Our Path to a Just and Equitable New Jersey - The long and winding road of transformation

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Our Path to a Just and Equitable New Jersey - The long and winding road of transformation
By: Tanuja M. Dehne, President and CEO, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

There is no guidebook for leading a foundation through transformational change, particularly when that change comes amidst a global pandemic and a national reckoning on racism. Yet, those ground-shaking events have only further strengthened our resolve to pursue the course that we began setting five years ago — seeking a more just and equitable New Jersey. What we have experienced and learned in this time has changed us beyond what we ever imagined. 

At the Dodge Foundation, we refer to our transformation as Imagine A New Way. In reality, we are more than imagining. We are trying and practicing new ways to center our work with intentionality and action toward racial equity and justice. And we are trying and practicing new ways to operate as a philanthropic institution that is more just, regenerative, and that shifts more power and economic control to communities.

Our grantmaking focus is evolving, and many steps lie ahead. Despite its vibrant diversity, New Jersey has the largest racial wealth gap in the United States due to past and present discrimination in housing, education, environmental protection, the justice system, and other aspects of life. We’ve learned that we cannot achieve our philanthropic mission, nor can our state achieve its full potential, without addressing racial inequity and injustice.   

Based on all that we have learned to date, and with a spirit of openness and respect for the communities that we serve and hope to serve, we recently shared that we will be directing the Foundation’s time, energy, and resources toward efforts that address root causes and repair of structural racism and inequity in New Jersey. Going forward, we will prioritize networks, movements, organizations, and leaders closest to the harms of inequities and who have been historically excluded from investment and opportunity. 

At the same time, we concluded that we must transform the ways in which we provide support. We’ve begun that evolution by acknowledging philanthropy’s role in contributing to racial, ethnic, and other inequities over time.  Organizations led by and serving communities of color have been historically underfunded due to barriers in the ways that both information and foundation resources are managed and disseminated. Our shift in strategy calls upon us to enter new spaces with humility and - now more than ever - to rely on listening and learning.

Grantmaking operations have often also presented obstacles to accessing funding for smaller or less established organizations. To address these inequities, we are reviewing and changing our internal grantmaking processes to increase accessibility and remove unnecessary barriers.

Finally, the events of the last year have challenged us to learn new ways to build culture within our foundation. We are reviewing our internal policies with an equity lens, created space to deepen relationships, and participated as a staff and board in anti-racism learning. We incorporated wellness in our meetings with moments of gratitude, meditation, breathing, and movement; and found ways to acknowledge grief and loss while celebrating life’s happy moments. We added new leadership to the foundation, expanding the breadth and diversity of experience from which we can draw. And we have been learning and unlearning ways of working and communicating together. 

Transformation is unpredictable work and will not happen quickly or easily.  Like every journey of learning and growth, we know that it will include struggles and discomfort, as well as progress and joy.  We’ve been humbled by the graciousness amidst the understandable disappointment of many of our longstanding grantee partners whose important work no longer aligns with our strategic focus.  And we’ve been inspired by the commitment of our board and staff as they embrace complex change with sensitivity and openness. 

As relative newcomers to this movement, we are grateful to stand next to the many non-profits and funders who have been leading this effort for decades, as well as those who are newly supporting issues of racial equity and justice.  No one organization can transform and repair systems of inequity that are centuries in the making. 

But together, we might have a chance. 

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