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When The Searing Truth Comes Into Focus

It has been a really difficult couple of weeks. And I think for those of us in the social change sector — the sector that works for equity, justice, compassion, inclusion, civility — these days have been particularly challenging. The events in Charlottesville have made obvious that there is so much work to do, and in fact, battles that we thought we had made real progress on (against Nazi-ism, anti-semitism, rampant racism) are far from over.

But if there is any silver lining to the events of the past weeks, it is perhaps that America is beginning to reckon with its past. One thing that has brought me solace during this time is Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu’s beautiful speech from last May where he described why he led an effort to remove several confederate monuments in New Orleans. (An effort, by the way, that came out of an interesting –and now expanding — philanthropic experiment in bringing community together to have open, honest conversations).

Landrieu gave a thoughtful and compelling argument for why we must take down these monuments. As he put it:

“These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city…

[A] friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.”

Particularly in these times when leaders are in such short supply, I find Mitch Landrieu’s leadership and eloquent arguments inspiring.

He sees in this challenging moment an opportunity for Americans to come together, recognize our past, and create together a more just, inclusive and equitable future, as he described:

“Now is the time to send a new message to the next generation of New Orleanians…A message about the future, about the next 300 years and beyond; let us not miss this opportunity New Orleans and let us help the rest of the country do the same. Because now is the time for choosing. Now is the time to actually make this the City we always should have been, had we gotten it right in the first place. We should stop for a moment and ask ourselves…if presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces … would these monuments be what we want the world to see? Is this really our story? We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people. In our blessed land we all come to the table of democracy as equals. We have to reaffirm our commitment to a future where each citizen is guaranteed the uniquely American gifts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is what really makes America great and today it is more important than ever to hold fast to these values and together say a self-evident truth that out of many we are one. That is why today we reclaim these spaces for the United States of America. Because we are one nation, not two; indivisible with liberty and justice for all, not some. We all are part of one nation, all pledging allegiance to one flag, the flag of the United States of America. And New Orleanians are in, all of the way. It is in this union and in this truth that real patriotism is rooted and flourishes.”

As any good leader does, Mitch Landrieu helps us rise above division, turmoil, and adversity and see a new, better path. Perhaps what we are experiencing in America right now — the vitriol, the divisiveness — is an opportunity for us to confront our past and more consciously and inclusively create our future.

Photo Credit: Workers securing straps to the Robert E Lee statue at Lee Circle prior to it being removed from atop the column, May 19, 2017, Infrogmation of New Orleans.

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Can Philanthropy Lead In These Challenging Times?

Last week I was in Boston for the Center for Effective Philanthropy conference. It was an amazing gathering of leaders talking about how philanthropy should respond in these difficult times. If you couldn’t make the conference and want a run down of the three days, CEP’s Ethan McCoy recapped Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 on the CEP blog. And you can also see the #CEP2017 Twitter feed.

The conference gave me a lot to think about, so I wanted to share a few of my takeaways.

The conference was bookended by two incredible speakers. I was blown away by the first night’s keynote address by Bryan Stevenson. Bryan is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which works to end mass incarceration and challenge racial and economic injustice.

He gave a completely mesmerizing speech about the historic roots of racial inequity and injustice and how we can move forward from America’s past and present toward a more just and equitable society. He argued that there are four things we must do:

  1. “Get proximate” to communities we want to help
  2. Work to understand and change the long-standing American narrative of racial difference
  3. Stay hopeful, and
  4. Accept that the work will be uncomfortable

It is impossible to do justice to his amazing speech, so I offer his Ted Talk from 2012 to show you what a thought-provoking speaker he is. I also plan to read his best-selling book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, about how to fix our broken criminal justice system.

The final keynote speaker of the conference, Harvard historian Nancy Koehn, gave a riveting talk about looking at historic leaders, like Ernest Shackleton — an explorer who led expeditions to the Antarctic — to draw lessons about leadership in our current times.

She argued that “leaders are not born, they are made.” Every single one of us could step up and become a leader. And what defines a real leader is that “effective leaders help us overcome the limitation of our own selfishness, weakness, laziness, fears and get us to do harder, better, more important things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

In between those two amazing speakers were breakouts and plenaries that encouraged philanthropy to step up to the plate. There were urgings for foundation leaders to embrace advocacy, support nonprofit sustainability, explore state-by-state (instead of national) strategies for social change, listen to beneficiaries, understand their own networks, and fund evaluation, among other things. There certainly was an underlying theme that philanthropists should do more and be more in this new political era.

And these are incredibly challenging times, to be sure. Professor of Economics at Stanford, Raj Chetty, painted a very dire picture of income inequality in the U.S. Things have only gotten worse in the past several decades. In fact, as the slide below demonstrates, “the American Dream” is actually now more attainable in the U.K., Denmark and Canada than it is in the United States.

The final plenary session of the conference really pushed philanthropists to think hard about whether they are helping or hurting the causes they support. Jim Canales, President of the Barr Foundation, led a conversation among Sacha Pfeiffer (reporter from the Boston Globe), Vu Le (author of the Nonprofits With Balls blog), Grant Oliphant (president of the Heinz Endowments), and Linsey McGoey (senior lecturer at the University of Essex) critiquing philanthropy’s influence.

In particular, I really appreciated Linsey McGoey’s determination to push philanthropy farther, arguing that philanthropists working on issues of inequity need to address the much larger systems at work: “If foundations care about inequality, they should focus on the tax code and reduced government spending that worsens inequality.”

The CEP conference was an opportunity for philanthropy to take a hard look at itself and, I hope, find the determination to step up as the leaders we so desperately need now.

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