Reflecting on Racial Equity and Civic Engagement

Reflecting on Racial Equity and Civic Engagement

Gloris Estrella, Program Associate

Before joining Philanthropy Northwest's team last year, I obsessively read every section of the website, especially our history. I was struck by the message that philanthropy precedes all of us; “the first known acts of philanthropy in the Northwest United States occurred long ago in the Native communities that originally inhabited this region. Among many Northwest tribes, success is measured not by how much you have, but how much you give away.”

So when the opportunity to join First Alaskans Institute (FAI) for “Partners for the Next 10,000 Years … A Racial Equity Summit” arose earlier this month, I literally jumped out of my swivel chair with excitement! I couldn't wait to meet up with the FAI rock stars who partnered with us last year for Local Matters: Alaska, unanimously earning our Organization Ambassador of the Year award. Personally and professionally, I've had many discussions about issues of race and equity, but they didn't include Native voices — which would be central to this conversation.

It would also be my first visit to Alaska! I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was certain it would be a trip to remember.

Where Do We Go From Here?

For two energetic days, I joined hundreds of people from across Alaska, eager “to build solutions and identify actions” around issues of inequities. During his keynote, activist and writer Tim Wise spoke about how racism is buried in so much untruth. Many times philanthropy plays the role of convener, giving nonprofit leaders and community members the opportunity to speak their truths. What's the next step? What's the right solution?

After gathering together in a room, all of us passionate about empowering communities and dismantling hundreds of years of oppression, I thought we were bound to walk away with something like a solution, right?

A sample of the themes and discussion points at the 2016 Racial Equity Summit.

Well, not quite. Initially, I left feeling discouraged. On my flight back to Seattle, I passed the time by reading Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. In it, author Brene Brown mentions that brain science has proven that the feeling of shame is actually physically painful, and I thought to myself, "That’s it." Talking about race and equity brings up a lot of feelings of shame, both to people of color and the white community. I'm glad that science can prove that it's actually physically painful to talk about racism and flawed systems. But how do we move past this painful, shameful feeling?

In his 1967 "Where Are We Going?" speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Where Does Philanthropy Fit In?

Throughout those two days, I kept wondering: besides convening and funding nonprofits, what is the role of philanthropy in all of this? We're all good people in this sector, working towards activating and supporting positive change in our communities. But as one of the summit speakers, culture writer and radio host Jay Smooth said: "It is not enough that we are good people.” We need to think more about restructuring the current system that is failing so many.

Part of me thought, "Nonprofits on the ground know the solutions; philanthropy should support their advocacy work." Communities have their own solutions, but lack the financial and social capital to achieve them. Foundations can provide funds for nonprofits and communities to increase civic engagement in the community or help fund an advocacy project is a great way to help communities advocate for themselves.

I'm proud that Philanthropy Northwest has taken action through our CEO cohorts and the Momentum Fellowship, both creating “peer support networks to advance diversity, equity and inclusion.” We're also working to advance and support our members in their advocacy and public policy work. As our demographics and political climate evolve and shift, it is important for philanthropy to continue to create spaces and learning communities to encourage not only difficult conversations, but actions to help address issues of inequity in our sector and society.

Philanthropy should work towards becoming a true partner with communities to tackle these issues together. According to FAI, “To truly achieve a racial equitable society, all sectors much be engaged in creating it and living it.” I believe philanthropists should get their hands on the ground, side by side with the communities they so deeply care about. Join the marches, attend town hall meetings, convene your grantees and local businesses around racial tensions they face, write to your local representatives, audit internal policies and ensure they are equitable and inclusive.

In an election year, it's even more imperative that philanthropists be at the forefront of the issues we care about. Philanthropy Northwest is hosting an event on how philanthropy can play a stronger role in public policy; I urge all of our members and partners to attend!

We cannot take for granted the potential philanthropy has in working collaboratively across sectors to help build a stronger movement towards a more equitable, inclusive and embracing society. This experience confirmed my belief that philanthropy's role is one of partnership with communities: convening and collaborating, providing advocacy and capacity-building support, engaging in public policy issues side by side with our nonprofit partners and community members. 

Gloris Estrella is a program associate for Philanthropy Northwest's learning network. She can be reached at


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 02/16/2016 - 9:36am

Indeed: "We cannot take for granted the potential philanthropy has in working collaboratively across sectors to help build a stronger movement towards a more equitable, inclusive and embracing society."

Gracias Gloris, adelante!

Submitted by Regine Webster (not verified) on Tue, 02/16/2016 - 12:39pm

Dear Gloria - thank you so much for this inspired blog! You have a great mind!

Submitted by James Rattling Leaf (not verified) on Tue, 02/23/2016 - 6:29pm

Thanks for sharing your learning and thoughts....very interesting and would anxious how this will play out in the future.