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Put Philanthropy on the Front Lines
How to decolonize wealth through reparations.
Our nation is very different now than when I wrote Decolonizing Wealth in 2018.
My intention then was to provide a “loving” critique of philanthropy and effectively challenge the status quo of grant-making, particularly how philanthropic institutions and high-net-worth individuals used, or didn’t use, their money to address racial equity.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020, the immense tragedies and hardships we’ve endured have altered the way our society sees the world and how we act. What we are experiencing, for the first time in my lifetime, is a vast collective suffering. Continued grappling with the pandemic, the surging of the Delta variant, and more people dying are causing us to fear for our lives and for our families’ lives—we fear an uncertain future, and that we may never return to “normal.”
In this time we’ve also witnessed social movements that impacted and shook the structures of power. Politicians in major cities were forced to commit to defunding the police and reinvesting in our communities. Large corporations were called out for not doing more to authentically respond to the Black Lives Matter uprisings and the continued conversations on white supremacy and racism invoked by the 2020 presidential election. After a decades-long outcry and organizing effort from Native American communities, the Washington, D.C., football team was forced to retire its racist name. And even in philanthropy, which has been so slow to embrace change, a transformation is happening.
When I wrote my book in 2018, the framework I provided to decolonize the philanthropic sector—lifting the white gaze to leverage money as a way to heal—was deemed radical. Fast-forward to today: This method of giving is now considered modern philanthropy at its best. There is now an appetite among legacy institutions and high-net-worth individuals to get to the bottom of why we really have disparities in this country and globally around race; and there are more conversations happening in philanthropy about redistribution of wealth to communities of color as reparations.
Philanthropy can and should be at the forefront of supporting reparations, considering the sector’s collective $1 trillion in charitable assets. That’s a lot of wealth, and it’s wealth that was accumulated following the directives of colonization to divide, control, and exploit Native Americans, African Americans, and low-wage workers (many of them immigrants). Private foundations are required to pay out just 5% of their endowments annually in the U.S., and funding that has supported communities of color has never exceeded 10% of foundations’ total giving. If we think about the wealth extracted historically versus what is currently given to support communities of color, you can see this is far from fair or enough to address the needs caused by centuries of colonization.
The evolution in mindset, coupled with the successful philanthropic organizing of the Decolonizing Wealth Project, has unearthed new opportunities to support and scale efforts to actualize philanthropic reparations. My idea of 10% tithing to be redistributed to BIPOC-led organizations as a step to repair, seen as a pipe dream in 2018, has suddenly come within reach. I have been in touch with several foundations that are actively trying to figure out how to give 10% of their endowments to Black and Indigenous communities across the nation.
The Bush Foundation, as an example, has explored how it has benefited from a legacy of colonialism, and is now using its resources to address the pervasive racial wealth gap. Earlier this year, the foundation announced a commitment of $100 million (equivalent to more than 10% of its endowment) to seed two community trust funds that will address wealth disparities caused by historic racial injustice. These trust funds will be owned and managed by Black and Native American communities to provide money to build stability and generational wealth, improving access to opportunities such as education, homeownership, and entrepreneurship.
A more well-known example is how MacKenzie Scott, who has publicly committed to giving away her Amazon wealth in her lifetime, has been approaching wealth redistribution. In 2020, without any self-congratulatory promotion, Scott donated an estimated $4 billion to leaders supporting anti-racism work and organizations led by people of color, including by Native Americans. She donated an additional $2.74 billion in June 2021 to organizations in categories and communities that have been historically underfunded and overlooked. What is important about Scott’s actions is her self-awareness surrounding her wealth and privilege: “There’s no question in my mind that anyone’s personal wealth is the product of a collective effort, and of social structures which present opportunities to some people, and obstacles to countless others,” she said. While giving at this scale and in this way is commendable, we must remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said that it must not “cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
The concept of reparations is big and nuanced. But there is an opportunity for all of us as individuals and institutions with wealth to take reparative action. Decolonizing Wealth Project, and our giving circle fund, Liberated Capital, recently announced the 23 grantees for the first-of-its-kind funding opportunity to support local, regional, and national BIPOC-led movement building and advocacy efforts for reparations. Our goal is for #Case4Reparations to be a multiyear, multimillion dollar initiative to support systemic and policy change efforts that return wealth to impacted individuals.
And we must not forget that reparations have historically been a policy conversation. Earlier this year, H.R. 40, the federal legislation on reparations, advanced out of committee for the first time since it was originally introduced 30 years ago. There are also a number of local reparative efforts underway to address the historical and ongoing theft and control of land, with cities acknowledging reparations and taking action, including St. Paul, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; Providence, Rhode Island; Burlington, Vermont; Chicago and Evanston, Illinois; New York City; and the state of California (particularly in the Bay Area).
Portland approved as its top racial justice measure to lobby the U.S. government on reparations for Black and Indigenous communities harmed by federal policies and actions. Evanston, Illinois, is levying a tax on newly legalized marijuana to fund projects benefiting African Americans in recognition of the enduring effects of slavery and the war on drugs. In the San Francisco Bay Area, local residents and businesses can pay to help restore Indigenous land to Indigenous stewardship, as a land tax for reparations.
So where does this leave us? My hope is that the rest of philanthropy moves toward this model of wealth redistribution and that H.R. 40 is passed in the near future—but I know this kind of radical change cannot happen in a vacuum, especially for the Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who have had white supremacy impact every aspect of their and their ancestors’ lives.
Because communities of color continue to do the work to address racial inequities, it’s imperative that white communities, especially the philanthropic community, start to do their part to heal and advance the movement for repair: Leverage their power and influence to support people of color. White people in these spaces should speak up for these communities of color when in rooms that don’t reflect them, and use their position to help open doors and remove obstacles.
Commit to racial justice as lifelong work. America is almost 250 years old, with the harms of colonization and the stains of white supremacy starting before then. That kind of pain is generational, cyclical, and pervasive. White people need to commit to deconstructing the systems that continue to perpetuate disparities and racism and work alongside people of color to build new ones.
Sometimes it’s about letting go of control. The cornerstone of white supremacy is the need to dominate and control, which is why so many industries are still white-dominated. This is where progress stalls, so white people need to think about relinquishing control if we as a society are ever going to have racial equity.
Representation doesn’t translate into power. Diversity and inclusion in workplaces is a moot point if the people at the top are still white. Real power comes from appointing people of color into top roles, including by creating new roles or encouraging some leaders to step down and step aside. By shifting real power to people of color in philanthropic spaces, grant-makers are actively dismantling the power structures that marginalize millions every day.
And if I wasn’t clear about this before, white people in philanthropy need to continue to focus their work on wealth redistribution and move more money to organizations led by people of color, including wealth-management companies and grassroots organizations. Honoring self-determination in how communities build wealth can create space and creativity for how we grow wealth, such as buying land and property. This can help create for-profit endeavors geared to create diverse and evergreen revenue streams for racial justice movements. That can allow us to realize a future where we don’t need to rely on philanthropy in the first place.