Shifting Focus: From Charity to Power Building

May 7, 2019
By Aja Taylor and Nicole Newman, Two Brown Girls Consulting Cooperative

Photo courtesy of Two Brown Girls Consulting Cooperative

Since the advent of the Movement for Black Lives—catalyzed by the Ferguson Uprising—an increasing number of philanthropic institutions have been talking about race. Words like “racial equity,” “racism” and “racial justice” are popping up in requests for proposals and descriptions of newly-shifted funding priorities. Some foundations are even working on their internal dynamics, getting staff and board members trained to understand just what racial equity means, and more importantly going beyond addressing the symptoms to thinking about the root causes of the social issues they aim to combat.

A smaller-but-mighty number of foundations are going a few steps further, thinking not just about root causes, but explicitly acknowledging their complicity in it all and thinking about how to atone for that in ways that are innovative and seek to repair harm and reimagine their work. At Two Brown Girls, we are always excited by the opportunity to work with organizations in that last category, and our work with the Consumer Health Foundation (CHF) is dealing that excitement in spades.

CHF has recently embarked on a journey to reimagine the work of their foundation. Long a proponent of philanthropy through a racial equity lens, they have shifted gears, asking themselves who leads us and to whom are we accountable? They are actively recruiting people of color who are living on low incomes to join the Board of Trustees. There are other foundations making similar shifts and launching advisory boards of primarily low-income individuals. What makes the work CHF is doing unique, however, is the recruitment of a cohort of four people with lived experience of housing instability, low-wage work as an adult and unemployment or underemployment to join the board.

This goes a step beyond asking for advice or suggestions and becomes a tangible opportunity for people living on low incomes to co-steward resources that quite frankly is and was nurtured by the same racist and capitalist system that ensures a disproportionate share of people of color will live in extreme poverty. By trusting the leadership of those who stand to gain the most from the dismantling of a racist economic system, CHF has an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of foundations looking for innovative ways to operationalize racial equity.

The possibility of returning resources to people of color who are frequently denied access answers the question “how can philanthropy reconcile its racist roots with its anti-racist professed values?” By building a culture of experimentation, foundations can take risks, understanding that any failure they may experience is in service to an organizational vision with racial justice at its core.

In conversations about reparations, most people talk specifically about the US government, completely ignoring the millionaires, billionaires and indeed trillionaires who benefitted from racist policies and practices enacted by the government—many of whom seeded the philanthropic institutions still around today. These institutions have a responsibility to not just incorporate racial equity into their grantmaking, but also to intentionally include people most impacted by racism and classism in the governing body that deploys those resources. While far from a panacea, it would be a meaningful step in the right direction. It affirms the leadership and decision-making power of communities often left out of the decisions that affect their lives. Indeed it is the beginning of a meaningful shift from charitable giving to supporting the ability of low-income communities of color to self-determine.

To learn more about CHF’s board recruitment process, click here.

2 responses to “Shifting Focus: From Charity to Power Building”

  1. terri wright says:

    Would love to meet you.

  2. Valarie Ashley says:

    I barely have the words for what this post does for my heart. I have so much respect for these Two Brown Girls and the walk that they bring to the work. There are also big toes that will have to be stepped on if the work that you are doing with CHF will ever be transferable and adopted by other foundations. I love the part that says, “By building a culture of experimentation, foundations can take risks, understanding that any failure they may experience is in service to an organizational vision with racial justice at its core.” Except for the people responsible for maintaining the financial assets are not being risked, foundations are exactly the places to take risks and step away from “doing what we do because it is what we have always done.” I look forward to hearing the continued dialogue.

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