The latest issue of the PEAK Grantmaking Journal centered around the voices of Black grants management professionals, bringing vivid and urgent perspective to the ongoing conversation around racial equity within philanthropy. We’re continuing to elevate those voices and deepen the conversation, bringing together a panel of five Black men for a virtual roundtable:
- Steven Casey, Associate Director, Grants Management, MacArthur Foundation, and PEAK Grantmaking board member
- Roland Kennedy, Jr., Grant Operations, Bloomberg Philanthropies
- Nathaniel Smith, Founder and Chief Equity Officer, Partnership for Southern Equity
- Marcus Walton, President & CEO, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
- Richerd Winton, Grants Management Associate, William Davidson Foundation
Moderator Genise Singleton, Programs Operations Manager at The Kresge Foundation, described the panel as “a cross section” of leaders within the grants management space. She noted that when she started in grants management work she was more or less “alone as a woman of color,” and for a long time didn’t see any Black men in the role.
“I value men of color, in particular Black men, because I’m a mother of two boys and I think they have so much to offer, and not just in the field of philanthropy,” said Singleton. “They are leaders. They are valuable to their communities, to their churches, to their families, to the sector.”
She opened the conversation with a question about power, “not just in society but within the organizations that we serve.” Addressing the panel personally, she prompted them “to talk about power, and how it plays out as it relates to you all accessing resources and opportunities.”
What followed was a wide-ranging discussion of power, courage, agency, and representation. Below, find a few highlights from each panelist’s contribution, lightly edited for clarity. We encourage you to take in the full conversation by viewing the on-demand webinar, available here.
Nathaniel Smith, Partnership for Southern Equity:
The challenges that we’re facing around COVID-19, in my opinion, have shined an even brighter light on the structural and systemic challenges that we’re facing, and many of those challenges don’t stop at the front door of foundations.
We’ve got to be willing to acknowledge the fact that many foundations are powerful because the systems that we are working to fight, have facilitated their influence, have facilitated their resources, have facilitated their wealth. The unfortunate connections between our economic systems and the ability for foundations to accumulate wealth and influence are real.
As an organization that is working every day to advance systems transformation, I tell our various stakeholders that policy, in essence, is a reflection of the values of people in power. I would submit to you that the missions of foundations and the decisions they make around funding are a reflection of the values of people in power.
And so within the context of grants managers, you have the ability to potentially influence the values that influence the decisions that are made around grantmaking. But in order for you to do that, you also have to understand that what is happening outside, [the systems] manifesting and facilitating the influence and the power that foundations have, is also influencing the way that some foundations are run, and even more so when we talk about racial justice.
You can’t run from that by being silent within these foundations. It is important for you to acknowledge and understand the dynamics of power: How power is manifesting itself within foundations, and outside of foundations, is very much connected to the values that have created the unjust systems that we’re trying to overcome.
Marcus Walton, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations:
In addition to the structural underpinnings that determine our fates, the qualities and conditions of our communities, I want to offer that power has to do with one’s ability to frame their reality: the power to claim what’s yours.
This, being a part of this conversation, is a reframing and a reclaiming, an act of power.
Framing is critical. That is a reason why our justice-informed, race-informed, equity-informed work deals so much with the narratives that we shape, right?
We live in narratives. Narratives inform the quality of our experience. And whether people appreciate it or not, grants managers have significant power in shaping the narrative filters through which other people determine the quality, viability, and validity of grantees.
This is something that I’ve learned over a decade. There were several organizations, several networks of networks – the PEAKs of the world, the PREs, the Change Philanthropies, the GEOs – there’s so many people, and no one of us has the power to frame the narrative in which we’re operating like grantmakers, and those engaged and influencing grantmaking culture.
So I’m offering that the quality of our relationships is something that we can control, something that we all have meaningful insight and access to. We all have to cultivate the courage to lean on each other, to develop and then establish a shared vision, a shared agenda, toward the collective empowerment of all of those involved in this process.
It’s ours to claim, and I hope we all experience this as an invitation into that process.
Roland Kennedy, Jr., Bloomberg Philanthropies:
There’s this unique balance of having to navigate the legacy of what it means to be a Black man in America generally: a legacy of not often being believed when an injustice may happen, and the struggle of navigating the culture of fear that is programmed into so many minds about what it means to engage with or talk to a Black man.
To add a grants management perspective to that: Where agency – that personal embodiment of power both Marcus and Nathaniel were talking about – plays out in a philanthropic organization, those limits come into play in the operations-program divide. Oftentimes, the foundation feels like it was created for program and evaluation and learning staff, and that the operational roles come into play afterwards.
There are tiers even within that, where it’s like, “We have IT, and then we have finance. Oh, and then we have the grants management team.”
From the first time I set foot in the grants management space seven years ago, looking around the room at my first PEAK conference, I had to figure out, how do I, as a Black man, move in this space that is largely dominated by white women? Who are my allies? Who can I trust?
These are the conversations that one has to navigate as a Black man working in philanthropy. We don’t get to just step into the DEI conversation and say, “Okay, that was great,” then separate ourselves from that conversation like so many other staff get to. For us it’s ongoing, in and out of the organization.
I think the word “power” is a struggle for me because there are reminders that grants management is not yet as valuable as other positions inside of foundations, or within philanthropy as a whole. As we are agents of change, that is one of the areas that we still have to continue to work on to change: legitimizing what the grants professional role is.
Steven Casey, MacArthur Foundation:
Sometimes I characterize it as a schizophrenic role. It’s a duality we face: We uphold the policies and values of the organization, but we also have to be a friend to that person on the phone or via email. I sometimes have to be real about what you cannot achieve through the grant that you desire, because I have to uphold the policies, procedures, rules, and regulations that we work within.
To your point, Roland, I’m not sure the duality we face day to day on the front lines is valued in the higher pecking order. We have one of the few roles within the philanthropy space where we are both interfacing with the public [and with foundation leadership]. We are that conversation. In some cases we are a friend but we are also a foe, and that sometimes is not valued by all.
Being a Black male in that day-to-day role comes with its own challenges, based upon the way society views you in general. You cannot be over-animated in some cases. You cannot necessarily speak the way you may speak on a Saturday.
You cannot always be yourself because you’ve got to fit within the construct of the role you were hired for, but certainly you have to be true to yourself. It is a precarious perch to be on every day, because in some cases, the color of your skin and the gender you possess leads before what you have to say.
It’s a delicate balance, what it takes to be in this space, in Grants Management. Place Black male on top of that: It is a daily struggle. The communities we fund are the communities in which we live. In some cases, the perspectives that we share in the office aren’t how our communities see things from the bottom up. So in some cases, it is a precarious position we have to uphold, but I think that the right tools, as well as sharing amongst us, brings [us] that courage that Marcus referenced.
Richerd Winton, William Davidson Foundation:
Where I work, I’m the only professional person of color. So in terms of the ideas of power, and how it plays in structural biases, implicit biases, and what have you, it’s a heavy burden to be the only person representing your community.
How it can be an everyday struggle: Here in Detroit, where I’m from, it is very evident what issues our society is facing. But in terms of how it plays out currently, talking about COVID and being the only person of color – it’s a heavy burden to always be the one to say, “Hey, well, what about my community?” or “What about the other people who aren’t present in this office and aren’t present in this conversation?” It’s a heavy burden to always have [to summon] the courage, to call it out.
I would say to philanthropy: Open the door. Wanting to get into this work, I applied to many foundations in Michigan, almost all of them. The few interviews I got were because I knew somebody there, and they opened the door for me. So I just think about that: The door is closed, how can I open it? Start from there. Maybe ask some colleagues of color how you might be able to do that.