Rejecting False Harmony: How Philanthropy Can Support Real Healing
Originally published in NONPROFIT QUARTERLY on January 13, 2021. CFF is posting it here to amplify the message. Nwamaka Agbo is the CEO of the Kataly Foundation.
While many of us are still processing the domestic terrorism organized by white supremacists and incited by the outgoing president last week, we are already being bombarded by calls for healing, reuniting, and peace. Bipartisan initiatives are emerging, roundtable discussions are being organized, and think pieces asking, “How did this happen?” continue to circulate through social media.
These calls for peace and healing often come from the grasstops of elected officials or wealthy people in powerful positions who fear that these flashpoint events may undermine their tenure or hurt their pocketbooks. However, without tangible steps toward accountability—not only of the individual actors, but also of the systems that emboldened and enabled them to create these harms—these calls for reconciliation are disingenuous and will only serve to further entrench the systemic inequities and structural racism that 2020 put on irrefutable display.
These empty words and pleas are demands for harmony camouflaged as an appeal for healing and repair, designed to tug on our progressive values for inclusion and peace. Harmony as a response to violence (state-sanctioned or vigilante) at first glance can come across as innocent and good intentioned. But upon deeper analysis these calls for harmony actually perpetuate more destruction and harm by silencing those who have been ringing the alarm on fascist factions peppered across the country. These factions have survived and thrived from a long lineage of supremacist ideologies, actions, and policies, beginning with the genocide of Native Americans and continuing with a pattern of human and civil rights violations that makes it possible for children to be stripped away from their parents and locked in cages when seeking asylum and refuge.
Calling for harmony without accountability for harmful acts—reparations to restore and make whole those who were impacted, or reconciliation that points to systemic changes as policies to ensure these ills won’t happen again—is insincere. Rather than disinfecting, cleaning, and applying a salve to heal the wound, the wound will only fester and further spread the infection across the country.
The attempted coup we witnessed on Wednesday amounts to a direct action of the same voter suppression tactics and policies that Black, Indigenous, and communities of color have experienced by the hands of those most entrusted with the protection of our democracy and right to vote. Tactics like gerrymandering, reducing polling locations, and attempts to reduce the capacity of the US Postal Service and ballot drop-off locations all amount to efforts to undermine our democracy. Legislated policies like restrictive voter ID requirements and Citizens United all serve to dilute and invalidate the democratic slogan of “one person, one vote.” And, finally, the electoral college, a system sullied with the vestiges of slavery, is designed to disproportionately preserve the voting power of white men. All of these strategies and policies, legislated and administered by those in power, served as the scaffolding that manifested the attacks on the Capitol and our democracy.
The violent insurrection on January 6, 2021, was not an isolated incident, but rather a flashpoint event that needs to be situated within the context of a long lineage of strategies intended to undermine and intimidate those who would dare to challenge and organize against white supremacist ideologies and attacks on our democracy. When we are unwilling to take in the totality of the bigger picture of the shameful truths of our country and settle for the easy and more palatable myopic and superficial assessment of what just took place, we leave ourselves open to this tragedy repeating itself. When we lead with denial in protection of our own comfort, rather than confronting reality, we sacrifice those who are most vulnerable to the racist systems our society has constructed. This is how systemic oppression manifests itself into constant, violent tragedies that disproportionately hurt and harm Black and brown communities. This is why we cannot have healing and reconciliation without accountability.
The events in Washington DC a week ago should not overshadow the steadfast and bold victories that we witnessed with the Georgia senate elections. For more than a decade, this Black-led, multi-racial alliance worked to organize and register their communities to make sure their voices were heard through their vote. Even as judges denied the existence of voter suppression tactics and ignored the evidence that groups like the New Georgia Project brought to the courtroom, these coalitions pressed on with their campaigns. And they did so with the deep understanding that if they could uphold democracy in Georgia and protect the right to vote, this would not only create real wins for their state but could produce material outcomes for the entire country—particularly for those in need of economic relief from the pandemic, wage stagnation, immigration reform, climate change legislation, and so much more. The courageous Senate campaigns of Georgia were truly an act of love for all of us and a defense of the true meaning and spirit of democracy. When Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times’ 1619 Project stated that Black Americans “have been the perfectors of this democracy,” she was celebrating the Civil Rights struggle of the ’60s, but projecting into the future, events like the decade-long organizing strategy to shift Georgia’s electorate.
Accountability cannot happen without action. At the Kataly Foundation, we believe it is essential to explicitly name our support of Black, Indigenous, and communities of color as the first step of acknowledging the violence, extraction, and exploitation that has sacrificed these communities in exchange for wealth accumulation and power consolidation. Our act of accountability is to center the voices, experiences, and decision-making authority of those same impacted communities through the grantees we support with both financial and non-financial resources, the partners we align ourselves with and take direction from, and through the team we entrust to carry out our mission.
Accountability is as much about rejecting the things that we do not want for our society as it is about supporting, building, and investing in the systems, structures, and institutions that we do want. In case it was not clear before, philanthropy—an industry that is supposed to benefit the public good—can no longer take a neutral stance in the face of what we experienced last week. To make calls for healing without accountability actually enables the erosion and destruction that has been a slow-burn to our democracy over the past four years, but long before that as well.
When grantees that are closest to the pain points of society tell us that they are hurting, and even give us the remedy to address that suffering, we should believe them and follow their instructions for how to support the strategies they designed for not only their own healing, but our collective liberation. And, because the attempted coup was not an isolated event, we need to resource groups with an acknowledgement of the long-term trajectory that it took to bring us so low as a nation, and with the level of commitment that is required to have us rebound better and stronger than we have ever been before.
This is not a moment for quick fixes and limited rapid response funding. This is a moment for a long and deep commitment into supporting the Black- and brown-led, owned, and community-serving, movement-based organizations that continue to stand tall at the forefront of defending our democracy and envisioning an inclusive, just, and liberated society for all of us. One example of such a commitment comes from the Democracy Frontlines Fund, a fund launched by the Libra Foundation that resources and is in relationship with Black-led organizers who are building power and reimagining safety. The calls for multi-year general operating support, generational funding, non-extractive and integrated capital investments, reduced reporting, solidarity philanthropy, and so much more are not just talking points. They are calls to action for philanthropy. Let’s promise that these calls are not met with silence.
True healing does not come from seeking harmony at the expense of justice and truth. True healing comes from making our best effort, no matter how challenging, to restore the same communities that have suffered at the hands of systemic inequities and structural racism to ensure that they have the resources, knowledge, capacities, and networks to create dignified and thriving livelihoods for their families, friends, and themselves.