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Black philanthropy

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By Carl Goldstein

Big changes are afoot in the world of black philanthropy are afoot.

Traditionally, philanthropy among communities of color has been almost invisible to the broader community. That’s because much of it occurs informally, through personal channels.

Another kind of black philanthropy also is on the rise, and in some ways it looks a lot like the traditional kind.

In part, that’s because some black people out there have made some serious money in recent years.

Alphonse Fletcher made a fortune as a money-manager on Wall Street.

Now he’s doing things like donating $50 million to mark last year’s 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision against segregated schools, endowing a chair at his alma mater, Harvard University, and establishing a family foundation aimed at community building and sustainability.

Russell Simmons of Phat Farm and Def Poetry Jam fame has started the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation in New York City with the aim of opening city kids’ eyes to the art world.

Dikembe Mutombo has devoted much of the money he earned in the course of a stellar NBA career to eradicating diseases that snuff out the lives of countless children in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other African nations.

Another model is the community leader who through talent, drive and education becomes an engine for harnessing corporate and foundation dollars to benefit the disadvantaged.

Reatha Clark King worked in the cotton fields of Georgia in her youth but went on to earn a Ph.D. and an MBA before becoming president of Metropolitan State University in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

She later became president — and then board chair – of the General Mills Foundation.

These people were among the honorees at the Fifth National Conference of the National Center for Black Philanthropy in June in Minneapolis.

The gathering highlighted the growing importance of black philanthropy – not just for blacks and other communities of color, but also the whole community.

Economists tell us that the economy is in growth mode. But in the real world, where families struggle to balance budgets and pay their bills, economic insecurity is producing record stress levels among large numbers of middle-to-lower income people.

Remember welfare reform? There was supposed to be a deal – government would push people a lot harder to find work, and provide in return improved assistance in areas like job training, child care, and health care.

But years of federal and state tax cuts have led to the inevitable budget cuts, limiting local and state governments’ ability – and willingness – to provide assistance for people in need.

State contributions to K-12 and higher education budgets are also being effectively slashed, sometimes through the artifice of pretending that inflation doesn’t exist.

Tuition at state universities and community colleges has risen at double-digit rates in successive years.

President Bush has stressed how important it is for private charities to step up their role.

Some black people who are doing just that. The rest of us owe them a vote of thanks.


Carl Goldstein is editorial director for Words on Fire Communications, a media and consulting group that advises the National Center for Black Philanthropy in Washington, D.C.

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