That Time I Met Bobby Seale… And What Philanthropy Still Has to Learn from Him

Written by: Jeanné Lewis

Date: February 29, 2016

With the PBS documentary commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and the waves of conversation about Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance that paid homage to the BPP, some are calling this February “The Blackest Black History Month, Ever.” Like many of the civil rights anniversaries that have occurred in this decade, remembrances like this create an opportunity for philanthropy, and all of us, to reflect on our past and consider how we can apply lessons learned to present challenges.

Some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned came from a conversation I was honored to have with BPP Founding Chairman Bobby Seale.

Five years ago, I led a project that helped members of Congress and leaders in their districts reflect on the connections between racism and policy, and consider the ways they might address it constructively together. The project engaged community leaders in each congressional district to share information about how racism had impacted the area historically and presently. Bobby Seale was one of the leaders we hoped would participate in Oakland.

When the facilitators and I met Bobby Seale in a small local restaurant, my goals for the conversation around logistics and strategy dissipated. I asked one question, which I can no longer recall. What I do recall is that he started speaking, and didn’t stop for three hours. Not once was I distracted or inattentive – because he was brilliant. He shared his experience as a U.S. Air Force veteran and an engineer, and how those experiences taught him discipline and problem solving skills. He leveraged those skills and his creativity to address the problems he saw in his community. He emphasized that his understanding of leadership, defense and power requires discipline to be virtuous, and prioritized the practice while he led the organization. He went on to tell us his thoughts for how to solve current problems in Oakland and the world. And though I spend much time with people trying to figure out society’s largest challenges, I have never met anyone with as strategic and brilliant a mind as Bobby Seale.

It’s clear that, in spite of historical philanthropic funding for the Black Panther Party and other groups within the historical civil rights movement, philanthropy still has an opportunity to learn from civil rights elders like Bobby Seale. During my conversation with him, we discussed his relationship to many things – government, community leaders, other Black Panther Party members – but not philanthropy. The party’s community service programs were funded by a diverse source of funding, including individuals, churches, businesses and foundations. But as we know, philanthropy, including institutional philanthropy, is about more than dollars and cents. I’m curious about what roles, beyond funding, institutional philanthropy played in the work he did. And I’m especially curious if there was role beyond funding the community service programs that were only a part of the Black Panther Party’s activities.

One of the original activities of BPP was to monitor police activities in Black neighborhoods to prevent police brutality and inform citizens of their rights. When a state bill was introduced to inhibit these patrols, Bobby Seale was one of the leaders who organized civic engagement activities to try to prevent it. They were not structured in a way that allowed for foundation funding, and their activities were controversial. But these patrols were a part of the larger strategy of the organization, a complement to the community service programs they implemented. During our conversation, Mr. Seale clearly maintained a holistic line of thought about addressing community problems, sharing multifaceted strategies that engaged a wide range of stakeholders in different ways and leveraging innovations in technology to achieve goals. One project idea included a video game that would teach non-violent conflict resolution, civic education and leadership skills. I don’t know if he’s been able to develop it, but it is the kind of project philanthropy could explore.

There is an important opportunity for philanthropy as we celebrate the 50th anniversaries of many more civil rights victories over the next few years. I have seen many foundations engage civil rights elders to learn about successful strategies that might be replicated or built on today. But it is rare for foundations to ask these elders what philanthropy did right, and what philanthropy could have done better to support their efforts.

Many foundations are funding programs around civic engagement, leadership development and community organizing, complementing more traditional funding of community services. In developing these strategies, civil rights elders, along with contemporary movement leaders, can play an important advisory role about how philanthropy can be most useful.

I’m honored to have been able to have that conversation with Bobby Seale. So far I’ve postponed watching the PBS documentary – I think because I want to savor this memory a bit more before I add to it. But both are important. As philanthropy continues to explore ways to support systemic change for communities who are most vulnerable, we can and should create opportunities to learn from the wisdom of civil rights elders.

Jeanné Isler is field director at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Follow @NCRP and @j_lachapel on Twitter.

CC image by Thomas Hawk.