The last ten years of my career have been spent working in the philanthropic sector. My experience as a youth grantmaker in Saginaw, Michigan was the truest and most authentic form of empowerment I had ever experienced – I loved it. As I began working in the profession, I found that what was endearing at first was silenced on reception. My experiences as a young woman of color were only valuable when I was connected to a microphone and on display. In the spaces where my voice needed to matter (ex: the board room, a staff meeting, a strategic planning session); it did not. In the rooms where policy decisions were being made and my critical thinking skills were met with the adoration attributed to a newborn pup that attempts to bark, I found a deafening silence.
With age, the spaces I was occupying became increasingly complex. I discovered not only did my opinions not matter but also my voice did not exist; just the visual – the visual representation of this young black woman being given space, but no air. So when I read a piece like the one written by Maxwell King, the chief executive officer of the Pittsburg Foundation, I am reminded of why highlighting the experiences of people of color within our organizations is so vitally important. In Mr. King’s piece he talked about the need of the philanthropic community to combat rhetoric that risks destroying our democracy. He cited the rhetoric of Donald Trump as being “a threat to civility, to civil discourse, and to the public trust.” To which end I think any individual who cares about the integrity of a democratic society would find hard to disagree with. However, the idea of philanthropic institutions – or really any institution for that matter – needing to make sweeping statements as a way of combating the wildly divisive and hateful rhetoric being displayed on the national stage, I believe is misguided.
The comparison between the rhetoric pushed by Hitler and the fascism that massacred a people and the hate speech that is being placed on a national stage for public consumption, is an accurate one. I challenge the idea, however, that the true intervention missed – as alluded to in the reference to Pastor Niemoller – was not speaking up in time. The missed opportunity is where rhetoric is reinforced by action.
The issue is not only the need for big statements to be made; there is a need for big ideas to be met with small and large actions. In the philanthropic community we have to look at ourselves and ask are we truly practicing what we are preaching? We cannot speak to the importance of inclusive environments where all people – regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity – can succeed without getting our house in order. If you are really committed to inclusion, are you making sure you are listening to those most affected by the environments you create? Do you genuinely value the opinions of your employees? Are clients’ opinions valued in the same way you assess that of a donor? Have you created spaces where employees feel empowered to voice concerns about the organization? Have you intentionally engaged in work to enhance the competency of the organization around key dynamics that impact the inclusiveness of the organization to those externally and internally (i.e. cultural competency training, intercultural development inventory, etc.)?
Perhaps the most important piece to this is: do you speak up when it matters most? When you encounter a micro-aggression in the office, do you address it? When an employee displays a pattern of discriminatory actions, will you fire them? When an employee expresses discomfort around the work environment, will you work to improve the conditions? When an employee says something disparaging to a client because of an individual bias, will you name it and address it?
As a person of color in the workplace, I personally see these elements as key interventions that never occurred in situations where they were necessary. In situations where clear bias was displayed I was waiting for my leadership to step up and do something. Situations in which racism was displayed and my existence was disregarded, I was waiting for leadership to affirm my position and value. While words are meaningful, actions (and inactions) are what curb or reinforce harmful behaviors. In philanthropy, our greatest liability is often that we avoid taking a stand to maintain neutral positioning in spaces where our neutrality is actually damaging. For every opportunity we miss to make a statement and back it up with action, we exclude more people from this space. Diversity and inclusion is sexy language for us in this field and we have worn out the rhetorical elements of Act I; Act II is where we reinforce rhetoric with action. Act II is where we show our counterparts how to create, as best put by Maxwell King, “a society that respects and protects the rights of Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, women, those with disabilities – and everyone else.”
What maintained my faith in this space, were the interventions that did happen. In a specific situation where bias was being pointed in my direction at a pivotal moment in my career, I had advocates who spoke up and acted on my behalf. I am painfully aware of my positioning, every time I think about where I would be if those individuals had not spoken up when they did. I am haunted by the notion that, had people who saw promise and valued my opinion not hired me at key moments, I would not occupy the spaces I do today. Interventions by people, in moments when my voice was suppressed, mattered. And for too many current and future stakeholders in the philanthropic community, there are not enough voices taking action. There are not enough people giving minorities space to breathe. Even today, I find myself in rooms where I must relentlessly affirm my positioning in this space.
I’m waiting for the moment I don’t need to say “I, too, am philanthropy.” Until then – I need more than rhetoric to make our space more inclusive.