Race, Philanthropy, and the Grassroots

(This is a guest post from Peter Deitz, Founder of Social Actions, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Peter Deitz

Last night, attendees of the Council on Foundation’s annual conference were treated to a special event at the recently opened Newseum in Washington DC. Filmmaker Katrina Browne—a descendent of the DeWolf family, the largest slave trading family in the United States during the 19th century—took audience members on a 1.5 hour journey across geographic, historic, and racial borders.

In Traces of the Trade: A Story of the Deep North, Katrina and nine of her cousins travel to Massachusetts, Ghana, and Cuba in an effort to uncover the history and contemporary implications of their family’s involvement in the slave trade.

The film delivered a powerful message to members of the audience, many of whom represent some of the nation’s most wealthy private and family foundations. The documentary vividly demonstrates that wealth and privilege in the United States has been amassed, in large part, as a direct or indirect consequence of slavery. Katrina and her family members make the case for a renewed dialogue about race relations and raise the question of reparations as a path toward reconciliation.

Following the screening, Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media organized a discussion about these issues. Panelist James Joseph, a former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, commented on the potential of grassroots organizing to force a bottom-up discussion around reparations and reconciliation. “In the absence of [government] leadership, you must rely on people, their social capital, the vast networks they have, to mobilize action on this issue.”

With these words, Ambassador Joseph transformed the audience of grant-makers into an advocacy network whose responsibility could be to draw citizens into a conversation about racial inequality, individual responsibility, and paths to reconciliation.

Cynthia Carey-Grant, the executive director of Common Counsel Foundation, echoed these ideas, “In response to the question on what foundations can do regarding reparations, we can support individuals and activists who are already doing the work on the ground. Their efforts will bring about the conversation and necessary action on reparations.”

A representative from the Open Society Institute (OSI) suggested that “reinvestment” would serve as a more effective and inclusive term than “reparations.” OSI currently funds a program called Justice Reinvestments, in which federal spending on corrections is redirected to education, housing, healthcare, and employment in high incarceration areas. She presented this program as a model for what a reparations program might look like.

In a follow-up conversation after the panel, Xiomara Caro, a junior development officer at Fundacion Comunitaria of Puerto Rico took the idea a step further. “Community foundations, in a way, are the reparations. Individuals give to community foundation to address problems that we’ve inherited from the past.”

Personally, I left the auditorium thinking about what a reparations campaign organized by citizen philanthropists would look like. Viewers of this film, which airs on PBS in late June, may organize a web 2.0 campaign to raise money on behalf of the organizations and foundations that are advancing the reparations movement. Or better yet, they might organize a campaign that encourages family and private foundations to explore the sources of their own wealth.

I suspect that Katrina Browne was not the only individual in the room who could trace her privilege directly or indirectly to the slave trade. Although no one spoke this truth to the grant-makers assembled at the Newseum last night, family and private foundations may very well carry the greatest responsibility for leading a reparations movement on the issue of slavery and racial inequality in the United States.

As filmaker and “next gen” philanthropist Katrina Browne would say, “Don’t wait. Do something about it.”