My #Philanthropy Black History Month Assignment

This is a post from another blog I write “Philanthropic Windows”. I will be posting more posts from there, here, and changing Hillombo to be about some things other than the Hill District. Mainly because I’d like people to be able to find things I write more easily, but also because I want to do more dot connecting.

With the movie Selma out and research I’ve been doing for a few other projects, I’ve had a chance to learn, think and talk about the Civil Rights Movement and the business of philanthropy. In David Garrow’s  “Bearing the Cross” there is a brief mention of a foundation, The Field Foundation, withholding payment to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for failure to meet grant conditions at the end of ’62/beginning of ‘63, right before the the-good-citizen-8-638Birmingham, AL Project Confrontation campaign is to commence. This withheld payment required Dr. King to meet with the foundation personally and to acknowledge that the voter registration that they were to be doing in a number of localities in the South wasn’t really happening. Wait. What?? Dr. King was called to account by a Program Officer??

Coming across some parts of the backstory of that meeting in two other sources piqued my interest even further. According to Charity, Philanthropy and Civility in American History and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s report “Freedom Funders: Philanthropy and the Civil Rights Movement”, in 1961 President John F. Kennedy convened a few foundations Taconic, Field, Stern Family and New World and asked them to put money into a project called the Voter Education Project. (VEP) His idea was that Civil Rights organizations like the SCLC, SNCC, CORE and the NAACP would turn their attention to voter registration rather than the direct action strategies like sit-ins and freedom rides. His argument to the organizations was that voter registration was big change rather than the smaller local efforts of sit ins. The authors of both pieces cited above say Kennedy was more so motivated to take pressure off the Federal Government to provide protection for the activists and in doing so alienate Southern “white” voters.

There are a number of interesting angles here (1) The VEP as an example of philanthropic practice; (2) The VEP as “public/private partnership; (3) The VEP as structural racism; (4) The VEP as funding grass roots political activity; (5) The VEP as a way of unlearning the story of “South-racist, violent, bad” and “North, on the side of African Americans, supportive, good”. The assignment I will give myself as African American history month closes is to write on at least of two of these angles. Angle #4, “The VEP as an example of funding grass roots political activity has been taken in the NCRP report”, so that should leave only two undone. If anyone wants to help get extra credit for this assignment and take on one on their own or find a new angle and write that one up, that would be “sweet” (circa 1986).

To get going, I’ll start with “The VEP as an example of philanthropic practice”. This story brings philanthropy and Black liberation movements into focus in a way that gives me pause and reflects ideas that I find most problematic in our work. In this little anecdote, we see behavior pretty consistently criticized as a going against best practices and I point them out not to say I haven’t made these choices, or that The Heinz Endowments has made a commitment to invest in civil disobedience direct actions. I have made these same choices and we haven’t made those investments in direct actions in my time at the Endowments.   Still, this history deserves real attention and should be something I check myself against  everyday. This story shows philanthropy…

As we take a moment nationally to reflect on African American history and the Civil Rights Movement in particular, its interesting for me to contrast how the Civil Rights Movement has been lauded all throughout this month for the courage it showed in direct actions to dismantle Jim Crow. In this the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, there will be celebrations throughout the year. I would guess that some of this attention has been and will be supported by philanthropy. Simultaneously, the  #BlackLivesMatter movement continues its fight against police brutality and killings. What will be said about philanthropy’s role in that movement in 50 years?

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