NoVo in the Media

How Can Philanthropy Advance Martin Luther King’s Goals? 13 Leaders Weigh In

21 January 2019

An Invitation for All to Join the Discussion

Ben Hecht
President
Living Cities

In 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff retreat, giving them a glimpse into his next goal: economic parity for black Americans.

“We can’t solve our problems unless there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power,” King said. “Our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.”

A focus on economic justice is as timely as ever as the racial wealth gap has been getting wider in recent decades. Fortunately, philanthropy has the power to close the racial wealth and income gap.

Philanthropy is built on capitalism, and that’s what keeps it alive. In 2017, foundations awarded nearly $67 billion, a 6 percent increase from 2016. Those dollars came from profits earned decades ago, and endowments grow because of investments— those endowments themselves directly benefiting from today’s capitalism. If we don’t consider the impact of racism and inequity in the very communities we serve, then those grants can perpetuate the system that oppresses people of color, rather than providing them the support necessary to reach economic parity.

This missed opportunity stands in particularly stark relief at times of U.S. economic uncertainty. The government shutdown, environmental catastrophes, and other challenges facing our nation send ripples through the economy, negatively and disproportionately affecting businesses owned by people of color.

But what if philanthropy played a different role? By embracing capitalism and centering racial equity in their work to sustainably support the economic well-being and contributions of black Americans, philanthropic organizations could realize King’s vision of shared economic power and contribute to a more resilient and just economy in this country. As we look ahead to where the global economy is shifting, it is more and more apparent that resilience is critical to ensuring the continued power of the United States in the global market.

I’ve asked leaders in philanthropy to share their thoughts on how they and their organizations are approaching King’s goal of economic parity. I invite you to read what they had to say. And afterwards share your thoughts on how we can lift as we rise in support of true economic equality.

Using Investments and Grants to Dismantle Inequities

Michelle J. DePass
CEO
Meyer Memorial Trust

In 1863, the year the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, African-Americans owned less than 1 percent of the total wealth in the United States. The typical black family had zero wealth 40 years ago, when an assassin’s bullet found Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, where he had come to rally striking sanitation workers while highlighting economic inequality and social injustice in the U.S.

Yesterday’s injustice remains today’s inequality.

The racial wealth and income gap endures, wider, even, than it was in 1968, when King was killed. Built, as it is, on the great fortunes of America, U.S. philanthropy holds a key role in closing that racial wealth and income gap.

Since refocusing its work to address inequities in Oregon, Meyer Memorial Trust has been working to dismantle structural and systemic inequities at the root of disparities in education, housing, the environment and communities, both rural and urban. By applying that lens to our investment strategies, too, evaluating student debt as a factor in wealth erosion and investigating how capital can reduce wealth disparities, Meyer aims to upend the enduring economic legacy that King fought so hard to overturn.

Curbing Gun Violence Is Key to Fighting Inequality

Brian Malte
Executive Director
Hope and Heal Fund

We have the opportunity and responsibility to build thriving and vibrant communities and strengthen economic development by addressing gun violence head on.

The role of gun violence as both driving and reinforcing racial and economic inequality is rarely recognized. For generations, gun violence has disproportionately impacted black and brown communities. The harm of gun violence is the loss of life for victims, the loss of opportunity for survivors, and the devastating effects of trauma throughout communities.

Fortunately, we can interrupt the insecurity and inequality perpetuated by gun violence by creating opportunities for those caught in the cycle of violence and healing the trauma to create thriving communities. Philanthropy must invest in the communities disproportionately impacted by gun violence and promote effective intervention and interruption strategies to reduce violence, heal communities, and close the racial economic divide.

Take a Page From King’s Bold Work to Build a Movement for Justice

Dorian Warren
President
Community Change

We are living in a time of growing inequality and insecurity. The chasm of the racial wealth divide continues to expand, and we thus need bold solutions that match the scale of the problem.

Dr. King, unpopular at the moment of his assassination among most Americans for both his ideas and his strategy, advanced the radical notion that we must abolish poverty in this country. To do this, he launched a Poor People’s Campaign to combine the fight for racial justice with economic justice in a broad multiracial movement.

He understood, as he often said, that there is “no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will.”

As we celebrate his life, we have a choice to make: Which Dr. King do we choose to honor?

The mythical sanitized version who wanted interracial harmony over a dinner table or the real visionary who demanded bold solutions and a movement-building strategy to win them in order to make real racial and economic justice?”

Tackling Inequality in All Its Forms

Darren Walker
President
Ford Foundation

While the world hails Dr. King as a drum major for racial justice, he was, equally, a fierce advocate for economic justice. He understood that achieving true liberation for all people, regardless of their skin color, would require leveling the economic structures that trap individuals in crushing, cyclical, stifling poverty. In 2019, his arguments against economic inequity remain as timely as they are necessary.

Henry Ford II once called foundations “creatures of capitalism,” and foundations must acknowledge our paradoxical relationship to economic inequality. We are beneficiaries of it, and have tasked ourselves with solving it.

And yet, inspired by Dr. King’s vision of justice — and animated by our desire to foster a more just world — we at the Ford Foundation have made fighting inequality not only our focus but our guiding principle.

By investing in individuals, in their ideas, and in the institutions that tackle inequality in all of its forms, we aspire to cultivate “beloved communities” free of racism, sexism, ableism, and queerphobia and guided by inclusive economic policies that affirm the dignity of all people. By lending our power to people and movements at the margins of society — by elevating and amplifying their voices — we hope to make King’s radical vision a reality.

We Must All Be Revolutionaries

Helene D. Gayle
CEO 
Chicago Community Trust

In his later days, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s focus expanded to tackle economic inequity. He increasingly recognized there was no trade-off between the injustice of racism and the injustice of economic disenfranchisement.

He built the poor people’s movement understanding the relationship between race and class and the belief in the power of a broad-based multiracial coalition in service of ending economic inequity

He called for a “revolution against that injustice.”

Talking about a revolution can be a threatening thing because it challenges the balance of power. But a revolution doesn’t have to be against those in power. It can be conducted with those in power. We can create a revolution that is inclusive of communities, government, business, and nonprofits and uses power for the good of all.

The greatest celebration of Dr. King’s legacy is to become those revolutionaries. If we do this, we will not only overcome; we will all thrive. We can be that beacon, that model that the rest of the nation looks to. And we will create and grow communities that honor Dr. King’s legacy — communities that are truly worthy of our shared potential and collective promise.

Racism and Sexism Must Be Uprooted Together

Pamela Shifman
Executive Director
NoVo Foundation

As we join the world in honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we take to heart his powerful reflection that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

At the NoVo Foundation, founded by Jennifer and Peter Buffett, all our work is grounded in radical hope — a deep trust that movement leaders hold the tools for our shared liberation. Their work and wisdom will guide us to radical alternatives that can transform legacies of slavery, colonialism, and genocide.

All oppression is intertwined, and we know that racism and sexism must be uprooted together.

We can achieve Dr. King’s bold vision of full economic equality — if we expose and invest in ending the injustices facing girls and women of color and support their leadership.

Over 60 percent of girls of color are born to families living on low incomes or below the poverty line; black girls are six times more likely to be suspended in school than their white peers; black and Indigenous women are incarcerated at a rate of almost 2 to 1 compared with white women. These statistics reflect inequality compounded over generations and show us that disparities that begin at birth deepen in adulthood. The median wealth for single black mothers with children under 18 is $0, compared to $56,000 for single white fathers and $7,900 for single white mothers.

If we don’t shrink from facing these injustices, and philanthropy commits to uprooting racism and sexism together and investing in the leadership of women of color, then the dream of justice, dignity, and liberation for every person will truly be within reach.

Holding Corporations and Governments Accountable

Sharon Alpert
CEO
Nathan Cummings Foundation

Dr. King is remembered as a beacon of unity for the civil-rights movement. But at the time, he was radical in thought and action, controversial, and, for some, dangerous because he challenged the deep-rooted systems that gave power to economic inequality. That’s what we should remember this day because we need more of it.

In his final book, Where Do We Go from Here?,Dr. King saidthat eradicating poverty would not come from playing by the rules or investing in piecemeal solutions. Today, the wealth gap between the richest and poorest has never been greater. Of the world’s top 100 economies, 69 are corporations with more wealth than the gross domestic product of the majority of nations, giving them extraordinary power and influence.

So where does philanthropy go from here?

At the Nathan Cummings Foundation, we use all of our resources to support bold partners who are willing to take risks and get to the heart of the racial wealth gap.

We use our own power as an investor to hold corporations and the government accountable for actions that lead to too few black CEOs, too few women on boards of directors, stagnant wages and eroding worker protections, and too much income in the hands of too few people.

We back leaders whose prophetic voices beckon us to hold true to the values of democracy and justice that will ensure equality for all.

Health-Care Access Is Key to Promoting Social Justice

Judy Belk
CEO 
California Wellness Foundation

The fight for equality has been a life and death struggle.

I confronted this fact when I recently traveled with fellow funders to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which reminds us of the racial terror experienced by black people throughout the South. We also toured Montgomery and Selma, Ala., where civil-rights pioneers put their lives on the line for freedom. We walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where thousands marched with Dr. King in peaceful protest of inequality. And so many people today, around the world, continue to put their lives on the line in the fight for justice. We must not give up.

I bring my experiences as a black woman to the role of CEO of the California Wellness Foundation. This organization shares my belief that wellness requires social justice. That’s why we make grants and use our voice to call for diversity, equity, and inclusion. That’s why we continue to join hands with our community partners and grantees as we strive to dismantle the barriers to health and wellness that jeopardize the lives and health of Californians. To do this, we believe we can and must achieve equality.

Let’s Affirm Once and for All That Diversity Makes Us Stronger

Cathy Cha
President
Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund

Philanthropy and the social sector cannot afford to shy away from the specter of racism.

Rather, we must push for an America that puts racial equity front and center. How can we lift up a positive vision for our country that includes everybody? How can we affirm once and for all that the diversity of the nation makes us stronger? How can we face today’s challenges not with anger or anxiety but with a determined commitment to solve problems and bring people together to work for fairness, equity, and justice?

We are living in a fearful and difficult time for many communities across the country. Let’s work collaboratively to protect and defend human rights and dignity while pushing forward with a positive vision for change.

We Need to Be Sure Our Decisions Will Enhance Justice

Julia Stasch
President
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

MacArthur’s mission is to help build a world that is more just, verdant, and peaceful. Affirming Dr. King’s words that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” we are working to refine what we call the “Just Imperative,” a framework and commitment to live our mission — to lead with justice in all that we do. Justice is the essential condition for universal human dignity, equitable opportunity, and shared prosperity, which is the product of economic equality.

The Just imperative requires that we actively interrogate our decisions and actions to ensure that they enhance the conditions in which justice can thrive; rejecting and challenging the systems, structures, and practices that reinforce an unjust status quo or produce the unjust outcomes that make genuine equality impossible.

Our commitment to justice is a journey that does not end: listening more; seeking candid, even uncomfortable feedback; helping to forge alternative pathways to power; tackling institutions that disproportionately affect people of color; elevating voices and perspectives absent from policy and political debates; and more. We intend to stay focused and accountable as we do our part to help achieve Dr. Martin Luther King’s notion of the Beloved Community, where all people can share in the wealth of the earth.

Fighting Structural and Historic Racism

K. Sabeel Rahman
President
Demos

Racism has long driven pervasive political, economic, and social disparities in this country.

Those inequities arise not just from individualized and blatant forms of discrimination but also through historical, cumulative, structural policies that have combined to inhibit wealth, opportunity, well-being, and voice for communities of color.

Structural racism morally weakens our democracy and must be eradicated at the root. In order to build a democracy with genuine equity and inclusion at its foundation—as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned—we must commit to institutionalizing policies that tear down these structural barriers to racial equity, close the racial wealth gap, build sustainable wealth for communities of color, and actively empower our communities as full participants in our democracy.

Investing in Economic Justice Promotes Racial Justice

Don Chen
President
Surdna Foundation

On what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 90th birthday, it’s tempting to return to his poetic oratory about equality and opportunity in America.

But I have always been most inspired by his very candid writings about economic justice and the ways to achieve it, which are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.

Building on Dr. King’s vision and the priorities he championed, at the Surdna Foundation we believe we can achieve a more just and sustainable society by directing our resources towards supporting communities of color and low-wealth communities to utilize their decision-making and voice to enable self-determination; by catalyzing capital to support our target communities in their efforts to build and sustain wealth; and by investing in the capacity of communities of color and low-wealth communities to hold policy makers and institutions accountable to ensure all community benefits are shared equitably.