One foundation's racial equity journey

Monday, August 10, 2020

In December 2015, I traveled to Durham, North Carolina, for a convening of colleagues from our host city, along with Cleveland, New Orleans and Detroit, organized through a Forward Cities initiative focused on inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship. Forward Cities provided a unique opportunity for Burton D. Morgan Foundation to deepen its understanding of what it means to create opportunities for all through entrepreneurship. We toured American Underground startup hub, visited Hayti (historic African American community founded after the Civil War), Black Wall Street and North Carolina Central University (first publicly funded liberal arts school for Blacks in the country). We learned about neighborhoods bisected and decimated by highway construction during urban renewal initiatives of the mid-20th century. We listened to stories of Blacks working in the community today rebuilding neighborhoods through entrepreneurship, strength and gumption.

 

It was against this backdrop that I experienced my first Racial Equity Institute (REI) training with Forward Cities colleagues gathered that week in Durham. We sat in a large circle for three hours working through elements of the Groundwater approach and sharing stories and perspectives with each other. We learned about Black history and the impact structural racism has on individuals, families, communities and businesses. We also learned about the sheer force of will and entrepreneurial spirit of Black communities that equip them to persevere despite all the roadblocks thrown in their path. I was honored to share this powerfully moving experience with my Forwa rd Cities colleagues. The following year, Burton D. Morgan Foundation helped to fund the first REI trainings in Akron. I have now participated in three additional REI trainings, each one galvanizing my will to be an agent of inclusive change. Since that important day I have continued my journey, mistakenly thinking I was heading to a destination, that all would eventually become clear and I could say I was fully aware and fulfilling my social responsibilities to build more equitable systems and opportunities.

I now recognize that this learning journey will never be complete. As Robin DiAngelo says in her book, White Fragility, “[i]nterrupting the forces of racism is ongoing, lifelong work because the forces conditioning us into racist frameworks are always at play; our learning will never be finished.” Once I fully embraced this notion that ongoing learning and reinforcement would be required, I felt more at peace and ready for the journey ahead.  

I feel fortunate to work in the field of philanthropy because it gives me opportunities to learn, grow and support our community in ways that advance racial equity. As president of the foundation, I know I have special responsibility for building my individual capacity to counter racism. As a philanthropic funder, our organization is in a unique position to be a leader in influencing the dynamics that combat structural racism. Given this position of influence, I believe we have a heightened responsibility to weave deeper understanding of racial equity and social justice into the breadth of our work.

This spring, our board expressed a desire to expand beyond inclusive entrepreneurship grantmaking to make grants directly focused on racial equity as a means to support the community and build our competencies. Among the grants approved, the foundation created the Racial & Diversity Awareness Initiative to provide funding for Northeast Ohio nonprofit organizations to engage board and staff members in racial equity training.

We are approaching our own organizational learning from many different angles aimed at having a lasting and transformational impact on how we work. In July, our foundation staff tackled a group read and discussion of an essay that grapples with race and inclusion facilitated by Ann K. Smith, founder of Books@Work. This experience provided one more step in our intentional journey to better understand how our organization can influence decisions aimed at ending structural racism. We read the essay Dragon Slayers by Jerald Walker, a Black writer and academician, about the events that helped him gain his voice for telling stories of strength and survival that sustain and empower Black communities.  

Our staff team wrestled with the poignant messages this story conveyed. At the start of our virtual session, we shared our reactions to the story. There were no wrong answers – just honest and open sharing about complex issues in a safe space. We discussed the life experiences of the author as he evolved his writing to focus less on “dragons” that had plagued his journey and more on the “swords” he crafted in order to move forward. Together we focused on the spirit of survival rather than on practices of oppression. We were able to relate our work helping people to build entrepreneurial skills as akin to equipping doers with swords of strength.

And so our journey continues looping back on itself reinforcing lessons from the past, shining a brighter light on persistent problems that undermine inclusion and energizing us to forge ahead in pursuit of a more equitable world with meaningful opportunities for all ignited by entrepreneurial thinking and doing. 

Deborah D. Hoover
President & CEO, Burton D. Morgan Foundation

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