There’s an urgency in the deliberation of social activists that’s often missing from conversations among those of us who work at foundations.
Social activists breathe fire. At their best, they’re deeply knowledgeable about the manner in which historical accident, human nature, and ideology have interacted to produce oppressor and oppressed. There’s plenty of impassioned debate; the causes and the people they champion have an immediate presence.
The atmosphere changes when foundation folks gather to address social problems. Often, in my experience, there’s a maddening calm. We’re likely to replace fire by a polite and strangely apolitical bonhomie. You’ll find many former activists among us, brimming with good ideas and good intentions, striving in our own way to make some kind of difference in the world.
But there’s been a subtle shift.
When somebody in the foundation circle puts the issue of race on the table, to take one example, it’s sometimes treated like Aunt Betty’s Mayonnaise Surprise—one of those potluck dishes everybody comments on but few dare sample. Those of us in this circle have learned to preserve the outward calm, and we pass over in silence those subjects that would often add the greatest value to our philanthropic interventions.
I pray that I may live to see the day when these two benevolent circles—activists and philanthropoids—converge. In the meantime, we foundation folks have a lot to learn from our more incandescent cousins.
What activists tend to do well is ask the question, How did we get to this state of affairs in the first place? The best social activists make it a point to understand the history, the basic assumptions, the habits of mind, the structures, the policies and the laws that led to the creation of social inequalities. They ask: What are the mechanisms by which these inequalities are sustained? What has been the legacy of hundreds of years of slavery, colonialism, and other forms of oppression?
Asking these questions is not an idle exercise. If we fail to ask them before we engage in any kind of philanthropic activity—and, in my view, we fail to ask them roughly 99 percent of the time—we’re simply proposing a kind of triage on society’s wounded that will do good for some, but keep intact the flow of victims.