Do you remember a time when you prompted a “bless your heart” from a Southern friend, family member or colleague? It’s one of those phrases that packs several sentences’ worth of meaning into three little words. It could mean anything from an expression of sympathy or concern to pointing out well-meaning naiveté.
Earlier this month, I joined my colleagues Jeanné Isler, Stephanie Peng and Ben Barge, along with dozens of Southern funders and grantees in Charleston, South Carolina, for Grantmakers for Southern Progress’ first annual Gathering. The energy in the room was electric – I think just about all of us left South Carolina with a renewed sense of excitement about the South’s potential to change the country and the world in the coming decades. But I was bound to get hit with a “bless your heart” at some point, given all I have been learning from our Southern partners.
I had a whole slew of energizing and productive conversations in Charleston about the best way to utilize the more than 100 interviews NCRP collected during the research process for our new report series “As the South Grows” and how we could continue conversations with Southern and national funders about increasing support for equity and justice.
You’ll be hearing a lot more from NCRP, GSP and our allies over the next six months and beyond about what we heard in the South. For now though, one conversation I had last week stands out. It was the most recent in a handful of examples of when I’ve caught myself doing some of the very things we encourage funders NOT to do when they engage with Southern leaders and nonprofits.
A program officer from one of the Southern funders with whom we’ve been working over the course of the “As the South Goes” research process attended the Gathering. This program officer has been immensely helpful pointing us in the right directions for our outreach and interview processes, and she has two decades of experience in philanthropy in her Southern community. For the purposes of this blog post, let’s call her Rae.
On the last day of the Gathering – all fired up about the sessions and conversations I’d had in Charleston – I saw Rae getting her lunch. I said “hello,” and asked if I could follow her to her table and eat with her; I had some ideas to run by her. I’d gotten in my head over the previous weeks that a peer funder of hers, a foundation in her community, was an important target for our “As the South Grows” campaign.
This funder is relatively large, and there had been talk among NCRP’s staff about how to use “As the South Grows” as an entry point to begin shifting their grantmaking toward greater investments in equity and justice. How could we target this foundation?, I asked Rae. How can we use “As the South Grows” to persuade them to move more money for social justice? How could Rae and her colleagues help us?
Rae chuckled, and said warmly but assertively that I was welcome to waste my time if I wanted. The subtext, as is so often the case when Southerners confront well-meaning Northerners, was something in the area of “bless your heart.” The funder in question was, for the foreseeable future, immovable, Rae added. If we really wanted to punish ourselves we could go ahead, but there were other, better prospects for moving money in her community.
At this point I realized I’d tread down the same problematic path that so many funders and especially national organizations like ours do when they work in the South. I’d come to this expert on her community and on philanthropy in her community especially with a specific agenda in mind and asked her to help do the work. Race played a role too. Rae is a Black woman; I’m a white man. I’ve been conditioned to assume my ideas will be heard and validated, even when they come from a place of inexperience as this one did.
I paused a beat and reoriented myself. I’d gone about this wrong, I said, and I was sorry. I asked Rae what her vision was for philanthropy in her community, and how NCRP and the “As the South Grows” project could plug into and boost that vision. From this point, Rae spoke at length about the foundations in her community who were ready to hear NCRP and GSP’s message – ready largely because of the hard organizing work Rae and her network had put in for years getting them to that point.
If I was willing, Rae and her colleagues would set up conversations with these other funders and bring in NCRP to support their message. Rae had a vision and a plan, and I’m glad I caught myself before I left the conversation without asking her to include us in it.
Probably the most important lesson we hope As the South Grows will communicate to funders is that listening and learning – from both sides of the table – is crucial to sustainable partnerships in the South.
The work of “As the South Grows” is just beginning, and there will be more opportunities for NCRP to walk the talk, so to speak, as we learn and grow into this work in the South. I speak for Jeanné, Stephanie, Ben and myself when I say we left Charleston grateful for the continued grace we’ve been shown by Southern leaders, for the continued opportunity to learn from them and for the “bless your hearts” along the way that let us know when we’ve headed down the wrong path.
Ryan Schlegel is senior research and policy associate at NCRP. Follow @NCRP on Twitter.
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