Grantmaking Beyond Diversity and Inclusion to Structural Change

posted on: March 5, 2013

By Pat Brandes

This guest post is adapted from Barr Foundation executive director Pat Brandes’s opening remarks at a recent gathering (co-hosted by Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities) of the foundation’s grantees, staff and other colleagues. The gathering featured dr. john a powell, the Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion at Berkeley School of Law and author of Racing to Justice.

As part of her introduction of dr. powell, Pat’s remarks focused on the ways race still matters in Boston, on what – besides personal “grit”  resilience to climate change already depends on, and on Barr’s learning about moving beyond a focus on promoting diversity and inclusion to structural change.

Here’s a question to get us started. It was the opening line of a Boston Globe article (“A Sad Statistic that Endures”) that appeared a year ago December.

“How much does race still matter around here?”

The article was a response to a report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council called “The State of Equity in Metro-Boston.” It is a terrific piece of work I encourage you all to look at, even if it is full of grim statistics.

The one the article focused on most is that, in Greater Boston, a college-educated black woman is more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby than a white woman who didn’t finish high school.

Low Birth Weight by Race/Ethnicity and Educational Attainment. Source:MAPC

This kind of statistic is jarring. Aren’t education and social class supposed to erase these kinds of disparities?

This is one of the trickiest things about structural racism. As pernicious as it is, it can also be hard to see – especially for those of us who are white, if we live isolated in that dominant culture.

Sometimes it is a statistic like this that penetrates – one that shows us that there is something off, something missing in how we understand and talk about what the challenges really are.

And sometimes it takes a hurricane.

Some of you may have seen the piece I wrote about Hurricane Sandy (“Resilience – What I Learned from Hurricane Sandy”). It was based on the story of my parents, who are both in their 90’s, and how they became climate refugees as a result of the storm. They live by themselves on a barrier island off of Long Island. It is the story of what it took to find them, to get to them and to get them out and to safety.

Hurricane Sandy exposed the vulnerability of everyone that lived in low-lying areas in New York and New Jersey. But it also exposed the inequities between our haves and our have-nots.

Manhattan’s wealthiest 20 percent have incomes 40 times that of the poorest 20 percent. That puts New York City on par with places like Sierra Leone in terms of economic disparity. In the face of a storm like Sandy, it means that as the subways and trains started running again, and Manhattan was getting back to normal, thousands of people in public housing were still without heat, water, electricity or food.

The homeless population doubled to 80,000. Those with the fewest resources found themselves most vulnerable to the infrastructure failures.

No matter the circumstances, some people are always quicker than others to absorb disruptions like Sandy and bounce back. And it isn’t unusual for the most resilient to bounce back even stronger than before. Meanwhile, when others get knocked down, they stay down for a long time. Some never regain their footing.

Some of that resilience is personal – Do you believe in yourself enough that you can pull it off? Do you have enough grit? But resilience is not just personal.

It is also a product of our social networks – who we’re connected to, and the resources, ideas and aid they can bring to bear when we need it. My parents had a privileged social network to help them bounce back.

Social networks are woven together inside the structures of our lives – our neighborhoods, our professional associations, our academic pedigrees – all things that have a distinct opportunity profile and a racial profile.

All you have to do to see the structural racism exposed by Hurricane Sandy is to look at Haiti. This island wasn’t even in the storm’s direct path. Yet, its starting point in terms of resources was at such a disadvantage that the storm wiped out 40 percent of the autumn crop and put nearly 500,000 people at risk of severe acute malnutrition.

So leaving behind severe weather events, and looking at more statistics from the local status quo, in December at Barr, we looked at education data and what’s changed over the past five years at public schools in Boston.

I’ll give you the headline: After a lot of time, treasure, and talent focused explicitly on racial achievement gaps, there are some modest gains in some places on some measures.

But the overarching story is the same. The racial gaps persist.

So, why aren’t we seeing more change? Are we focused on the wrong problems? Are we pulling the wrong levers? Are there biases or structures we’re not even aware of that are getting in the way?

In 2007, the Barr Foundation agreed to subject itself to a new diagnostic for foundations that was developed by the Applied Research Center and the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (see: “Barr Foundation Racial Justice Analysis”). Its purpose was to help foundations like Barr – places that have vision statements that speak about justice – to gauge the extent to which we were actually approaching our work with a structural lens.

They spent months poring through all of our documents and grant files, speaking to many of you in focus groups, and gathering feedback via surveys. What did they find? I’ll give you some of the highlights.

We got good marks on diversity – For bringing it up with grantees, for making it clear we cared about the composition of their leadership and their boards, and for walking our talk in terms of who we hired for our own team.

But they also challenged us to see that diversity was just a first step, because you can change the composition of a team without changing the underlying structures that make it so common for people of privilege in positions of power to do things like complain about the lack of good talent that isn’t white or male – the need to gather “binders full of women” or whatever.

The other major insight for us from the racial justice assessment was about our strategies and our logic models – the things we use to describe the problems we’re focused on and what we think the path of change is.

In these, we would often be explicit about race when we were talking about the problems – for example, referencing the racial achievement gap in our education work. But when we got into the solution space, we invariably shifted to a “color blind” view – promoting solutions “for all children,” with the notion that a “rising tide lifts all boats.”

We learned how universal approaches like that can often, even if inadvertently, make things worse. A rising tide doesn’t help if you don’t own a boat. Think Katrina, New Orleans and who had cars and who didn’t to leave the city when the hurricane hit.

Since that initial racial justice assessment at Barr, we have revisited all our strategies and become explicit about race in our analysis and through more targeted solutions. For example, in our education work, we now focus attention to the specific geographic places and specific populations in the city where achievement disparities are the most pronounced.

For our work on climate change, however, it is less apparent how to apply a racial justice lens locally because the inequity is greatest at the global level – and also because our top-level goal in climate is to help Boston and Massachusetts meet aggressive targets and become national models for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A sub-goal is to ensure no group of residents is unfairly burdened by the cost, or excluded from the benefits of action to address climate change – like clean energy jobs, cost savings from energy efficiency, or communities becoming more walkable, bike-able and connected.

However, climate change is fundamentally a global issue. It causes us to look at race on a geopolitical and economic scale. Climate change is caused primarily by the carbon-emitting global north and will have its greatest and deadliest impacts on the global south, particularly Africa and Asia. This is because of geography but also because of the social and economic fragility of the poorest countries (again, think Haiti with Hurricane Sandy). While climate change is all about science, building climate resilience is often about social science and must be developed with a deep understanding of structural racism. It is the ability to do that analysis that makes all the difference in framing solutions.

Let me close my remarks here by referring back to the Globe article I mentioned earlier. It ends by saying “Segregation is not an act of God…. But it may take one to undo its effects.”

To that I say Amen! Because professor john powell is an act of God, and we are blessed that he is here as our guide into this discussion today. Blessed to have his insights and wisdom about how we got to where we are and what it will take from all of us to create fairness.

So, again, welcome. We are so glad you are here.

Pat Brandes is executive director of Barr Foundation.

To read more about the session that followed, read “Finding the ‘Just’ in Climate Work” by Mary Skelton Roberts, senior program officer at Barr.