NoVo in the Media

Minority Women and Girls Are in Dire Straits, So Don’t Focus Solely on Males

07 August 2014
BY Pamela Shifman and Nakisha M. Lewis


A mourner holds an obituary displaying a picture of shooting victim Renisha McBride during her funeral service in Detroit, Michigan.

A mourner holds an obituary displaying a picture of shooting victim Renisha McBride during her funeral service in Detroit, Michigan.

Renisha McBride, a young black woman from Detroit, knocked on the door of Theodore Wafer seeking help. The 19-year-old had run her car off the road and was hoping that someone in the home would give her a hand. Instead, Mr. Wafer, a white man, took her life, shooting her at close range from behind a locked door.

Like Trayvon Martin, who was shot by a neighborhood-watch volunteer, Renisha was unarmed at the time of her tragic death.

Following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Mr. Martin, President Obama and many of America’s leading philanthropies were inspired to start My Brothers Keeper: an unprecedented effort that now has attracted more than $300-million for a public-private partnership dedicated to responding to the racism that is devastating the lives of so many men and boys of color.

But questions remain: What if the epidemic levels of domestic violence against women of color were taken as seriously as violence committed by strangers? What if violence targeting all people of color—Renisha McBride as well as Trayvon Martin; women as well as men—inspired action?

Philanthropy has a key role to play in answering those questions and responding to the problems of systemic racism in our country.

Historically, especially dur­ing the 1960s, philanthropy has supported the nation’s expansive racial-justice efforts.

In recent years, however, foundations have taken a more narrow view of the problem that needs to be solved by advancing the idea that racism disproportionately harms men and boys of color and that investing in them is the best way to eradicate the impact of racism on all people of color.

This narrative was first established in philanthropy in the early 1990s when the W.K. Kellogg Foundation started the African American Men and Boys Initiative. Several foundations followed Kellogg’s lead, resulting in a philanthropic trend that is centered on the needs of black boys and men.

The surge has continued as documented in a report from the Open Society Foundations and the Foundation Center, showing that in 2011 foundations awarded more than $40-million in grants to support black boys and men, up from $29-million the previous year. Despite the overwhelming data that girls of color face the same and at times compounded set of obstacles as their male counterparts, no big foundations have major grant-making efforts that address their race- and gender-specific needs.

Foundation officials who focus on boys and men of color often say it is because boys are in crisis and girls are not. The data tell another story:

Girls of color are victims of violence at astonishing rates. According to Black Women’s Blueprint, nearly 60 percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18, and Native American girls are victims of rape or sexual assault at more than double the rate of other racial groups.

Meanwhile, black girls’ out-of-school suspension and expulsion rates were higher in the 2011-12 school than that of any other group of girls and higher than that of white and Hispanic boys, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Like their male counterparts, girls face suspension as the first step in a process that leads to the over-incarceration of black women, who are thee times more likely than white women to wind up behind bars. Additionally, the four-year graduation rate for Latinas is the lowest among all girls. Failing to complete high school places all youths at risk, but the negative effects on the long-term economic security is particularly dire for girls. Girls of color are disproportionately led away from academic and professional success to what are commonly referred to as the school-to-prison and the school-to-low-wage- work pipelines.

These interlocking risks have stark consequences for the economic security of women of color.

Single black women and Latinas have the lowest median net wealth of all racial and gender groups. Single black women hold just $100 in wealth, on average, and Latinas just $120. That’s compared to $7,900 for single black men, $9,730 for single Latino men, and $41,500 for single white women.

Despite these sobering statistics, overall foundation giving dedicated to girls and women has remained below 7.5 percent of all foundation giving for more than 15 years. To our knowledge, funding for women of color has not even been counted.

Girls and women of color are indeed in crisis. We now have an opportunity to address this crisis and remedy the philanthropic exclusion of girls and women of color. In doing so, we can improve the lives of both boys and girls of color. This is not an argument about who suffers more. In the words of poet and activist Audre Lorde, “There is no hierarchy of oppression.”

The logic of My Brother’s Keeper hinges on elevating a patriarchal conception of a “good” family—boys of color will grow up to be fathers and heads of households that are made up of nuclear families.

By insinuating that families without a man are less capable of raising healthy and well-adjusted children, we denigrate the care-taking work of single mothers, LGBT parents, and other caretakers raising children in “nontraditional” family structures. This approach also fails to capture the reality of all children, 35 percent of whom are raised in single-parent households. Foundations must seek out ways to help all kinds of families thrive.

Foundations can succeed only when their grant-making is informed by solid research and when they adopt strategies that take into account the root causes of inequities as well as the experiences of those most harmed.
More than 20 years of research has taught us that boys and men of color are suffering. The lack of parallel data on girls and women of color does not mean they are doing fine. Operating from a data deficit reinforces the assumptions that girls are not in crisis and further excludes them from racial- and gender-justice efforts like My Brother’s Keeper.

In striving for racial and gender equity, we need to think imaginatively and abundantly about solutions that support girls and women who live at the intersection of racial and gender injustice.

In the same way the Kellogg Foundation took a stand for boys and men of color in 1992, over 20 years later we have an opportunity to take action to create the kind of robust investments that girls and women of color need and deserve. Foundations can dedicate significant resources to girls and women of color in a manner that addresses the structural barriers that impede full equality and which create conditions for betterment of entire communities.

Now is the time to take a bold stand for girls and women—as well as boys and men of color. Let us be as moved by the tragedies of Renisha McBride as we are for Trayvon Martin. It is not an either/or proposition. If we look at the world as though girls and women of color matter, our philanthropy will be better—for girls and women, for families, communities, and our country.

Pamela Shifman is executive director of the NoVo Foundation. Nakisha M. Lewis advises philanthropies on strategy and formerly was a program manager at the Schott Foundation for Public Education.