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Philanthropy must prioritize elevating and including Black voices

Group of youth in front of computers learning code

In 2020, the philanthropic sector started conversations about how philanthropy can better support Black-led organizations and the Black community. Organizations hosted “listening” sessions, in which the Black community shared their experiences with leaders in the sector, mostly non-Black people of color and white people.

In my opinion these sessions to “educate” individuals and organizations, stirred up Black trauma and reinforced stereotypes. The sector missed a great opportunity with these listening sessions for Black non-profit leaders to share their hopes and dreams for their communities and the work of their organizations.

One of the earliest philanthropic efforts for the Black community was the abolitionist movement. These donors had various motives for supporting abolition, however it rarely involved creating an equitable society that included Black people nor supported continual policy and societal change. Philanthropic efforts for the Black community haven’t changed much since the abolitionist movement. As a result, there has been little to no change to combat the racial inequities caused by institutional and systematic racism; and sometimes philanthropic efforts are more harmful than helpful.

According to the 2020  Smithsonian Magazine article, The Storied History of Giving in America, the practice of philanthropy can reflect and reinforce inequity. Most philanthropic initiatives are based on what should be done for the Black community, often without input from the Black community.

There is a breadth and depth of the work done by Black-led organizations; however, funders have made decisions about what causes are “important” to fund. As a result, there is important work that is underfunded. To see an impact in our communities, Black nonprofit leaders focus on community care and often do the work ourselves with limited resources. Black-led and Black-benefiting organizations are experts in our communities and are aware of the root causes of the issues in our communities. If Black nonprofit founders and leaders of Black-led and Black-benefiting organizations had the opportunities to share their stories with philanthropic leaders, I am sure that you would hear stories like mine.

I am a Black women nonprofit founder that I started my nonprofit Science, Engineering and Mathematics Link Inc., also known as SEM Link, in 2005 because of my desire to ensure that Black children are integrated into the pipeline for the future Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce. My goal was for students at one middle school in Atlanta to believe that it was possible for them to pursue STEM careers through culturally relevant STEM programming. SEM Link’s mission is to strengthen the self-efficacy of K-12 students to pursue STEM careers by exposing them to positive adult role models from the STEM community that increase students’ awareness of STEM careers and encourage their participation in STEM Research through digital learning and hands-on activities. We achieve our mission through our hybrid program model with digital learning opportunities and limited in-person programs in Metro Atlanta.

The work of my nonprofit SEM Link is based on my awareness of the barriers for Black youth in STEM. There are deficit-oriented societal models, blaming individuals instead of the larger structures that impede Black students from academic achievement and post-secondary opportunities in STEM. Black youth face barriers such as historical exclusion, structural racism in schools and resources in Black communities. Without the voices of the Black community, the sector engages in work that is done for the community instead of with the community. When the philanthropic sector invites and includes Black voices in philanthropic decision-making process, it allows the sector to make impactful change because it is work for the community with solutions created by the community.

Systematic change in the philanthropic sector, will not take place without the revamping of mindsets and practices that center building with the Black community. The voices of Black nonprofit leaders and Black philanthropists should be included in the conversations about and be the dominant voice in philanthropic efforts for the Black community. Organizations such as Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE)Giving Gap, and Young, Black &  Giving Black Institute are doing a great job of highlighting various issues that are important to the Black community and Black led nonprofit organizations that are doing great work.

A trust-based funding model should be the standard for grant awards to Black-led and Black-benefiting nonprofit organizations. Let the organizations decide where to allocate their resources. Barriers to funding for small and medium-sized, Black-led organizations need to be removed to provide them with resources to do their work and impact in their communities.

If we transform our definition of philanthropy and who is considered a philanthropist, we will make it a more equitable society for us all.


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