Dreaming In The Presence of Gatekeepers Can Be Perilous: A Journey Towards Trust and Resilience
By Charles McDonald, Founder and Principal, Actualize Impact and Founder and CEO of Community Engagement Partners (CEP) Picture this: A world where racial justice and equity are no fantasy, but the very heartbeat of society. Can you see it now? What do you see? This is more than an idle question. It’s a call to hope, to dream, and ultimately, to act together. As for me, I see a world where Black people are leading and governing communities in ways that nurture and embrace all forms of life on Earth. I conceive a wealth so vast and evenly distributed, it transcends the conventional monetary concept. I envision reality where the hell of "hunger," "prison," and "poverty" are concepts so foreign they hold no power or meaning. It's a world of no ACE scores. A place where PTSD and cortisol never assails the body. As we peel back the layers of this envisioned world, we can see that it's not only a dream but a call to collective action, a blueprint to be unfolded. Now, imagine if there existed an organization which took this audacious vision and strived tirelessly to make it a reality. The hypothetical transforms into the tangible with the introduction of Community Engagement Partners (CEP). CEP undertakes the delicate yet significant task of connecting two spheres - the realm of possibilities and the sphere of realities Black leaders committed to equity and justice face across the United States. On one side, there exists an array of potentials, of dreams waiting to be realized; on the other, the harsh realities that often hinder these possibilities. Acting as a bridge, CEP facilitates a passage, ensuring these envisioned ideals can traverse the chasm, secure a firm foothold, and ultimately, flourish despite these realities. Through cultivating trust, sharing resources, and crafting innovative partnerships, CEP allows dreams to not only root but thrive, transforming the imagined world of equity and justice into tangible communities of prosperity. The potency of CEP's approach lies in its core values: Justice and equity. We prioritize establishing trust-based relationships with Black leaders deeply rooted in their communities, aiming to bolster their visions in their unique ways. At times, this involves illuminating the often 'invisible' to the eyes of funders. An example of this was our partnership with the My Village Project (MVP), a volunteer-driven alliance led by Black leaders and comprising over 90 organizations serving families and youth throughout Jacksonville, FL. Despite eight years of excessive demands and inadequate funding, within their first year of partnering with CEP the relationship yielded a seven-figure grant for MVP with a significant national funder. Our resources – financial, human, and logistical – are always at the disposal of our community partners. When aiding in the establishment of the Transformational Alliance of Black Leadership and Excellence (TABLE) in Cincinnati, Ohio, we provided such resources. With founding members hailing from every significant sector in the city, TABLE is now primed to be a central hub to catalyze, incubate, and champion transformational Black leaders aiming to resolve Cincinnati's most critical issues. Another instance is our collaboration with Elevate Dayton, a team of extraordinary Black social entrepreneurs in Dayton, Ohio, which led to the inception of the One Digital Dayton platform, an innovative AI-driven digital platform committed to bridging Dayton's mile-wide economic gap. This platform unifies various stakeholders - business owners, job seekers, economic developers - in a single, shared digital ecosystem grounded in equity and economic mobility. Our efforts alongside Elevate Dayton have carved a path for coalition-building at both local and national levels around One Digital Dayton, and steered us toward seeking funding opportunities through the Economic Development Administration’s Distressed Area Recompete Pilot Program. Given CEP’s small budget and team, we take immense pride in what we have been able to accomplish with our community partners. What underlies our effectiveness is our commitment to living out the values we hold. We share our resources (dollars, knowledge, and connections), devoid of any strings attached. There are no clandestine fees for fiscal sponsorship, no implicit quid-pro-quo, and no facade of tokenism to veil our hidden agenda. We believe to truly be a beacon of justice and equity begins with extending trust to others. Express your love, validate the expertise and groundbreaking approaches to change making driven by Black leaders, and you'll discover that trust has a way of being echoed back. Building heartfelt partnerships starts with being clear about your beliefs, interests, expertise, and having the self awareness to know their limitations. Our journey toward equity and justice is more enjoyable when we move together, and our work is more impactful when we address the underlying policies and ideas that reproduce inequity and injustice in new forms. At CEP, we recognize that the pursuit of justice and equity is a multifaceted journey, laden with obstacles yet also rich with rewards. Our commitment to authenticity, trust, and shared power is unwavering, regardless of the resources we dedicate. We offer our experiences as a lesson to funders genuinely invested in enhancing outcomes in Black communities: Both financial and relational investments only bring about significant change when rooted in the principles of equity and justice. No pathway exists that is "race-neutral or justice-neutral" that can lead to prosperity for all Americans. Yet, this is the very path that funders allocate billions of dollars to each year. After George Floyd's tragic murder in 2020, funders and corporations pledged a record $11.8 billion towards racial justice. But where are we now? Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity reports that less than two-thirds of this historic pledge reached its intended recipients. A recent announcement from the Ballmer Group, New Profit, and Echoing Green’s partnership emphasized the grim reality: "Despite Black and Latine leaders making up around 10% of nonprofit leadership in the U.S., they receive a mere 4% of philanthropic funding. Data shows that early-stage Black-led nonprofits operate with 24% smaller revenues and 76% smaller unrestricted net assets, indicating an ongoing bias and a lack of trust in Black leaders within the funding landscape." Further analysis reveals that among the top 20 recipients of racial equity and justice funding, only two (Unidos US and Equal Justice Initiative) were originally established by and for communities of color. These stark realities underscore the urgent need for a genuine commitment to justice and equity in philanthropy. What lived experience teaches us is that funders launch their own racial equity efforts with the belief that they have better solutions than the ones embraced by Black communities. During one of our earliest attempts to hold space between a funder and Black community leaders, CEP was warned by foundation staff that our "ideas" were too disruptive of their vision, and put us at risk of being "cut-off" from future opportunities with the foundation. We were told "program officers share notes and avoid organizations that make their work difficult." We were “moving too fast,” and foundation leaders “weren’t ready to embrace racial equity.” Ironically, these comments came after CEP had been privately invited to share these "ideas" with the foundation's board, who were responsive to our approach, eventually resulting in a landscape-altering investment from the foundation in the visionary work of our community partners foundation staff were eager to dismiss as not worthy. That experience has not stopped us from dreaming big, but it has shown us that dreaming in the presence of gatekeepers can be perilous. The lack of adequate and available funding for our approach to change is nothing new, and serves as a helpful reminder that the challenges CEP has faced are widely felt among Black leaders and organizations regardless of whether or not they choose to unapologetically center equity and justice. A seasoned educator and community organizer once shared some insight with me that helped put things in perspective: "Foundation staff and boards have difficulty discerning between helping and controlling the work of Black leaders." Indeed, program officers struggle with the “help” vs. “control'' dynamic. If CEP received a one year, unrestricted grant for every time a program officer has shared that they view their role as “translating” or “interpreting” the work of grantees to final decision makers, we would be funded well into the next millennium, and our office would likely be on the moon, staffed entirely by philanthropic robots dedicated to equity and justice. All jokes aside, authenticity, partnership, and trust form the core of CEP’s approach to our pursuit of creating more prosperous and resilient outcomes with our community partners. We have no intention of deceiving anyone about the type of impact we seek to make. We need your help in the process, but we are not asking for your permission. Here are three actions funders can take today to support racial equity and justice:
Fulfill and Expand Racial Equity and Justice Funding Commitments to Racial Equity: Fund Black-led and governed organizations centering racial equity and justice. Particularly those not typically on the radar in the places like the Midwest and Southeast. If you're unsure of where to begin, consider supporting CEP and our partner organizations such as Elevate Dayton, TABLE, and MVP. Additionally, we highly recommend supporting COAACC, a central Ohio-based organization of which CEP is a proud member. Introductions can be provided upon request.
Support the Ongoing Development of Your Staff and Board: Partner with Camelback’s Capital Collaborative as they hold space for white identifying funders to diversify their networks and make their grantmaking more equitable. Hire firms like ShiftED Consulting that specialize in developing leaders with the knowledge and tools to eradicate anti-blackness and white supremacy, both individually and systemically, to foster inclusive and thriving environments.
Invest in Community-Based Solutions for Racial Equity and Justice: With roughly 262 state, county, and municipal declarations acknowledging racism as a public health crisis across the U.S., and Ohio leading with about 32 such declarations, there's an immense opportunity to align with organizations like CEP and Black Community Innovators. Together with like-minded local officials, we can confront racial and social inequality from all angles, tackling issues both "upstream" and "downstream". The potential for change is extraordinary!
We're inviting the funding community to join us in a mission that might seem impossible. Yet, it's a mission our ancestors embarked on and one our current leaders carry on daily. We're not seeking permission, but rather, your genuine partnership. If you truly wish to be a part of this journey, don't hesitate to connect with me at email@example.com. Disclaimer: This article is written by Charles McDonald, Founder and Principal of Actualize Impact, and Founder and CEO of Community Engagement Partners (CEP). It's important for readers to be aware that Community Engagement Partners (CEP) is a financial supporter of Elevate Dayton's One Digital Dayton workforce and economic development initiative. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Elevate Dayton or One Digital Dayton.