unmask itself against hate

Counter-protesters gathered in Boston in opposition to a “free speech” rally

Like most of America, I found it difficult to witness the recent events in Charlottesville. They are stark echoes of our nation’s persistent struggles toward a just and civil society. They also make visible the remaining schisms between Americans driven by fear, economic insecurity inappropriately cloaked in the garb of racism, anti-Semitism and other confused concerns about people who seem “different.” These issues were certainly on my mind as I joined the counter protest on Boston Common — itself an historic site when it comes to American values of liberty and free speech.

Provoked by a few dozen so-called “free speech” protesters, tens of thousands of “counter protesters” did our best at providing a strong rebuke to the extremism on display while being careful not to commit offenses similar to those that we were there to demonstrate against.

Friends and leaders of color were out in full force and at the helm of much of what was organized. At the same time, there were public acknowledgements of the risks to the undocumented and young people of color and clear references to how these participants could avoid the public exposure that comes with large press-covered events, especially in the age of social media.

Face masks and scarves of various shades were common, to temper risk and allow safe participation. But I did not need one of these scant disguises. I am white. I am male. I am privileged in ways that allow me to wander with less concern for my personal safety and freedom as I exercise my voice in public for those who have less of both. Am I some solitary symbol of our great philanthropic sector? Even my own well-honed entitlement and the self-importance that this nurtures has its limits! But it is hard to escape the parallels.

At a time when Americans find themselves questioning how we got here, where we go from here, and the capacity and will of our national leadership to get us there, I find myself struggling with the question of what philanthropy’s role must be in all of this. More specifically, I am left wondering about the role of white privilege in our society, our philanthropic community, and how it impacts my abilities as a philanthropic leader.

Over ten years as President and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, I have witnessed the ease and calm with which our sector and our own organization approaches the tasks of challenging oppressive practices and structures as well as the policies and cultural norms that inform them. Patient due diligence, problems well-defined, approaches researched and experimented, evaluations hosted, adaptations and adjustments made. These are some of the good and important ways we pursue worthy goals.

But I wonder about the risks we take or don’t. I wonder about the volatile public events we eschew sometimes in the name of the respect we want to convey and the room we want to provide for the “real leaders” of social justice movements. How much of this is an act of intelligent, strategic role playing and how much of it is evidence of the unchecked, unexamined privilege many of us enjoy as people and most of us enjoy as institutions?

As the large parade of activists entered the area, I noticed group after group with organizational banners held tightly and proudly. I recognized some and assume most were smaller fierce organizations like the ones we support. I was proud for them. But I was also envious. I chose to gather as a private citizen, not truly representing my foundation.

To be sure there are many in our philanthropic sector who make it their business to stand up and be counted. Some are my friends. But the overall limits of public leadership, of risk, of urgency and of action by our sector are also obvious. The irony here of course is that the same economic, and in many cases, white privilege that provide security personally for some of us and organizationally for most of us should also allow us to be louder, prouder and more provocative.

I am proud of recent steps we are taking at Nellie Mae to inspect who we are, what we do and how we do it through a lens of racial equity. And some will counsel me to understand our place. They will remind about our role to support others, not to take up too much room, especially in the front. And this advice is worth considering. But current events demand we shift the balance of this concern towards social justice. As I watched events in Charlottesville unfold, and as I rest my sore feet after walking Boston, I am gravely concerned that philanthropy has continually fallen short in addressing racism and its toxic toll on our society.

By not harnessing our resources to directly address racism and inequity, by not walking unmasked in support of those who must still wear a disguise, are we complicit in the creation of inequities that lead to the hatred on display in Charlottesville? Or Ferguson? Or Baltimore? Or….?

President Kennedy often quoted the Dante-inspired line, “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” I am confident that our Foundation’s grantees are on the right side of history addressing the deep divisions that surfaced yet again throughout their communities. I know our own staff and other partners are deeply committed to justice. However, I am less certain that future generations will judge the philanthropic community as kindly as those we serve unless we can unmask ourselves, risk our institutional reputations and the fortunes we steward, exercise our privilege so that the people who had to wear cover can remove them, speak freely even in protest of those who seek to distort the same liberty.

We have a chance to make history proud. Our privilege allows this and that same privilege demands it.