During sessions on the first day of Leading Together 2021, three words resounded in the conversations: respect, trust, and equity. These three words have tremendous importance, both in our lives as individuals and as philanthropy professionals, and they have the power to reshape the ways that we serve our communities and causes for the better.
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was inscribed with three maxims, the first of which was “know thyself.” This is not an empty aphorism, nor some relic of ancient wisdom that no longer applies to the modern world. It is the basis of respect, because to truly understand each other, we need to first understand ourselves. To know our own biases, and to have the humility to honestly recognize those biases, is the critical first step to building the foundational respect that undergirds the trust required to build strong relationships and, ultimately, advance equity through philanthropy.
This self-reflection is difficult. It’s uncomfortable. It can even be ugly-- but it opens the door to a deeper understanding of others and, most importantly, to trust. It can take the form of what Lindsey Wilson, Director of the Appalachia Funders Network, described as “an invitation” during the session The Path Forward: Prioritizing Racial Equity in Unexpected Places. She reiterated the significance of meeting people where they are and doing so in good faith and without judgement. It’s an incremental approach, true, but when discussing the dismantling of systems of belief and policy built over decades and decades, progress in the right direction is always positive, whether it be in giant leaps or small steps.
Knowing yourself to know others also insinuates a deeper understanding of our partners’ perspectives and priorities, a deeper understanding that can inform more effective communication. During A Better Path Forward: Unlikely Partnerships for the Greater Good, Raul Anaya, President of Business Banking and Greater Los Angeles for Bank of America, described his experience building cooperation with business leaders, he made a point of noting how he reframed his equity goals in terms of business success-- the young people that they are serving through philanthropic efforts today are the employees and customers of tomorrow.
The importance of communication in the quest for equity cannot be overstated. In her Fireside Chat, Moky Makura, Executive Director of Africa No Filter, illustrated this point beautifully in her discussion of the news media on the African continent. Inviting local journalists, both professionals and amateurs, to co-create narratives did more than increase the number and diversity of stories being told about the continent. It made the stories better. The point is self-evident, though worth calling out explicitly. The people closest to a problem are best-positioned to find solutions.
The big question is: Do those people, the very people who are often the ones purportedly being helped by philanthropic efforts, trust philanthropy enough to engage with it? Most of the time, our communities know how to address their challenges. Whether they have access to the resources they need to put those solutions into practice is a different matter altogether. If philanthropy does the work to establish trusting partnerships with the communities it serves, those communities will tell us how we can help. And we have good reason to listen.
Advancing equity does more than benefit marginalized groups. When we design streets for better wheelchair access, it’s not just people with limited mobility that benefit. So do parents pushing strollers, so do bicyclists. When we create tools to help people with limited vision appreciate works in an art museum, it improves the experience for all the museum guests. This is particularly true for work dealing with race and equity. To draw from comments made during the opening plenary session this morning by April Verrett, President of the Service Employees International Union, Local 2015, “solve for Black folks in LA and you solve for all the poor people.