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White People in Philanthropy — This Is Our Move

“America is burning,” Vanessa Daniel wrote last fall. “White people in philanthropy, what is your move?”

For foundation leaders — some 90 percent of whom are white — this urgent question from Daniel, executive director of the Groundswell Fund, cannot be rhetorical. Along with our sheer numbers comes an undeniable fact and ever-present responsibility: It will be our courage — or our silence — that will ultimately determine whether philanthropy works to dismantle white supremacy in all its forms.

As a white woman, a lifelong activist, and executive director of the NoVo Foundation, a social-justice foundation created by Jennifer and Peter Buffett in 2006, I am deeply committed to racial and gender justice. I’ve had the privilege of supporting and working alongside fierce and brilliant movement leaders, working tirelessly to remake a more just world. Movement leaders — of all races, genders, and backgrounds — take huge personal risks every day to end patriarchy and white supremacy.

Yet it must be said: We in philanthropy, especially the 90 percent of whom are white, have not taken anywhere near the same risks. As beneficiaries of an unjust system, it’s time for us to act and to ask: What will we risk to upend white supremacy? What does risk in our industry look like?

As white people, the work we have to do is substantial. We need only look to last year’s Alabama election, where nearly 70 percent of us voted for a candidate who, in addition to being an alleged child molester, said the last time America was great was when it had slavery and that getting rid of constitutional amendments after the 10th would “eliminate many problems.” Our racism and bias permeate all aspects of our society, including philanthropy itself, and it will require sustained, intentional, and fundamental cultural change to truly address.

Vanessa Daniel, and a chorus of other leaders of color, have brilliantly outlined many of the ways white people in philanthropy can help dismantle white supremacy. From increasing funding for racial-justice work led by people of color to calling out microaggressions in our workplaces to collecting race and gender data to expose deep-seated disparities in giving, we are called both to deconstruct white supremacy in our society and to shift the everyday practices in our institutions that prop it up.

But Daniel is also challenging us to go beyond our own spheres and become advocates and leaders in this work. One of the only ways we’ll know we’re making real progress, she writes, is when “white philanthropic leaders are writing pieces [about dismantling white supremacy] instead of women of color like me.”

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