Sparking Questions and Making Us Think

User .Minh Luu
Posted Date : February 25, 2013

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For the past two decades, the James A. Joseph Lecture has been one of the intellectual high points of the Council on Foundations Annual Conference. The list of past lecturers at this Association of Black Foundation Executives event helps make the case, not just Ambassador Joseph delivering the first lecture in 1991 and again in 2001, but Carol Goss of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation (2007); Frank Thomas of the Ford Foundation (1992); Emmett Carson, now heading the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (2000); and Handy Lindsey, formerly the innovative grantmaker heading the Field Foundation  in Chicago, more recently heading the Cameron Foundation in Virginia.

This year’s lecturer was Karen Kelley-Ariwoola, an 18-year veteran of the Minneapolis Foundation, where most recently she was vice president of community philanthropy She did what her predecessors did-spark questions and thoughts about the nature of the conditions that philanthropists face in addressing the challenges and needs of black communities.

Introduced by Carson, her former boss, who described the influence she has had in improving conditions for children and families in Minnesota, Kelley-Ariwoola touched on a variety of issues. A resident of North Minneapolis, Kelley-Ariwoola highlighted aspects of the city’s racial gaps, which are among the nation’s worst. In her talk, she noted the gap between black and white pupils proficient in reading by the third grade: 34 percent for blacks, 88 percent for whites. She mentioned the difference in unemployment rates between blacks and whites in the Twin Cities-24 percent for blacks compared to 6 percent for whites.

The reason she can rattle off these numbers is that the Minneapolis Foundation sponsored the publication of the oneMinneapolis Community Indicators Report in October 2011. She might have added another telling statistic from that document-70 percent of black children live in poverty, compared to 14 percent of white children.  

In Kelley-Ariwoola’s words, when you have racial disparities like that, “Our world is crying out to hear what works.” Notwithstanding the often less than lucid debates around that question in Washington, D.C., and in state capitols, our society knows many of the answers to her question. But sometimes universal job and education programs may lift all boats, but not erase the astounding racial gaps that persist in Minneapolis and around the nation.

Kelley-Ariwoola called for funders to adopt the concept of “targeted universal” strategies that john powell, formerly head of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, has promoted inside and outside the philanthropic world. Kelley-Ariwoola described the concept as “universal benefits but targeted strategies.” Making this point from the dais at an ABFE gathering is important, but it also needs to be heard in other parts of the foundation world.

How does this play out in foundation grantmaking? Kelley-Ariwoola called on foundations to do more than simply give money, noting that “many of our black organizations are hanging on by their shoestrings.” While telling grantmakers to “not be afraid to hold a high bar for the quality of…(the) work” of black organizations, she made a very persuasive case for black grantmakers “working to lift up our own organizations” and not be apologetic about it, just as other groups don’t apologize for promoting groups led by and serving their communities.

If the racial gaps in the community socio-economic indicators that Kelley-Ariwoola cited are to be overcome, the organizational infrastructure of the black community has to be strengthened and sustained. That doesn’t mean alliances with others should be eschewed, but grantmakers have to do more work with black-led organizations such as local NAACP and Urban League affiliates to ensure sustainable change in the black community.

As expected, Kelley-Ariwoola, made her audience think.

Rick Cohen is a columnist with the NonProfit Quarterly.

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