July 30, 2016; Ford Foundation
On Sunday, a full-page ad signed by 39 foundation presidents appeared in the New York Times and nine other major newspapers. Not long after, NPQ began to get emails: “Will you respond to this?”
The problem we see is that there’s little on the surface to respond to. The letter rightly calls this a defining moment for the nation and calls for hope and building bridges—resisting divisions—as an antidote to the nation’s feelings of anguish. After that, though, it becomes vague. Yes, hope and dialogue are good, but so is an insistence on justice and even conflict. The letter never implies conflict is necessarily a negative but it steps way too carefully around the character of the moment we are facing.
This is, after all, a moment of active struggle—one infused by hope and vision, yes, but one painful and painfully personal for advocates, among whom we often count those directly and devastatingly affected.
It’s a tough road sometimes, but we have finally named—where people can hear it—systemic racism as a problem dragging us all down. In the ad, however, we are treated to a strangely muted statement about “the killing of people and police officers,” which smothers the point that this is a fated moment when people are finally conceding that the safety of young black men is interdependent with the safety of police officers (also people, by the way). We’ve reached a moment of truth when our nation is admitting to the management of marginalized communities through the use of criminal justice. We must continue to explicitly name and rename these offenses to our collective humanity.
Over the past few years, we have seen a number of movement initiatives leap forward after decades of hard work. But as we know, not only do systems resist change even at the threshold and beyond, they sometimes get loud and virulent, trying to draw attention elsewhere or to jam issues into an old frame that appeals to some but does not at all fit the picture. At this moment, we’re feeling the full blast of that.
Name calling—fully loaded for code—is the order of the day in some circles, and the field of engagement is full of small but meaningful battles, not least of all in the area of voter rights suppression based on race.
Sharing positive stories of community-based dialogue and understanding can be beneficial, but some of the nation’s largest foundations have a greater role to play than inspiring a new Twitter hashtag. Maybe a better message to the foundations’ social justice grantees, of which there always should be more, would be, “Keep calm and carry on. You have accomplished amazing things not just in the past year or two but for the decades before that when few were hearing you, or even listening. This is a painful moment but we have to ask you not only to work through that pain but add voter registration and voter rights protection to your work.”
And of course, “Here is the money to do all of that.”
Certainly, the practice and priorities of some of these grantmakers clearly exhibit that they understand this moment for what it is—and that practice is positively where the rubber hits the road.—Ruth McCambridge