“We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I have never been keen on making statements. What I’ve said, over the course of my career in nonprofits and philanthropy, is this: “Just do the thing. People will notice.”
However, as I witness our democracy fraying at its edges in real time, saying something feels like the right first step in a journey that I hope takes us somewhere better – and quickly.
Watching the events of January 6, 2021, a day that will forever stain our country’s history, I have never been so sad, angry, embarrassed, and disappointed. My eternal optimism took a direct hit.
I listened, watched, and was struck hard by memories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all those who marched, who died, who were spit upon, hosed, and beaten for wanting nothing more than good jobs, equal pay, and quality education for their children. We also saw, during that time, how differently the authorities handled protesters who were white. Sadly, little has changed: When the face is Black, there is overreaction and escalation, mass incarceration, and even death. When the face is white, the doors to power are left ajar, if not opened wide.
Once again, we were able to see with our own eyes – if we cared to look – what a complicity of perverse ideals can achieve. Paraphrasing the sage Kimberlé Crenshaw on police reaction to the January 6 riot, “See Exhibits A-C on white privilege.” Enough said.
In quiet reflection, I have asked for guidance to find the lessons in all of this – the answer to the question, “What is the way forward?” In my mind, the situation is still too fresh to form any concrete directions, but I’d like to offer these words of encouragement as we join in remembrance of the legacy of Dr. King.
You may recall that PEAK Grantmaking’s 2020 theme was Courage in Practice. In this moment, it feels appropriate to carry that theme with us into the opening weeks of 2021.
As grants management, administrative, and operations professionals, you have already been digging in mightily to support your organization through a historic succession of crises, in which unprecedented philanthropic action has been needed to fill the gaps in our social structure. With philanthropic leaders finally acknowledging your front-line perspective and your role as the backbone of the organization – connecting grantees, staff, and board – your ability to center the organization around democratic values and equitable decisions is greater than ever.
And make no mistake: Democracy is not just the engine of our country; it is required for philanthropy to fulfill its purpose. We are duty-bound to both advance and defend it.
With courage, we can push philanthropy to center equitable grantmaking practices that truly support the goals of democracy – equity, liberty, and opportunity. Help your organization rethink the meaning of power, both inside your organization and in relation to the communities you seek to serve. Advocate for a fresh take on “risk” that bets on overlooked organizations who serve as anchors in their communities, but who may be missing the evidence-based practices you seek to fund. Lead the call for more direct investments that support nonprofit capacity, rigor, and fidelity.
To paraphrase another wise voice, a recent NPR story featured a Morgan State University student remarking that despite what people tend to think, history isn’t something that happened a thousand years ago: “History is yesterday.” She’s right: We are making history right now, through the actions we take today.
Your values and your leadership are essential to the success of our democracy. Of course, we are in this together: At PEAK, we will be working diligently to shape principled, equitable grantmaking practices that empower us to transform philanthropy and, finally, to realize its full potential.
On February 24, join me and the PEAK team for a Community Conversation: Meeting the Moment of a Democracy in Crisis. Let’s take this moment to reconnect, reflect, and rededicate ourselves to the work ahead.
Godspeed to us all,
Satonya Fair, JD
President and CEO
Photo ©1965 Spider Martin, “Two Minute Warning”