How Bloomberg Philanthropies Is Working to Build Black Wealth
Foundations have increasingly stepped up their giving to racial justice causes. But one area that hasn’t received as much dedicated focus is the creation of Black wealth.
An exception is Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Greenwood Initiative which launched two years. and has provided $250 million, largely to tackle one of the thorniest problems for Black Americans — the accumulation of medical debt.
It has awarded a total of $100 million to four historically Black medical schools to provide debt relief to students, so that more Black doctors will be available to provide care, which is a factor in both promoting health and erasing debt burdens among Blacks. It also gave $150 million to the Johns Hopkins University, Michael Bloomberg’s alma mater, to create additional slots for students of color pursuing PhDs in science, technology, engineering, and math fields and to promote the opportunity at colleges that primarily serve people of color.
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Foundations have increasingly stepped up their giving to racial-justice causes. But one area that hasn’t received as much dedicated focus is the creation of Black wealth.
An exception is Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Greenwood Initiative, which launched two years ago and has provided $250 million, largely to tackle one of the thorniest problems for Black Americans — the accumulation of medical debt.
It has awarded a total of $100 million to four historically Black medical schools to provide debt relief to students so that more Black doctors will be available to provide care, which is a factor in both promoting health and erasing debt burdens among Black people. It also gave $150 million to the Johns Hopkins University, Michael Bloomberg’s alma mater, to create additional slots for students of color pursuing Ph.D.s in science, technology, engineering, and math and to promote the opportunity at colleges that primarily serve people of color.
In May, Bloomberg also assisted with an initiative led by the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, a nonprofit that helps mayors create programs to provide financial stability for low-income people. That effort aims to help three cities develop strategies and programs to help residents, especially Black residents, achieve financial stability.
As August marks the beginning of Black Philanthropy Month, the Chronicle asked Garnesha Ezediaro, who leads the Greenwood Initiative, to talk about what Bloomberg has done and why it hopes other grant makers will focus on building Black wealth.
What is significant about the Greenwood Initiative’s mission being focused on supporting the creation of Black wealth?
There are a tremendous amount of people focused on racial equity broadly, but we really saw an opportunity to join those efforts by introducing the Greenwood Initiative, which, one, had a specific equity lens and an articulated focus on Black people. And then, secondly, our work has dual outcomes. We were not only focused on wealth accumulation but also looking at the extraction of wealth out of Black communities. We wanted to make sure that we were focused on both the symptoms and the underlying root causes. Wealth is a function of ownership, and we were drawing the line and saying we were not going to sit around working in income-generating efforts, per se, without there being consideration of ownership.
On ownership, can you explain what that looks like in practice?
We look at wealth as it relates to Black individuals and families. We want to help spread equitable access to ownership of traditional, cultural, and intellectual assets. When you think about the traditional assets, you think about the homes and the businesses and what has been a function of wealth in America for a long period of time.
Black Philanthropy Events
Through August 31
This annual summit series features discussions from Black philanthropic leaders across the globe. Among those expected to participate are Ayo Tometi, co-founder of Black Lives Matter; Jacqueline Copeland, founder of the WISE Fund and Black Philanthropy Month; and Bakari Sellers, a CNN political analyst.
Give Black, Give Back Event Series (Virtual)
Through August 25
The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee is hosting four panel discussions on each Thursday in August focused on encouraging Black philanthropy and generational wealth-building.
Black Philanthropy Month: a Conversation With Nikole Hannah-Jones
The Black Resilience in Colorado Fund at the Denver Foundation is hosting Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nicole Hannah-Jones to discuss Black history and philanthropy.
The Fierce Urgency of Black Leadership in Philanthropy (Virtual)
August 23 and 30
The Black Future Co-op Fund in Seattle is hosting two online events. On August 23, the focus is on the approaches Black philanthropists in the state have taken to support Black nonprofit leaders. On August 30, the discussion will be about what Black communities need from philanthropy.
The Young Black and Giving Back Institute Give 8/28 fundraising event
Since 2018, the Young Black and Giving Back Institute has hosted an event to raise funds for Black-led nonprofits across the country. While the fundraising will happen digitally, many nonprofits participating in Give 8/28 will be hosting their own in-person events to raise money in and around that date. The date is significant because it marks the day Emmett Till was killed, that Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and that Barack Obama was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president.
But we added cultural and intellectual assets because we think that for Black people there are a ton of things that could be wealth-generating and could allow Black individuals and families to transfer wealth to their heirs. Think of art and music and all the other ways that the Black community, in its broadest sense, is contributing to the world as well as intellectual assets. We also look at increasing wealth for Black neighborhoods. It is more about the power and choice — mobility people have about where and how they live and how they can leverage their assets in that process.
Then we also think about wealthy Black institutions. We think about, how do we ensure that these public and private anchors, such as HBCUs, are able to really nurture and enhance the capital of their users within the Black community?
How do you transform the principles you’ve outlined into making the funding decisions?
First and foremost, we always start with data as we make any investment decision. As we started looking at Black wealth, we immediately ended up in a conversation about Black livelihood.
We got to this question, how do you extend the lifespan of the Black community? And the data showed up really quickly — one of the ways that you could do that is to have Black people be treated by Black doctors. Then we thought about what extracts wealth from the Black community, and one of the huge things is medical debt. Black people hold a significant amount of medical debt. That prevents them from holding on to wealth and passing it down.
We figured out the problem we’re trying to solve. We moved to trying to figure out, how do we partner with others to generate a solution?
We realized quickly that there are four institutions that produce more Black doctors, and those are the four historically Black medical schools. We talked to the deans. We asked them, what could help contribute to individual wealth but also the community wealth? They said, our students are coming in to medical school with significantly higher amounts of debt than their white counterparts, and this influences their decisions about how and where they practice.
We looked at how we could interrupt that and provide support to the students, which ended up in a $100 million investment. We were able to not only provide the money for the debt reduction for the students, but we also provided funding to invest in the institutions.
It seems a lot of the project’s funding has focused on the role of higher education.
We started with historically Black medical schools, but we’ll fund in three specific ways. The first way is by investing in programs that increase ownership of assets and reduce debt. The second is by investing in programs that help local leaders prioritize economic equity agendas. Then the final pillar of our work is about helping to power the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next.
How can a foundation like yours tackle what seems to be almost an insurmountable challenge?
This is a 400-year-plus problem, so at the end of the day, the needs right now are extremely great and extremely vast. Black household wealth is one-eighth of what it is for white families. These trends at that level are not going to shift overnight and, from a philanthropic standpoint, you sit with that as encouragement to figure out what are the ways you can get the data, uniquely partner, and come up with interventions that are scalable. We know we can’t do it alone. We are deeply interested in partnering.
What more do you think philanthropy could be doing?
With a problem as robust as this, as systemic as this, there’s always going to be an opportunity to do more. We’re constantly in conversation with a number of other funders who are asking the right questions and really thinking about, how do we really shift the racial-wealth equity? There’s still room to do more.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Reporting for this article was underwritten by a Lilly Endowment grant to enhance public understanding of philanthropy. See more about the grant and our gift-acceptance policy.