Growing up in the South, Charlottesville felt all too familiar, though no less enraging and saddening to me. There have been counter protests to KKK and white supremacist marches for as long as I can remember. I distinctly recall going to one in North Georgia to “monitor” the protest. The difference was those gatherings were small, and hardly picked up by the media or the general public, though the foreign press often covered them.
Battles to remove the Confederate flag from statehouses, and Confederate statues (more than 1,000 of them) from public parks and sites, also aren’t new. When I was a young civil rights lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice, a group of colleagues and I boycotted our “required” litigation training at the Department’s national training center in South Carolina because the state legislators refused to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse. That was back in 2000—a small way of speaking out as career attorneys—but the flag didn’t come down until 2015, following the Charleston massacre by another self-proclaimed white supremacist.
A person doesn’t become a white supremacist overnight. We know our education system plays an important role in shaping our ideas about our history, country and democracy. For example, for me, it wasn’t until I attended Spelman College, a historically black undergraduate institution, that I truly understood our country’s history. I know for others it was the hyphenated-American studies in college that brought to light a truer picture of this country’s past, present and future, and where one belonged in that narrative. When I served in the Obama Administration, I saw many examples of multicultural and multi-religious curriculum being introduced in schools where bullying and harassment of black, Muslim, Jewish or Sikh youth had been common. And a more comprehensive understanding of our history, both good and bad, and the significant contributions from diverse philosophers, mathematicians, literary geniuses, scientists and other leaders of color goes a long way toward helping students get along in the classroom, and become respectful adults later in life.
What good could possibly come from the hate and loss of life we saw at Charlottesville? This question has weighed heavily on my mind since watching the news a few weeks ago. My first thought goes back to the voices of those parents, students and community leaders who struggled to turn the tide of ignorance, racisim, anti-Semitism and harassment in their schools and communities. One idea: What if the government and leading foundations pooled resources to fund a national grant program, say $20-$30 million, to begin to seed and support multicultural and multi-religious education, and promote a more expansive, inclusive and accurate accounting of our country’s history in K-12, both good and bad. Let’s use the bully pulpit to send a powerful statement in support of local leaders and communities across the country that the work towards unity starts with our children, and that ignorance and hate is taught, whether explicitly or by omission, and not something we are born with.
On the level of individuals and the organizations we lead, we also have work to do. Philanthropy Northwest is committed to providing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trainings led by our Learning Network experts and curating programs and customized consulting through The Giving Practice to support our peers and move the philanthropic field forward. A perfect example of this is The Giving Practice's DEI CEO cohorts, in its fourth year, that recognizes the power that CEOs have in their own organizations to create more inclusive work spaces, and shape their organizations to fully embody the values, grantmaking strategies, and community engagement efforts inclusive and respectful of all. We must also recognize the brilliance coming out of communities, stepping back to support their efforts to move towards justice. What this means for our sector and our region will be more fully explored at our upcoming conference, Now is The Time to Lead Through Change, so I encourage you to join us.
Charlottesville calls for individual, organizational, and structural changes, but above all, we need to use our privileged position to support an honest national conversation on race and its history in this country—including Confederate flags and statues, and much more. We must acknowledge the inherent inequities that still exist because of our history and develop more opportunities for healing and structural changes. By making a deep, collective, long-term commitment as a sector, we can help move this country forward. With key foundation leaders in place, some of whom are deeply committed to these issues, we are primed and ready for the philanthropic sector to push this conversation and efforts to atone for our country’s past, change the narrative, heal and encourage our government leaders to join us.
**Photo Credit: NYTimes.com