I came away from the second day of the Council on Foundations’ Leading Together 2021 conference with an enormous amount of hope. Hope in humanity and in the kind and equitable future we will create together, if we challenge ourselves to do better and shift many of our sector practices.
The highlight of the day, by far, was James Rhee. Anyone who was in his Fireside Chat session, “A Blueprint for Transformation and DEI: The Ashley Stewart Story,”will undoubtedly agree. James told the story of how he shifted from being a private equity investor to leading the transformation of the nearly bankrupt Ashley Stewart Company – a Black woman-owned company creating clothing for Black, plus-size women.
In his career journey but also in his personal life, what James is truly about is shifting our Western, capitalist financial system from an extractive and dehumanizing one to one that invests in a more equitable world. As he put it, “We are in a massively innovative time…we are moving to a world where women are leading, where Brown is a majority.” Shifts like these represent the change we can accomplish when we push our limits and set our standards higher – for ourselves, our organizations, and our sector.
James believes that we are being offered – amidst the massive challenges we have been facing over the last year – a huge opportunity that we must seize to create a more just and inclusive society.
Make no mistake, we are facing massive challenges. And they seem to be getting worse. That was the takeaway from the session, “Best Practices for Equitable Philanthropy: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,”led by Sally Ray and Tanya Gulliver-Garcia from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. The presenters reminded us that the number of “billion-dollar disasters” (events like hurricanes, wildfires, or epidemics where the damage totaled over $1 billion) has been growing in recent years. Since 1980, there have been 285 “billion-dollar disasters” – or an average of about seven per year. But in 2020, there were 22. Climate change, among many other factors, is accelerating the scale and complexity of the challenges we face -- and it’s up to us to rise to the occasion, stepping up our commitment to solving problems that threaten not only our local communities, but also the country and the world.
But James Rhee and other speakers at Leading Together offer us tremendous hope. By tapping into the kindness, creativity, and curiosity we all possessed as children, we can reinvent this battered world. As James put it, “Why can’t we be like Harold and the Purple Crayon [from the children’s book]? Why can’t we just draw a window? Let’s draw a new system….You don’t change things by brute force or anger, but with curiosity and creativity – unleashing what’s within.”
I have no doubt that the panelists from another Wednesday session, “Emergence and Evolution: Pivoting Internal Culture Amidst Crisis,”would agree with James’ worldview. Together, they offered countless examples of innovative changes that their respective organizations implemented to “hold space” for staff during the last year of intense turmoil.
Many of these changes were in response to a growing sense of empathy – an understanding, as Storme Gray of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy put it, that people needed a “space to show up as human beings in the midst of all that 2020 threw at us.” The presenters challenged us to re-evaluate our HR policies for philanthropic staff, going above and beyond what we once thought was possible to maintain employee health and well-being.
Echoing James Rhee’s view of how change happens, the organizational shifts the panelists highlighted came about because people – no matter their position or title – started stepping into their own power. Rose Green of the Colorado Health Foundation put it this way: “We all have a responsibility to be brave…Be bold and speak up. This is a moment to say, ‘Hey, the old way of doing things wasn’t working.”
Isn’t that the ultimate opportunity that the pandemic, and all of the many crises and disasters left in its wake, offer us? We are being asked to stand up, speak our truth, and in doing so, expand our belief of what’s possible for the philanthropic sector to help create kinder communities. Just imagine: What would philanthropy look like – what would the world look like – if each of us, in whatever organization we find ourselves, in whatever position we hold,stood up and demanded a kinder way forward? As James Rhee declared, “Don’t lead from your credentials. Lead from your heart.”
Yes to that!