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Focus needed for racial equity, social justice

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By Steven E. Mayer, Vanessa McKendall Stephens and Betty Emarita

Improving racial equity and social justice remains a challenge to society and philanthropy, yet philanthropic efforts to increase racial equity and social justice are meaningful but dispersed, diluted or fragmented.

Institutional philanthropy’s greatest strength, as well as its greatest weakness, is that each organization works independently. Consequently, efforts to increase racial equity or social justice are patchworked.

Some involve only one city, or only one state, or only one country. Some involve only education, or only housing, or only art. Some are focused on systems, others on individuals.

Progress is clearly noticeable in places, but it only dots the landscape.

To advance the pace of progress in the field of racial equity and social justice, ideas and proposals that yield more must rise to the top.

Conversations about race and racial equity are rare and fraught with discomfort. Groups struggle without really knowing how to begin and create space to talk honestly across race and about race.

When tension, pain, apathy or even animosity surface, participants often back away and silence the exchange, fearing repercussion from the colleagues, stakeholders or potential partners.

Because constructive conversations about race and racial equity do not often happen, few philanthropic organizations actively seek conversations designed to make progress toward racial equity.

Becoming effective in this arena requires unique preparation.

For a board of directors, education, social services or even community economic development are much easier to make a priority than improving racial equity or social justice. Equity and justice are typically not seen as a priority, a necessity or even an option.

Individuals, whether on staff or boards, typically come to prioritize equity and justice along very different paths. The process of bringing these issues to priority is sometimes led by staff, other times by the board.

Until the board chooses to prioritize this arena, however, staff leadership is limited in its impact.

Unlike charity, social justice demands attention to root causes — the underlying structures that generate and maintain inequities.

Philanthropic organizations need to become more intentional catalysts for change.

They will become more effective agents for progress in equity and justice by aligning key areas of operational practice, including administration, donor relationships, and staff and board development, with professed values.

They also must pursue new sources of information that let them better understand wider segments of their community, and let them pursue more informed courses of action.

Finally, resources – not just money but also influence – must be focused directly on making progress. Tools for accomplishing these goals are now available at Effective Communities.


Steven E. Mayer, Betty Emarita and Vanessa McKendall Stephens are affiliated with Effective Communities, LLC, in Minneapolis. This article is adopted from “Tools to Assist Progress in Moving Philanthropy Closer to Racial Equity and Social Justice,” a project developed by Effective Communities and funded by the Ford Foundation.

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