Juneteenth Call to Create Abundance with, by, and for Black Communities

By MacArthur President John Palfrey

Black Americans across the country have marked Juneteenth with festive gatherings for nearly 160 years against the backdrop of a society in which their full liberation remains an elusive pursuit. It is a harsh reality, laid bare across a host of measures.

To name just a few examples of the racial disparities that limit access to opportunity: in 2019 Black Americans had one-sixth the wealth of White Americans on a per capita basis. Black people are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of White people. And White school districts are better funded than non-White districts to the staggering tune of $23 billion.

These disparities persist because of systemic racism. In my sector, where vast resources give us the ability to solve challenges that can improve millions of peoples’ lives, philanthropy often maintains an unjust status quo in which progress for Black people, and people of color, is still mostly defined by White leaders and practitioners. Change is afoot, but it is slow.

Data show seismic gaps in the amount of funding that initiatives led by people of color receive compared to their White counterparts. According to an Echoing Green report from 2020, organizations led by people of color only received 11 percent of philanthropy’s largest commitments between 2010 and 2014. Strikingly, one-third of those grants went to one organization — The Harlem Children’s Zone.

This Juneteenth and beyond, we in philanthropy must do better. The same is true for other institutions in America. Now is the time to reckon with the bureaucratic norms our institutions use to justify our complacency. Now is the time to commit to a bolder way forward, grounded in anti-racist thinking.

We must construct new methods to fulfill our aspirational missions and catalyze the change we seek. By selecting for pre-existing financial and operational stability and expecting quantitative evidence of achievements and impacts, philanthropy has perpetuated a White-dominant culture that excludes community leadership and community organizing.

We can take on more first-time grantees. An effort to close the gap in funding that Black-led organizations receive from our sector requires developing new grantmaking systems that allow us to be more open-minded to new-to-us grantees. We can collaborate with peer foundations to discover promising initiatives to support. And we can transcend limitations in our experiences by taking advice about where to allocate money from external partners who are more proximate to the communities and issues that are too often overlooked and underfunded.

We can combine forces in pursuit of a shared purpose to foster greater equity and impact. Abundance is one concrete example of how this work can take shape: a new movement for funders in which we each commit to raising our annual payouts to Black-led work by 2025 and with payouts increasing each year. We join with our colleagues at Chicago Beyond and the Grand Victoria Foundation in warmly inviting you to join the Abundance movement.

Abundance represents a shift in mindsets and an example of trust-based philanthropy — a means of power shifting, leading toward true, respectful power sharing between those of us who are allocating the funds and those who are doing the work in the field.

Grantmaking partners need to deconstruct old systems of power and reconstruct new ones that are more equitable and more trusting, built on a different set of values — grounded in mutual respect, learning, and relationship building.

Finally, we can follow the lead of activists, organizers, and scholars, including MacArthur Fellows Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones, who have advocated for reparations for years, because anti-Black oppression has made reparations necessary. This means working to rebuild or restore the health, economic prosperity, and communal land rights that were stolen from communities in the United States and around the world as a result of slavery, colonization, and the systems of oppression that followed in their wake.

Certainly, there are many other things we can do to enable meaningful changes that can further racial justice. Ultimately, my hope this Juneteenth, is that our still-largely-White sector of philanthropy chooses to shift our conventions and work as a united front to ensure that no community will ever again be denied the opportunities our democracy promises to all Americans.

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