September 8 2016

As president of the California Endowment, I have an advisory group of 14 young people of color that provides me with an opportunity to hear directly from youths whose families reside in underserved and economically distressed neighborhoods across our state. Private foundations gather data about their work — in our case, the work of building healthier California communities — in multiple forms: community surveys, state and county statistics, and commissioned research and reports. But insights and feedback directly from the mouths of young people who face the hazards of structural inequality on a daily basis — community violence, underfunded schools, the lack of jobs and positive support structures — is the richest data source of all.

At this time, with our nation visibly struggling with matters of income inequality, perceived lack of opportunity, tensions between the police and communities, and exclusion based on race and immigration status, these young people have one clear, overarching message for philanthropy, and I am quoting one of them directly: “Dr. Ross, y’all gotta get woke.”

“Get woke.” It is a newfound expression of young activists, a challenge to lift consciousness out of a deep slumber and into the fight for social change. This youthful adviser was essentially asking me whether our foundation was in the fight or passively sitting on the sidelines.

Response to Inequality

This is a year in which we find our nation deeply divided, frenetic, and torn. Populist uprisings sweep the nation and infiltrate the discourse surrounding the most electrifying presidential campaign in at least a half-century. Many working-class white Americans and frustrated young people of color have channeled their anger through anti-establishment candidates, expressing disgust with Wall Street-dominated political influence. With the emergence of Black Lives Matter, structural racism has been officially called out as a crisis in America. The Dreamers movement unleashes activist energy in favor of immigration reform, even in the face of political paralysis in Congress.

The common thread across this range of activism, anger, and frustration is the matter of structural inequality and lack of opportunity in America, and it is more far-reaching and profound than the peculiarities of a presidential election. The issue of inequality in America is intense, urgent, and pressing.

And how will organized philanthropy respond? With detached curiosity? The proverbial “toe in the water”? A nonchalant shrug of the shoulders? Or will it match the intensity of the moment and join the fight?

Will the plea from my youth council — for philanthropy to “get woke” — go unheeded?

With that thought in mind, I offer a user-friendly and unapologetically unscientific seven-question tool to assess whether your foundation is truly wading into the epic battle unfolding against inequality in our nation or is sitting it out.

  1. Has your Board of Trustees recently — or ever — engaged in a quality conversation about race and structural racism in America?
  2. Does your board possess a clear plan to improve or maintain diversity and inclusion in its makeup and that of your organization’s management?
  3. Does your foundation possess a strategic plan to address inequality in any form (economic, educational, housing, health, etc.) through the lens of your mission?
  4. Does your foundation support any efforts to promote civic engagement, participation, or advocacy in low-income, marginalized populations or communities?
  5. Does your foundation allow for structured opportunities for trustees to visit with and hear directly from community, grass-roots, or young leaders in low-income, marginalized populations or communities?
  6. Has your foundation explored eliminating investments in industries that contribute to inequality such as for-profit prisons, or begun to engage in impact or mission investing?
  7. Has your foundation used its bully pulpit to speak out against inequality, violence, hyperincarceration, and bigotry of all kinds or to support healing and trust-building between communities and police?

Here’s how to determine your “get woke” score:

If you answered yes to six or seven questions, congratulations, you are well awake and in the fight. Don’t stop.

If you answered yes to three to five questions, your foundation is in the fight — but punch harder.

If you had one or two “yes” answers, your foundation has thrown a punch or two, but sleepily.

If you had no “yes” answers, your foundation is comatose. Do you give a damn about inequality?

Philanthropy, we gotta get woke.

This piece was originally published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Click here to read it there.

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