Posts Tagged ‘diversity’

Help! I Need Somebody, Not Just Anybody

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

I haven’t read The Help, but I’m interested in the discussion surrounding the film’s release. I think of Colorlines as my go-to place for acute, well-informed critique on the politics of race and racial equity. So it’s intriguing to see a take there by Akiba Solomon, timed to the film’s release, that quotes as “the best review…I’ve read so far” a piece that appeared in…Entertainment Weekly. That’s remarkable! Colorlines seal of approval on a piece of critique that appeared in as mainstream a publication as you can get.

That’s no knock on Solomon. As a longtime loyal EW subscriber, I had been pleasantly surprised to Martha Southgate’s on-point rebuttal of the film’s presumption to tell the story of a key element of the civil-rights struggle from the perspective of those who were ultimately on the sidelines. Money line from Southgate: “the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.” The point that needed to be made gets made in a place where a sizable part of the film’s audience is likely to see it. Nice.

Now, there are several layers going on here, obviously. (And I promise one of them has to do with philanthropy.)

  • Who’s the dummy now? Or, the politics of literary and cinematic ventriloquism. I should probably dig up my college texts and re-read Gayatri Spivak’s, “Who Speaks for the Subaltern?” But the question of well-meaning members of an elite who sympathize with the downtrodden seeking to help them by “speaking for” them is a vexed and long-standing one. (Although really, any of the parody 60s protest songs in Walk Hard put it to rest.) Who has the right to represent another’s experience – no matter what the intention? One of the most controversial elements of the book of The Help is that Aibileen and Minnie’s voices are written in dialect. Are there any circumstances in which this is OK? Is it ventriloquism or empathy? Apparently while in the book, there are three voices including Skeeter’s, in the movie the voice-over is only Aibileen’s. That’s at least a step in the right direction. I don’t know if I buy the idea that it makes it easier to hear subaltern voices if someone from the elite channels them first. In such an unmediated (and yet entirely mediated) world, why not just hear from people directly – why does someone need to bring us the voice of the unheard, make it more palatable? Ultimately, I think the value of the book – and of its ventriloquism – is that it gives readers the feeling that they’re being exposed to the inner life of people they would probably never think about otherwise. So I imagine it feels like a deep and moving experience, even humbling. On some level, that can’t be a bad thing. To be humbled – and then chastened by the realization that even the story that was enlightening you needs enlightening of its own: that feels like a meaningful, and socially useful experience.
  • The “women’s picture.” What I haven’t seen anyone talk about yet in this summer of successful female-led comedies like Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher is that here we have a movie that’s all about women where men are the help in getting the story on the screen – the male director was handpicked by the female author of the book, a true rarity in Hollywood. (J.K. Rowling surely had some input on who directed the first Harry Potter movie, but it’s not like she said, “it has to be this person who grew up with me and gets the very English world I tried to portray in the books,” as happened with director Kathryn Stockett and director Tate Taylor.)
  • Voice, the gift that keeps on giving. There are texts and performances that explode their boundaries. I get the feeling that Octavia Spencer and especially the divine, regal Viola Davis have done such a good job with their characters that no matter who presents their story, it’ll be their voices and their experiences that remain in the viewer’s minds.

And it’s that last point that resonates with the concept of philanthropy. Sometimes the gift of voice is the gift that keeps on giving, well beyond the giver’s intentions or frames of reference. Ultimately, giving voice to the disenfranchised and then stepping the hell to the side, may be the best thing a philanthropist – whether an individual like the Skeeter character in The Help or a foundation making grants – can do in some situations. Once again, the Beatles get it right – “help! I need somebody, not just anybody” – there are good ways and better ways that donors can be…wait for it…The Help.



Thursday, July 28th, 2011

A recent story in the NYT documents the impact of the recession on different racial and ethnic groups. In percentage terms, Hispanics were hit the hardest, losing 66% of household wealth between 2005 and 2009 – with African-Americans similarly impacted. But the truly shocking numbers are the absolute figures. Black and Latino households have around $10,000 or less in household net worth – even after falling by more than 10% in the recession, white households have on average *ten times* the household wealth, over $100,000.

What the hell?! Even as we’re rapidly moving toward a “majority minority” society, wealth is so unevenly distributed across racial and ethnic groups. Reminds me of a line from an old Chris Rock routine – “we black people need to build wealth. I ain’t talkin’ ’bout rich, I’m talkin’ ’bout *wealthy.* Shaq is rich; the guy who owns the Lakers is wealthy.”

And now these clowns in Washington are falling over each other to drive our country’s future into a ditch. Holden Karnofsky of GiveWell has a really important piece on the SSIR blog about all the groups in line to help people before individual donors:

  • For-profit businesses
  • Governments
  • Local philanthropy and community
  • Big foundations
  • Other donors

It’s a really illuminating perspective. But what’s missing is scale. The groups in that “line” are not created equal – and if one falls, the ones behind it aren’t necessarily capable of filling the gap. So when government, the second in line after private business, shrinks suddenly – do you think those household wealth numbers will go up? Pell grants, funding to help people mitigate vulnerability? The main reason Hispanic household wealth fell so much during the recession is that much of what folks had been able to gain was in their houses – the value of which tanked. Our infrastructure is Third World already; looks like our social safety net is headed the same way, with what are sure to be disastrous consequences.

Madness, I tell you – madness.

Let the River Run

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Hi – back after a couple of weeks under the radar. Per my last post, I was at the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) and Council on Foundations (CoF) conferences back-to-back in Philadelphia. My guest post on the CoF website on one of the panels I moderated is here.

Welcome to new readers who began following me on Twitter in Philly. My mission statement for this blog is here, and my shtick is to use song titles for blog-post titles.

One of my biggest takeaways from the confluence of the “next-generation” (or really, “now-generation”) EPIP conference and the “mainstream” CoF conference is how distinct they are – like the black Amazon and the brown (sandy) Amazon:

Meeting of the Waters - "Black" Amazon and "Sandy" Amazon

Meeting of the Waters - "Black" Amazon and "Sandy" Amazon

The two conferences were alongside each other and many people, me included, traversed both, but our experiences were very different. I won’t say which one is sandy and which one is clear!

But the main difference had to do with how much the personal level – our individual narratives of class, leadership, social interaction, race, ethnicity – were not the background but the foreground and content of discussions at the EPIP conference. See here for a series of blog posts that break down different elements of the conference content. We heard from foundation CEOs who talked about their personal leadership journeys, trainers who helped us understand and break down narratives of class, social-justice advocates who talked about their organizing victories that sprang from marrying personal transformation with structural change. The personal is the professional, we kept hearing.

And on the other side of the river…nothing. It was all about roles, but not about the people who inhabit the roles. (Well, that’s not entirely true. Panels on “Why Aren’t Foundation Boards More Diverse?” and “Speaking of Race” brought in questions of identity.) I’m reminded of GrantCraft’s work on bringing your “whole self” to your role as a grantmaker. But that narrative, that approach, was absent during the CoF conference.

I came away from the Meeting of the Waters wondering if the EPIP mode is the way of the future. Will Generations X and Y expect the personal to be discussed alongside, as part of the professional, as they move forward in the field and become the “mainstream” audience of the CoF conference? What will this confluence of conferences look like in 10 or 20 years? (Assuming there is still a field of the type we recognize today, which, honestly, who knows….)

Congratulations to AAPIP on 20 years!

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

I’m in Chicago, and couldn’t miss out on Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy’s (AAPIP) 20th anniversary celebration last night even while traveling. Very fancy webstream from San Francisco to viewing parties in 10 cities across the country. Check out the Twitter hashtag #aapip2010.

I used to work for AAPIP’s sister organization, Hispanics in Philanthropy, and I know both how hard and how rewarding it is to keep pushing an agenda of unity and the higher road in the face of a rapidly changing sector. So proud of AAPIP, HIP, and other affinity groups that have stayed ahead of the curve. Congratulations!

On “diversity”: the perils of monoculture (part 3)

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Continuing from yesterday: what kind of “diversity” are we looking for in foundations: perspective, experience, background?

I go back to the idea of inoculation: low doses of a pathogen to help you build up immunity. And immunity doesn’t necessarily mean, if I understand it correctly, that whenever the pathogen appears it’s destroyed, but rather, that its presence can be managed without danger to the host. So I think about this in terms of ideas or memes: what’s to be avoided is groupthink, and introducing low doses of ideas that are controversial to the group is a healthy form of preventative medicine, a kind of intellectual inoculation.

So if my little formula from yesterday is that part of an individual’s experience (what happened to them in the past) is how their background (where their past fits into larger social, demographic, political trends) shapes their perspective (the way they view the world, which is more mutable than experience or background), then it sounds like you want people with different perspectives, and you chances seem better of getting that when you have people with different backgrounds AND different experiences.

This doesn’t just have to be within the walls of the foundation, it makes sense to include perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds of grantee organizations, constituents, and other stakeholders. If we’re looking to avoid the perils of monoculture, a foundation should think about its full battery of intellectual immunizations. How do you make sure those are up to date, given the cast of characters (and their perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds) you currently work with? Do others need to be brought in the mix to give a booster shot?

On “diversity”: the perils of monoculture (part 2)

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

I wrote previously about the perils of monoculture in agriculture and institutions: it’s dangerous to have only one type of crop or perspective/experience/background because you’re more susceptible to infections that target that crop or groupthink/faddishness.

But let’s unpack the institutional component of this: I mashed together perspective, experience, and background. What kind of monoculture are we looking to avoid?

  • Perspective? This is very personal. Each person has their own perspective or worldview, but these are shaped by broader ideologies out there in the public sphere, and by the types of things one reads and hears. In these days of Fox News and the Daily Show (information monocultures?), people’s perspectives are formed, I would speculate, in more predictable and homogeneous ways. That’s another way of saying there’s polarization. Perspective is changeable, it’s not immutable – it’s not entirely about the past.
  • Experience? This is about the past. It’s about what’s come before. Some of it is a choice, what you’ve chosen to experience, and some of it is what happened to you (you don’t choose where you grow up). There’s your experience growing up, and your work experience. It’s very personal, even more so than perspective because it can’t change. You can interpret it differently, but it’s of a different category than perspective, which is how you view the world now vs. what has happened to you in the past.
  • Background? Ah, the joys of euphemism. This is about where you come from, where your parents come from, where your parents come from, “originally.” It’s personal, it’s about the past, it’s less changeable than perspective – but it’s more structural than experience. Experience is about what happened to you as a person, background is where your experience fits into larger social, demographic, and political trends. Part of your experience is how your background shaped…wait for it…your perspective.

So what kind of monoculture do you want to avoid in an institutional context like philanthropy? What kind of “diversity” are we looking for: of perspective, of experience, of background? To be continued….

Local knowledge (part 1)

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

As I’ve been saying, I think the privileging of local knowledge is a bipartisan issue, or a cross-cutting cleavage, one that elements of left and right can agree on.

From the right: lefty-liberal plans for social engineering are based on the fallacy that human nature is perfectable, and subject to rational planning and persuasion. But the truth is man is flawed by nature (or by original sin), and top-down approaches don’t take into account local realities. “Unintended consequences” are the inevitable byproduct of social engineering, and can be avoided by greater reliance on market dynamics. It’s hubris and folly for a central government to try to plan an economy, much less dictate cultural norms that have developed idiosyncratically over time in local communities. As Ronald Reagan said, “The ten most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.'” (Quote from this New Yorker article, toward the end.)

From the left: the corporatization of culture, food, and everyday life are a homogenizing force that threaten to erase the diversity that make our communities and nation great. “Grassroots community organizing” is a way to empower everyday people to make their voices heard and have a positive impact on the conditions of their lives through obtaining changes in policy, whether local, state, or federal. To be a locavore is to reject the evils of factory farming, which is an environmental disaster, an animal-welfare nightmare, and a public-health time-bomb. Eat local, know your farmer, avoid GMOs, celebrate the diversity of a specific place.

What they agree on: Top-down solutions are bad, bottom-up initiatives are morally and practically preferable.

What they disagree on: When to go against these principles (or preferences). For many on the left, federal enforcement of rights trumps local practices. For some on the right, the sphere of government action should be absolutely minimal, and there might not be a time when local norms (states’ rights?) should be abrogated – except perhaps in the protection of private property.

The upshot for philanthropy: Foundation grantmaking has an almost inherently top-down tendency. Many on the right and the left would be in favor of promoting greater involvement of local stakeholders in the learning, and maybe even decision-making, processes of foundations. Community foundations, with their collection of individual donor-advised funds that let a thousand flowers bloom, might appeal to the right, while funding collaboratives, where individual donors try to overcome collective-action problems to coordinate and amplify their grantmaking, might appeal to the left. The question becomes, when if ever should central oversight trump local norms. (Hint: it starts with a “D,” ends with a “y,” and rhymes with “Shmaversity.”)

On “diversity”: the perils of monoculture

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

The second of my two questions is, “what would it mean to democratize philanthropy?” One of the topics this allows me to touch on is what’s usually labeled diversity. A few thoughts to start sketching out a path to explore on here:

Monocultures in agriculture and (?) epidemiology are bad: you want a diversity of plant species so if you have a blight in one of your crops, not everything is wiped out; and you want to be exposed to different kinds of germs so you build up a broad base of immunity and are less likely to be felled by the newest strain of cold or flu.

Monoculture of perspective or experience is similarly perilous. Groupthink, prejudice, tokenism, discrimination: all these can result in an ecosystem-of-people (whether an organization or a nation) where only one type of perspective or experience is present or validated.

Crop rotation and exposure to different kinds of germs are strategies for avoiding monocultures. Maybe there’s something to be learned from these practices in promoting diversity in institutional contexts, like philanthropy. Term limits on foundation boards and/or program officers may help ensure rotation of perspectives in the bodies that govern the organization and interact most directly with constituents. And substitute “memes” for “germs” in the first sentence in this paragraph, and the idea would be to provide regular, low-dose exposures to all different kinds of perspectives and experiences to inoculate the organization against the peril of falling for the newest fad (a constant danger in philanthropy).

But what might “perspective” and “experience” mean in this context? Are we talking about diversity of background? Identity? To be continued….

Which one is 2002, and which one is 2010?

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Where we left off yesterday…was comparing a new set of reports from the Council on Foundations on diversity with a research study from the Joint Affinity Groups in 2002. Here are the recommendations from each report. Can you tell which one is 2002 and which one is 2010? How much progress have we made in 8 years?


Foundation culture must change for diversity to be successful.

  • Diversity and multiculturalism must be institutionalized to become part of grantmaking organizational culture. This requires changing practices and norms considered standard in the past.
  • There are many ways to undertake diversity efforts, including task forces or committees to steer initiatives. The work of diversity is participatory and often takes place through teams, including representatives from all levels in an organization. Such mechanisms handle problem solving and provide a vehicle for dealing with internal culture and policies.
  • Respecting and valuing diverse staff and board members contributes to successful efforts.
  • Expanding a foundation’s staff or board as a method of diversifying is a way to initiate such a change in culture. Recruitment of multicultural decision-makers may require cultivating and identifying different networks of candidates from outside a foundation’s economic and social circles.
  • Employment benefits are a signal of an institution’s commitment to become an inclusive, multicultural workplace. Acknowledgement of multicultural holidays, domestic partner benefits and policies, and workplace accommodations for people with disabilities indicate institutional awareness and attract diverse staff.

Written materials are essential.

  • Include a commitment to diversity in key statements. Develop written materials that communicate diversity objectives.
  • Committed organizations articulate the importance of diversity through their institution’s mission, vision, values, and/or funding strategy.
  • Statements and organizational policies that reflect the centrality of diversity formalize institutional commitment and establish a standard of accountability.

Educate the field about the need for diversity.

  • Inform boards and trustees about the value of diversity.
  • Training can increase understanding and improve communications at the outset of any diversity initiative. Training for managers is fundamental. Outside professionals often undertake training, passing on concrete skills that managers can then use to train other staff.

Diversity is a conscious, ongoing process.

  • Planning, dedicating the resources required, and evaluating progress are central as diversifying takes time, energy, and perseverance.
  • Establish clearly defined internal goals, responsibilities and accountability mechanisms.
  • Focus groups, surveys, and/or diversity audits can assess an organization’s diversity climate and identify areas of concern and desired outcomes.
  • Consultants can provide expertise and impartiality. The presence of individuals not invested in internal organizational dynamics offers perspective and a distance that can make it easier to raise issues likely to cause conflict.

Expect consequences and readjust.

  • If one aspect of a foundation’s program or structure changes to become more diverse, it frequently causes a ripple effect throughout the organization.
  • Anticipate some failures, internal resistance and departures. A willingness to change systems and remove institutional barriers is a must.
  • More consideration needs to be given to sustained diversity efforts over time.


1. Consider how diversity and inclusion relate to your foundation’s mission, values, and original purpose.

2. Determine whether your board membership, volunteers, advisory committees, and governance offer opportunities to enhance the foundation’s diversity and inclusiveness.

3. Cultivate an internal culture, policies, and procedures that reflect your foundation’s commitment to diversity and inclusive practices.

4. Hire staff from diverse populations, viewpoints, and experiences.

5. Seek contractors and vendors from diverse backgrounds, communities, and populations.

6. Explore investment options that would support diversity and inclusive practices.

7. Consider and enhance the impact of your foundation’s grantmaking on diverse communities and populations.

8. Consider ways to model inclusive practices and the value of diversity in your role as a philanthropic leader and convener.

9. Assess how your foundation is perceived by the public, especially by diverse populations, grantees, applicants denied funding, and organizations that have not sought funding from your foundation.

10. Share what your foundation is learning about diversity and inclusive practices.

Too many things, too many things

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

I’ve been wanting to do a philanthropy/politics blog for a while, so it’s exciting to have finally started one. Because there’s no shortage of things to comment on. PhilanTopic has a couple of good ones this week:

  • Foundations and the Common Good talks about the Caring to Change project, which proposes “the Common Good” as a “unifying theme” for what foundations are after as a sector. Look at that, they even talk about negative and positive forms of freedom – freedom from and freedom to, respectively. As I posted just yesterday, this distinction is an important one and in part, but only in part, explains why democracy and markets are in fundamental tension. The classic critique of frameworks that use “the common good” as a central metaphor is that they ignore or underplay power relations, and indeed at first glance there seems to be less of an emphasis here on the ways in which power relations and inequality distort or undermine the common good. But at second glance, the people consulted in putting together include some very thoughtful and social justice-y folk, so I’ll be interested to take another look, and likely discuss further in a future post.
  • “Ten Ways” for Foundations to Strengthen Diversity and Inclusiveness: In time for its annual conference, the Council on Foundations has published a series of reports on diversity for three different types of foundations. Somewhere near the dawn of time, I edited a report for the Joint Affinity Groups on “The Meaning and Impact and Board and Staff Diversity in the Philanthropic Field,” and I wonder how different the recommendations are eight years later. Next time, we’ll do a taste test.

That’s not even getting to some of the stuff posted on Marginal Revolution or Jeff Weintraub this week. This thing is practically writing itself….