At the end of 2021, NPQ convened an advisory committee on racial justice and asked the question: What is the edge of current racial justice work? The group converged around “building pro-Black organizations,” and the Spring magazine issue will focus on the topic.
I had several experiences around the same time that reflected a deep schism in racial justice work, depending on where one is situated. The crux of this schism is the line that divides nonprofit organizations and philanthropic ones.
One experience: While participating on a panel on media covering philanthropy, I was asked to speak on the recent controversy in a large philanthropy network. I was unaware of the controversy, but when a fellow panelist eagerly weighed in, I learned that it was that conservative philanthropists feel the philanthropic sector is too radical, which made them feel there was no room for them. Upon hearing this, I shared that I did have a perspective on this. It perfectly illustrates the lack of alignment of which I’d been speaking earlier between the field and the funders: that no one I knew was accusing philanthropy of being radical—in fact, quite the opposite, it is being held accountable for not living up to its touted values; and, finally, that we needed to consider what, in fact, is the purpose of philanthropy. This caused quite a stir and excitement in the audience, some of whom emailed me later to tell me what “a breath of fresh air” it had been to hear me speak what they know to be the truth. Though it also made me wonder: why are so many in philanthropy sitting on their truth? What are we waiting for?
Another experience: A large philanthropic network sought to partner with NPQ to work with its leading-edge funders, who are all interested in advancing racial justice. These funders hope to inspire the field with their leadership on the issue. Their main interest in partnering was in connecting with leaders of color in the field. It just so happens that NPQ has been investing in highlighting the voices of leaders of color, as they are woefully underrepresented in the sector. But the network had one caveat: that we change our language and work to not focus on leaders of color. But we are. What’s wrong with saying that?
A third and final example: A big funder approached me about working with its staff on race and power. One of its key values is being bold. Yet, while the focus of the funder is to advance grassroots movements, the staff is reluctant to “give up power” and there is a “scarcity mindset.” In fact, it is not yet in conversation with grassroots movements. As one of NPQ’s staff recently said in a meeting, “Are we ever going to move past symbolic solidarity?”
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The framing article in the upcoming Spring magazine issue, “Fear of a Pro-Black Sector,” is by Dax-Devlon Ross, a writer and racial equity consultant. He is at forefront of this work, meaning he regularly traverses the schism. He proposed that what is needed right now in the work is understanding black ways of knowing.
We’re moving beyond DEI (bodies at the table), racial equity (measuring POC against white people), and perhaps even racial justice (the righting of racial wrongs), to an actual focus on what Black people need to thrive (building pro-Black).
These parallel realities exist right now. But there is a gap between the leaders of color and radical white conspirators at the edge—and the funders who claim to be.
It’s high time we focus squarely on the goal and stop talking around it. Like most consequential change, it’s going to require new language. Not everyone will be comfortable with that, but if you want to be at the edge or bold, step up to the future waiting to emerge.