Philanthropy with a Racial Equity Lens

Anna Cruz

Centering race so that we can advance racial equity requires us to focus on both inward and outward change. At the recent CEP Conference, I presented at a session about philanthropy with a racial equity lens, during which my co-presenters and I shared examples of how foundation staff are shifting and interrogating longstanding practices.

We discussed drivers that helped our foundations make an explicit shift — recognizing that a series of moments and people contribute to change. We also discussed internal changes that have occurred as a result of our deepening commitment to racial equity — from grantmaking practices to operations — and how those shifts require us to work differently with our partners. We explored concrete examples of how foundations diverse in program areas, size, and geography are taking seriously the charge to center race — explicitly and not exclusively — and inviting others to join.

My journey reminds me that: 1. transforming philanthropy to hold a racial equity lens requires personal transformation; and 2. we lead from where we are. For me, this means bringing an equity lens to learning and evaluation in my role at the Kresge Foundation.

This work requires personal transformation

To operationalize racial equity throughout our practices, we must be radically different than the philanthropy of previous generations. Many of us need to evolve our internal practices and culture, in addition to bringing a racial equity lens to our grantmaking. We must be laser focused on the deepest, most complex ways in which racism permeates political, cultural, and economic norms; how that manifests inside our organizations; and what is required to truly uproot it.

This kind of transformation requires us to grapple individually and collectively with our histories of racism, exclusion, and oppression. It requires us to see our own power and privilege and how they are intricately linked to the liberation of others. It requires us to build our individual and collective capacity to dig deeply into the history of slavery, racism, and capitalism and its connection to our current wealth accumulation. And, it requires us to build our individual and collective imagination about what could be.

In a phrase, it requires collective personal transformation. It requires all of us.

So how do we do this? I am learning that it requires learning — and unlearning — what is deeply ingrained. As a daughter of immigrants and an immigrant myself, growing up I was surrounded with messages that privileged whiteness. From ideas of mejorar la raza (a common phrase used in Latin American countries and communities in the U.S., which means “improve the race”) to persistent anti-blackness sentiments, race and racism were always present. It has taken me a long time to understand my own internalized oppression and it has taken a lot of work to learn, reflect, unlearn, and change my own practices. And the journey continues.

This work requires leading from where we are

Because this is personal work, I cannot write about racial equity in philanthropy without discussing my own role as a learning and evaluation officer and sharing how learning and evaluation can be a lever to shift practices that privilege a white-dominant frame. If we are to realize our potential in philanthropy, we must be comprehensive in our pursuit of justice. Within evaluation, we need practices that can challenge current notions of evidence, rigor, and data and expand how to we think about philanthropic impact.

We’re doing a few things at Kresge that help us in this endeavor:

  • We’re striving to make our thinking visible, to codify our hypotheses, and to unearth deeply held assumptions about our role, our work, and its impact. We do this through facilitative practices and by serving as internal thought partners to our grantmaking teams and beyond. We often draw on tools from Emergent Learning to support this work.
  • We’re expanding the notion of credible data by considering the voices that are lifted up through data collection and reporting efforts, examining the knowledge that we’re privileging, and pausing when we’re falling back to our “default” frameworks.
  • We’re resisting simplicity. We know that our current ideas of validity and rigor were created in a particular moment in time and informed by the values, experiences, and needs of those in power. And those ideas have been codified as objectivity. So, we work hard to sit in the complexity of not just our strategies but also in the complex history of how we define impact and objectivity.
  • We’re unlearning together. We read, discuss, and reflect in the hopes that we can hold multiple definitions of truth, evidence, and knowing. We try to look at our work through an intersectional lens so that we move away from our inclinations to see the world as a zero-sum game. The Equitable Evaluation Initiative has connected us to a growing network of like-minded practitioners.

An Invitation

To my colleagues in philanthropy, let’s continue the good work of centering race in grantmaking and expand by bringing our whole organizations into a racial equity lens. Ask the hard questions about how racism shows up. Allow yourself to sit with those hard questions. Lead from where you are.

Anna Cruz is strategic learning & evaluation officer at the Kresge Foundation. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at @kresgefdn.

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