There’s a famous quote from a series of sermons that Martin Luther King Jr. published about six decades ago: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
For much of American history, beginning roughly with the Gilded Age, philanthropy has been a top-down affair based on the concept of charity—the wealthy giving from their resources based on their vision of what the materially needy and financially less privileged can use for better lives.
So how does Minnesota connect the dots when we look at equity and philanthropy? The state has a landscape rich in foundations, nonprofits, and community organizations. But the Twin Cities rank among the worst in the country for Black income inequality, with a Black poverty rate more than four times higher than that for white people, according to the latest available census data. And a 2019 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis states that Minnesota has some of the worst academic achievement disparities for young Black people in America.
“I think all of that is unacceptable,” says Lulete Mola, one of three co-chairs of the Philanthropic Collective to Combat Anti-Blackness & Realize Racial Justice. “If we truly believe that our social sector’s job is to meet people and their needs, then we have to adjust our processes to reflect that.”
The adjustment that Mola speaks about represents a vision of profound change in the landscape of Minnesota philanthropy, which can be seen as an evolution in how organizations pursue their missions, serve their constituencies, and fill their staffs and leadership.
The Philanthropic Collective that Mola co-leads was formed earlier this year as a collection of organizations and nonprofits with a goal of raising $25 million to invest in a fund to be administered by Black leaders. Its partners include a who’s who of Minnesota foundations, family funds, and corporate leviathans such as Target.
Another Black-led enterprise, called the Alliance of Alliances, also assembled this year, bringing together philanthropic organizations, nonprofits, and businesses with evergreen goals such as improving relations between the community and police, and tackling racial disparities in crucial areas including healthcare and housing.
“Since COVID and the racial awakening last year, no one can ignore any longer that these problems in the community are real, and the voices are valid who have been raising the alarm for some time,” says Marcus Owens, executive director of the African American Leadership Forum, which leads the Alliance of numerous stakeholders including partners Greater MSP, the Itasca Project, and the Minnesota chapter of the Black professional fraternity Omicron Boulé.
Owens also points to Minnesota philanthropy’s long history of operating through a top-down paradigm of charity. He says it’s a tradition that needs to evolve for lasting and equitable change.
“Currently there’s this appetite to understand what the community aspiration is,” Owens says. “In the past, the business sector and private philanthropy would have all of these conversations internally, rather than listening directly to the voices of the people impacted by the things we’re trying to do.”
From all accounts, this change in mindset isn’t going to happen overnight. It has to be part of challenging ingrained patterns and ways of doing things that have long contradicted Minnesota’s professed self-image as a bastion of equality and progressive values.
“Ultimately, for me, this conversation has two parts,” adds Mola. “The first is power, and this means moving away from the charity mindset in which people who have a lot give to people who don’t. The second is one in which we are all committed to sharing power … acknowledging that the people who are impacted most by the issues we’re talking about know what we need to solve them. They are powerful; they are intelligent. They need resources.”
Mola mentions the “uncomfortable conversations” that arise around this shift in the landscape, along with the “intentional design” of previous, largely white-led and white-funded institutions.
“The most effective philanthropists understand that their work is tied to their humanity,” she adds. “If we see people being harmed by systems, we have a job to share in power—in voice, in resources, in positions of influence—to see that those people are equipped to solve their own problems. Because I see them as equal to me.”
The awakening around George Floyd shook up systems and institutions that were largely seen as impartial and disconnected. Bringing a new generation of leaders to the head of the table seems intuitive, but momentum and longevity are needed to create lasting change.
“The challenge is how adaptive are our systems’ attention to the problems?” says Owens. “How long are they going to stay into it? Are they expecting this change to happen because we manifest it in our talking points, or are we going to do the real work of asking ourselves how we are going to change the way we interact with communities?”
The Philanthropic Collective, in its initial statement of intent, spoke of the need for “ongoing reckoning, repair, and healing.” The Alliance of Alliances has set a 10-year vision to build momentum toward a more equitable society and has raised its $4 million initial goal. It takes time to create lasting change, but articulating intent is a powerful first step that lends focus, clarity, and commitment.
“We haven’t been equitable since we were accepted as a state,” Owens says. “But just as with any other social acceleration, we need the right people and ideas in place. We can’t just wake up and say, ‘I care about racial equity,’ and then it just happens. It’s when we start to see other people as peers and equals, and that’s embedded in everything we do in our work.”
This includes not seeing power, influence, and social standing as zero-sum games, in which the gains toward equality for some become losses for others.
“We can see ourselves in the solution, rather than focusing on what we have to give up in order to get there,” says Owens. “When we give up something, we get a more inclusive society. This means we can also release some of the things we have attached ourselves to.”
These new philanthropic coalitions promise to attempt what they say hasn’t been explored in Minnesota in the past, with Black leaders taking the lead on reform that has been needed for generations.
“Start with yourself. See what is the interest that you have in this,” Mola recommends. “See everyone in their power, which means people having the ability and choice to shape their own lives. Our lives might not be the same, and our historical and cultural experiences might not be the same, but I see you. In your whole identity and humanity. You have power and deserve to exercise that power.”
Mola makes her point by evoking the Paul Wellstone statement that sums up the best of Minnesota’s aspirations, however often we have come up short: “We all do better when we all do better.”