Being Pro-BIPOC is Being Pro-Humanity: Part Two

In dialogue with “Backlash: A Sharp Right Turn by a Philanthropy Member Organization,” an excellent piece from Phil Buchanan, president of Center for Effective Philanthropy, I offer this continuation of my more recent President’s Blog post.

In his piece, Buchanan calls out the current conservative critique of pro-BIPOC philanthropy as divisive and disingenuous. In part one of this piece, I wrote of how the current “backlash” against pro-BIPOC practices and policies is a culture war that is meant to obfuscate an economic war on low-income White and BIPOC folks by a small number of economic elites who have a loud platform and the resources to buy influence. Culture wars help to illuminate why GIA and our members support culture – because culture matters more than anything else. This culture war includes philanthropy as a tool and what we can all learn from it.

I don’t use the use of the term “backlash,” as it implies that each chapter in the conservative culture war against BIPOC, women, and LGBTQIA+ folks is a unique response to a discrete moment in time. Instead of backlash, I agree with those who argue that these are new developments in a planned long-term strategy – including a cultural strategy – that has been ongoing throughout our nation’s history. This long-term strategy is what Ian Haney López calls strategic racism – a calculated decision to seek advantage, such as money, status, or power, by activating and manipulating the racialized beliefs, assumptions, and fears that we have inherited.

An example of Haney López’s strategic racism in practice is offered in Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Meyers. Meyers shares John M. Olin’s version of the origins of his spend-down foundation’s strategies. In his telling, Olin was activated to fund right-wing academic programs, scholars, and media figures by images of Black student protestors storming the student union of his alma matter, Cornell University, in the late 1960s. Meyers explains that, according to the actual timeline of events, Olin actually began shifting his giving to fuel right-wing policy change when he got into legal trouble over his company’s environmental violations.

The strategy of concealing the pursuit of economic self-interest under the pretense of defending American identity and values against Black student protestors has evolved into our current corporate-media opposition to critical race theory being taught in schools. This is only the most recent chapter in a decades-long, deliberate strategy to dehumanize Black and Indigenous folks and other people of color and create false and harmful narratives of fear mongering in order to turn voters against a government that may tax the economic elite more than they would like. And it has worked for decades.

Conservative use of philanthropy to influence public policy and media narratives has been the picture of effectiveness, as revealed by National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP)’s strong reporting, which includes Moving A Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations and Axis of Ideology: Conservative Foundations and Public Policy. NCRP outlines how conservative foundations grant multi-year general operating support intended to influence local and national government toward conservative economic policy through changing the public dialogue and building power. The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s recent report, Policy Influence: What Foundations are Doing and Why, reinforces the finding that policy influence stems from long-term funding and commitment. More over, the report also uncovers that community foundations supporting this work have not alienated donors, but in fact have attracted more donors.

Our national grantmaking field has come through a period of increased general operating support and trust-based philanthropy in the funding community in general and in cultural funding specifically. We must not turn back.

Unfortunately, those of us who are centrist or even progressive remain far too skittish about building power and supporting advocacy. In one of my earliest President’s Blog posts, I explain that grant support for advocacy and lobbying is perfectly legal, and GIA continues to echo this message time and again. Building cultural power and cultural advocacy are interdependent; grantmakers have a unique opportunity to make this happen. The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s recent report on policy influence shares one leader’s explanation that being engaged in policy changes does not require that we be partisan. Nonetheless, the same report reveals that most foundations reported that influencing public policy was a very small part of their grantmaking, and that over half expressly forbid grantees from using their funds to influence public policy.

We must recognize and position ourselves as part of a large economic ecosystem. Conservative philanthropy has revealed the effectiveness of using trust-based funding toward cultural shift and policy change toward their political interests. GIA shares examples of how those of us who are pro-BIPOC, pro-worker, and pro-justice must and can build power and support advocacy toward policy change. Just some of GIA’s programs that discuss this include “Reimagining the Economy With Innovative Support,” a webinar from 2020, “Beyond the Grant: Supporting Communities Through Alternative Economies,” a webinar from 2019, our most recently released report, Solidarity Not Charity: Arts & Culture Grantmaking in the Solidarity Economy, and our latest episode in the GIA Podcast series, “A Just Transition for Investing in Arts & Culture.” GIA also shares how we must and can change the narratives about one another in a manner that is joyous rather than fearful.

We can make all these changes in the world. Within the GIA community, we have colleagues to look to and learn from who are making these changes. The future we want is ours to make. It only requires action.