Remarks for the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers
November 29, 2006
One of my most memorable college courses was on the Theory of Conflict and effective negotiation. In one memorable class session, we were all given paper cups. Some of the cups had chips of various value; other cups were empty. The exercise went like this: for 20 minutes we had to ‘negotiate’ with our classmates to get them to share their chips; at the end of the period, the ‘winner’ would be the person with the most chips. But it wasn’t quite so simple; in this exercise, we had to grip the other person’s hand during the negotiation, like a handshake. And, most disturbing of all, we could not talk. The entire negotiation between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ had to occur in silence, with the only negotiation being the strength of our grip and ferocity, fear or pathos in our eyes.
I thought about this class when I was preparing for this talk, and particularly as I read Ralph Smith’s previous address to Grantmakers in Health, and listened to his words today.
We are negotiating across chasms of silence. On any given day, I will hold hands with people who have a lot of chips in their cups, and some people who have empty cups. I will see some people hoarding their chips with steely eyes and firm grips, measuring them out in miserly fashion, demanding ‘metrics’ in return for each grudging penny shared. I see some people throwing their chips up in the air — let those chips fall where they may — moved clue-less about how to help the chip-less, but eager to do something that seems useful.
These transactions do not occur in robust participatory dialogue, but rather, in the uncomfortable silence of wealth meeting almost unspeakable, unfathomable need. And at some of the deepest, most silent places in this transaction reside the issues that, too often, we dare not name: race, social class, poverty, violence, power. In one hand, an empty cup; in another, all the chips.
In these few brief minutes of response time, let me suggest several concrete ways in which we can break the silences and fill all of the cups more equitably as we work to lead engagement for the purpose of community transformation.
First, we need to say the words out loud: Race. Social Class. Poverty. Power. People are often too afraid to talk about those issues. As an educator, I know that we have to say the words out loud if we’re ever going to get beyond the superficial skim of social problems.
I participate in meetings of the numerous business organizations in this region — the Greater Washington Board of Trade, Federal City Council, and other similar organizations largely perceived as dominated by white men of wealth and power — and so they are, to some extent. But these vital business organizations include people who care deeply about many of the issues we are discussing here — but often they don’t know how to talk about these difficult issues. In 18 years of going to Board of Trade meetings, I cannot recall even one serious discussion of race and poverty — these are not considered to be ‘business’ issues.
Some people ask me why I bother going to all those meetings. My response is that we cannot begin to change institutions or behaviors if we are not present at the tables where the powerful gather. But presence is not nearly enough. True engagement requires speaking out through those silences, giving voice to the truth about the corrosive effect of poverty on families, the trap of social class, the pervasive racism that is not made better by ignoring it.
The current leader of the nuns who founded Trinity, the Sisters of Notre Dame, once told me that our job as women working with under-served populations is to ‘disturb the peace.’ I think that’s a very good direction for all of us who want to engage community transformation. Disturbing the peace is our job. We need to be willing to disturb the peace in all those rooms where silence gives consent to unacceptable social conditions.
Sitting at the table is not enough. Show up. Stand up. Speak up. Make noise. Disturb the peace.
Second, we need to acknowledge the interdependency of our expertise, passion and approaches to solutions. Grantmakers can and should be particularly effective in facilitating the multiple perspectives and dimensions of expertise around addressing problems. But often, when business partners come into the mix, there’s an inclination to defer to their inherent power, to let them demand tidy business-like solutions through the application of ‘metrics’ and management methods that may or may not have any rational relationship to the needs of the community served. There’s no magic bullet for poverty, or educational failure, or the health care crisis, or child abuse.
I’ve heard some funders discuss ‘metrics’ and ‘outcomes’ in reverent tones, almost as if holding charitable organizations accountable to a pre-defined set of outcomes will end illiteracy, stop teenage pregnancy, eradicate the drug trade, make the health care needs of undocumented neighbors disappear. Their idea of a ‘return on investment’ is an end to the problem — including the problem of money for organizations whose work products do not naturally produce revenues.
Baloney. Here’s what will really happen when a too-sterile application of business principles to nonprofit management is allowed to prevail: the best nonprofit leaders will burn out, are burning out, feeling disrespected and worn down in the culture clash between serving the community of need and serving the masters of management. Read the ‘Dare to Lead’ study that documents the steady erosion of leadership in the nonprofit sector.
Grantmakers can help nonprofit leaders by being more forthright with business leaders, teaching the business partners the nuances of the charitable sector — including the reasons why most organizations in this sector cannot be run like for-profit businesses. Our accountability is not to the bottom line, though certainly that’s important to attend to for the fiscal health of the organization. But the ultimate value is in service to human needs, some of which will be with us to the end of time. The quality and effectiveness of human service, the depth of compassion and scope of our reach, should be the metrics, the ‘return on investment’ on which charitable organizations are measured. Human need is as old as original sin and as long as eternity. We need to plan sustained support to address sustained need.
Third, we simply must start insisting on interdisciplinary approaches to complex issues, rather than the simplistic grab for short-term ‘solutions’ that leave everyone angry in just a few months. Education is the great example here. There’s this bizarre tendency to think that if we throw more money at the problem of education, somehow it will eventually stick, somehow the problems will go away.
I recently was a direct participant in a discussion that illustrates these points: The Gates Foundation and the District of Columbia engaged in some research on high school and collegiate graduation rates for the D.C. Public Schools. Known informally as the ‘Bridgespan Report,’ the not-so-pretty findings were released at an event last month. A problem with this elaborate report is that it addresses some narrow statistical data, not necessarily well-devised, and it extrapolates from that narrow data to create some scary headlines. I won’t deconstruct the data here.
But the real problem is this: no where in the report does it address the true ugly, insidious roots of educational failure in this city — the conditions of poverty and violence in this city that rot the roots of learning potential among children. The report did not even mention the profound racism that goes hand-in-hand with the poverty of the eastern half of this region, documented so elegantly in Brookings’ ‘A Region Divided.’ The report was silent on the illiteracy of the adults, the parents, which has a direct impact on the ability of children to learn.
Poverty has a direct impact on education. Education carves the pathway out of poverty. We cannot keep discussing one without understanding the other and their essential interdependency, for better or worse.
Until we begin to honestly identify and integrate multiple sources of human problems and needs across sectors, we will never be able to solve the educational crisis in the D.C. Schools. We substitute the blame game (blame the superintendent, the teachers, the principals, the parents) or the governance game (let’s have yet another round of tinkering with the school board) in place of a truly open quest for understanding of the roots of educational failure — poverty, racism, classism, politics, even the health care crisis as it affects children and families in poverty. We will never solve the educational crisis in the District of Columbia so long as we ignore poverty and racism and spend our time talking about governance. No governance system in the world will remedy the root causes of this crisis.
Since I’m on the topic of education, let me end with a mention of the sector where I live most of the time: higher education. We supposedly know something about teaching and learning, as well as about research. On most university campuses in this region, the discussions of race and class, poverty and power go on all of the time — it’s what we do for a living, frankly, so we’re not afraid to say those words in our classrooms. Our students engage in extensive service learning work with many of the organizations you support. We also have the means at our disposal to do research that could actually be helpful in promoting understanding of the service sector’s needs, the root causes of problems, the potential pathways to solutions.
But too often universities are not engaged in this kind of discussion, perhaps because we’re seen more as possible grantees, perhaps because we’re seen more as monolithic places of privilege that don’t engage well with community transformation, perhaps because we’ve done a bad job of letting you know that we could actually be constructive partners in this dialogue.
So, let me say that, and offer my own time and interest as a link to my colleagues among the area universities. Ralph Smith talked about the drivers of change — education is one of the most important drivers of change, most significant forces to alleviate poverty and conquer racism. Universities must be part of the solution, and we should be partners with you in the transformative effort.
We share the same goal: let everyone’s cup be filled!