July 2 2018

One of my favorite films – one that received relatively little public acclaim – is a 2008 movie entitled Doubt, featuring Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It comes on cable TV every now and then, so look for it or rent it on Netflix when you have a quiet weekend.  It’s certainly not a smiley-faced, happy ending work – it’s a dark, sobering film that is brilliantly written and superbly acted. Meryl Streep plays the role of a nun, Sister Aloysius, in a South Bronx grammar school in the 1950’s, where she suspects that her boss, the head parish priest (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) may be sexually abusing a student in the school.

As the film proceeds (spoiler alert) Sister Aloysius embarks on a determined, relentless journey to confront the head priest and drive him out of the church school.  She does so with a sense of purpose that is focused and clear, and ultimately succeeds in her moral crusade to convince the priest that he must leave the school (the suspect priest is actually transferred to another church school – but that’s a blog topic for another day).

In the film’s closing scene, however, Sister Aloysius admits to a fellow nun – in a deeply emotional exchange — that she had uncertainties all along about whether the priest in question did, or did not, cross the line with the student.  “I have doubts”, she says. “I have such doubts.” It is implied that Meryl Streep’s character would leave no stone unturned to protect the children, so she acted with moral certainty and courage even when the corroborating evidence was uncertain.

I am reminded of how those of us with the privilege and gift of stewarding foundation resources attempt to act on the deployment of precious resources with clarity and certainty.  In the world of institutional philanthropy, we have access to the best data, the best analytics, the best speakers, the best experts, the smartest staff and board members, and the most pristine, power-point-ready theories of change and logic models: if we add “X” amount of dollars to “Y” set of bold, carefully crafted strategies, then an extraordinary “Z” impact should emerge at the other end of the equation.

But, quoting Meryl Streep’s character, I sometimes have “doubts.”

In recent months we have been on a journey with our Board of Directors about strategizing for our next decade of work as a health foundation.  We have landed on “Three Big Bets” for those next ten years, but one of them is exciting, scary, and somewhat newer for us: the matter of people power.  We are now convinced – through a combination of experience, evaluation data, and community-grantee feedback – that the best way to achieve our mission of healthy communities is through civic participation, community organizing, and grassroots voice and power-building.  The data and research about the benefits of prevention and early intervention are simply not enough, and neither is lifting up the new, shiny innovative idea.

You want greater public investment in early childhood?  People Power. You want to assure that our schoolchildren are nurtured and supported towards a bright future? People Power.  You want to see Health For All? People Power. You want to reduce the juvenile and adult prison industrial complex and shift resources towards prevention and community mental health supports?  People Power.

Whatever doubts I may harbor about this next decade of strategic work have been tempered over the course of the past ten days.  The fact that our White House and government agencies would knowingly, willingly – and with arrogance and impunity – traumatize immigrant children by separating them from their parents at the border is outrageous.  This was a very clear affirmation that we will never achieve community wellness unless the people’s voices are included, heard and felt.

I recently participated in a protest and rally organized by a grantee-partner of ours, Faith In Action, at a San Diego border detention center. Faith leaders locked arms to demonstrate against our nation’s dastardly and inhumane border policy.  It was an energizing, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-faith gathering. I got goosebumps when we marched on the private, for-profit run detention facility, and heard the appreciative shouts and cries of the detained immigrants and refugees on the other side of the barbed-wire fence and walls.  An affirmation about people power.

More recently, here in our own morally-assertive “resistance” state of California, it was unfortunately announced that our state legislature and Governor succumbed to the bullying, egregious, big-money tactics of “Big Soda” companies by denying the opportunity of local communities to impose taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.  Shameful. Not long ago, and on behalf of our children and families, California boldly led the nation in the epic public health battle against Big Tobacco. This past week, however, our elected leaders punked out.

“People Power” is now our simplified, two-word Theory of Change, and it is the central, big idea for the road to a healthier California.  Communities and community leaders who, for far too long, have been politically and systemically marginalized, stigmatized, ignored, traumatized, and oppressed must have their voices heard — and the governments that serve them held accountable.  In short, we will put our faith – and investments — in the people.

We may have doubts, but we move forward with faith.  

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