Putting Racism on the Table

Tamara Copeland’s article is the latest in Successes of Philanthropy, a sponsored project of the Washington Monthly magazine.  To learn more about the series, please contact Alice J. Gallin-Dwyer at agallin@washingtonmonthly.com.


By Tamara Lucas Copeland
WRAG President

It started soon after the death of Freddie Gray.

Not the civil unrest that ensued in neighborhoods in Baltimore, Maryland, but the elevated racial consciousness that emerged within the philanthropic community in Washington, DC.

Philanthropic leaders here wondered if they should support neighboring Baltimore or work to lessen the likelihood of such an event occurring in their own community. It was 2015. Cell phone videos of other police-involved incidents across the country were the backdrop. Everyone knew that it wasn’t just Freddie Gray, but also Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and other African American victims. As foundation leaders began to dissect the situation in Baltimore within the context of these other deaths, topics of race, racism, and bias emerged side-by-side with issues of poor housing, poor schools, and poor health care.

What was new to the conversation, surprisingly, was the overlay of race. This was a significantly different conversation for the members of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers(WRAG), and a bit of a treacherous one. Those who attended the first meeting to discuss a response and possible next steps were comfortable talking about affordable housing, teacher preparation, and gang violence. They had discussed these topics and many others innumerable times, but race itself had been taboo. Now, these philanthropists—black and white, mostly women—were acknowledging that race and racism may have been a major factor in the death of Freddie Gray and the unrest that followed in his city.

The conversation stopped when one participant acknowledged a true lack of knowledge, not just about how racism and bias may have played a part in these events, but about racism and bias—period. The group members didn’t know much about what they were trying to discuss. They had a sense of it, but at no time in their professional lives or academic training had they sought to learn deeply or been taught about race and racism. A quote from John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause and the Independent Sector, was mentioned casually by one participant. It resonated and became the framing for everything that followed:

“The first step in leadership is not action, it’s understanding.”

Seeking Understanding Together

From that comment was born a year-long initiative boldly labeled “Putting Racism on the Table.” Organized and hosted by WRAG, it started as a series of six learning opportunities for philanthropic CEOs and trustees, once a month, for six months. The first three sessions focused on topics: structural racism, white privilege, and implicit bias. The next meeting explored a case study to show how those factors presented in one system (mass incarceration), followed by a review of the racial mosaic of America. The series ended with a session on the role of philanthropy in addressing racism and racial inequity. Each three-hour session began with a lecture by a nationally-known expert on the topic, followed by a conversation, all facilitated by the same person chosen for her adeptness at leading deep conversations on race.

After the learning series, there were five more training sessions: on grantmaking with a racial equity lens, on communicating about race; and a concluding session asking what this philanthropic community would do because of what they had learned over an exceptionally focused year. Participants called the initiative “transformational,” “thought-provoking,” and “eye-opening.”

Exactly what had been revealed? What in the thinking of these philanthropists, individuals committed to addressing the needs of their community, had been transformed? And, how had their approach to grantmaking been altered by their learning experience?

I offer two examples. Together, we learned that mass incarceration is the result of structural racism, white privilege and implicit bias in the criminal justice system. We started with a historical perspective, considering the consequences of slavery, followed by a host of racialized laws and practices that criminalized everyday behaviors and prevented African Americans from obtaining the skills and opportunities to rise, continuing their subservience to the prevailing white, economic system. Combine that historical reality with an understanding that some crimes have been penalized differently (possession of cocaine vs. crack is a classic example), and that prisons have developed into economic engines for small, rural communities, and you may begin to see mass incarceration differently. With this insight, what explains the disproportionate number of African Americans in the U.S. criminal justice system? Are they inherently more criminal or are they victims of a system that has criminalized them?
Or, consider the education system.

We explored how starting as early as preschool, black children, particularly boys, are disciplined for “acting out.” At the same time, black girls are disciplined for being “disrespectful” and perceived as “less innocent” than their white counterparts. Even at this young age, black children are suspended disproportionately from school. Is bias at play? Are teachers perceiving, perhaps unconsciously, normal behavior on the part of black children as being negative, even violent? Studies suggest that this is the case. Unless you have been made aware of this possibility, your focus as a funder remains on “fixing” these boys and girls when the true need is to “fix” the biases and prejudices held by teachers and school administrators.

Making Equity a Grantmaking Priority

Without the formal, structured learning series offered by “Putting Racism on the Table,” the local philanthropic community would not have looked deeply into the historical, psychological, and policy realities that contribute to the social ills they are trying to address. Many participants acknowledged that without this deep dive into structural racism and implicit bias, they would have continued to focus on symptoms without understanding causality. Learning together as a philanthropic community gave the experience a credibility and offered participants a critical support network.

Over the past two years, funders have continued to develop a deeper appreciation for the pervasiveness and impact of racial bias. In WRAG’s annual check-in with members, one year after the series, roughly a third reported that they were applying a racial equity lens to their grantmaking, and thirty percent were seeking additional learning and training opportunities for their staff and leadership around racial equity. Two years after the program, the progress continues: More than half of the funders are talking with their grantees about racial equity. Many more are seeking additional learning opportunities or changing their grantmaking priorities and practices—including, for example, setting aside dedicated funding to support this portfolio—based on a greater understanding of how they can work for racial equity. The importance of the collective learning experience remains, as a third of the WRAG membership are participating in learning and action via WRAG’s Racial Equity Working Group.

This progress now extends beyond the local philanthropy community. Leadership Greater Washington (LGW), a well-respected association of high-level, cross-sector leaders in the region, reached out to WRAG to broaden their understanding of this issue. Together, in 2018, WRAG and LGW hosted another six-month learning initiative. This time called “Expanding the Table for Racial Equity,” it culminated in September in a trip to Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, locales at the core of the civil rights movement. This experience strengthened participants’ understanding of the history of racial struggles and their connection to current racial reality in our country.

Today, in the Greater Washington region, there is a growing group of philanthropists that have been joined by elected officials, nonprofit, and business leaders in recognizing the depth, breadth, and impact of racism. They acknowledge the legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow policies, of the unfulfilled promise of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that separate was indeed not equal. They know that as a society, we have not legislated or mandated our way to equity, nor taken the time to understand how we got here. Until that occurs the path to equity remains unclear. But, they have taken important first steps. By putting racism on the table, they have acknowledged a wound and a reality. Now, they are working toward necessary policy change and racial healing.

Traveling from Memphis to Birmingham to take off our historical blinders

By Rebekah Seder
Senior Program Manager, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

In September, WRAG and Leadership Greater Washington are taking a group of funders and other civic leaders on a journey to learn firsthand about the Civil Rights Movement. We are traveling from Memphis to Birmingham, visiting sites of key activities, meeting with movement leaders and contemporary activists, and attending a number of museums and other institutions. I am incredibly excited about this trip. But, I suspect that some may be asking, “Why would 35 people whose careers are dedicated to improving the Greater Washington region travel to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama? Why, when the need to act on today’s problems is so urgent, would we be focusing on events of 50 years ago?”

Throughout WRAG’s two-and-a-half year examination of structural racism, “I just never learned about this” has been a constant refrain. I suspect that for many of my colleagues, especially those who, like me, attended predominantly white schools, our history education was similar. Certainly we learned key facts – the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Emancipation, Jim Crow. Then, we learned that the Civil Rights Movement happened, because a tired Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, a group of people marched from Selma to Montgomery, and Martin Luther King had a dream. Then, voila, America achieved racial equality.

This trip will open participants’ eyes to a much fuller story.

More than that, I think that this trip will begin to address a wrong that is perhaps more subtle than the many forms of racism that preoccupy our attention. The segregation of history – the idea that black history is somehow different and apart from American history, that the history of black Americans is not intrinsically intertwined with that of white Americans, and that it can be summed up in a chapter or two in a history textbook. A racism that flattens a rich and complex history, renders courageous and groundbreaking leaders as bit players, and writes a historical narrative that raises up white men as agents of change and black and brown people as those that history happens to. This way of imagining the past is like wearing blinders that make it impossible to see and understand the present.

I encourage WRAG members to consider what rewriting their understanding of history could mean for them personally, as well as professionally for their grantmaking and their engagement in the community. We know that it is a commitment of time and money. But, for those funders who are committed to advancing racial equity in our region and within their own institutions, I hope you will join me on this journey. I believe that this trip will be an investment that will pay dividends.


WRAG & LGW Members: Contact Rebekah Seder to learn more about this trip.

National League of Cities & WRAG Partner to Advance Racial Equity in the Greater Washington Region

The Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG) is pleased to announce that it will partner with the Racial Equity and Leadership (REAL) Initiative of the National League of Cities (NLC) to host a regional summit in 2019, tentatively called Race, Racism and the Future of Greater Washington.

Although the initiative is in its early stages, WRAG and REAL are excited for the chance to further racial equity in the region. Tamara Copeland, president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, shared her delight with the partnership with REAL. “We’ve been working at WRAG since late 2015 to position our region to engage in difficult conversations on race and racism. While learning was critical, it was never learning for learning’s sake. We have been strategically preparing philanthropy to be change agents and thought leaders. Now we are ready for action and want to engage with a much broader community to define and work toward a racially equitable region. We welcome the involvement of REAL.”

Both organizations have understood from the beginning of their respective work that neither the National League of Cities’ REAL initiative nor WRAG’s Putting Racism on the Table series alone would lead to racial equity. This partnership, however, is the seed of a larger idea to bring together people from multiple sectors – government, business, nonprofits, clergy, philanthropy, and academia – and other walks of life to examine the reality of structural racism in Greater Washington and to begin deep conversations and action to effect change.

“I believe that WRAG has laid a solid foundation with philanthropy and has now broadened into other sectors with its Putting Racism on the Table: Expanding the Table for Racial Equity initiative,” said Leon Andrews, director of Race, Equity and Leadership at NLC. “What happens in Greater Washington can be a model for how you build a multi-sector, informed cadre of leaders committed to and working for racial justice. We want to explore this approach for other cities and regions around the country. What better place to start than in the nation’s capital region?”

The work of both WRAG and REAL to promote racial equity was born from racially-charged incidents of violence. Following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent unrest, the National League of Cities created the Race, Equity and Leadership initiative to strengthen local leaders’ knowledge and capacity to eliminate racial disparities, heal racial divisions, and build more equitable communities. Similarly following the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the leaders of WRAG committed to extensive learning to better understand the depth, breadth, and impact of structural racism and implicit bias and to work for racial equity through its Putting Racism on the Table effort.

Broad conversations about parameters and vision for the 2019 summit will begin in June 2018, to be followed by the establishment of a planning committee with a one-year window. In 2019, the first regional summit on race and racism will launch a much deeper body of work to advance racial equity in the Greater Washington region.

How Philanthropy Can Work to Give All Black Men an Opportunity to Succeed


Over the past few days, I keep hearing — and thinking — about an important new study whose results the New York Times summed up in its headline, “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys.”

I was drawn to the study’s coverage for two reasons: The focus on black boys is of personal importance to me, and it’s part of my position supporting professionals in philanthropy. And I have long tried to encourage grant makers to award money for social change based on data about what works and what matters.

But what surprised me was the number of people who told me about the New York Times article, which distilled the findings in attention-grabbing graphics and words.

I had to wonder: Were those who shared it with me surprised by the Stanford, Harvard, and U.S. Census Bureau findings? Or were they just aware of my interest in the topic? I think it was a little of both, an FYI to a colleague and an “aha” moment similar to those engendered by recent cellphone videos of police violence.

And that’s what disturbs me. The evidence that black boys are not succeeding in America has been stunningly apparent for years — test scores, graduation rates, incarceration rates, income disparities, the list goes on and on. The desire to tackle this challenge even emanated from the White House with President Obama’s 2014 launch of My Brother’s Keeper. Don’t we know this data already?

Perhaps many do, but this new work demonstrates that the struggles of black boys and men in America really are about race, not class.

And it might have a powerful resonance because it shows that structural racism and implicit bias harm the sons of the black upper class, underscoring the reality that we — black people — are still judged by the color of our skin. This is not a problem that solely affects low-income communities. Although poverty compounds the effects, this study makes clear that in America, race determines our life outcomes far more than class.

Black Boys Aren’t Broken

The concept of race enters our thinking earlier than we may have assumed. Some suggest that the sense of racial hierarchy has been shown to be evident in 3- and 4-year-olds. And that notion of a racial hierarchy is reinforced by messages that portray black boys as criminal, weak learners, and lacking ambition. These messages have been inculcated into the American narrative for decades. We cannot pretend that it doesn’t exist in the postracial America that some imagine.

So now that this study has gotten people shocked enough to act, what will we do?

In my role as head of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, we will continue our Putting Racism on the Table effort to educate leaders about a side of our society — one built on structural racism and implicit bias — that many people do not know exists.

We started with grant-making executives, but we knew that even though philanthropic dollars can be catalytic, they alone cannot solve any problem, particularly one as entrenched as racism. Recently we joined with Leadership Greater Washington to expand Putting Racism on the Table to business, government, and nonprofit leaders.

The importance of helping leaders fully understand the realities of racism should not be minimized, but it often is. We feel the pressure to act fast, without taking the time to learn. But consider this: At no time have most of us received any formal education on structural racism and implicit bias. Some of us have firsthand experience with it, but we may not be able to identify it or know how insidious it is. And without this knowledge, we direct resources to the wrong places. We try to fix black boys. They aren’t broken. What is broken is the education system, the criminal-justice system, and many of the other societal structures that surround them with a false sense of racial hierarchy.

Steps to Take

America has made little effort to understand structural racism and implicit bias. Philanthropy has many opportunities to change that. It can:

Support research on how best to have difficult conversations about race. What strategies are most likely to work with business leaders, elected officials, and community leaders? How can we have the conversations that we have avoided for decades, if not centuries?

Commit to supporting broader and deeper educational efforts about structural racism and implicit bias. These sessions must be tailored to key audiences to ensure they receive the information in ways that will be meaningful. Those in positions of authority need to understand the reality of racism and its ramifications. It will be difficult and perhaps uncomfortable, but with skilled discussion leaders, these conversations can be had. This part of America’s past and present must be faced.

Award grants to media watchdogs. The media’s role in defining how we see black males in America is undeniable. We must begin to call out instances of prejudicial coverage and seek to support more balanced portrayals of black people, especially men and boys. The bias that exists has been nurtured and reinforced by media images and media coverage.

Finance examinations of how black people are portrayed in American history textbooks.Foundation grants can encourage and enable the creation of texts that present a comprehensive and more accurate recounting of the role that blacks have played in the making of America. As long as this role continues to be minimized, the position of blacks in the country can be, and will be, marginalized.

Examine racial equity in your grant making. You may be inadvertently perpetuating racial inequities unless you undertake an analysis to determine the racial impact of the projects you support. Positive intentions can sometimes lead to negative impact.

Establish scholarships for black men who want to become teachers. It is especially important to get more black men to become classroom instructors. As part of offering financial support for their training in teaching, organizations should urge them to commit to working in schools with high black populations.

Support research to examine systems in our country, such as education and criminal justice. Foundations can support work to determine how key systems across the country provide advantages and disadvantages to Americans based on their race. It can then support efforts to change those policies and practices that have led to these realities.

Beyond such efforts, grant makers can and must explore their own implicit biases — ones that may have contributed to a lack of support for grass-roots and black-led organizations working to correct racial disparities. And grant makers should examine their own policies and practices that may be grounded in implicit biases.

This is just a small sampling of the multiple ways in which philanthropy can promote racial equity. If it has the will, philanthropy can move this country to examine and to act on a topic that has been taboo.

When apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, the government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, not only to reveal and understand the atrocities that had occurred but also to facilitate movement toward healing. South Africa publicly acknowledged the wound and actively worked to foster understanding and healing. In the United States, we have never fully acknowledged the wound of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, redlining, preferential lending practices, and mass incarceration — some examples of structural racism and implicit bias that existed years ago, but continue, in some form or with vestiges today — all factors that bring us to the statistics revealed in the study.

We have been immersed in that all-encompassing sense of white is good and black is bad. We may not want to say those words out loud, but that is America’s truth. We must be explicit in our commitment to confront, to learn and to unlearn, and to build a just and equitable society. Government may not pave the way to healing in the United States as it did in South Africa. That’s all the more reason why philanthropy must lead the conversations and the actions that will contribute to America’s healing.

Why government needs to put racism on the table

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers 

Somewhere in elementary school, we all learned how a bill becomes a law. What we didn’t learn was how bias, perhaps unconscious, affects the decisions of lawmakers or how structural racism has been essentially hardwired into so many of the public policies that shape our lives.

Without stepping back to understand history, as Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, reminded a WRAG audience last week, we continue to perpetuate inequities while falsely believing that certain realities are created by happenstance or natural preferences. In reality, it is with intentionality that, throughout history, the federal government has played a powerful role in ensuring or preventing racial equity. Examples include presidential actions like the Emancipation Proclamation and Executive Order 9981 that desegregated the armed forces; Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sandford or Brown v. Board of Education; and, Congressional decisions like the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution and the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1964 to name just a few.

The governmental role is not limited to the federal government. State actions related to criminalization of offenses have been shown to have a disparate impact on people of color and even local level policies and regulations, particularly zoning regulations, have had a negative impact on communities of color. Efforts to address racial inequity will only succeed with the active engagement of government officials, both elected and appointed.

Toward that end, WRAG is pleased to partner with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) to begin a deliberately focused conversation with government officials in our region on this important topic. On December 1, 2017, WRAG and a larger coalition, is bringing GARE trainers to our region.

Our challenge is to get government officials to attend. The default response often is “I already know that. I know about redlining. I know about school segregation. I know. I know. I know.” The reality, however, is that without a structured examination, few of us really know what contributed to these realities, what the impact has been, and the imperative that must be expressed and acted upon to consciously make a change.

Government responds to the will of the people. We hope that you will use your voice to encourage your elected and appointed officials to demonstrate their commitment to racial equity by participating in this important training.

Last year, funders began their Putting Racism on the Table learning journey based on the insight of John Gardner: “The first step of leadership is not action; it’s understanding.” It’s time for government to begin this journey.

White people, it’s time to act

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Racism and racists have been put on the table in a powerful way since the recent events in Charlottesville.

When WRAG embarked upon the Putting Racism on the Table learning journey, we made a conscious decision to focus on implicit bias, white privilege, and structural racism. Our intent was to educate those who might have been blind to the ways in which society advantaged or disadvantaged one group of people over another. We wanted to work with those with a social conscious and a philanthropic platform to change their way of engaging on racial and social justice.

The death of Heather Heyer and the recent venomous statements from neo-Nazis and white supremacists have revealed a different side of racism. Personal animus, personal hatred, have been given permission to be publicly, proudly displayed.

What has been revealed is neither unconscious nor structural. This racism is personal. The hatred is primal. We cannot let what has been unleashed go unaddressed.

MLK silence quote. placardIn our work, we have talked about the importance of white allies. Allyship is not what is needed now. The white community must lead this charge. These white supremacists are from your communities, your churches, your schools, your work places, your families. They will listen to you, observe your actions, and possibly respect your opinions with a receptivity that I would never receive. You must use your voice to speak up, not simply in reaction to racists’ actions or statements, but proactively. You must discuss the ways in which people of color contribute to the good of our country. You must seek out doctors, lawyers, house-painters, mechanics – all types of service providers who don’t look like you, or love like you, or worship like you so that those around you can better understand the good and the talent that rests outside of the white, “Christian”* race. You must look for opportunities to proactively celebrate differences while being vigilant and counterbalancing the venom that is being openly spewed today.

No one can be silent.

*I put Christian in quotes only because I do not believe that these individuals practice Christianity in the way that I was raised, but they do put their Christian faith above all other faiths.

Racism isn’t just in America: Three Degrees of Separation in Italy

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Some of you may remember the name Lucy Lawless. She played Xena: Warrior Princess in the late ‘90s, early 2000s and more recently had a recurring role in the TV show Parks and Recreation. I have to admit that while I had heard of both shows, I wasn’t a regular fan of either and didn’t know the name Lucy Lawless, but a few days ago our paths crossed geographically and philosophically.

Lucy Lawless and I are both in Lucca, Italy, a city in Tuscany about an hour south of Florence. I suspect that we are both here for the same reasons: rest, relaxation and renewal in a city known for its beauty. One of the charms of Lucca is its medieval walled city full of interesting shops, great food, beautiful churches and magnificent public art. Having been to Italy a couple of times before, on this trip, I noticed the large number of black and brown people in all of the cities where I have been traveling. On a very superficial level — simply watching racially mixed families, what seemed to be friendship groups and business colleagues — it seemed that they were blending fully into the Italian culture. Lawless witnessed something else that she captured and posted on her Facebook page.

The phrase “if you see something, say something” doesn’t just apply to political terrorism. It is just as apt for psychological/social terrorism. So, from me to @RealLucyLawless thank you for using your voice and for #PuttingRacismOnTheTable and to the GenXer who is part of my traveling group for being woke and alerting me to the Lawless Facebook post.

*ragazzi is an Italian word for young males.