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#300 – Equity: Context Matters

February 13th, 2018

Richard Marker

This past week encapsulated many elements of my professional and volunteer life at present. I met with clients and potential clients; I attended philanthropy association events and related public lectures; I participated in international interreligious meetings and met many involved in those endeavors in our new hometown of Washington, DC The client part is beyond the scope of this particular post, but what emerged from the rest raised some challenging dilemmas for those of us committed to a more equitable world. To wit:

A profoundly moving and engaging 2-day meeting of the Alliance for Virtue occupied much of Tuesday and Wednesday. I was invited as a past chair of two international interreligious organizations, and a quondam continuing participant in this realm. This particular gathering was primarily, but not exclusively, for those of the 3 Abrahamic traditions. Leadership, though, was heavily from the Islamic world and given the abysmal mischaracterization of Muslim leadership heard in the USA, this meeting was a profound and resounding rebuttal.

Let us be clear: even as treacherous as the USA has become, and it has, the risk that most of us in this country take in supporting diversity, pluralism, and mutual acceptance is minimal. We may get trolled sometimes, although most of us aren’t famous enough for the trolls to bother. A few put their jobs in jeopardy by being outspoken, but even though I have personally lost at least 2 contracts because of public statements, they neither defined me nor radically altered my income. I am not diminishing that some in the USA do face death threats and challenges to the comfort of their daily lives, but all of these pale in comparison to the jeopardy that those in the Near and Middle East can face daily. It is humbling indeed to hear strong voices on behalf of mutual acceptance from those who will return home to genuinely existential challenges.

Another session last week that forced some introspection was a public “debate” program sponsored by the Century Foundation and organized in DC by the Wagner School. The topic was the indispensability of integration as a precondition for successful educational institutions. I, like the vast majority of those present, began with a facile assumption – that of course integration is far preferable and likely to yield the long term optimal success for the largest number of students, including those most at risk. However, the spokesperson for the “no” side was far more persuasive. His argument was that most schools are racially and economically homogenous and to wait for that to change is both politically Pollyanna-ish and does a disservice to current students. Educational [and other support systems] need to provide tools for success wherever they are. Since educational experience can never be divorced from larger socio-economic realities, until or unless the system can address all of that, school integration becomes nothing more than tokenism – from which students return to their more organic and homogenous lives. [He did not argue that elimination of segregation or affirmative action are not valid and worthy goals, only that they can get in the way if they are perceived to be preconditions to achievement.]

In other words, achieving equity in the educational sphere remains a complex example of interconnected factors [forgive me if I don’t use the word “intersectionality”]. Funders whose goal is equity in the educational sphere need think twice about what will work and what will count. Ideologues – across the political divide, beware!

The final piece was an inspirational presentation at WRAG’s annual Cafritz lecture. Given by Rukaiyah Adams, an African American Woman Foundation CIO [all of which were relevant in the context of her remarks], she challenged funders to think more holistically about the relationship of their investments to their grantmaking [remarkably, still an approach that some people find challenging]. Her finance and personal background gave her a distinctive point of view – one that should persuade all but the most resistant wealth mangers.

Less typical of such presentations, especially by finance types, though, was her insistence that funders need to work with their grantees – and even in their own staffing practices – to make sure that equity is not just a macro funding goal, but one made manifest in actual practice. Equity funding, she posited, only really matters when it actually results in more just distribution of resources and honors people at every stage of organizational life. [Followers of my philanthro-ethics posts over the last few years won’t be surprised that her strong advocacy resonated with me and reflected much of my own point of view.]

For me, what emerged from last week was a renewed commitment to the mandate to work for, advocate for, fight for, and fund equity that is real. It isn’t a bad reminder for all of us in the philanthropy and social justice realms everywhere.

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