In 1981, when I was almost 8 years old, my family moved from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Nashville, Tennessee, where my father accepted a position as a history professor at Fisk University. An Ethiopian immigrant mother, a white American father from the Midwest, and their two kids— we stood out like a sore thumb. Within a week, I understood that people saw me as different.
In Minneapolis, where I was born, I had never questioned that I belonged. My family lived in student family housing at the University of Minnesota. The neighborhood was diverse across ethnicities, countries of origin, and economic backgrounds. It was in these very early formative years that my internal compass and core values were set. I saw differences as normal and I didn’t question my place in our community.
But, in Nashville, where it had only been a mere 20 years since lunch counters were desegregated, everyone who was an adult had experienced segregation as the law of the land. I became acutely aware of race, and how different I was from the white and Black southerners I interacted with. In response, I experienced a range of emotions—curiosity, confusion, distrust, and dislike.
While African Americans made up a sizable quarter of the population of Nashville, Black and white communities and neighborhoods were heavily segregated. Despite having strength in numbers, Black people in Nashville at the time did not enjoy cultural or political inclusion or power, or anything like equity. It was rare to find a white resident in Black North Nashville, or a Black resident in the various white neighborhoods. The two populations would interact, but uneasily. Black and White Nashvillians had found a peace of sorts, but it depended on Black folks staying “in their place,” and largely keeping to themselves.
As an outsider, I was struck at how confusing my identity was to both Black and White Nashvillians. Even though I felt and looked at everyone as an equal, I seemed like an anomaly because I was accessible to both communities, and different from both communities. Both communities had expectation that I too would stay in my place as a person of color.
This deep understanding of different cultures, and witnessing how distant and unequal communities could be when they were kept separate—but how similar we all are as humans—simmered within me for many years. It wasn’t until my mid 20s, when I stumbled upon the social justice organizing community in Los Angeles, that I had a chance to see how those values might play out; I began to connect the dots between what I experienced personally to the systems that continue to perpetuate this type of inequality.
A core aspect of community organizing is connecting people in neighborhoods with each other in a way that helps them see their common cause and shared fate. And then connecting those people with tools, strategies, and access to decisionmakers who can improve their experiences or conditions—or enable them to become decisionmakers themselves. As I learned the craft of community organizing, I began to get a better understanding of the concept of shifting power, or building power. In any place (neighborhood, city, etc.), there are people who have outsized ability to decide the rules and resources that govern that place. Too often those decisionmakers may not be centering the people in that place who are struggling. Historically, this phenomenon has often been racialized or marked by another form of othering.
As a community organizer, you are working to build the power of those who don’t have enough so they can influence the decisions in a place so that a wider range of people may thrive. Simply put, we live in a society where there are various forms of power that manifest in the political, economic, cultural, interpersonal, and institutional arenas. What I observed as a young person was a difference of power between the Black and white communities in Nashville. All of these arenas combined and reinforced each other—leading to a set of interlocking structures that were very hard to reverse. These experiences helped me understand and see clearly that equity and inclusion can only be reached when different communities can engage as equals in terms of power.
After working as an organizer and activist, I wanted to better understand how this work was funded, so I entered philanthropy at the San Francisco Foundation as a Multicultural Fellow. As a funder, I understood early on that, if philanthropy wants to address racial inequality in a meaningful way, foundations need to go beyond the concept of diversity and the DEI frame to focus on power disparities in communities—and within philanthropic institutions. As a grantmaker, it is not enough to do more for communities that are consistently struggling. We have to fund in a way that increases the power of communities that don’t have equal access to decisionmaking. Without work that funds the growth of power and agency of communities who don’t have enough, equity and inclusion outcomes will remain elusive.
Whether in Nashville in the 1960s or virtually any city in 2019, racism, discrimination, and disenfranchisement historically and today continue to deny communities of color and low-income communities access to the power and resources they need to shape the systems that too often cause harm in our daily lives. Even though billions of philanthropic dollars are distributed each year in the United States, communities who have long been denied power or resources still struggle to influence the decisions that shape the communities where they live.
In my current role at Neighborhood Funders Group, my team and I spend a lot of time learning and collaborating together to move more money and resources to groups working for racial justice and community change. Whether it’s through our grantmaking program, The Amplify Fund, or through our deeper learning, leadership, and engagement programming, we have structured all of our work to be focused on lifting up the strategies that are intended to shift power in place as a more effective way of supporting longer term gains on equity across race, income, and gender.
Over the past four years, I have seen philanthropy take a remarkable shift in its acknowledgment of racism as a significant driver of inequality. The Ferguson, Missouri civil uprisings were a critical turning point for philanthropy and in the world in our acknowledgement of race-based inequality. Since Ferguson, there has been an explosion of conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as racial equity.
What remains to be seen is whether philanthropy will sustain its newfound interest in racial equity. Success will depend on how far philanthropic institutions are willing to go in addressing issues of race and power–and how deeply philanthropic institutions will be willing to change themselves. By focusing on power building to reverse the longstanding inequities that prevent communities of color and low-income communities from thriving, philanthropy can help build safe, strong, and stable communities for all of us.