Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Public Policy’ Category

#397 American Exceptionalism Dies On the Petard of Masks

November 4th, 2020

Richard Marker

It is sad and more than a bit embittering to be living through the end of any illusions of American exceptionalism.

I will leave it to the unwritten future to decide if American power and influence has already had a similar demise, but make no mistake, we are witnessing the same fate as every single empire in history. Every one of them ultimately failed, and most failed for very similar reasons: hubris and belief in their own uniqueness and exceptionalism.

As this is written, the results of this terrible, divisive, and cruel election season are not yet fully known. But the lessons are there no matter which candidate is ultimately the victor. That half of Americans have endorsed a candidacy and a term of office that has committed itself to deny civil liberties, and constitutionally guaranteed rights, and the integrity of the separation of powers, and basic human decency is loss enough. Never before has an administration been so hell-bent on destroying what is meant by Americanism.

This is not a romantic elegy to a perfect American past, one that never existed. Endemic racism, economic inequity, xenophobic tendencies, religious bigotries, and more are cancers within the body politic and infect the purity of that history. Political leaders have long manipulated the system for personal gain and political power. But for much of our history, there was at least a cosmetic belief in the integrity of the system – even when pushed to the edge. As far as I know, never has a POTUS so disregarded the system so boldly, have sycophants been willing to be so flagrant about their self-interest, or have such a large percentage of the populace been willing to avert their eyes when presented with demonstrated dishonesty – even to their own detriment.

Many others have written with far more expertise than I on the psychopathology of the fake presidency of the last 4 years, and of the millions of those who choose to follow him. This piece will focus on a different issue – the distortion of the American experiment.

Any who have taken seminars with me or attended conferences where I have spoken on the history of American philanthropy have heard me contrast the underlying concept of the US and most of the rest of the world. In the US, rights OF individuals are primary; in the Napoleonic concept of society, the responsibility TO citizens is primary. We see this in very stark terms when we explore why the US does not guarantee health care, etc., nor make higher education affordable. At the same time, as observers as early as de Tocqueville noted, the US evolved a system of voluntarism to provide what government didn’t or wouldn’t. In other words, the underlying ethos was not that Americans didn’t care about their fellow citizens, only how they would be cared for. [For the purpose of this essay, I will not offer an in-depth analysis of what works, what doesn’t work, and the limits of the capacity of each system. I am restricting my thoughts only to the underlying concepts.]

To say this again: most Americans historically understood that there was a tradeoff for individual liberties; that is voluntary compliance and civic participation. They implicitly understood the “compact” that one without the other is neither viable nor moral.

The change didn’t happen suddenly in 2016. It has been brewing for years. Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” popularized what had already become a prevailing reality. Americans lived atomized existence, were expected to fend for themselves in saving for retirement after the end of defined benefit plans, and were further expected to go into debt to pay for the education credential increasingly required to sustain any middle class standard of living. As much as distorted tax policy created the unconscionable concentration of wealth, the fact that the middle class has to incur so much personal obligation essentially served to give them a competitive leg “down” in adulthood. Is it any wonder that middle class comparative standards of living have been declining for over a generation?

If the “society” – writ large – didn’t care enough, why should individuals care enough to support others. That doesn’t mean that no one was charitable or philanthropic or generous. It did mean that there was an erosion in the idea that government was on their side. And, after all, that is what people have heard since the time of Reagan. Politicians swore to cut taxes – as if taxes are an inherently bad thing – regardless of the costs to livelihoods and wellbeing. Let the private sector or the voluntary sector take care of people – and too bad for those who can’t make it.

It is no accident that Medicare is not understood by many people to be government insurance and Medicare itself goes to lengths to mask that it is. Nor is it an accident that some politicians feel that the lifetime contract with workers to guarantee social security is dispensable and violable. After all, who are all these citizens to feel “entitled”? [forgetting, of course, that we all pre-paid for those retirement funds with every paycheck for our entire working lives.]

I suspect that readers of my articles know all of this and I can rely on the short-hand examples to make the case. But it appears that the last shredding of universal commitment to an ethos of caring for others was the mask test. The politicization of the wearing of masks these past 8 months was unforgiveable, but that it resonated so broadly was the body blow to “the caring for others” part of the American compact.

The angry, hostile, bizarre, and destructive rejection of wearing masks under the notion of individual liberties can only be understood by the absolute rejection of any assumed responsibilities for any other. Our long-standing system of providing a culture of caring, albeit through voluntarism, dissipated into vigilantism – over the wearing of masks. Even something so evident, so lifesaving, so simple was too much for too many. No longer was personal responsibility the trade-off for personal liberty. Only that which served their own self-interest mattered.

It is probably true that the POTUS, who may or may not have been re-elected when you read this, intuited this. His entire life has been built around snubbing his nose at any responsibility for anyone except himself. That didn’t stop these last 4 years when he putatively had responsibility for almost 350 million Americans. If the POTUS could only care for himself, why, his followers reasoned, should they be different? Let the Republic and our future be damned.

Even if Biden is elected, and his policies and affect do begin to restore some sense of decency, we will have a very long way to go to reestablish the underlying compact that defined the American experiment: radical freedoms with assumed universal voluntarism. It is by no means clear to me how he or we will do that, but without that or some other profoundly transforming affirmative change in our current national ethos and public policy, we will simply continue our sad trek through the last paragraphs of the history of just the latest failed empire, the once worthy American Experiment.

#389 – The Trust Factor Continued: Conditions for Change

July 21st, 2020

Richard Marker

This was written but not published before Rep. John Lewis’ sad passing. He was an inspiration to so many of us – and a model of how an authentic change agent can be both inside and outside the system. His convictions were transparent; his courage exemplary; his influence will be felt for a very long time.

It may be helpful to read #388 prior to reading this piece.

Wow. Two consecutive zoom meetings yesterday left me a bit shaken. There was no overlap of participants or of stated agenda. But, unintentionally, they affirmed very troubling and consistent world views.

As readers know, I do whatever I can to keep references as anonymous as possible. Suffice it to say that both groups had participants from throughout the United States. The make-up of the two groups was very different, and that difference is relevant to the remainder of this article. In one, about half of the participants were people of color; in the other, all were Jewish. This piece, though, is not specifically or primarily about Black-Jewish relations in the USA but about some surprising and unsettling things I heard from both discussions.

First some notes on “change”. My own view is that the precondition to any meaningful systemic change in the USA is having a different person sitting in the Oval Office after this year. No reader should be shocked to read that since I haven’t been very subtle about my feelings. But here I want to expand on that as a backdrop to my response to the comments at the two meetings:

It is not only that I think that we have to restore a commitment to Constitutional roles, responsibilities, and expectations, or that we have to come closer to a commitment to a government of, by, and FOR those who live in this country, or that we have to reestablish that there is such a thing as knowledge [and that includes knowing what is a gray area from what is simply true or false], or that we have to recognize that we are a part of the world [neither “above” it or exempt from it], or….

No, it is not only these things, but it is also about a baseline of respect, dignity, humanity, integrity, honesty – to put in a word, “culture”. In other words, reestablishing all of the things mentioned in the prior paragraph alone won’t eliminate racism or economic inequities or unacceptable growing class divides or xenophobia. Without a cultural shift, none of the endemic and systemic issues can effectively be addressed. And until we remove a mean, mendacious misanthrope from his dangerous seat of power, such a national culture shift will be virtually impossible.

For me, these two paragraphs represent the sine qua non of change, but not the sufficiency to bring about change. I have seen this in every organization or business with which I have had experience or knowledge. There may be many strategies for change, but none, absolutely none, work without a commitment that emanates from the top.

Even that cultural commitment alone is insufficient. Most real work is done on the local level, both politically and metaphorically. Implementation is rarely effective if it is only top down; it must be bottom up. Enfranchisement matters. Empowerment cannot be token. Inclusion must not be rigged. This is the hard, day-in day-out work. It is what makes the difference in the sustainability of a business; it is what makes a difference in the sustainability in a non-profit organization; it is what makes the difference in the character of a foundation; and it is what makes the difference in the social compact that underlies any and every governance system.

These perspectives were challenged on both of the calls.

On the first, several very successful and articulate African-Americans largely dismissed my focus on voting and government change as the sine qua non as an indulgence of a [well-intentioned] white liberal. If there is voter suppression, what is the point of getting out the vote? If people of color are gerrymandered to guarantee less representation, why bother? If systemic racism continues no matter which party is in control, why waste one’s energies choosing between flawed choices even if one is less flawed than the other?

They argued, passionately, that the only change they can buy into, and are willing to take risks for, are where one has some control – of oneself, of one’s own business, of one’s own chosen friends and colleagues. As far as I could tell, none was a supporter of or advocate for the current administration; and I suspect all will choose to cast their vote for a President Biden. However, they were not willing to say that this is where any of their energies should take the highest priority.

This didn’t totally surprise me because of my direct experience with Census2020 advocacy. In addition to being involved in a regional task force, I attended three different conferences which included leaders of various at-risk and historically undercounted communities. Depending on which conference, some of those leaders were local, some national. The concern, to remind you, is that for every undercounted person, there will be underfunding and under-representation for the next 10 years. The Census is supposed to be anonymous and complete. However, the current administration tried to politicize it in a move that was rejected by the Supreme Court – to require a citizenship question. Given the history of this administration toward immigrants of all sorts, it should not surprise you to know that that request made many unwilling to fill out the census form at all.

The Census Bureau and many other advocates for a complete count turned to trusted intermediaries, leaders in those communities, to persuade their constituents to complete the census. What I heard in all three of those conferences was deep-seated skepticism about whether they could trust the government to honor the constitutionally mandated anonymity. How could they go to the line to advise their followers when they themselves were dubious? The system is so broken that, even at the risk of long-term financial and government representational losses to their communities, the risks to individuals within those communities was existentially greater.

If I understand the issues raised in the first zoom call, spending all of one’s energies devoted to simply improving a system so clearly broken is a fool’s errand. Sure, the current president is flawed [to put it more generously than he deserves], but voter suppression didn’t start with him, nor did gerrymandering nor redlining nor police violence nor racial profiling. Will Biden’s victory simply allow the majority of well-meaning liberal Whites to relax their [our] political advocacy? Will token policy modifications toward policing silent the currently loud voices for change? Will people accept the important but ultimately only symbolic removal of statues of traitors or sports teams’ names representing racist stereotypes rather than do the harder work of rooting out the endemic inequities?

I wish I could say that the cynicism is misplaced, but I share it. Where we disagree is whether out country can withstand another four year of autocratic, anti-scientific, isolationist, and antinomian leadership and whether we have the luxury of dismissing both candidates as flawed, even if unevenly so.

The second call was also quite a bit sobering. While my own professional life once placed me squarely within the American Jewish establishment, for the last 18 years, I have been almost fully an outsider, other than my own personal behaviors and a couple of boards on which I sit. If you are my age, you remember the bond between most of the leadership of the Jewish community and that of the Black community. It is often symbolized by the now iconic photograph of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marching alongside my own revered teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. That bond has been tested over the years, for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons, but it is very striking to realize that, for most young people, that is ancient history and says nothing about real lived experiences. Jewish self-concern appears insular to [many] one-time allies. Relative silence [by many] to the tremendous spike in overt anti-Semitism in the USA in the last few years appears ominously isolating to many Jews. To most African Americans, Jews are simply one other privileged White subgroup; to White Supremacists, Jews are a despised race no different than those of Black or Brown or Red skins. [It is true that there are Jews from many racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds, but that is beside the point to Supremacists and perhaps to many African Americans as well.]

The conversation with the Jews painted a dismal affect, and there was a more palpable divide about their preferred presidential candidate. Just as the first call emphasized the need for localism over some vague national culture change, so did this one. For many, it built on a concern that both sympathy and empathy toward Jewish concerns are in shrinking supply on the local level. For some of the Jews, the only issue that mattered was policy toward Israel; since this country is so fragile, they postulate, it is the only metric that counts. For others, [and I put myself in this second camp], a weak and isolated USA that provides no leadership or moral voice to the world is hardly in a position to be a meaningful long-term ally to Israel. Moreover, many of us reject the concept of “single issue” concerns in the Jewish world. Many, probably most, of us, care deeply about the destruction of the environment, the erosion of civil liberties, the absence of health care for all, the existence of a permanent under-class, the prevalence of racism, the hostility of xenophobia. And, indeed, many Jews have marched, petitioned, written, contributed, and in other ways expressed these values. Yet, I fear, far too many non-Jews, especially in government, assume that the Jewish community is “single issue” with perhaps a few outliers or holdovers who associate themselves with the “justice” causes. Even though that perception is statistically wrong, perception, in this case, becomes reality.

Has our American reality become so atomized and clannish that too many of us who have a huge amount at stake in the outcome of the November elections dismiss that it will really matter? Have too many of us decided to hunker down, as if the public weal is as contagious as COVID-19? Has trust – in institutions, public space, or even the future – so eroded that what history will surely view as the most important election in this era has become a second-rung priority for massive segments of our society?

History has not looked kindly upon any nation that makes the choice of hopeless surrender. I hope and pray it will not be ours.

#388 Is Dialgoue Possible? The Next Challenge for the Philanthropy Sector

July 8th, 2020

Richard Marker

A fellow member of the National Speakers Association publicly posed a sincere question? An Ausssie expat now living in the USA, he asked how it was that so many of us had no difficulty at all dialoguing with adherents of other religions than our own but seemingly had no ability or interest in dialogue with political adherents with whom we disagree. After all, he suggested, even if we have no intention or expectation of proselytization, our religious worldviews and beliefs are surely quite divergent. Why is that different than political discourse?

As one who has devoted a very substantial amount of volunteer time over several decades to inter-religious dialogue on local, national, and international levels, this question is not a trivial one. I am probably as guilty of my colleague’s characterization as anyone so let me respond – first to the easy part and then in a bit more depth.

The easy answer is that interreligious dialogue has become well developed. Not everyone in any religion believes in it which means that, almost all the time, our dialogue is with those who, on some level, accept “the other”. None of us is so naïve to think that we can fully change hearts, minds, beliefs, and experiences of all of our own co-religionists, even if we have learned to model a different approach and accept that there are “Truths” in every Tradition, while not compromising on the “Truth” of our own. And it is successful because enough religious leaders around the world now affirm the legitimacy of dialogue so that no one needs to apologize for participating in such settings.

The easy answer in the political arena of 2020 is that the divide is so large that vast swaths of those on either side of the political divide deeply reject the “Truths” that others believe. This divide has been underscored by the Pew Research Center that has demonstrated that the vocabulary, the world view, and the perceived role of government are more divided than at any time since they began their work. Until there is leadership that models that the work of inter-political dialogue can and should happen, there is little public space for or acceptance of the kind of successful dialogue that has characterized the interreligious space for several decades.

That was the easy answer, but hardly sufficient. About the challenge of interreligious discourse: Those of us with a long history of this never take for granted that new participants know the ground rules. Dialogue is not disputation. It is not a debating society. It is not a competition for whose history is more credible, or more worthy of sympathy or condemnation. It is not a quick fix. And it is not for those whose knowledge of their own tradition is inadequate for an informed exchange.

The purpose of dialogue is to advance a common agenda, when it might exist; to make sure that participants have a keen empathy for their counterparts and their religion; to understand their respective vulnerabilities; to understand normative behaviors and authoritative positions even as they may have evolved over time; and to create a level of mutual trust so that when inevitable challenges emerge, there is a context for deciding what to do about them.

None of this is easy; not every interreligious dialogue survives those periodic challenges or the inclusion of new participants with no institutional memory. Differing adjudicatory and authority systems often lead to limits of how far a conversation can proceed. But many dialogues do thrive. [I am happy to share real transformative experiences with leaders of many religions to any of you who ask – but those stories are not the subject of this piece.]

The reason I articulate both the challenges and ground rules is precisely because almost none of those ground rules is present in the current political climate. It is not that such dialogue is impossible in theory – only that the deterioration of civility and trust has made it fully elusive.

It is also important to state again what was implied earlier: one cannot or should not dialogue with everyone. Dialogue means that we assume the best intentions of the other, the integrity of the other, and the conviction that something better can come of it. Under the current national leadership by one who behaves in a treasonous manner, who violates the oath of office to uphold the Constitution, who behaves as a race baiter, and whose personal animus to any opposing view can only be understood as beneath contempt, one cannot assume that there is much opportunity for dialogue at that level prior to the November election.

My own place along the political spectrum is thus clearly not very hidden, but I am old enough to know that American political history has a long tradition of talking across the aisle, of political leaders who disagreed but didn’t demonize, of genuine struggles with endemic challenges even if informed by different conceptual perspectives. This is not to romanticize or idealize the past as much as to say that there is a basis for affirming that authentic political dialogue has existed – and can again.

One of the key challenges in dialogue that transforms is that it must find resonance among leaders at the top and also a sufficient number of adherents on the grass roots level. There can be very meaningful and sincere dialogues at either level, but unless both exist, the impact will end when the door of discourse opens to the outside. I imagine that somewhere in America, in safe and secluded places, some people are talking to each other with a modicum of calm and reason even though their political stances are diametrically opposed. I am not sure where these places are even though we regularly hear pleas for that to happen. Most – not all – of those pleas, I regret to say, seem to be from people who have chosen to act and say “a plague on both your houses” rather than willingness to genuinely engage. Nevertheless, I would like to think that somewhere those discussions are happening by some people who are the right ones to be in the room.

The reason we don’t hear about them, if they exist, is because it is not safe to go public. No one has created a safe, mediated space – and few adherents are willing to publicly honor those with opposing views with credibility. It is surely not happening on the overt political level. I may have strong opinions about whose fault that is, but, no matter, it isn’t happening on the leadership level – and without that it will never happen on the ground.

Is there hope or have we become a nation on the brink? History gives mixed messages. We should never forget what George Mitchell always would remind naysayers as he mediated an end to the hostilities in Ireland. “Everyday is a failure until the day that it isn’t.” And one day he succeeded. On the other hand, sadly, there are a lot of failed empires strewn along the highway of history, those who believed in their own uniqueness or invincibility or even divine selection.

Perhaps my colleague is correct in looking to the interreligious realm to provide a key. Can there be a more powerful statement of transcendent transformation than Vatican II’s famous Nostra Aetate? Written and affirmed in the mid-60’s, it reversed 1800 years of Church teaching toward and about “the other.” One day other religions were to be condemned, vilified, and proselytized; the next day they were authentic, legitimated, and respected. Sure, 50+ years later there are still too many who are unaware or skeptical, but acceptance of “the other” is Catholic Doctrine, and that has been affirmed vocally and forcefully by every Pope since. I have personally been present at three of those. [The influences that led to that statement have been the subject of many books and analyses, and there are significant nuances to how the Church got there and what it means for Roman Catholics. This is not the place to rehearse them; rather I refer to it as an example of how presumably irreconcilable ideologies can be bridged – even against all odds.]

This modest hopefulness should also lead to a mandate to our philanthropy world. Our work depends on the viability of civil society. Voluntarism, in any of the 3 W’s – work, wealth, or wisdom – requires that there are safe spaces for improving and influencing society. It means that there can be a decision to act for immediacy, or with a long-time perspective. It means that the organizations we fund can be free to implement the missions we support. It means that continued learning, genuine empowerment, and respect for equity, in all of its connotations, are allowed, possible, and encouraged. And it, therefore, means that we have a great deal at stake in becoming active advocates for the health and security of that sector and of civil society writ large.

It also means that our own behaviors matter. There is now an active discussion about whether there is legitimacy to our work since it is, no matter how one slices it, based on privilege and power. One can mediate and moderate them. One can share them. One can learn from them. But as long as private philanthropy exists one must acknowledge the endemic nature of privilege and power. And if that is the case, we must model how civil society can work even with that imbalance. It does not mean that we have to be perfect. As we know, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” If we hold out for the absolute or pure, we will become paralyzed by the disputes about what that must mean.

But model we must.

What many have learned in the last 4 months is that we as funders had typically been very slow to implement what it means to encourage and permit the trust that allows us to do what we want to do with our voluntary resources. If our systems, our affect, our expectations, and our decision making are, at the end of the day, patronizing, judgmental, restrictive, and self-serving, no matter how much lip service we give to respecting our grantee “partners”, they always know who has control.

Many [it isn’t yet clear what percentage of] funders have made modifications to significant elements of our funding processes in response to the Pandemic and to racial inequities. Many have eased reporting requirements, dropped project conditions, extended the length of grants, and more. Many have involved grantees and the directly impacted communities in decision making. It remains to be seen how many of these process changes will be lasting and how many funders will find it easy to revert to old ways of doing things whenever this period ends.

Some funders have chosen to give more and/or spend more of their endowments in the belief that, as some have said “this is the rainy day we have been saving for.” Here, too, it remains to be seen how sustained these spending and investment changes will be.

What does seem to be the most impenetrable barrier to change will be in the issue of governance. [I have written about this previously – please see #359, 26 Nov 2019] How many families will dilute their control of the family funded foundation with other stakeholders to the degree that it is no longer controlled by the family? How many will choose to surrender their multigenerational legacy to the existential problems of today? How many will admit that power can distort both one’s own perceptions and how others relate to us?

This last stage is hard, and as I said, perhaps impenetrable. But if our experience is to be a paradigm it is where we need to be model for a divided society. Being wealthy is not a divine right anymore than being part of the underclass should be a permanent destiny. Our sector is not singlehandedly able to erase systemic inequity and racism, but we must model how to redress and acknowledge them – even at some cost to our own extensive power and wealth.

Trust is what allowed centuries of interreligious disputation to become interreligious amity. Trust is what can allow decades of funders and grantees seeing one another as “the other” to be transformed into a trust based mutual commitment to change. And without trust, that only those with the wealth and power can foster, it will never be possible to rebuild our broken society, correct our rigged system, and redress our deep inequities.

No. Philanthropy cannot do it alone, but we can surely model how to begin.

#387 The Right Side of History – A Juneteenth Posting

June 19th, 2020

Richard Marker

Please read #383 “I Have Failed…” and #386 “Black Lives Certainly Matter…” prior to reading this.

In the previous post [#386], I referenced my time in Chicago. It reminded me of a lesson I learned in a totally unrelated context, but one which is very relevant at this time in US history.

First the context: During the 13 years I lived in Chicago, I had a number of executive roles. Because of the peculiar nature of the governance and funding systems, one might understand those roles as a series of concentric circles. The details don’t matter for this piece but suffice it to say that one of those roles was CEO of a local system with a primary funding entity, and others were regional, national, and international.

The funding agency was [and I assume still is] considered one of the major influential ones in the country. No national initiative would ever be adopted without their endorsement. Because of my roles outside of Chicago, I was frequently involved in those national initiatives, and I was often called upon to run it up the flagpole in Chicago.

The CEO of the Chicago entity didn’t suffer fools gladly and had little patience for ideas that were a waste of his time and communal money. [For some reason, he never considered me one of the fools, so he was willing to suffer me even when we didn’t agree. Go figure.] The path to communal endorsement and funding always went directly through his corner office.

As I recall, there was not a single national initiative about which he didn’t have reservations, some major and some less so. Many of his concerns were directly on point and led to modifications. But in every case where it mattered, even when he demurred on details, at the end of the day he would tell me that they would be supportive: “we have to be on the right side of history” he would say.

This is such a moment in America. The choices we must make every day – up until and after the November election are not simply for the soul of America, but for its very legitimacy. There is a person in the seat of the POTUS who considers himself above the law, considers that the Constitution is, at best, a document to be ignored, endorses racism overtly, and considers that anyone who opposes him to be a traitor. And there are those, particularly in the Senate, who act as if they fully agree.

I suspect that there are very few readers of my articles who disagree with this assessment, but I am not so naïve to think that everyone else does. However, I am most concerned about those who express reservations about their options even if they don’t disagree with my assessment of the POTUS.

• There are those who are disappointed that Biden will be the Democratic nominee since their preferred candidates have not been chosen or their positions seem not as central to his candidacy.

• There are those who say that there are some visible advocates of BLM who have said things they disagree with so they can’t really support the movement.

• There are those who say that “defunding the police” is a step too far and they cannot fully support that movement – in most cases rejecting the slogan more than the substance which they, conveniently, never examine.

• There are those whose disillusionment about the possibility of change is so great that they view all politics as more of the same no matter who is running or who is in power.

Yes, there are all sorts of excuses why one might be a cynic or a skeptic, most of which are quite legitimate. Some of these folks plan to sit it out. To every one of them I say, whatever reservations you may have, if you allow that to get you to sit this election season out, you are on the wrong side of history.

I have another concern as well: right now, there is a lot of very healthy energy, real policy discussions, and the emergence of functioning coalitions. The convergence of COVID-19 and the long overdue attention to the impact of endemic racism in America has fostered this. However, November is still 5 months away and it is very hard to sustain popular political activism for that long a time. I worry that there will be burnout; there will be political disappointments; there will be foreign interference via social media; there will be attempts to turn emerging allies into competitors. There might be rain – or crowds. But we must resist every one of these excuses.

At a minimum, vote. A few contributions to key competitive elections and activist organizations wouldn’t hurt. Canvassing [whatever that might look like this year] would certainly help. Volunteering on the local, county, and state level would make a big difference. Convincing your reticent friends, family, neighbors, colleagues to vote will go a long way.

It is not an overstatement that this year’s elections are the most important in any of our lifetimes. Nothing less than the continued legitimacy of the United States as a viable Constitutional Democracy is at stake.

We must keep up the momentum. We must remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We must remember that our votes and our involvement matter. History will judge the American experiment by how we respond this November, and every day before and after. This is the right time to be on the right side of history.

#386 Black Lives Certainly Matter: Why, then, did these 2 people give me pause?

June 16th, 2020

Richard Marker

A few years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement first arose, it was not uncommon to hear a rebuttal – “but don’t all lives matter?”

Most of those who responded that way were simply being dismissive [that is the most generous way to put it.]. However, some folks I respected really needed an explanation. They had been on the right side of activism and associations, and the last thing they could imagine about themselves is that they were participating in or affirming racism. Their genuine views were built on the concept that a society needs to be built around a vision that all are equal, have equal access, and equal opportunity. Their well-meaning but naïve response was neither malicious nor mal-intended.

Most of these folks got it after it was explained to them why the phrase mattered and, regrettably, needed affirmation from all of us.

It is now several years later, and the BLM movement has expanded – for terrible reasons. There are lots of articles and analyses about why now but suffice it to say that it isn’t hard to understand why we who are White once again need to affirm the message. Nowadays, when we hear the same rebuttal about “all lives matter” it might mean that one is genuinely clueless and doesn’t accept the truth of endemic racism in America. Worse, some don’t really believe that all lives do matter – that only White ones should. I have very little patience for either of those perspectives.

I was, though, caught short in hearing two people comment about how it made them feel. One was a First Nation/Native American and one was the child of Holocaust survivors. In each case, they wondered why their historic anguish wasn’t being recognized or, they felt, was being implicitly dismissed. Neither in any way tried to belittle the legitimacy of the BLM Movement, nor deny that it was way overdue. Their point was that they looked at their own history of delegitimization, of legal and illegal discrimination, of the death sentence that too often accompanied their ancestors, even their own personal experiences, and how easy it still seems for much of the US to not take their histories as seriously as they now seem to be taking the travails of Blacks. Their concern, separately articulated, was that as America confronts its shocking and shameful history of anti-Black racism and racist behavior, that their own narratives will be lost, and America’s empathy quotient will be used up.

Now – so that no one, absolutely no one, misreads what I am writing here – let me be explicit: this is the time for the message of BLM – it should not be diluted, delayed, or discounted. American accountability is long overdue and practices and policies that have allowed racism should be changed – yesterday. No one needs to make excuses for the profoundly effective and moving protests seen around the world, and no one needs to apologize for saying that this is the time.

If one looks at history, though, the concerns of these two are not misplaced. America’s shameful past toward First Nation/Native Americans must never be allowed to be ignored. And the resurgence of anti-Semitic acts in the USA accompanied by a frightening skepticism that there were really 6 million Jewish victims of Nazism demonstrates that the work is far from done. How does one honor those very legitimate concerns – especially as we look to what we want in the future?

When I lived in Chicago in the 80’s and early 90’s, I had the honor of being involved in a Foundation funded by the Chicago Community Trust charged with addressing intergroup understanding. One of my volunteer/leadership roles was to co-facilitate these interactions among young adults from many different religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. The experiences were instructive: when groups first got together, their first instinct was to view their own group’s histories in competitive terms: How many were enslaved? How many were displaced? How many were massacred? How prevalent is bigotry toward…?

That approach proved untenable as a way forward. Is there really a hierarchy of bigotry and suffering? Is that a viable or even an ethical way to have an intergroup conversation?

After a while, we developed an alternative approach: what experiences made each group and each individual feel vulnerable, fearful, or misunderstood? No one was dismissive of those feelings since they were so clearly genuine. They weren’t quantifiable. Sharing why they felt those fears led to both empathy and understanding.

However, something happened during those conversations that anticipated today in remarkably and sadly prescient ways. In every conversation, by the end, the sense was that the most vulnerable group was young adult black men. In group after group, we heard black males tell of walking down the street and watching people quickly cross the street to avoid them; we heard of being stopped by police for no reason, or being tailed by clerks in stores, or seeing people clutch their purses or briefcases on busses – or choose less desirable seats to avoid sitting next to them. Every single person who was not a young black male nodded in recognition – in every single session.

I confess I have no recollection whatsoever if we then had the data to confirm what we all now know to be statistically true: the inordinate number of deaths and incarcerations among this population. The real-life experience of being a young black male, of any young black male, is only confirmed by that data, but it was evident even then.

Those sessions led to profoundly greater mutual understanding and empathy. Once we shifted the conversation from “my pain is greater than your pain” to “let’s acknowledge that we all have reason to feel vulnerable” both the character of the sessions changed, and the mutuality of respect grew palpably.

However, what didn’t change was the facts. All of those legitimate vulnerabilities continue today, and given the current ethos and political environment fostered by the Administration, other groups can easily be added to those who met in Chicago 30+ years ago, and make a case for their own victimization and vulnerability. But young black males are still being targeted, victimized, incarcerated, brutalized, and murdered.

We learned in those gathering that one can transfer fear of the other to empathy. As we [hopefully] construct a more just society going forward, that message must prevail. And of course, it must apply to all who feel vulnerable. But even then the message was loud, clear, and poignant even if we didn’t yet have these words to tell us: Black Lives Matter.

#384 “Just Following Orders”

June 9th, 2020

Richard Marker

“We were just following orders”, said the Buffalo police caught on camera purposely and aggressively harming an elderly gentleman, and then simply walking away from him even though his injuries were apparent immediately. Worse, when they were held accountable, their entire unit chose to support them with the same defense.

This piece expands on comments on a recent VLOG. That piece predated this incident. It was recorded at the beginning of the protests, demonstrations, and marches – and in response to police behaviors to that and leading up to them.

In that VLOG, I spoke of the evident absence of ethics and social justice training for our police forces in the USA. Were that training to be the norm, the abundance of police brutality and murder cases might well be far fewer. Officers would not only know what not to do, but, as important, other officers would be empowered to stop those who violated those behaviors.

I also mentioned, as but one example, the training that every student and all military in Germany are required to have – to understand that there are human behaviors, ethics, and norms that rise above “orders.” A law which is unethical must be ignored. An order that is a violation of rights must be resisted. [I am not idealizing Germany – we know that racism, nativism, and xenophobia exist there too, but those educated in Germany are explicitly taught the difference.]

West Germany instituted that systemic standard in response to the lessons of Nazism. The Nuremburg trials made clear that “just following orders” was not a sufficient defense of crimes against humanity or any other ethical violation. If you violated those laws, you were not protected by a “following orders” defense; you were culpable because there can never be a legitimate order to violate human rights. In the contest between authority and humanity, humanity must win.

It troubled me to hear those words from the Buffalo police, but it underscored for me what we must be addressing as we hear arguments to “defund the police.” If we mean by that the de-militarizing of local police forces, I am all for that. If we mean to radically reform our shocking incarceration system and no longer permit for-profit prisons, I am all for that. Yes, there is much more to change that could and would be brought about by de-funding some of what we mean by policing.

I spent time this weekend reading a great deal about the many different defunding proposals and many are very worthwhile. With political will and wisdom, some of these changes will become the norm. But a couple of cautions that occurred to me as I read. There will inevitably be some sort of policing. It would be terrible public policy to privatize policing as a result even though I suspect that there are those who are already salivating at the opportunity to financially benefit – as some have done with private prisons. And while neighborhood involvement is indispensable, we want to make sure that neighborhood empowerment does not lead to unaccountable vigilantes.

Which brings me back to the primary point of this piece: accountability and underlying values.

Toward the end of a most shattering week, key military leaders stood up to the POTUS’ proposed misuse and abuse of our military to quell peaceful protests. Their outspoken defense of Constitutional mandates, and the clear limits of the role of the military in domestic issues were welcome indeed. [Would that some in the Senate had been willing to affirm that they understood the Constitution over the last 3 tumultuous years!]

What has emerged too often during this embarrassing three years in American history is that there are those so afraid to not follow orders, even if it means violating the law, ethics, or human decency, that we have inched too close to authoritarianism. It appears that too many elected officials, too many in police departments, and too many citizens have not been taught or never absorbed the lessons of the limits of authority and the primacy of ethical standards over abuse of power.

Going forward, whatever policing system emerges, whoever gets elected to any office, and whoever is involved in any way in our justice system must participate in and be judged on an understanding of when authority must be rejected and when orders must not be followed. This alone will not guarantee the elimination of police brutality, nor will it eradicate shameful racism, nor will it rid us of deep-seated xenophobic attitudes. Much more needs to be done to re-set our national moral compass.

But it is a start. One would hope that we never again hear the plea after clear abuses of human persons or their rights: “we were only following orders.”

#383 – I Have Failed! A Personal Response to our National Disgrace

June 4th, 2020

Richard Marker

I have failed. Make no mistake. In what ways? Let’s look:

• The USA has not taken climate change seriously.
• The USA has not adequately addressed its endemic racism.
• The USA has enabled the greatest disparity between rich and poor in modern history.
• The USA has refused to accept that the right of women to control their own bodies should not be negotiable.
• The USA has valued gun ownership above support for education leaving a generation under-informed about history, the world, science, and so much more.
• The USA’s delusion of its own exceptionalism has reinforced self-destructive isolationism.
• The USA’s persistent and recurring xenophobia has distorted human interaction, civil society, and the respect for civil liberties.
• The USA congratulates itself on it being the land of opportunity while embedding economic classism more deeply than ever before.
• The USA, alone among industrialized societies, refuses to grant health care, childcare, and elder care to all of its citizens.
• The USA has the most misanthropic anti-Constitutional POTUS in its history.

Is this enough? It is a litany of failure.

Last week, a colleague challenged a group of us. All the evidence you need that we haven’t done enough, he said, is to look at the facts. The last 3 months have underscored the fragility of our health system and the financial well-being of millions of citizens – through no fault of their own. The last week alone has underscored the depth of our systemic and cultural racism. There have been all too many other recent examples that underscored every single item on the list.

Yes, I have failed.

Yesterday, I attended one of the most moving protest gatherings I have ever attended. It was right here in Bethesda and it was organized exclusively by high school students. Since the mid-60’s, I have attended countless numbers of protests, marches, rallies, sit-ins, teach-ins, and vigils. Most mattered; some were moving. None moved me as much as this one.

Here, in the privileged alcove of Bethesda, a bastion of presumed upscale liberalism, we listened to personal narratives of racism experienced by teenagers of color – in their lives, in their schools, by their families – in this community. One speech was read by a proxy for a student who feared for her life if she attended. Others told of dismissive attitudes by teachers, administrators, fellow students… to say nothing of graffiti and words and implicit discrimination. Right here in Bethesda.

The teenagers organized their rally to support each other – never imagining that many hundreds of us would join them; the crowd extended for several blocks. [There is a photo by a tv station showing one older bald white guy in a blue blazer sitting surrounded by several hundred teens. I wonder who that old white guy might be? For readers who might not know what I look like, I happen to fit that description.] Before beginning, the teens demanded that we all “social distance”, wear masks, and pledge to participate peacefully.

What got me, what made me weep behind my COVID-19 mask, was when a few student speakers spoke of their grandparents marching for racial justice in the 60’s when they were high school students themselves. I am older than those grandparents! Over 50 years later, we are still here. Yes, I have failed.

But, you might ask, “why do you keep saying ‘I’?” Shouldn’t you be saying “We have failed?” There are even a small number of readers who have known me long enough to say: “What about when you did this?” Or “preached that?” Or “went to the line for…?” Or called out that racist comment? Why put myself down if, perhaps, I have may have done more than some others?

And that may be true. However, this “I’ is not some hubris driven belief that I could have changed anything in that list alone. It required and still requires many to be addressing them together. But “we” is a collection of “I”s and the “we” only works when each of us, individually, accepts the burden of what each of us can do. “We” simply means we do those things with a commonly felt mission.

Also, if I am being honest, whatever I have may have done, however worthy it might have been, is less than I could have done. I may have been too reticent to speak as forcefully as I should have when I was still a person of some influence. I may have not been as visible in settings where it might have made more of a difference. I may have under-supported the social justice initiatives that have been fighting this systemic fight for much too long. I daresay most of them have no idea that I am a fellow traveler.

Yesterday’s teen led gathering left me shaken. What have we wrought that our grandchildren must experience this sense of abandonment, of fear, of suspicion, of challenge? After all, over the last several years as I settled into my mid-70’s, my apologia pro vita mea has been: “with experience comes sagacity”. It seems to be true in the philanthropy world where I have spent the last half of my career. It seems to be true in the international interreligious realm where I am still privileged to be treated like a respected elder.

Make no mistake, though, It surely is not true in knowing what to say or advise young people who are on the cusp of young adulthood looking to create a world that overcomes the failures our generation has left for them.

Yes, we have failed them. And, since, as I said above, every “we” is a collection of “I”s, it is not hyperbole to say, “I have failed.”

I and we must assure that the sad legacy of racism, misogyny, inequities, and the other cancerous and destructive failures of our society end. These young people deserve no less. If we succeed, the next generations won’t have to look back at us and wonder where we have been, or 50 years hence, have to weep as another generation painfully asks “why.”

#377 The Buck Stops Here: From the Shadows to Wall Street to Main Street – Antinomianism Runs Rampant

May 12th, 2020

Richard Marker

Reader alert: Make no mistake – this post is unabashedly political. Those who wish to restrict their readings to “philanthropy only” might want to take a pass. It summarizes some of the stark systemic challenges we as funders face as we consider our move to the COVID-19 “next normal.” Much of this is USA focused but I daresay that much of this can be applied elsewhere in the world as well.

I don’t know if it is true or just one of those national myths, but it is said of President Harry Truman that he had a sign on his desk that read “The buck stops here.” Even if only a myth, my understanding was that he was a very decent guy who represented the very best of a down to earth community-committed businessman. [I was alive during his entire presidency but too young to remember.]

The ascribed sign signified that a leader has distinct and unique responsibilities, and the larger the role, the greater the responsibilities. It isn’t always an easy burden, as history has demonstrated, but those who try to evade or abuse their responsibilities wreak havoc on their businesses, their organizations, and as we have seen too often, their nations.

In so many ways, we are paying the price of the buck stopping in all the wrong places.

It is easy to lay blame only on the person currently occupying the seat of the POTUS. And, from my perspective it would be an understatement to say that his words and behaviors and leadership are beneath contempt. Many have written about and proven his incompetence, dishonesty, misogyny, and misanthropy; I need not add to those incontrovertible facts. The shame he has brought to the American image around the world and the loss of respect for what America stands for [or should] will take a long time to overcome.

But if we are honest, the buck may stop there, but the blame doesn’t. The Senate, over the last decade, has been a co-conspirator. A flawed “leader” should be held accountable as our Constitution mandates; the Senate may not be able to fully mitigate the damage, but it can certainly minimize it. The Senate’s behavior over the last decade, therefore, vies for equal shame. Ascribing to an extremist partisanship that mocks their own mandated role, they handcuffed the lawful role of the Barack Obama presidency and abetted the unlawful practices of the current occupant of that seat. They have approved judicial appointments that have distorted any claim to an independent judiciary, they have passed legislation upon legislation that has magnified the divide between the very richest and the rest of society [including, it must be said, hidden and embedded in the recent COVID-19 bailouts], and have allowed incremental but real erosion of civil liberties as understood by the framers of our Constitution.

But I daresay that the challenge of all of this goes much deeper into what has happened to America over the last generation or more. If one examines these items closely, we will see that it appears that we now have the government that we deserve.

1. Education: We have reduced support for and respect for the value of education. Many have been decrying the erosion of an understanding of science as people too readily dismiss the overwhelming facts of climate change or medically acceptable responses to COVID-19, or the value of vaccinations, or even the legitimacy of evolution. The very concept that all knowledge is nothing more than “opinion” has allowed all sorts of bizarre and frankly destructive behaviors to infect our education system, and thus our populace. The erosion of education, though goes deeper, though, and has led to #2.

2. Civil Society and Democracy: An analysis of the causes or effects go beyond the scope of this article, but the erosion of a belief in or commitment to civil society, civil liberties, and the rule of law applied equitably is more profoundly disturbing than the anti-science tendencies. This has been a long time coming: extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression practices, anti-“choice” laws, and more. When the “government” acts as if equal access should have partisan limitations, it implies that the law should only be relevant if it supports one’s own preferences. Why should I care if my behavior impacts anyone else [the conceptual underpinning of every legal and religious system in history]? Why should I pay for public education if I don’t have a child in a public school? Why should I pay for someone else’s healthcare? Why should someone of another race or religion or national origin or gender identity have any rights if I don’t like them?

3. Xenophobia as Public Policy: I will keep this one short since there has been so much written about our nation’s endemic racism, its anti-the other – as reflected in our counterproductive immigration policies, in the laws restricting the legitimacy of practices or identities we don’t agree with, disproportionate [read racist] enforcement of laws, etc. And it is particularly disturbing to see the public acceptance of racism, islamophobia, anti-Semitism, gender bias, Sino-phobia and more. It would be naïve to believe that one can eradicate the wrong-headed views of individuals; it is unconscionable to legislate those wrong-headed views as public policy.

4. A Privilege-based Tax System: I alluded to this above, but it requires its own statement. Any objective reader of our incomprehensible tax code can come to only one conclusion: it has been written to secure the advantage of the haves to the disadvantage of the have nots. Those discrepancies do more than reallocate the resources of our society to companies and individuals; they also render a belief in compliance to be a fool’s errand. If one reads of hugely successful companies paying their leaders and shareholders exorbitantly while having no tax liability, why should the working middle class have any confidence in the fairness of the system? [I have nothing against people getting rich; I have a lot against a rigged system that affords privileges to the rich while leaving the un-rich perpetually vulnerable.] Anyone who runs for office on the basis that they will reduce taxes as its own goal, or who espouse any variation of trickle-down economics should immediately be disqualified. Taxes should be used to provide what the needs of a society demand. Perhaps someday when we invest in infrastructure, guarantee health care for all, and assure equal access to education, we can discuss lowering taxes. Until then, such a position is antithetical to the proven needs of our society. And, no, this is not socialism – it is accepting responsibility as one citizen to another for the underlying health and wellbeing of everyone.

5. Individual rights vs unlimited self-indulgence: Perhaps the most troubling, and most telling evidence of pervasive antinomianism is the underlying and often articulated statements by the protesters in the last few weeks regarding COVID-19 quarantine. They argue that there should be no limits on their individual behaviors – no matter what the cost to anyone else. No government, no authority should limit what they want to do whenever they want to do it. Eventually, it comes to mean, as we see on the streets throughout the country, that true antinomian behaviors have run amok. Why should a “law” about wearing facemasks apply to me if I don’t want it to? Why should there be any restrictions on my preference to carry military weapons unimpeded in any setting I choose?

This absolute claim of individual privilege runs counter to every religious system, every ethical system, and every known governance system. The US historically has granted the greatest individual autonomy [at least conceptually] and freedom from government interference in personal life, but that freedom ends when it poses a risk to others’ life and limb. In other words, the claim that the government has no right to limit any personal choice, even when it threatens others is simply wrong-headed and morally offensive. It is the very paradigm of antinomian belief.

Is this list long enough? Is this enough of a shopping list for the philanthropy world as we formulate the “next” normal? Is this enough of a moral and ethical compass against which to measure our elected leaders – and our own priorities? Is this enough of a barometer for our own actions and advocacy?

It is surely a start. And, yes, the buck stops here.

#370 – A Plea to Fellow Funders: Let’s keep our faces masked, but we must not seal our lips nor hold our tongues. – 10 April 2020

April 16th, 2020

Richard Marker

This was to have been posted on 10 April. For technical reasons, it appears that it wasn’t distributed. I am pleased that I have subsequently seen posts by numerous others in our field taking very similar positions. Readers may also wish to look at previous posts on various responses to COVID-19.

“With Passover beginning this evening, Easter this Sunday, and Ramadan not far away, this is a Holy time for those of us in the Abrahamic traditions. What is there to say that doesn’t sound trite or obvious? None of these thoughts is unique or mine alone, but they are what I am thinking about at this time:

“We know that virtually the entire world is experiencing a transforming moment – and in front of our eyes. Religious Traditions teach us that, at the most perilous times, hope must counterbalance fear. It must inform what we become when this is over.

“I have real fear that some will learn the wrong lessons and look to place blame on ethnic or racial or religious groupings. I have real fear that civil liberties and civil society, constitutional rights are being snatched away. I have real fear that basic human trust in essential human institutions will take a long time to rebuild.

“But I am also hopeful that ALL will see that we can influence climate by our behaviors, that we are all interconnected and that artificial borders and boundaries cannot protect us and must not isolate us politically, that health care systems that favor the affluent not only don’t work but are inherently unjust, that a society that eschews a guaranteed nonporous safety net will spend untold trillions to create what should always have been there in the first place, that an educational system that mocks science abets needless death, that the fragile strands of human connection can never be taken for granted. Much of that is in our hands, and, at some point we will venture forth from our hibernation to create a new normal. Let’s hope it is a normal built on the best of who we can be…. Happy Holidays.” [Posted on my Facebook page on 8 April 2020]

As COVID-19 continues to dominate all of our lives, the philanthropy/foundation community has stepped up, adjusted our practices, increased our funding, and, on the whole, responded with a speed and agility that we are not known for. I applaud the well-conceived statement by 9 leading national Philanthropy Service Organizations that was issued last week, putting a sector-stake in the ground affirming that these changes must be our current “normal” and must be viewed as mainstream.

The Institute for Wise Philanthropy, which I co-founded 18 years ago, is a different kind of PSO. Our exclusive role is to teach and advise those in the funding community – and we are proud that we have done so for so many funders both in the USA and in many other countries. While we, personally, have very strong commitments and clear funding priorities, as educators our job is to help other funders make wise, informed, ethical, and appropriate decisions – for themselves. Our strategies and our curricula are content agnostic. [I suspect that many who have participated in our sponsored seminars and workshops, or took the courses for funders at NYU and Penn over the last 20 years don’t find it hard to infer my political leanings, but the underlying messages and methodology are applicable across the political spectrum.]

We have always urged funders to take our advocacy role seriously. Especially as funders begin to understand the systemic causes of many of the conditions we attempt to ameliorate or address, the indispensability of government becomes clear. Political inclinations may lead to differing opinions about what or how extensive that role should be, it is inconceivable to resolve large systemic issues without a multi-sector approach. Policy – and funding – always matter. And the sheer scope of funding that can come from public funding will always dwarf that of private philanthropy.

[There are still some funders who shy away from public policy advocacy on the incorrect assumption that it isn’t allowed by US law. This is not the place to go into detail on this question but suffice it to say that there is a difference between advocacy and lobbying. The latter is indeed problematic for private foundations, but less so for public charities. Advocacy, in broad strokes, is always allowed.]

This post is to push our field to raise a voice not just for how we develop appropriate funding roles with our grantees – as crucial as that is. And it is not just to advocate for the continuation of tax deductibility within our tax system – as valid as that is. And it certainly not to downplay the importance our advocacy to include the nonprofit sector in any and all bail-out packages. Those voices are essential, and effective, and affirm that we can and must play crucial roles in guaranteeing the stability and accomplishments of this large sector.

But this post is to plead with my colleagues to begin a more systematic and concerted push for a broader advocacy – and that is to make sure that our constitutional democracy prevails at a time when it is under attack. There are challenges to rights to vote. There are challenges to the rights of habeas corpus. There are challenges to an independent judiciary. There are challenges to the role and rights of a free press. There are challenges to equitable representation. There are challenges to ensure clean water and a reliable food supply. There are challenges to provide education – real education – to all. There are challenges to guarantee safety, security, and opportunity for all regardless of race, religion, ethnic origin, gender identification, or age.

There are NOT partisan issues even if some would make them so. They are what defines a constitutional democracy. There may be room for how one implements them but none who take our constitution seriously would or should argue that they are essential.

The problem is that they are all under attack. And not in small ways. Others have written in great detail about every one of the above listed challenges, many with great sophistication. Writ large, they represent the greatest challenge to the continuity of the American system than we have seen since the McCarthy era.

This is not a challenge for philanthropy alone. These issues should be outspoken and forceful concerns for all. But this is a time when philanthropy’s independence and unique role provide a mandate for us to take the lead. Fortunately, the philanthropy world developed a paradigm for how to approach a large national issue of justice and equity in a coordinated way – Census2020. [I have been a bit player in the local WRAG committee] It is one of the first times when our field chose to coordinate a major public policy initiative on a matter that does not directly impact our own interests – although, of course, it impacts us and all Americans in long term and crucial ways.

Even in Census2020, when all we chose to do was to try to guarantee a complete and fair count of our population in accord with a Constitutional mandate, there were those who did whatever they could to present this advocacy as partisan. Fortunately, our field refused to take the bait and shrink from our responsibilities. So too, in this realm of sustaining civil liberties, assuring the right to vote, and much more, all guaranteed as essential elements of what it means to live in a Constitutional democracy, we must resist the challenges that some would make to philanthropy’s voices – accusing our interests as “partisan.” Affirming loudly, persistently, forcefully that there are rights that enable us to function, that guarantee a separation of powers, and that enable us to begin to redress systemic inequities [which have been so evident during this pandemic but hardly unique to it] must become our mandate during this time. We must resist those who, hiding behind the abnormality of the pandemic, attempt to seize unauthorized powers, and deny rights.

It has become a cliché to say that the world is being changed and challenged as never before. And that what will emerge will be a different world.

We all of us, but especially those of us in the funder world, must do all in our power to assure that the world that emerges is one that assures that the rights that should apply to all are assured. It will require that our eyes to be watchful of those who would deny those rights, and for our voices for freedom never to be muffled by the masks on our faces.

We must!

#367 Space, Distance, and the Human Condition – Some Further COVID-19 Comtemplations

March 29th, 2020

Richard Marker

Reader alert: Those of you who read these essays exclusively for thoughts on philanthropy should note that these contemplations are not primarily about philanthropy [although philanthropy does make an appearance for a few paragraphs in the middle]. #365 and #366 are about philanthropy’s role and responsibilities during and after COVID-19, and if you haven’t seen them, I encourage you to take a look.

“6-foot social distancing” has become the new definition of how physically close we should allow ourselves to be from those other than the very few with whom we are sharing our primary space. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable – the very words “social distancing” seem to imply that we need to disconnect from our social relationships. An easy and oft-used corrective is to say “physical distancing; social connecting”. The point is clear. No one wants to advocate that we sever human relationships in pursuit of maintaining our own and our communities’ health.

Let’s state the obvious at the beginning. Technology has made that idea remarkably possible. Whichever one chooses: zoom, skype, hangouts…. It is now possible to communicate immediately and visually with anyone who has even relatively up to date technology. Indeed, for many, working at home without travel has allowed schedules to become fully packed from morning ‘til evening. We may indeed be physically at a distance but we most assuredly are not socially disconnected. No disaster, crisis, economic downturn, pandemic in the past has afforded us these opportunities. [And my communication with friends and colleagues around the world suggest that others elsewhere are experiencing the same.]

As I said, this is or should be obvious to all. And yet…

It may not be quite so simple. To unpack this, permit a step back.

Most readers know that I have had the distinct privilege of speaking in 40 countries and visiting numerous others. One of the most immediate learnings by anyone who does this professionally is to adapt to local, national, or regional customs about communication styles. Does one shake hands, hug, air-kiss, bow? What should one wear? How is money exchanged? What about business cards? What time does one eat – and is it appropriate or expected or bad form to discuss business over meals? In fact, at one point some years ago, I was traveling so frequently between European countries that I could identify how to wear a scarf and at what pace to walk within a few minutes of arriving in a new place.

One of the most difficult adjustments was “space.” How far does one stand from another? Is touching expected or verboten? In subtle ways, often hard to articulate, this becomes the most nuanced way in which the stranger is distinguished from the native. Long before we had the current “6-foot” metric, guidebooks tried to help business travelers figure this piece out – sometimes even in inches.

Distancing between human beings is a reflection of our relationship to “space.” It says something about ourselves, how we perceive the world around us, what family means – and who is an insider or outsider. Architecture and design are, bottom line, the process of taking those understandings and making them real. [t is, after all, called “real estate”.] All one needs to do is to compare and contrast how different cultures, at the same stages of technology development, choose to design homes and public spaces. Those differences say everything about how those cultures understand and manifest the human condition.

Technology has a good deal to say about that “reality”. Today, we have the option of different and purposeful modeling that might not have been possible or even imaginable in prior ages. We can choose to make a home or office or school or shop look and feel as we wish. Our design choices say a great deal about how we wish to interact with family, friends, co-workers, clients. Some years ago, I had professional reasons to visit both the Bloomberg headquarters and the NY Times headquarters shortly after they were each opened. Both were striking new buildings, yet they conveyed radically different understandings about how people work, what status does or doesn’t mean, what the visitor/outsider should or shouldn’t feel, what is the relationship to the outside physical world to the inside.

The foundation world is no exception: Over the years, I have visited the offices and headquarters of many fellow funders and foundations. They convey radically different perspectives on how they want to be experienced – by board or staff or petitioners/grant seekers. To take just two very visible examples:

The headquarters of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a green building, has a visitor center, and, while impressive, doesn’t overwhelm. The open-design offices and cafeteria don’t convey a sense of hierarchy, and a guest does not experience a sense of a domineering presence. [This is not a comment on how one gets funded or what is funded – only the experience within the building itself.]

Contrast that with another foundation headquarters I once visited [name purposely withheld]. When I entered the building, I assumed that it was a repurposed mansion. Imagine my surprise when I learned that this foundation headquarters was built from the ground up, featuring high end marble and very formal spaces. They were proud that they sometimes opened their meeting rooms to the nonprofit community in that city, but I couldn’t help wondering if the overall message of entering that building is one that reinforces class distinction. The physical space leaves no question who has the power and who is the petitioner.

I don’t want to convey a “holier than thou” message here. When I was CEO of the foundation funded by the Seagram Company, the office was, not surprisingly, in the world-famous Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York City. My office was in the executive suite behind locked doors and security. Someone coming to meet with me was left with no doubt about the power imbalance endemic to the role. As wonderful as the aesthetics of that space were, and I loved going there every day because of that, it wasn’t lost on me that anyone we considered funding could never truly feel as if they were on equal partner footing.

Our homes are where we have the opportunity to create spaces that convey the meaning of space for us as individuals and families. I have written elsewhere about my belief that life is an art form and therefore why aesthetics matter in designing and furnishing the spaces where we live. One of the values that Mirele and I share is to welcome guests into our home, so we work hard to create both a physical and social welcoming space. We love to host – dinners, receptions, networking, coaching – and the many pages of our filled guest books bear testimony to the many, many hundreds we have welcomed over the quarter century of our marriage.

So, for us, this COVID-19 mandated isolation goes beyond simply our being at home together. It means that we must literally close off a part of who we are and how we love to live our lives. It means that our space is now only a private and carefully protected space, fully comfortable for us, but absent those it is our natural instinct to invite in.

Zoom, skype, hangouts, and other apps go part way to welcoming others into our home and our lives. It helps to fill the gap as we all learn to cope, to adjust our norms, to learn new courtesies, and to keep us engaged. So, while we miss our in-person guests, we are not alone or lonely in our social connection.

Distance, though, raises an entirely different dilemma. We, as do all readers, understand why we maintain the 6-foot distances to reduce, as much as possible, our vulnerability to infection by proximity. The part of this behavior that is different than the kind of social/cultural distancing I referred to at the beginning of this essay is the visible fear in the faces of so many as we pass on a sidewalk or the lobby of our building. We are careful, we think, to honor that special divide, just as they too are careful, but one cannot be blind to the look of fear and trepidation for some if they sense that their space is being encroached upon. And we hear that fear in the voices of some of our family and friends around the world.

That fear is not misplaced if the data and the epidemiologists are correct. But fear is a terrible emotion by which to live. And it is that very fear that we must work very hard to address when we begin to safely emerge from our spatial isolations. That kind of fear, when internalized, has too often in history led to bad behaviors, bad public policies, and bad social outcomes.

We are in a moment of legitimate threat to us all. Fear is one of the legitimate responses. But fear is not an adequate or even appropriate emotion on which to build or rebuild a world. We need empathy and generosity of spirit and resources; we need an affirmation of the legitimacy of all, the rights of all, the dignity of all.

For now, for this moment, it means that we must share our spaces virtually or at safe distances from one another whenever we venture forth. At some point in the future, the challenge we will all have is to not allow fear to become a defining emotion of our interface with others, for our aspirations for the future, and for how we rebuild the world when the time is right.

That will be the true test of our resolve, our values, and our commitment to a world, an entire world, in need of repair and hope!