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December 20, 2013 / Christian Clansky

Philanthropy can’t wish its way out of inequality

By Lindsay Smith
Consultant, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Unconscious Bias

“We can’t volunteer our way out of this, we can’t charity our way out of this, we can’t wish our way out of this.”

That was Dr. Gail Christopher’s message for WRAG members at a recent program on unconscious bias. “The work of creating opportunity for all is far from done,” she said. But nothing short of a transformation in how we relate to one another will allow our nation to truly become a place in which there is equal opportunity for all.

According to Dr. Christopher, who heads the America Healing initiative at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, this starts with an understanding that centuries of racial injustices created inequities that persist today. While the laws that sanctioned segregation are gone, racism continues to exist, often manifesting itself in subtle and often unconscious ways.

To illustrate this, Dr. Christopher shared the story of a judge who didn’t believe that the sentences he gave the juvenile offenders could be influenced by bias. After taking an implicit association test and seeing the results, he carefully reviewed sentences handed down for similar offenses in his court. He found that, in fact, he had been giving harsher sentences to juvenile offenders of color. Although it may seem ironic that the judge was African-American, the story demonstrates that unconscious bias is pervasive.There is research that corroborates stories like this one.

Unconscious or implicit bias has been shown to impact the quality of medical treatment that people of color receive, treatment in the criminal justice system, and more. Given philanthropy’s concern for fairness and well-being for all, raising awareness and finding solutions to this problem is critical for the entire WRAG community.

Putting knowledge into practice

In addition to hearing from Dr. Christopher, funders had the opportunity to meet a surprise guest – La June Montgomery Tabron, present-elect of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Tabron has been with the foundation for nearly 27 years. Over the course of her career, she has witnessed firsthand the on-going journey that the foundation’s staff and board have undertaken to promote understanding and racial healing.

Over the last quarter-century, the foundation has worked to intentionally match their structure and behavior with their philanthropic goals. A key part of the process has been to build a staff and board that reflect the diversity of the country’s population. The goal, Tabron said, has been a careful reorientation of the foundation’s mission to reflect its support for racial equity.

As funders in our region continue the conversation, a key next step is for foundations to look at their own composition and policies and to make sure that they reflect their commitments to equity.

Three points

For those of you who missed the event, WRAG President Tamara Copeland sat down with Dr. Christopher after and asked her to summarize her most important points in two minutes. Check out the video here.

Lindsay Smith is the consultant to the Washington Regional Convergence Partnership (WRCP), a group of grantmakers and WRAG members committed to advancing an understanding of the importance of including equity in the conversation about building our region’s food system. With WRAG’s help, the WRCP developed and co-hosted this session on unconscious bias.


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