Recently, grantmaking professionals across the Southeast headed to the Lowcountry for two days of learning, growing, and connecting at the PEAK Southeast Regional Chapter Summit in Charleston, SC. Record-setting temperatures (90-plus degrees in October!) weren’t the only things heating up the conversation—a day of site visits in North Charleston, followed by a day of workshopping DEI practices, brought up tough questions about equity, change management, and the roles we have to play.
Plenty of pearls were shared, but the ones I’m taking home to string along the thread of my work come from four incredible people who are walking the talk when it comes to equity:
“Change happens at the speed of trust.”
Jamee Haley, Executive Director of Lowcountry Local First (LLF), whose Good Enterprises Initiative helps residents from resource-poor areas of North Charleston launch their own small businesses, shared with us how her organization struggled at first to make in-roads in the community. “We found that if you invite people to an event and they don’t see anyone who looks like them, they don’t come back,” Haley said. For LLF, building trust meant diversifying its staff and board to look more like the community. They haven’t had trouble filling an empty seat since.
“Communities have always had both gifts and liabilities. Healthy communities call forth the gifts.”
Reverend Bill Stanfield, CEO of Metanoia, taught us about asset-based development, the key to Metanoia’s work revitalizing the blighted Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood. Traditional charity, the kind that focuses only on meeting needs, can starve a community of capacity, said Rev. Stanfield. Metanoia focuses instead on community assets (rather than weaknesses) to build success. Metanoia’s current project—turning an abandoned school building into a state-of-the-art facility with a theater, artist studios, and early learning classrooms—beautifully illustrates how this approach can transform a community liability into an asset for equitable, sustainable change.
“In order for people to think differently, they have to see it.”
Germaine Jenkins, Chief Farm Officer of Fresh Future Farm, an urban farm and grocery store sowing food access in a food desert, turned our notions of farming upside down. Her 0.8-acre plot, which started as a patch of scrubby grass, today sprouts banana trees, sweet potatoes, okra, and more—all planted above ground, without soil, on a carpet of cardboard and wood chips. Since 2016, the tiny, nontraditional farm has supplied 17 tons of groceries to community members, who can qualify for discounts between 30 and 100 percent. Jenkins showed us the power of dreaming outside the box, and how we can change people’s attitudes toward equity by setting an example.
“Equity is not a one-and-done conversation.”
In our Day Two workshop, Melissa Sines, Programs and Knowledge Director for PEAK Grantmaking, challenged us to think deeply, and question critically, our attitudes, policies, processes, and practices. Do our foundations’ stated values include diversity, equity, or inclusion? Do we recognize and work to reduce bias? Are we collecting demographic data to understand our impact? Who is included in our circle of trust and decision-making, and who is left out? How can we increase and support diverse leadership both inside and outside our doors? There are no easy answers in DEI work, but Sines encouraged us to stay engaged, get comfortable being uncomfortable, and keep speaking truth.
Leaving Charleston, one Summit participant remarked, “This was the best professional development experience I’ve had.” We’re immensely thankful for the team that made this event possible: Amelia Holcombe of the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation for helping with on-the-ground coordination, PEAK Southeast Program Chair MJ Thorne for leading the charge on planning, and BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina for sponsoring lunch and happy hour.
We hope everyone walked away feeling energized, inspired and empowered. In the meantime, PEAK Southeast is here to cheerlead, swap stories, or talk shop as we push forward (all together now!) to a more equitable future.