March 5, 2013; Source: NCRP Blog

On the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) blog, Pat Brandes, the executive director of the Barr Foundation, points to a question from a Boston Globe article: “How much does race still matter around here?” To explore the question, she starts with a report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council called “The State of Equity in Metro-Boston,” a report on regional indicators funded by the Barr Foundation. The indicators are intended to be benchmarks for measuring Boston’s social equity progress within the context of the region’s MetroFuture growth plan to guide the region through 2030.

Barr is one of a handful of grantmaking foundations in the U.S. that has adopted a lens of structural racism for understanding issues of race. A focus on structural racism is different than the more typical foundation concern with racial diversity, and to highlight the issue, she cites a fact from a Boston Globe article written about the equity report: “The one the article focused on most is that, in Greater Boston, a college-educated black woman is more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby than a white woman who didn’t finish high school.” Her point is that most readers would think “education and social class [are] supposed to erase these kinds of disparities,” but structural racism can mean that even with a “universal” prescription such as education, the results can turn out differently based on race. When interventions, resources, and solutions lead to disparate impacts based on race, something structural is afoot. Racial animus is not necessary for results that lead to structurally disparate racial results.

Do foundations get this? Do they grasp that the challenge is more than just “diversity?” Are foundations self-critically examining the strategies they have pursued in the name of social equity to see if they still fall short of addressing disparate racial impacts? Under Brandes’s leadership, the Barr foundation went through a racial justice analysis conducted by the Applied Research Center (ARC) and the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE). It meant opening itself up to a team of people poring over files and conducting interviews and focus groups with staff, grantees, board members, and intermediaries to assess whether the Barr Foundation was making progress on institutions and structures that undergird the perpetuity of structural racism.

There is no question that this was tough stuff for the foundation. The ARC/PRE team gave the foundation “good marks on diversity…[it] also challenged us to see that diversity was just a first step, because you can change the composition of a team without changing the underlying structures.” The conclusions were actually quite fascinating. Brandes said that the team recognized that the foundation “would often be explicit about race when we were talking about the problems…But when we got into the solution space, we invariably shifted to a ‘color blind’ view – promoting solutions ‘for all children,’ with the notion that a ‘rising tide lifts all boats.’”

john powell, now with the University of California, is one of the most prominent theorists and practitioners of what foundations—and all institutions—can do to shift from color-blind policies that don’t work to strategic approaches meant to alter institutions and structures. He calls the concept “targeted universalism,” though the concept seems to have originated with Harvard University political scientist and sociologist Theda Skocpol. powell writes:

“What is required is a strategy of ‘targeted universalism.’ This approach recognizes that the needs of marginalized groups must be addressed in a coordinated and effective manner. To improve opportunities and living conditions for all residents in a region, we need policies to proactively connect people to jobs, stable housing, and good schools. Targeted universalism recognizes that life is lived in a web of opportunity. Only if we address all of the mutually reinforcing constraints on opportunity can we expect real progress in any one factor.”

Brandes didn’t use the term in this article, but it appears that the Barr Foundation is following a strategy of targeted universalism in its grantmaking on climate change, green energy, public education, transportation, and regional planning. Is it succeeding? It’s undoubtedly too early to tell, but Brandes’s openness on the question of race makes it apparent that the foundation is convinced that race truly does still matter. —Rick Cohen