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Tackling the Racism Conversation

Tackling the Racism Conversation

Friday, December 7, 2018

When I was seminar director a while back for Leadership New Jersey (now Lead New Jersey ), one of the most effective consciousness-raising exercises we did started with everyone in that year’s class standing in the middle of a big room and holding hands with the person to the right and left. Then came a series of questions, with instructions to take a step back or forward, depending on your answers. For example, if you answered “yes” to “have you ever been called a credit to your race,” you stepped back. If you answered “no” to “has a store employee ever followed you around while you shopped,” you took a step forward.

It was gut wrenching to see how hard people tried to hold each other’s hands while the experiential divide widened as the race/ethnicity questions went on. I’ll never forget two things that came out in the debriefings after the exercise. One was a white person breaking down in tears at the revelation that his skin color had given him more privilege than he’d ever imagined. The other was a person of color saying the only reason he wasn’t standing farther back than the absolute back of the room, was because there was a wall there.

The Council tackled these conversations in our Race, Racism and Ramifications for Philanthropy learning journey that wrapped up earlier this year.

It’s important because opportunities for us to see the lack of racial equity in our society and culture remain all too frequent. Some are blatant and others are subtle.

The Council’s Investment Forum for Foundations and Endowments on November 7 included several such moments. One came when keynote speaker Kim Y. Lew, chief investment officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, showed a group photo of the investment team she manages that was the picture of diversity. Another moment came when the luncheon panel discussing the market outlook took the stage. It was a different picture: five white men. That didn’t go unnoticed. The next speaker on the agenda, an accomplished female investment firm executive, made a plea for future Investment Forum panels to more accurately reflect the state we live in.

She was right, of course. New Jersey is one of the nation’s most diverse states. But its public school systems are among the nation’s most segregated, because of where people live. (CNJG provided a funders briefing about that, too, this year.)

At Taft Communications, where I’m a senior director, we commission an annual New Jersey State of Diversity poll on diversity that found people in our state are much more likely to run into people of another race or ethnicity at work than where they live. That gap is shrinking but it’s still profound.

Maybe the industry from which panelists at our Investment Forum are drawn isn’t as diverse as some others. But for us, as hosts of the event, to leave it there would be a cop out. We need to do better, to look harder — and we will.

Finally, I also want to encourage you to join us at the Annual Meeting and Holiday Luncheon on December 14. Much of what I shared above squarely connects with an organization’s values and mission. The focus of both our pre-meeting workshop and the annual gathering’s keynote panel is “living out your mission.” At the morning workshop, PEAK Grantmaking will help us dive deep into how foundations can put values-based grantmaking into practice; the afternoon discussion with our panelists will share how they live their mission and vision in areas beyond grantmaking. I look forward to seeing you.

Jon Shure, Interim President/CEO
Council of New Jersey Grantmakers