Essential Conversations

I consider private philanthropy to hold the greatest potential to creating and ensuring a just society. While philanthropy does not provide the greatest resource – recognizing the outsize investment the public sector does and should play to drive equity and outcomes – it has always possessed unparalleled opportunity to catalyze and advance the essential conversations, work and investments to change conditions that keep folks poor, powerless and silent.  

A few weeks ago, I posted the following blog on my Facebook page. I have worked at a foundation for more than 16 years, yet in this post I speak not as a philanthropic professional but rather as an African American in America. Sharing this post within the SECF family, I recognize that I have a unique advantage of speaking to an audience that many don’t get to speak to – colleagues, many of whom have become lifelong friends. I present it with an appeal to do the disciplined thinking that we have been trained to do… to hear… to ask not just “what” but “why”… to seek truth… to innovate… to right the scales.

All around us communities are exploding and imploding, creating and falling into breaches that threaten the whole. If philanthropy is, as I believe, the force that can be the change, we must be brave enough and humble enough to search for solutions within and without, that build our understanding and increase our impact.

It is the definition of exhaustion: debilitating and humiliating, to live your life in and among symbols that celebrate the belief that you are inferior, lazy, and immoral, even bestial. Buildings, streets, schools, parks and public spaces that honor men who simultaneously progressed and profited on the backs of the very ingenuity and diligence that you have persistently and resiliently deployed. Over your lifetime – and that of your great grandmother, grandmother, children and grandchildren – you learn to overlook and avoid these hurtful symbols, becoming numb or maybe compartmentalizing them in your mind as "the past," something that your own experience has by now taught you is not always pretty or deserving of remembrance. You assess your progress, your blessings and your own wonderfully diverse friends who you know don't feel that way. You ground and reground yourself by remembering that the need to subjugate you has always been driven by a fear of you and the greed of others.

This is what it feels like to go to Lee Elementary school or (Stonewall) Jackson Park, walk on Stone Mountain or sit in rooms lined with grim, framed visages of pale men who reviled you (I'll never forget when I learned the history of Joel Hurt, who built the building in which I worked for nearly 15 years. As documented in "Slavery By Another Name," by Douglas Blackmon, Hurt cavalierly built his wealth and fame on the backs of black convict labor, harshly disciplined and cruelly deprived of their most basic civil rights. I loved that building and thought (still think) it gorgeous. Yet from that point on, every click of my heel on those marble floors brought to mind the clang of chains on men who looked like my husband and brother).

Then Charlottesville happens and you're reminded that to many these symbols do in fact mean the SAME thing today as they did 200 years ago.

All sheroes and heroes are not created equal. While Lee may have been a brilliant strategist, it matters that he honed his skill by fighting to keep a nation in chains. Appreciating the fruits of men who broke ground on a new Atlanta must be reconciled with their tearing apart of families through an organized system of human chattel. 

So you say "enough." Enough of avoided conversations and living surrounded by these ugly reminders and smiling through it. So you act. You speak up, cry, and march. Sometimes the emotion goes too far and you lash out destructively.

And then you are criticized for not being civil enough and adequately containing your pain. For not successfully monitoring the pent up frustration and being your most noble self. You're accused of equal responsibility, impact and intent as those who advocate the same hateful perspectives of those whose names adorn the walls and corners that shout their disdain.

It feels familiar. Blame the Victim. Deflect. Discourage. Discredit. The table's now turned. The script has flipped.

So much easier to handle.

Lesley Grady is Senior Vice President, Community at the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.


Southeastern Council of Foundations
100 Peachtree Street NW, Suite 2080
Atlanta, GA 30303

Visiting SECF:
All staff are working remotely at this time but can still be reached via email and by calling (404) 524-0911.

Monday-Thursday from 9:00am–6:00pm (ET)
Friday from 9:00am–12:00pm (ET)

Phone: (404) 524-0911
Fax: (404) 523-5116

Mission: SECF strengthens Southern philanthropy, welcoming our members to listen, learn and collaborate on ideas and actions to help build an equitable, prosperous South.