Breaking Southern charms and chains

Written by: Valaida Fullwood

Date: September 02, 2020

Or what does it mean to be bold and Black in Charlotte, North Carolina, right now? 

Three years ago, I read a report stating that, out of the tens of billions of dollars in annual philanthropic giving by U.S. foundations, an estimated  2% of funding  from the nation’s largest foundations is specifically directed to Black communities. While I knew funding to Black-led organizations was inequitable, I had no concept of the scale of neglect.

The reports keep coming, and nothing appears to have changed except for the worse. Studies also point to the dearth of national foundations that even fund nonprofit organizations based in the South.

These data sharpened my once-vague understanding of the funding landscape to an acute awakening to the insidious practices of funders that unfairly advantage white-led nonprofits over Black ones, a matter further compounded in the South.

Then last week, I read the new report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), “Black Funding Denied: Community Foundation Support for Black Communities.”

It disclosed data on philanthropic giving to Black communities by Charlotte’s community foundation, which hosts my collective giving circle’s fund. Of Foundation for the Carolinas’ giving, an estimated average of only 0.5% is allocated to Black communities, in a region where 22% of the population is Black.

For decades, I have witnessed the bias and heard accounts from Black nonprofit founders and leaders about chronic underfunding by philanthropic institutions. It is part of a pattern referred to as “foundation redlining,” borrowing the term about policy and tactics that resulted in segregated housing patterns and a wealth gap that still plague cities, including Charlotte, today.

Probing this issue compelled me and fellow members of New Generation of African American Philanthropists (NGAAP Charlotte) giving circle to organize The Bold Project.

The Bold Project: An NGAAP Charlotte Initiative for Black Organizations Leading Differently provides a framework for our grantmaking, thought leadership and civic engagement with local Black-led nonprofits.

The Bold Project also serves as a communitywide call to action for funders to attend to and repair the funding gap that results from giving preference to white-led nonprofits and effectively abandoning Black communities and sabotaging Black-led nonprofits.

Urgency exists in dismantling old structures and reimagining how to allocate philanthropic dollars in fair and just ways.

Equity audits and new funding measures are required to blunt the negative impact of bias and anti-Black racism, reduce barriers to accessing capital for operations, and address the damage caused by long-running patterns of funding inequity. The data and the times demand boldness.

But, in a region fond of subtlety, confounding euphemisms, and centuries-old face-saving lies over hard truths and candor, what does bold look like?

Illuminated Charlotte skyline. Photo credit: Alvin C Jacobs Jr.

Illuminated Charlotte skyline. Photo credit: Alvin C Jacobs Jr.

Being boldly Black and free

If you are from the South, you already know that behind the smiles and pleasantries — and that famous hospitality — linger deep-seated hostilities. I perceive it as a simmering brew of concentrated privilege and power with heaps of confusion and contradiction, spiked with aged worries and wounds.

Born, bred and schooled in North Carolina, I know the culture well. My family roots, on both sides, are easily traced for 8 or more generations in this state. I probably rank as expert in our quirky pronunciations, idioms, delicacies, pastimes and, too, our civic pathologies.

For years lyrics sung by another native daughter, Nina Simone, about the value of being “young, gifted and Black” resonated deeply. Now a much less young Southern woman, I am pondering: What is it to be bold and Black?

I pose these questions publicly in the hope that as I grapple with this, you also will reflect deeply on these tough questions. Perhaps we can find our respective answers and respond together.

Constant questioning seems fitting since friends can attest my resolution at the top of the year was to be an interrogator — a kind one, yet an interrogator nonetheless. I have found, in Southern culture, asking questions is a form of boldness.

This moment requires sharper understanding of bold, that speaks to our urgency. Let’s go further than a dictionary, where nuanced definitions span from “fearless,” “unafraid” and “daring before danger” to “adventurous” and “free” to “standing out prominently.”

What does bold mean when life, liberty and limb are literally on the line for us and our communities?

Fearlessness rings true, because I have experienced that being Black and bold just might mean winding up black and blue, in every sense. In the fight for justice, boldness and Blackness can bring harsh repercussions: psychological, physical and fiscal.

When I question the high stakes of speaking out and challenging “the establishment,” I draw on examples set by seeming unafraid Black Southerners, like Dorothy Counts, Reginald Hawkins and John Lewis, and I know I must persist.

The connotation that intrigues me most is to be free. Which stirs the question: How can we emancipate ourselves from constraints of the past? That is, how can we be bold in ways that liberate us all right now?

Coronavirus, unconscionable police brutality, protests for racial equality and data on dire funding inequities provide compelling reasons to assert our collective liberties to accelerate justice.

While my perspective is that of a Black Southerner, these questions are perhaps even more pertinent to white Southerners and Charlotte residents with other regional and racial identities.

In his book “Why We Can’t Wait,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “the straitjackets of race prejudice and discrimination do not wear only southern labels.” Yes, the South has its own brand of racialized restraints that we must reckon with and reconcile at this pivotal moment.

Our region is not alone though, as headlines from Minneapolis to Portland to Kenosha confirm. As Malcolm X boldly suggested: We all are Southerners.

This is 21st century America, and I want to be free; however, I know none of us is truly free until all of us are free.

Data in the NCRP report provides new insight on structural blocks in philanthropy. We can clearly see how funders are culpable, as prime contributors to social and economic immobility for Black people as well as brown people — immobility as in locking out whole swaths of the community from vital resources and opportunity, in essence chaining us to undesirable conditions and outcomes.

I venture to call out philanthropy’s inequities for the shame that it is. I dare to question the concentration of wealth, accumulated at the expense of Black and brown people, that then rigs the system to deny us equity and mobility. To progress we must burst the charmed bubble of philanthropy with data and truth.

Drawing from another Southern-born woman, the intrepid Ida B. Wells: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” I urge you to join me in turning on the lights and holding funders accountable, if we may be so bold.

Valaida Fullwood is the award-winning author of “Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists,” creator of The Soul of Philanthropy exhibit, and a founding member of New Generation of African American Philanthropists, a collective giving circle in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her achievements in philanthropy were acknowledged this year by ABFE, which named her its 2020 Trailblazer. Valaida can be reached on LinkedIn and at valaida.com.