An open letter to community foundations

It’s been almost three weeks since the death of George Floyd in the United States; three weeks that have seen persistent protests and demonstrations take place around the world demanding an end to systemic racism and a fundamental reform of the systems and institutions within which it is entrenched. In Canada, the shooting deaths of Chantal Moore and Rodney Levi are staunch reminders that, despite the narrative we so often hear, systemic and institutional racism is far from a uniquely American reality.

As these calls are being made across the country, my colleague Andrea Dicks and I have been having conversations almost daily with community foundation leaders, many reaching out to ask questions like “what do we do?” or “how do we respond?”

As we’ve been exploring these questions over the past three weeks as a network, it’s painfully obvious that the questions aren’t new, nor is a recognition of the issues that prompt them.

In 2017, during Canada’s sesquicentennial, we hosted the Belong 2017 Conference, an event at which many of you were in attendance. It was my fifth community foundation conference and first as CEO of Community Foundations of Canada. As a part of that event, I moderated a panel called “Vital Conversations on Belonging” with Desmond Cole, Senator Ratna Omidvar and Natan Obed, a panel widely identified as the most provocative and disruptive of that conference, and perhaps of any of the previous four conferences I attended. Allow me to summarize a few key points provided by the panel.

  • Desmond Cole shared stories about the adverse treatment of Black and brown migrant workers in Canada, and criticized Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson for his response to the killing of Abdirahman Abdi by the Ottawa Police Services, almost a year earlier.
  • Senator Omidvar, talked about how charities use people of colour to tokenize their Boards, in particular Boards surround themselves with people “like” themselves. And “like” gets in the way of inclusion.
  • Natan Obed identified how power and privilege has been used to further disenfranchise and marginalise Indigenous peoples across Canada.

In the weeks and months that followed, this sentiment was shared again and again by community foundation leaders and board members. One speaker in particular, Desmond Cole, was said to have caused many to feel particularly uncomfortable with a few going so far as to question our creating the space for his perspectives on institutional and systemic racism in Canada, especially during our 150th year as a country – a year for celebration! The feedback was exclusively from one demographic (white people)…at a conference called “Belong”.

For many in our network, Belong 2017 helped frame a critical conversation about equality, justice, truth and reconciliation that is being carried forward by many BIPOC staff, board members, leaders and allies across our network. These conversations in many ways question core assumptions about philanthropy and have played an important role in centring diverse voices and shifting power and resources in response to pervasive inequality in our communities.

Belong 2017 was also the start of a different, quieter series of conversations with many in our network urging me, as the new CEO, to refrain from embracing “activism” and taking on issues of social justice, human rights, and inequality. These types of topics, I was told, may upset donors or inhibit our ability to attract new endowments. Many politely identified that CFC seemed to be stepping into these new spaces now that they have a CEO of colour. A few even asked me what my white male co-leader (at the time) thought of all this? Surely, he would see things differently. Hmm, not quite!

As a rookie leader, it felt right at the time to be cautious, to listen and to meet people where they were. Today, I realize I lacked the fortitude then to take on an establishment that I am a part of, one that veils the hegemonic ideology of endowment-based philanthropy with capital accumulating incentives with the brand of community; an establishment that can value donors over the lived experience of community members; a philanthropy that leaves people behind.

At the conclusion of Belong 2017, the majority of our movement had no response for Desmond Cole’s call to action except one of minimization, deflection and criticism. We treated him as an overzealous activist with an agenda. We claimed moral high ground in asserting that “we are the community foundation movement; we are neutral; we know our communities better than any and embrace inclusiveness and belonging. We are good.” Clearly, we did not know our communities well enough. If we did, we would have affirmed Desmond Cole as speaking the truth; we might have done more to act over the past three years, and; we might have had more to say over the past three weeks.

Today, I can confidently say to those critics, there is plenty of work to be done. Systemic and institutional racism is alive in Canadian philanthropy. As a person of colour, it has been part of my experience in this sector and it’s something I continue to witness and experience daily.

During my extensive travels across Canada, I often find myself in conversation with Board Chairs, CEOs and Executive Directors from the community foundation movement. In many cases, I am the only BIPOC person at the table. This observation takes place in a movement claiming to represent the most diverse set of communities on the planet. It takes me back to Senator Ratna Omidvar’s reflection about “like” getting in the way of inclusion.

In our most recent conversations with community foundation leaders, many signaled actions like increasing granting to Black-led organizations, building deeper relationships with BIPOC communities and using our voice to show solidarity to the unique issues facing racialized Canadians. These are all important responses and we should pursue each and every one. 

But they are also actions that reflect only what we choose to do now in community, not who we are and where we come from as a network. The challenge of systemic racism is not one we will tackle through grants. It’s one that requires us to take a look in the mirror (figuratively and literally – we might notice something), to look inward, and to ask ourselves some tough questions: 

  • Why have we been apprehensive to embrace social justice? 
  • Why do we go silent when asked about our own power and privilege?
  • Why do we fail to acknowledge how our own business model perpetuates inequality?
  • Why did we ignore Desmond Cole? 

Our last few conferences, through the efforts and leadership of BIPOC individuals and allies across our extended network, have aimed to provide space for young, Indigenous and diverse voices from across Canada to explore these questions with us. Many of you have embraced the discomfort and provocative voices as points of inflection for personal and institutional change. Others have asked me to bring back the “white guys in blue suits”. 

We can no longer follow the established norms of donor primacy, over emphasis on endowment growth or comforting our Board of Directors as an excuse for the status quo. We must step into the space of understanding who we are and how we are perpetuating racism in Canada through our own actions and behaviours.

Before we make any public leadership claim about racial tolerance or embracing diversity, we must first look in the mirror and ask those questions of ourselves, our board members, our donors and our leaders. This is work we’re taking seriously at CFC, and it’s work we intend to do alongside all of you in the days, weeks and months ahead. With belonging at the core of our purpose, it is imperative that we listen, act, and evolve now. Anything less and we’re complicit.

Post updated on June 17, 2020