Building Our Equity Muscles

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

A Message from CEO Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

Dear Philanthropy New York members, 

Growing up, I was not an athlete. I found running in my late 30’s when challenged by a group of colleagues to run the Brooklyn Half Marathon. At the time, I couldn’t run a full mile without stopping. Three boardwalk finishes later, I am still learning to appreciate the practice and the ways that my body must break down in order to build something stronger.

Many of you recently started your own marathon training of sorts, by attending a Race Forward training hosted by Philanthropy New York. I remember our first all-staff racial equity training. When we began scoping action steps, Race Forward encouraged us to pick up a “three-pound weight” and exercise with it before moving on to heavier and more difficult work. Six years later, we are still developing our muscles in awkward and uncomfortable ways but we are also beginning to appreciate how equity work can help us run a more joyful and fulfilling race.

Like so many, I’ve found career success in identifying the “right” way to get things done. In every role I’ve held, I’ve been rewarded for getting things done on time in the form that was expected. I found comfort in this clean, controlled, predictable approach — one that is characteristic, in many ways, of white supremacy culture. But just as the only way to build a stronger muscle in your body is to start by tearing apart the muscle fiber, I’ve found that racial equity work undoes the tightly knit fibers of my professional “best practices”. Equity work asks me to unlearn my conflict-avoidant tendencies and use conflict as a tool of growth and change. Learning requires that I give up the comfort of the familiar to embark on a journey without knowing exactly what the destination looks like and support a team in navigating that unknown terrain together. Leadership demands that this team seek out wisdom along the way from the people whose knowledge and expertise have not been centered in the past. 

Building our equity muscles: putting principles into practice 

Our current work to craft Philanthropy New York’s next Strategic Direction is testing our developing equity muscles at every turn.  

  • We’ve had to restrain ourselves from defining a plan that is prescriptive and detailed. In this liminal moment, we keep pushing ourselves to set a direction that allows for iteration. 
  • We are trying to lean into, as opposed to away from, ideas that create tensions between the way we exist now and the way we say we want to be.
  • We will seek the collective wisdom of a group of members whose lived experience informs their analysis of power and avoid defaulting to overemphasizing input from members who hold traditional positions of authoritative leadership. 
  • We recently recognized a need to slow down and resist the sense of self-manufactured urgency to make room for deeper engagement and sense-making in the process. 

There have been moments when this work felt messy and I longed for the comfort of a plan that is neat and simply charts the road ahead with mile markers along the way. Recognizing these tendencies tells me that while I’m getting stronger, I still have a lot of retraining to do. And you may recognize some of these qualities within yourself. If so, let’s do this together.

Supporting members in your own equity journeys

As with any change in practice, Philanthropy New York aspires to support you as you wade through what I affectionately refer to as “the muck” — the place between our intentions and vision and our current state of being. The muck can also be the place where uncertainty and deep discomfort combine to dissuade us from continuing the work. That’s why in 2022 we will launch our Racial Equity Working Group — a space designed to support the folks inside your foundations who are navigating and championing racial equity work. This working group is unique among PNY’s offerings in that it is designed as a space to navigate the inevitable tensions that arise in this work and to coach and be coached to stay in the muck. We will also team up with the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project and the Philanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia to bring you a six-month deep dive experience to explore how your foundation can shift power and build mutually accountable relationships that can transform your work and generate a new map for our collective vision of a more equitable, sustainable, and democratic society. 

I want to express my appreciation to our members for making Philanthropy New York the community you trust to exercise new muscles. You’ve shown up to learn, build community, and shape and share leadership throughout 2021. We are each other’s running partners as we seek to go a great distance. I also want to thank our tremendously talented staff and our dedicated and thoughtful board, who make our work possible and have made the space and provided the grace for this organization’s transition to new leadership amidst an evolving pandemic. I wish you and your loved ones a peaceful end of the year, and I look forward to 2022 and the promise of navigating new terrain together!

With gratitude,
Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham



P.S. - Philanthropy New York will be slowing down the last two weeks of December and the first week of January to collectively take a pause and support rest and wellness within the organization. Our offices will be closed from December 24 to January 3, and we will be operating with limited staffing the week before and after.


Find More By