Opinion
June 26, 2015

As We Mourn Charleston's Victims, Philanthropy Must Act

Jim Watson, AFP, Getty Images

Pallbearers release doves over the casket holding Emanuel AME Church shooting victim Ethel Lance during her burial at the Emanuel AME Church Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina.

As we face the latest violent assault on black people — the nine black parishioners who were shot dead in their church in Charleston — those of us in philanthropy must think hard about our role in supporting the movement for black lives.

We have returned yet again to the kind of vigilante violence that also took the life of Trayvon Martin. We are constantly reminded of the culture of violence in our country that continues to take the lives of black people. The volatile stream of brutality and death of black women and men by police authorities and vigilantes across the country has generated and amplified a powerful black-led, multigenerational movement powered by diverse alliances.

But the systemic changes needed to end the violence won’t happen unless this movement gets the resources to build an infrastructure that harnesses a strong network of organizers and organizations. As a result, we must rethink how we finance the movement that sprouted after black activists responded not just to the killing of Michael Brown and the death of Freddie Gray Jr., but also other cases that involve the death and brutality of black girls and women.

Among them: 22-year-old Rekia Boyd, whose death at the hands of a Chicago cop went unpunished, in part because the judge thought prosecutors had ignored how heinous the killing was. We also saw Eric Casebolt, a police officer, shove the face of a 14-year old black girl into the ground after he pulled out a gun on her other teenage friends in McKinney, Tex.

In case after case of violence, many of us in philanthropy watch these acts of brutality unfold with outrage. We mourn by participating in or watching marches, rallies, protests, and other actions. We listen, confounded by the many Americans who speak out with moral indignation about property getting destroyed in protests but who then seem so subdued when confronted with the growing number of destroyed black lives.

In the midst of all of this, even those of us who work at foundations and nonprofits seeking to end the systematic oppression of communities of color can find ourselves feeling at times confused and without hope. But now is a not the time for hopelessness or apathy. We need to support those who are committed to visioning radical solutions.

The Black Lives Matter movement, which has many leaders, is built on a currency of talent, skills, relationships, and trust. The first Black Lives Matter national network meeting was held in Detroit last week. That meeting made visible the thread of connections between many black organizers nationally who have supported the strategy work, protests, and other activities that have attracted so much media attention.

It’s vital that many people have been willing to donate to rapid response or bail funds around the United States. But they know what some foundation officials and others know who are willing to take risks: Simple acts of charity alone have never solved the underlying causes of racism and poverty in America. That’s why people in philanthropy must focus our attention and resources on financing the community organizing, advocacy, and movement-building that will achieve a new vision for public safety, a vision that reaches beyond just grant making.

As the young people in Baltimore, Ferguson, and other cities around the country have shown us, we can no longer continue to operate as we’ve done in the past. This is a catalytic moment for philanthropy, and it is our duty to make the sacrifices, disrupt the status quo, and create and lift up the activist network that will ensure that black lives matter.

As grant makers, individual donors, and nonprofit leaders and workers, we cannot afford to act anonymously. Instead we must encourage everyone in philanthropy to stand for racial justice by:

  • Developing community-led grant making that allows black organizers, activists, and families to shape the agenda. This harnesses the momentum of the past year’s unfortunate events across the country to build political power and develop an infrastructure that supports advocacy that can be effective and operate for the long run.
  • Exploring alternative funding mechanisms to support emerging networks that are organizing outside of nonprofit organizations.
  • Giving priority to investments in the leadership development of black people working to transform all black lives, especially the lives of black women and of blacks who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, or transgender.
  • Allowing organizers to define how they want to learn and reflect on their work in ways that make sense given the fast pace of change and their management capacity and putting less emphasis on evaluation reporting as defined by foundations and other donors.
  • Supporting the cultivation of spaces and platforms (physical and online) that allow people to work in ways that encourage shared decision making and accountability in all organizing work.

Steering as much money and material resources as we can to networks, organizations, and grassroots leadership fighting to advance racial, social and economic justice in black communities is crucial to advancing philanthropy’s mission. More important, the lives of so many depend on this investment. It’s time to act with urgency. The success of our work depends on it, and for some of us, so do our lives.

Nakisha M. Lewis is senior strategist for safety at Ms. Foundation for Women, Tynesha McHarris is director of community leadership at the Brooklyn Community Foundation, and Allen Kwabena Frimpong is senior consultant at BCT Partners.

Other contributors are Rev. Starsky D. Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation; Susan Taylor Batten, president and CEO of  ABFE; Edward M. Jones, director of programs at ABFE; Bithiah Carter of New England Blacks in Philanthropy; and Rashid Shabazz, vice president for communications at CBMA.