Philanthropy in Focus

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Philanthropy in Focus
By: Shamira Lukomwa, Public Policy Fellow, Philanthropy New York.

This time last year was drastically different for us all. Personally, I was just three months into my fellowship and quickly becoming aware of just how busy fall at PNY can be. Reflecting back on that time now often feels like a distant memory - a feeling I’m sure that many of us can relate to. It was a time of many firsts and much learning, understandably, as someone working in philanthropy for the first time. I was learning about the fundamentals of the sector and our vast membership; learning the dynamics of and how to best support the three working groups I oversee; and learning about the opportunities that exist for this sector to make real, transformative impact through strategic, equity-centered investments and advocacy.  
I spent most of early 2020 preparing for Foundations on the Hill, an annual convening that provides an opportunity for foundations to build relationships with their elected officials and inform them of their impact and of sector-wide concerns. Together with a small delegation of members, we chose to spend our visits with each Congressional office sharing PNY members’ impact on and commitment to combating homelessness, providing affordable, supportive housing and ensuring a fair and accurate census count. As we traveled to Washington, DC that first weekend in March - just days before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the U.S. entered a state of emergency – we knew that these issues were vitally important but could not anticipate how they would become even more so in the coming weeks and months.  
Now, seven months later, I’m reminded of an analogy my co-fellow Kimberly recently shared about 2020 being the year of 20/20 vision. As someone who wears glasses, I’m intimately aware of the limitations of my own bare eyes. Without them, some things might appear fuzzy, other things, I might even miss entirely. But when I finally slip them on, nothing about the scene in front of me has changed - it has simply been brought into focus.  
Like peering through a telescope, the compounding impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting public health and economic crises, have forcibly brought a number of existing inequities into focus. Inequities - ranging from racialized health and educational disparities to the unremittent killing of unarmed Black people - that have plagued our nation for decades.  
Before this moment, it might have been easy to gloss over certain injustices, especially those not directly impacting you. But what happens when the entire country, indeed the entire world, is forced to press pause and focus on the same issues at the same time?  
What truths are we forced to confront?  
Do we begin to uncover how our actions or inaction have contributed to inequitable systems?  
Do we become emboldened to act?  
Over these past seven months, I’ve witnessed how quickly federal and philanthropic dollars have been mobilized in response to the pandemic. I was inspired by the way that many of our members quickly sought to collaborate, pool resources and increase giving to essential nonprofits and service providers. Because each of us is living through this pandemic, the urgency of responding to COVID-19 is something we can collectively agree upon. But does that same urgency translate to dismantling the long standing and systemic social inequities that have exacerbated COVID-19 infections and mortality - especially among Black and Brown communities?  
As a sector, the answer has to be a resounding yes.   
To be sure, the philanthropic sector cannot dismantle systemic racism on its own, but it can invest resources into Black and Brown activists and organizers who are already doing the work. It can fund policy advocacy as a lever towards systemic change. It can - with renewed vision - commit to boldly giving and doing more.