Like many of you, I would have liked a little more time to grieve. But I’m already hearing news of a membership drive for the Klan in Alabama as well as rumors that Trump will appoint a climate skeptic to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Instead of following my example—quietly sitting around and feeling stupid—some over-achievers in my field have already finished their autopsies of the body politic and are busy prescribing new cures.
As I reluctantly pull down the black crepe, I keep asking myself three questions. For those of us who work with and for foundations and other grantmakers:
1. What did we believe we had achieved and on what basis did we believe it?
After seven years, I left my job as a foundation CEO in New Orleans feeling that our social justice advocates and community organizers were woefully under-resourced and under-supported given the kinds of battles they were being asked to wage. People of good will believed that power needed to build from the bottom up, but the challenges were overwhelming for communities struggling against the new Jim Crow. Local work was often disconnected from national efforts, and there was always a mad, exhausting scramble for funding.
These were the realities “on the ground,” in communities that needed to shift if we ever wanted to see state and national electoral maps change and justice prevail.
2. How did we fail to see what was coming?
If, before the election, we had gone through the Facebook pages of Trump supporters, we would have found an overwhelming number of cat photos, inspirational quotes, and recipes for cheesy potatoes. We would have run across the occasional meme poking fun at Hillary Clinton, but little else hinting at the hatred and spleen on display at Trump rallies. Something was happening, we might have concluded, that was transforming our quirky, cat-loving aunt into a die-hard Trump supporter.
How many of us who focused on supporting low-income families understood what was happening inside the heads of working class and middle class whites? I remember meetings at which organizers from working class white communities struggled to make this point, only to see it buried under fifty other “insights” scattered across twelve sheets of flipchart paper. My own ignorance about rural and poor white communities was appalling.
I believe two factors were at work:
(a) As is the norm in most of the foundation and charitable sector, we were working using a “consensus model”—the polite term for Frankenthinking. What happens in this process is that bad ideas are treated with the same reverence as promising ideas, and promising ideas are seldom tested and refined through vigorous debate. In the Third Sector we tend to privilege voice at the expense of truth (although it doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game). This, in my view, does an enormous disservice to the communities whose voices need to be heard, and keeps most of our work outside the margins of relevancy.
(b) We had, and continue to have, an impoverished vision of the community we’re trying to build. How many conferences or meetings did I attend where not a single member of the business class was present? Where residents and activists were excluded from ivory tower discussions by philanthropic elites?
As I search for friends and allies in the post-election rubble, I’m inspired by Elizabeth Warren’s clarity on the need to widen the tent without compromising core values. After declaring that our first job is to stand up uncompromisingly to bigotry, she writes:
But there are many millions of people who did not vote for Donald Trump because of the bigotry and hate that fueled his campaign rallies. They voted for him despite the hate. They voted for him out of frustration and anger – and also out of hope that he would bring change. …
Working families across this country are deeply frustrated about an economy and a government that doesn’t work for them. Exit polling on Tuesday found that 72 percent of voters believe that "the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful." 72 percent of ALL voters – Democrats and Republicans. The polls were also made clear that the economy was the top issue on voters’ minds. Americans are angry about a federal government that works for the rich and powerful and that leaves everyone else in the dirt. …
The truth is that people are right to be angry. Angry that wages have been stagnant for a generation, while basic costs like housing, health care, and child care have skyrocketed. Angry that our political system is awash in barely legalized campaign bribery. ...
Angry that while Washington dithers and spins and does the backstroke in an ocean of money, while the American Dream moves further and further out of reach for too many families. Angry that working people are in debt. Angry that seniors can’t stretch a Social Security check to cover the basics.
Senator Warren might have her own blind spots when it comes to the particular struggles faced by communities of color, or LGBT communities, or the community of people with disabilities—others who have followed her career will know this better than I do. But we all have our blind spots and we rely on one another to see more clearly.
Perhaps we would have seen more clearly if we had spent less time at Davos and Bellagio thinking about poverty while taking in the crisp mountain air, and more time in Flint and Birmingham listening to communities ravaged by elite decision-making.
3. What will liberal foundations commit to doing differently?
… And, God help us, will we even admit that we failed? Will we continue to use language that people simply do not understand? When a Trump supporter suggests that we build a wall, will we hear only a racist taunt or will we hear also an appeal for fairness in how society divvies up its benefits? Will we continue to be the hammers for which everything is a nail?
Remember in the good old days, before this shitshow of an election, when we would wryly observe that the revolution would not be funded? Turns out we were right. Only many of us didn’t anticipate that it would be this kind of revolution. Nor did we understand how it would be possible, in one day of voting, to undo the gains that had been achieved by hundreds of millions of dollars in foundation spending.