How Should Philanthropy Respond to Obama's Speech on Black Men and Boys?
July 22, 2013
Shawn Dove is manager of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, an initiative of the Open Society Foundations "to create hope and opportunities for black men and boys who are significantly marginalized from U.S. economic, social, and political life." In collaboration with the Open Society Foundations, the Foundation Center recently launched BMAfunders.org, a go-to resource for data and information related to black male achievement that also highlights the role philanthropy can play in supporting black men and boys. A version of this post appears on OSF's Voices blog.
How do we as a nation heal from the open wound caused by the Zimmerman verdict? Words from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, offer guidance: "We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now."
I've watched President Obama's speech responding to America's Trayvon Martin moment more than ten times now. And with each viewing, I am increasingly inspired by our president's courageous depiction of the challenges black men and boys face in a society that too often perceives them as criminals and ignores their potential to be productive contributors to this great nation.
Debates about race, gender, the criminal justice system, and states' "stand your ground" laws rattled the country in the week leading up to the president's speech. When he finally spoke, Americans of all races who have devoted their time and resources to improving the life outcomes of black men and boys had divergent reactions -- from sighs of relief, to jaw-dropping disbelief, to tears of joy. Others thought the president's message about how America views, values, and invests in black men and boys was off-base, too late, divisive, and lacking a call to action.
Much of what the president said resonated with me, particularly as a black man, the father of young twin boys, and the manager of the Open Society Foundations' Campaign for Black Male Achievement. What was perhaps most compelling was how he helped the country understand the pain black communities were experiencing by weaving explanations of the complex policies that create the disproportionately large population of incarcerated African American men with his personal experiences of being racially profiled. What also resonated with me was the refrain "Where do we go from here?"
I am hopeful there will be a concerted effort across various sectors to devise a plan in response to the president's remarks. But today I am grappling with a question for my committed and courageous colleagues in philanthropy. What should philanthropy do?
I would like to offer the following ideas as philanthropy collectively figures out its next steps. Here are five things to ponder and perhaps address by the time the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington rolls around on August 24.
Philanthropy should understand that the president's speech on black men and boys demands a response from the philanthropic community. If, in the coming weeks and months, we keep with the status quo, we will have missed an important opportunity. A good start would be for every foundation president and board member to read Foundations and the Fallacy of a Post-Racial America: African American Men and Civic Engagement (16 pages, PDF), by Dr. Emmett Carson, president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The field should also move quickly to put the pledge to address the issue it made at the Council of Foundations' most recent annual meeting into investment practice.
Philanthropy should understand that it cannot continue to invest in law enforcement and criminal justice strategies while under-investing in family and youth development, community-building and organizing, and educational equity strategies. Where are we headed if we succeed in reducing racial profiling and the implicit bias of law enforcement but still have only 10 percent of black boys reading at grade level by the end of the third grade? Philanthropy needs to embrace the "power of positive deviance," realizing that the answers to the problem lie in the heads, hands, and hearts of young black men and boys in communities across the country, with the support of girls and woman -- especially single moms. Let's find ways to tap into those assets.
Philanthropy should ramp up and sustain investments in strengthening the field of black male achievement. Last year, seven foundations partnered to launch the Leadership & Sustainability Institute for Black Male Achievement (LSI), a national membership network designed to ensure the growth, sustainability, and impact of leaders and organizations in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors committed to this work. But LSI is just a drop in the bucket if we are truly going to catalyze change.
Philanthropy should increase investments in strategic communications and messaging efforts. We need an alternative to the narrative that presents black men and boys as liabilities or threats to society. One such effort is led by former Knight Foundation vice president Trabian Shorters, who recently spun off Black Male Engagement as a way to organize and support a network of black males who are already demonstrating that they are assets to their communities.
Philanthropy should realize that what America truly needs to adequately respond to the challenge at hand is not another convening but the creation of a Corporation for Black Male Achievement -- a catalytic enterprise that could lead the implementation of a Marshall-like Plan that finally changes the paradigm for black men and boys in America. As I shared in the Foundation Center's recent report Where Do We Go From Here? Philanthropic Support for Black Men & Boys (40 pages PDF), we need an endowed philanthropic social enterprise that can lead us over the decades it will take to successfully address this issue. As Open Society Foundations founder George Soros states in the same report, "this is a generational problem. It demands a long-term commitment."
-- Shawn Dove