A Post Election Reflection

January 15, 2017 //

The recent election was a disaster that will continue to unfold in the months ahead. Many of our partners and colleagues have written posts that have resonated and give me hope as the outlook gets more grim. In her recent post Pia spoke for me as well, reaffirming our commitment to our mission and values and our solidarity with our partners. She also raised the importance of building trust in a time of so much distrust.

This past year poll after poll showed public distrust of seemingly everything. I kept wondering: What happens to a society without trust? One answer is that we get a president-elect like Donald Trump.

For the whole continuum of funders and donors who make up the field of philanthropy, the election is a wake up call that the status quo is no longer acceptable. Our democracy is in deep trouble– both institutionally and in the web of individual relationships that connect us.

As with any disaster, there is a need for quick and responsive disaster relief. In this case, “triage” funding and resources to help protect our most vulnerable communities is vital. How can donors and foundations step into the breach and help buffer what is coming in terms of persecution, displacement, and incarceration? Trump’s cabinet appointments so far have removed any illusions that he might want to unify rather than divide the country.

Amidst all the present divisiveness, there does appear to be widespread agreement that something needs to be done about the country’s crumbling physical infrastructure. What the election revealed is that we must also begin to fix other parts of the country’s infrastructure if we are to rebuild our democracy in ways that enable us to more fully practice America’s founding principles. There is long term (re)building ahead, needs that existed before and during the election. For instance:

  • Civic Infrastructure – Donald Trump was elected by approximately 25% of eligible voters. How do we engage the half of the country who didn’t participate? Civic participation is more than voting of course, but the general question stands: As funders, how can we better help efforts to engage the disengaged, especially the most marginalized, in solving our nation’s problems and creating a new narrative of what our democracy can be? How can we support structures, policies, and processes that truly enable a government “of the people, by the people, for the people?”
  • News and Information Infrastructure: The election coverage was just the latest symptom of a deteriorating news and information environment that elevates punditry over reporting, rumor and innuendo (“fake news”) over facts, and entertainment values over investigative reporting. We should not kid ourselves about the huge economic incentives driving our present news and information culture. Given those aren’t going away, how can funders support journalism and storytelling platforms that contribute to informed, engaged communities? How can funders help push against a mass surveillance system that may serve as the arm of a decidedly undemocratic notion of policing based on social identities?
  • Cultural Infrastructure: The level of hate and divisiveness, the degree of “othering” in the country, is troubling and frightening. There is also much alienation and invisibility and too many echo chambers. In such a climate, is it possible to personally connect in ways that move us toward our shared humanity? As funders, how can we better help efforts (including art, music, film) to promote civity (defined as a culture of deliberately engaging in relationships of respect and empathy with others who are different) and social good?
  • Movement Infrastructure: There is increasing recognition of the intersectionality of movements connected to advancing social, political, and economic equity and addressing climate change. It is far easier to intellectually grasp this concept, however, than it is to put it into practice. In light of the election, re-examining assumptions about moving in this direction might also mean cultivating more meaningful, ongoing “intersections” with those who hold differing views. How can funders better help disconnected people and networks build the trusting relationships necessary for building a “movement of movements” that brings us closer to fulfilling America’s promise?
  • Inside/Outside Infrastructure: Many people working for social change are doing so within government or other institutional frameworks (including foundations). Many are working in communities and spheres outside of those frameworks. These two different orientations (which often come with different orientations to the pace of change) can lead people to talk past each other. How can funders better support more connections and coordination between inside and outside strategies? How can funders help connect these strategies in ways that build power across aisle, identities, and regions?

This rough sketch leaves out a lot but my point is that the moment we are in calls on us to consider viewing our work through a civic engagement lens that links engagement with advancing social, political, and economic equity. Looking through this lens brings into focus the opportunity for philanthropy to pitch in and help the country practice democracy in a way that builds trust, respect, empathy, and equity (TREE). My bias is that funders should particularly look at how they can support these things at a grassroots level, including efforts to organize and build grassroots popular movements.

Our democracy is crying out for help and those of us in philanthropy would do well to respond — even if it means digging deeper into our endowments and funding outside of the boxes that traditionally frame our giving. “How” we move forward, how we build trust, how we listen, how we engage in dialogue, how we think critically together is more important now than ever.

Speaking of stepping outside of boxes, I note that The Philanthropy Roundtable, the affinity group for conservative foundations, just held its annual meeting. I went a few years back and haven’t been back since. I think perhaps I’ll go next year.

The week before the election I was in Washington, D.C. While there, I visited the MLK Memorial. I took a picture of two of King’s quotes carved in stone that particularly spoke to me.

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation, and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

I have thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. a lot since the election. How might I challenge racism, injustice and inequity with love in my heart? How might I move outside of my comfort zones and connect across difference? How might I act from a world perspective that recognizes the intersectionality of issues?

Exploring the tensions inherent in these questions – in reflection, in dialogue and relationship with others, in practice — is part of the work that lies ahead for me. And I am grateful to have so many trusted colleagues and partners to help me in that journey.