A Message from CEO Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

Friday, May 14, 2021

A Message from CEO Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

Dear Colleague,

I live in an old house. When we opened the walls five years ago to replace the windows, I was astounded to find ancient newspaper stuffed into the cracks! Somehow, my understanding of insulation materials did not include crumpled pages filled with news stories from the 1890s.  

What would we find if we opened the walls of our nation’s structures? Tucked inside is a different cache of stories, documenting resilience and solidarity among the individuals most marginalized — by colonization, slavery, immigration law, and policy. Nikole Hannah-Jones illustrates the essential role their stories have played throughout our nation’s history in her observation on the contributions of Black Americans in The 1619 Project: “Without [their] idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all.”  Yet these stories are often plastered over with legends of rugged individualism in a wild land and myths of wealth built on meritocracy and hard work — forming a misleading narrative of a democracy that works for all.  

My colleague Marlon Williams frequently reminds us of the principle of Sankofa. This metaphorical symbol and saying used by the Akan people of Ghana represents the importance of summoning wisdom and learning from the past and bringing it into the present to make positive progress. As we confront social and economic disparities that reinforce racial inequity, Sankofa inspires us to bring forth the difficult truths that are omitted from our widely held historical narrative; only in doing so can we begin to build a stronger, more equitable future.  

In other words, this is A Time of Reckoning. It is looking back to move forward. It is active learning and unlearning. And, it is the theme of Philanthropy New York’s Annual Meeting on June 3rd

Two years ago, Philanthropy New York marked its 40th anniversary with Reframing Philanthropy. Together we examined how the philanthropic sector was built on historical and capitalist wrongs, the effects of which endure through tax codes and incentives that concentrate wealth and decision making in the hands of a few. Now, as we enter our 42nd Annual Meeting, we reflect on a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic and racialized brutality have brought these structural inequities into vivid detail. In philanthropy, we must reckon with the past before we can move into a mindset and posture to engage in a different kind of work — the work of building a new set of practices that are essential to the creation of a more equitable, sustainable, and democratic society.   

At the heart of this work — and the focus of our main panel on June 3rd — is a fundamental shift in how we view and use our power as individuals and institutions. Leadership, as Philanthropy New York has defined it in our values, is breaking down barriers and creating pathways to exercise influence and become agents of change. Leadership is examining what power we hold, and how it can be shared. We each have personal agency in this exercise and can lead from whatever space we occupy. This process doesn’t have to generate fear or a sense of loss; as Vanessa Daniel of the Groundswell Fund has said, “Relinquishing dominance is not the same as being marginalized and listening is not the same as being silenced.” 

Are you ready to look back so that you can move forward in a new and more powerful way of philanthropy? Join us on June 3rd, as we reflect in community on the stories we often don’t hear and learn from and with those who have relinquished power to transform how philanthropy creates impact.  Together, let’s identify how we can be accountable to everyone’s story and reimagine a new way forward.  

I am eager to be in regular conversation with Philanthropy New York members and welcome your reflections, ideas, and feedback.

With gratitude,

Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

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