WRAG Puts Racism on the Table

Written by: Jeanné Isler

Date: April 05, 2016

I recently spoke with Tamara Copeland, president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG), about their new series, Putting Racism on the Table. The series has been  anticipated since it was announced at WRAG’s annual meeting last November, and the first session with john powell of the University of California, Berkeley, did not disappoint.

NCRP lauds WRAG for taking this leadership role in our sector. Tamara said that WRAG decided to host the series because WRAG members realized racism is an underlying factor in many of the community concerns they prioritized in their philanthropy. They agreed that they needed to better understand the dimensions and the impact of racism.

Although WRAG foundation members have explored the impact of racism on their priorities in individual ways in the past, Tamara noted the courage of her members for explicitly naming racism as an overarching obstacle for the region, and we agree. Not only does the series explicitly examine how racism impacts the issues the D.C. area’s philanthropy wants to address, it delves into the nuance of implicit bias, which NCRP reviewed in the spring 2015 issue of Responsive Philanthropy.

According to Tamara, the group felt that racism truly was the 800-pound elephant in the room. So it was important to the group to include it explicitly in the title – as opposed to “diversity” or “inclusion,” which are terms that are often used as placeholders for racism. Without tackling the long-term and ongoing role that racism has played in creating problems in our communities, the solutions will be hard to name.

Tamara went on to share that in planning the series, WRAG members insisted that participants be limited to the leadership of foundations – executives and trustees only. NCRP has found that it is important for leaders to first understand the complexity of the problems that their organizations hope to solve, and to explicitly discuss their unique role in crafting solutions.

Too often conversations in our sector about the impact of racism are dominated by eager mid-level foundation staff who have little to no authority to make changes within their organizations. But WRAG’s strategy has led to a high level of engagement from the region’s top philanthropic decision-makers.

Although the series has just begun, Tamara is already looking forward to what happens after it is finished. After the final formal session in June, WRAG will hold a convening for participants to discuss how the journey has influenced their thinking regarding the work of individual institutions, WRAG and the broader local philanthropy community. WRAG will also host some training opportunities for the participants so they can identify specific strategies to meet their goals around addressing racism in the region.

NCRP looks forward to what happens next and encourages other foundations to follow WRAG’s example. In recent months, several regional associations have engaged NCRP with questions about the best ways for philanthropy to respond to racial unrest across the country. They are watching WRAG’s initiative, eager to learn from best practices. Tamara’s colleagues have shared their admiration of WRAG’s initiative, but also a belief that they could not address racism as explicitly as WRAG is doing. WRAG has chosen to take a courageous stand in light of the urgency around correcting systemic racism in many of our cities and towns. While each region is different and may need unique programs to best address its needs, foundations should not shy away from having intentional conversations about racism.

Are foundations in your region courageously confronting racism? Tell us in the comments what they are doing, and what more you’d like to see from them.

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

Image by Joe Brusky, adapted under Creative Commons license.