Recent history and troubling current events are turning a glaring mirror on America, fueling the urgency to shape a more equitable future, to put more shoulder behind that bending moral arc. We’ve watched in horror as white supremacists snake through our streets spewing violence and hatred with impunity. We’ve witnessed the rise of elected leaders who unapologetically express racist attitudes and enact policies that target communities of color and exacerbate inequality. We’ve seen state after state pass laws intended to disenfranchise entire populations; one court found North Carolina’s voting procedures “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
It is clear that those of us concerned with equity must become more vocal and intentional about it. At the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, our board and staff are embarking on a learning journey to deepen our understanding of equity: what it means, how it shows up in our work and the ways it can advance our mission to help people and places move out of poverty and achieve greater social and economic justice.
An equity approach means developing targeted solutions that account for structural and historical disparities in opportunity, undue burdens and bigotry. Creating the conditions that allow everyone to prosper requires us to examine the root causes of injustices, including sexism, classism, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, ableism and all other forms of bias that threaten lives, freedom and dignity. It also demands we name racism explicitly. In the South especially, racism has historically manifested into oppressive policies and practices with modern-day vestiges: school and housing segregation, sentencing disparities, lending and hiring discrimination, and savings and homeownership gaps.
While racism harms people and communities of color most acutely, it ultimately harms everyone. Advantages delivered to some at the expense of others stifle innovation and achievement, hindering society’s overall advancement. Mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects black and Latino Americans, diverts resources from education, health care and infrastructure. Racism divides people with shared interests who could gain from the same social and economic policies.
Conversely, racial equity benefits all of us. A study by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation estimates closing the 30-percent earnings disparity between whites and non-whites would increase overall earnings and gross domestic product by 12 percent. In its 2016 report “The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Policy Matters,” Demos outlines specific steps government could take to mitigate inequality in homeownership, education and income. Examples include stricter enforcement of housing anti-discrimination laws, more equitable K-12 school funding, raising the minimum wage and establishing a federal jobs program that targets communities with high unemployment. In an interconnected, interdependent society with shared public goods, these returns on investment would accrue to everyone. As former Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone declared, “We all do better when we all do better.”
Once we committed to this path, the first thing we did was ask for help. We brought in a consultant from Opensource Leadership Strategies with experience guiding organizations through equity questions. We collected resources from experts in the field, including the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity and the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. Our board and staff examined the Babcock Foundation’s history and how equity has shown up over the years, even before we used that term. MRBF supported voting rights and voter education in the 60s and historically black colleges and universities in the 70s. As the Foundation evolved, its board and staff became increasingly aware of the importance of supporting grassroots leadership development. We also realized that to work effectively, our makeup needed to reflect the communities we serve more closely.
Next, we turned outward to explore how an equity approach works in practice. We consulted 20 other social justice organizations who are consciously using an equity lens to guide their work. Some are current or former grantee partners; others are fellow foundations. We heard key lessons that align well with some of the ways we already think about our work: amplify the leadership of those most affected by injustice; support community organizing and other community-led and power-building efforts; nurture systems change with long-term, flexible funding; pay attention to equity across your organization and its internal systems. Other recommendations included:
- Let organizations co-define outcomes and successes.
- Look for equity in whose intelligence is valued. Lived experience is critical to transformational change.
- Learn how to fund social movements organizing outside of traditional 501c3s.
- Be transparent about internal processes and lessons learned.
As we become more disciplined and consistent about equity across our work, we will examine our approach, continuing some practices and introducing others. This could mean revamping our systems for conducting research. Integrating equity more clearly into our decision-making processes may prompt us to ask new questions, collect different data points, or shift how we think about outcomes, progress and success.
We acknowledge philanthropy itself is often a product of systemic inequality, and many grantmaking practices unwittingly exacerbate the problems we seek to remedy. Our hope is to course correct if needed, live our equity values more fully through our organizational and staffing systems and procedures, and be stronger partners for the communities we care about. We also hope to extend the conversation beyond our bubbles, listen to a wide range of perspectives, and form coalitions, alliances and strategic partnerships to make government and institutions responsive to everyone’s needs.
Because race factors prominently in structural inequities, undoing them requires us to consider race in creating durable solutions that move everyone forward. We are confident applying an equity lens will help us cultivate connections among groups to promote shared interests and better support grantee partners who are working to weaken racism’s grip on the South. We realize we have a lot to learn about building those muscles: What practices should we adopt? Which should we abandon? How do we communicate about equity? How do we strike a balance between building as big a tent as possible and holding fast to our values?
In hopes of bringing the answers into sharper focus, we will listen more deeply and seek to build strong partnerships that can sustain challenging conversations and difficult questions. We don’t presume to have all the answers; we know we have a lot to learn, and we don’t intend to stop learning. As one of our board members put it, “This is journey work, not destination work.” We invite you to join us on this journey and share your wisdom as we all strive for a more equitable South.