What Philanthropy Can Learn from the 2020 Elections
By Nwamaka Agbo, CEO
While the headlines over the past year, and particularly in this election cycle, are on one hand unbelievable, they are at the same time unfortunately far too familiar for many grassroots communities. The 2020 election season provided a reflection of America that we have never wanted to look at — a series of deep wounds that have never fully healed in the most disinvested and underrepresented Black, Indigenous and communities of color.
This election placed a spotlight on the insidious relationship between money and power and how they are exploited in tandem to undermine our democracy. Corporations and wealthy individuals exploit laws like Citizens United in order to circumvent campaign finance laws and use their capital as leverage for political favors. What makes these actions dangerous is that these people use their wealth and privilege not only for political power, but with a clear agenda to undermine the democratic process and prevent others from accessing the same political strategies and exercising their constitutional rights.
When the authors of the constitution memorialized their vision of a democratic society on paper, it was with the implicit understanding that white, male landowners would be the only individuals allowed to cast their vote. Andrew Carnegie advanced this line of thinking through his advocacy of what now makes up modern day philanthropy and the nonprofit industrial complex. The assumption here being that wealthy white men and their descendants should be able to create institutions to preserve their wealth (and therefore maintain their power), while also retaining the control to make decisions about which charitable causes to financially support (organizations that do not challenge their control or power) is how philanthropy plays its own part in advancing systemic oppression and structural racism. Rather than showing up to pay their fair share in taxes and support the investments into infrastructure projects and social programs that we know build resilient, healthy and thriving neighborhoods, these same institutions, from generation to generation have sought to accumulate more wealth and preserve their power and control, inadvertently propping up the same systems they purport to be challenging.
So, as many of us in philanthropy stay glued to the 24-hour news cycle and scroll through our timelines in disbelief, let’s humble ourselves to the awareness that our sector is not unlike many others in their paradoxically deepening of the same oppressive systems they are working to dismantle. We have created institutions designed to preserve our wealth into perpetuity at the expense of struggling families and children. We have anointed ourselves as those that are best suited to determine which programs, services and campaigns are funded and which should go without. We have usurped the ability for communities to directly make the decisions about how resources should be used and invested in their own communities and put them in a position where they must follow our rules and guidelines to even be considered as a worthy applicant. Philanthropy is a microcosm of the larger systemic problems that plague our democracy and are rooted in structural racism and extractive, wealth accumulation.
And yet, the electoral victories in predominantly Black, Latino and Indigenous precincts across the country shows us what is possible when we follow the leadership and trust in the vision of those at the grassroots that experience the disproportionate burden of these harmful systems. They have demonstrated how long-term grassroots organizing is foundational to shifting institutions and that organizing must be sustained between elections and not just when candidates hit the campaign trail. In order to address the root causes of the problems plaguing our country, we must resource and invest in the grassroots communities with the fundamental understanding that our liberation truly is intertwined with theirs, and that their struggle for justice and equity is ours as well. It is insufficient to implement diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives within our foundations if they do not translate to material changes in how we do our work and the impact we have in the world. It is this understanding and shift in how we operate as an industry that moves us away from a model of charitable philanthropy, one in which we maintain all of our wealth and power, to solidarity philanthropy in which we redistribute our power and resources to match the level of resistance and building taking place in frontline communities.
Collective liberation means that our fates are inextricably linked. As we look at the ways that Black and Brown communities organized and showed up to shift the outcome of this election, it’s time for us in the field of philanthropy to reflect on how we can resource these same communities with the understanding and recognition of our interconnected fates. The past presidential cycle has shown us how much hurt and harm can be done in four years on top of scabbed over wounds. And, now we know that it will take a good portion of the next four years to repair much of that damage, let alone the work to collectively progress us forward. This eight year arc of change and more illustrates why Black-led organizations like Movement for Black Lives have called for 10-years of multi-year general operating support to resource the deep organizing work that is critical to transforming systems for generations to come.
With this in mind, many philanthropies are starting to experiment with the ways that they can help to redistribute and liberate wealth, land and power back to Black, Indigenous and communities of color as a step towards repairing and healing to help build more democractic communities and equitable local economies. Organizations like the Compton Foundation, Fund for Democratic Communities and The Whitman Institute have boldly committed themselves to redistributing their resources out into grassroots communities. The Chorus Foundation has taken it a step further by moving their resources into place-based just transition initiatives where local organizations have direct decision-making power over how those resources should be redistributed across their local grassroots organizations.
The control and power that philanthropic organizations have means that we can continue to be a sector that prioritizes our wealth and control over the health and wellbeing of directly impacted communities, or we can start to engage strategies that seek to redistribute resources and share power with those same communities in an effort to strengthen our democracy and catalyze shared prosperity in service of our collective liberation. In moments like these, in the midst of converging crises, it is not enough to simply state our values. We must live our values of justice, equity and liberation to be in integrity with ourselves and our communities.