At The Center for Nonprofit Excellence, we have named equity as one of our core values – along with love, learning and courage.
In particular, we have vowed to apply an equity lens to everything we do. We on the board have also asked each other to apply an equity lens to our own lives and our own work. (Coincidentally, that also takes love and courage – and a willingness to learn.)
So let me tell you about my family. My grandfather was born in 1928 and grew up struggling as the child of a single mother. He was drafted into World War II, and when he came home, he went to work at a small business in his neighborhood. With nine, yes nine, children to feed, he worked hard, bought a house and eventually bought the small business where he worked. It wasn’t a glamorous business, but it was a solid one and it directly or indirectly put two generations of our family through college. I was raised hearing the story about my grandfather being a self-made man who worked hard, became successful and changed his family’s trajectory. Our family believed anyone could get ahead if they simply were willing to work hard.
That story is true. But I now know it’s not the whole truth.
My grandfather did do all those things and he undoubtedly worked hard. He worked 7 days a week and learned how to run a successful business. But there are other unspoken parts of the story that now need to be told. As I have learned more about the systemic racism in our systems, I now understand there were, and in many cases still are, policies that provided a leg up for white men like my grandfather but kept a knee on the backs of our Black neighbors.
My grandfather bought a house with post-war GI benefits that Black veterans who served alongside him were not able to access. He was able to buy a house, three bedrooms for nine children, and was able to begin building wealth. That wealth grew over his lifetime, and he was able to pass along a small inheritance at his death, creating more wealth for subsequent generations.
My grandfather bought his business with the help of an angel investor, a customer who noticed how hard he worked. That was a wonderful thing for someone to do, but I now recognize that it almost certainly would not have happened for a Black employee. And as I mentioned above, that business now in its 50th year, created the opportunity for many of us to go to college and build careers that create more opportunities for our children, and the cycle goes on.
My family thought we came from nothing and created our own success and that anyone could do the same thing. It has taken me more than 40 years to understand the tremendous advantages that my family was afforded, simply because we are considered white. And the white supremacy built into our systems only created barriers for our Black neighbors, no matter how hard they worked. Too many of our Black neighbors were not given opportunities to build wealth and bright futures for their children and grandchildren.
When I became CEO of the Fund for the Arts in 2011, I spent much of my first three months meeting with arts organization leaders to learn more about the community perceptions of the Fund’s strengths and weaknesses. These were my Listen and Learn sessions and I learned so much.
One of those meetings was with Ed White, the founder and executive director of the River City Drum Corps. I’m a little embarrassed when I think about the naïve questions I asked him that day. I asked him why the Drum Corps wasn’t a member organization of the Fund for the Arts, which would make them eligible for our larger operating grants.
I am forever grateful that Ed took a deep breath and patiently peeled back the layers of white privilege in our practices. He pointed out that the member organizations were all Eurocentric arts groups judged by a committee of mostly white people who had for many years, intentionally or not, used coded language about excellence and quality that really meant “art with a mostly European heritage”.
He educated me on the compounding effect of those practices. That for 25 years, the River City Drum Corps and organizations like it had been unable to invest in their people, their infrastructure, their future and that had kept them small and struggling to survive, even after receiving national awards and recognition. The system was set up to keep the “grassroots” organizations in fact grassroot.
To this day, I’m grateful for his willingness to educate me, to patiently teach this white woman about the systems that had perpetuated this inequity. That day we began a complete transformation of the Fund for the Arts funding programs. It took 5 years for The Fund for the Arts to do the hard work to implement such a shift towards equity. For some, that change came much slow and for others, too much too fast. But in the end, those changes not only now benefit a broader array of arts organizations and artists in Louisville, but also made the Fund itself stronger and more inclusive to truly serve the diversity of our community.
I share some of my own journey so that others can consider their own. And I am still learning, every day. I’ve made many mistakes along the way, and I know I will make many more. I now understand it is not enough to be committed to diversity or inclusivity but I must commit to being actively anti-racist. That means educating myself and others, dismantling the systems of oppression where I can and when appropriate, giving away my voice and power.
It is difficult to acknowledge that white supremacy has provided advantages and privilege to my family, to me and others who look like me. And it’s painful to acknowledge those same forces kept my Black friends and neighbors down. Understanding is the first step to moving forward.
Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” I commit to doing better.
In the past two years, Louisville has learned a lot and it is time that we do better together.
Join us at CNPE in our commitment not just to equity but to anti-racism. Our board and staff are reconstructing our governance, programming and all we do within an anti-racism framework and we look forward to sharing our work with you in the coming months. If you want to learn more about how you can learn more or activate this work in your own life or organization, visit the CNPE website.