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Racial Inequity and a Call to Action for Philanthropic Sector in Massachusetts

Post date: 
June 3rd, 2020
Article Type: 
Philanthropy MA Blog Post

Racial Inequity and a Call to Action for Philanthropic Sector in Massachusetts

I’ve read many posts, letters and opinions in the last few days addressing racism and the social injustices in our country. I was conflicted about adding another – as I don’t want to just pay lip-service to an important issue, checking off a box as a white male ally doing what he “should be” doing. So, although I highlight here issues which are likely all too familiar to you, I feel it is important to do so to give context before issuing at the end of this post a Call to Action to my colleagues in philanthropy in Massachusetts. 

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent deep pain, rage and protests mobilizing black people and their allies should surprise no one. One doesn’t have to look very hard to find examples of similar horrific injustices perpetrated against black people in America. In recent years, communities have reeled from the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Trayvon Martin in Florida, Eric Garner in New York City, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Botham Jean in Texas, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.  

We are one major incident away from naming someone’s brother, father, husband, wife, son, daughter, or neighbor and inserting Massachusetts as the state to be added to this list. This is the time our sector needs to say enough is enough to racial and economic injustice, police brutality, and systems of entrenched racism. 

This period of deep pain and injustice is layered on top of an already historically devastating backdrop of health and economic inequities in our state. The global pandemic of Covid-19 itself has revealed significant disparities for communities of color as a result of years of systems and policies creating inequities. Data about those being most affected by COVID-19 shows that African Americans in Boston, 25% of the population, make up 40% of the reported cases. (See City of Boston’s data reporting and this WBUR story

Further, although infections among people of Asian descent in Boston are being reported at a lower rate than the City average, concerns abound that these numbers don’t reflect the truth. Paul Watanabe, Director of Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, estimates percentage of deaths for Asians from COVID-19 is one and a half times the percentage of confirmed cases, which may indicate those with the disease are getting tested later, when they’re much sicker. Early and ongoing racist attacks against Asians and Asian Americans since the virus became news may be contributing to the discouragement by Asians of testing, as reported by the Boston Globe.  

Chelsea, Lawrence, Brockton and Lynn, all communities with greater higher populations of communities of color and working class communities, those who have been in front-line service roles during the pandemic, are among the cities with highest rates of infection. 

What are we doing about it here in Massachusetts?

On March 19th, Philanthropy Massachusetts hosted its first statewide Funders Briefing on Covid19 which saw over 260 participants across the region take part. During the call, we urged funders to put equity at the center of their decision-making as they re-strategized approaches to grantmaking and supporting nonprofits and communities. We called attention to a Chronicle of Philanthropy letter written by Susan Batten, CEO of AFBE, a Philanthropic Partnership for Black Communities, imploring funding strategies (and most notably, federal aid packages in response to COVID-19) be enacted that would address racial disparities not contribute to them. Nine national Philanthropy Serving Organizations issued a joint statement “Keep Equity at the Forefront in Philanthropy’s Response to the Coronavirus”, and The Nellie Mae Education Foundation early on set up the Racism is A Virus Too fund, to counter anti-racism against the Asian community. Despite these types of calls to action, organizations led by, or predominantly serving, communities of color reported on their struggle to secure federal loans. The disparities of those affected continued to climb.

What are you doing about it? 

Now is the moment for philanthropy in Massachusetts to act differently and focus on lasting change. In Massachusetts, we know we can do better in serving all our residents and dismantling inequities and systems of racism. Now. Not tomorrow. Not next month. Not next year. 

1). Get informed. There are so many resources out there on racial disparities and how they affect the communities in Massachusetts – from housing to health, from education to environment, and arts and culture to name a few. If you can’t find information, we can help point you to good resources. Your peers, for one, are excellent sources as starters.  

2). Share the information at all levels. If you are among the leadership of your organization, share with the rest of your staff. If you are on staff, share with your managers and leadership. Perhaps most importantly, share with your trustees or urge your colleagues to do so.

3). Engage your Trustees. I don’t want to gloss over the point I made above. Trustees are usually the decision makers. Statistics about boards of trustees, particularly in philanthropy, reveal we remain a predominantly white male led sector. While that needs to change, we should start with educating trustees about the disparities. 

4). Talk to your Grant Partners. By grant partners, we mean “grantees”, a term we should do away with. Have you heard the old adage, “don’t do anything about us without us”? We need to move away from a top-down approach to grantmaking and work in partnership with those who are directly addressing the issues most affecting our communities of color. Start by learning from your grant partners what they need, work together to determine approaches. 

5). Reassess your Grant Partner Portfolio. If you get informed and understand where the disparities are, you should review your portfolio of partners. Are these the partners best equipped to address these issues? If not, who else should be at the table? This is hard. Because you don’t want to NOT fund an organization that you’ve been funding. Herein lies the fundamental problem – funding for organizations supporting communities of color is far below those that are not. Unless you are willing to commit to supporting organizations which may be different from your current portfolio, you are not affecting change. And the cycle continues. 

6). Make the right decisions, be a leader, others will follow. I started to say, “make bold decisions”, but then I thought, well, these decisions shouldn’t be seen as bold, but rather the right decisions. What are your values? Are they reflected in the decisions you are making? We are in philanthropy to affect change and support those most in need. Going back to everything I wrote above – COVID-19, inequities, injustice – all stemming from fundamental policies in our country. Once you make these decisions, share them out with the rest of the philanthropic sector. Demonstrate leadership, teach others how to do the same, and lead the field in change.

7). Get your house in order. I have heard – and agree – that leading is difficult without modeling best practice yourself. As you move along this journey – and it is a long, difficult journey, but one that you need to be on – there is work you can and should do internally. I am not just issuing a (lengthy, sorry) call to action for the field. The board and staff at Philanthropy Massachusetts are on the journey as well. In my ten-year tenure, we’ve been offering programming (Racial Equity in the Arts, Implicit Bias, Building an Inclusive Investment Portfolio for an Inclusive World, Grantmakers of Color Network, etc.), but we are also looking internally at our own policies and practices which I chronicled back in February

Let me amend my call to action. Now is the moment for philanthropy in Massachusetts to act differently. Now. AND tomorrow. AND next month. AND next year. AND in perpetuity.

And we at Philanthropy Massachusetts are poised and ready to help you. We will continue to lead on this as well as follow your lead.  Call on us. 

Jeff Poulos
CEO, Philanthropy Massachusetts


133 Federal Street, Suite 802 | Boston, MA 02110
Phone: 617.426.2606
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