To the Editor:
Progress toward social change and liberation inevitably comes with backlash. The refrains are as familiar today as they were during the civil-rights movement: “Why do you have to be so divisive?” And “Can’t we all just get along?”
I was dismayed and disappointed to see this tired and harmful pattern of admonishment from philanthropic leaders in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy op-ed, “We Disagree on Many Things, but We Speak With One Voice in Support of Philanthropic Pluralism” (April 13, 2023).
At a time when the nation is experiencing escalating white supremacy, a crisis of democracy, catastrophic climate events, and regular attacks on LGBTQ+ kids, the idea that philanthropy’s biggest challenge is divisiveness reflects a level of fragility that impedes social-justice work.
Meeting in some mythical middle between the funding of policies harmful to communities of color and the funding of social-change movements is not inherently moral because it considers the ideological leanings of a smattering of billionaires. As philanthropy observer Vu Le wrote last week, “no, not all philanthropic views are good.” The authors of the first op-ed paint a self-congratulatory and ahistorical self-portrait of our field. By doing so, they paternalistically lash out at those of us who have rightfully challenged philanthropy to change, in essence saying that we all just need to be more polite to each other.
But politeness has never served the cause of social justice. Politeness is used to try to silence those of us who insist that philanthropy must do better — who believe that by telling the truth about the past and grieving the old hurtful ways, we can forge a path together that leads to real and lasting change.
In the last several years, Black, Indigenous, and people-of-color movement and philanthropy leaders have elevated this conversation on accountability for racial equity in our field. My organization, Decolonizing Wealth Project, introduced and has led a movement for what we call reparative philanthropy. This involves working with individual donors and foundations to hold a mirror to the origins of philanthropic wealth and the colonial dynamics that contribute to inequality.
This reckoning necessitates conflict and difficult conversations. Philanthropy, as a predominantly white institution, is generally uncomfortable with this process, but it is the only way to break away from old power structures and create a meaningfully diverse sector — rather than one that allows a handful of people of color to sit at the table under the guise of diversity.
Our approach requires engaging with people from all backgrounds in mutually respectful relationships and holding each other accountable. In the Indigenous tradition, we believe in the principle known as “All My Relations,” which encompasses the idea that we have all been harmed by oppressive systems and we all have a role to play in our collective healing.
At the center of our work are BIPOC-led grassroots organizations and leaders who were historically shut out of philanthropy. We’ve also worked with foundations whose leadership, after realizing their wealth was accumulated through colonialism, committed to millions of dollars in reparative giving. And we run a giving circle and community of individual donors, Liberated Capital, whose 600 donors trust and support nonprofit leaders most affected by systemic racism and work together to heal the wounds caused by white supremacy.
This approach centers marginalized communities in the decision-making process. These are the people whose perspectives the philanthropic world has intentionally excluded since the field’s inception. It is work that requires donors to recognize and address power imbalances — to listen and to cede power. Such an approach prioritizes equity by focusing on who is and who is not in the room to speak, rather than simply valuing the middle ground between those who have been in the room for centuries.
Let’s not pretend that all philanthropic institutions are trying to be accountable to marginalized people. Many, including several connected to those pushing for philanthropic pluralism in the Chronicle op-ed, are actively harming these communities and seem unlikely to stop. Yes, everyone has a role to play in our collective healing. But any organization that wants to participate in the healing process must first commit to stopping the harm. If philanthropy chooses to prioritize pluralism to the detriment of equity, it aids and abets the oppression of those who have always struggled to be heard.
Decolonizing Wealth Project and Liberated Capital