June 5, 2020

Now is the time to change the system

Protesters in Portland during a march in support of justice for George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter human rights movement. Photo credit: Fred Joe Photo.

Now is the time to change the system...

Over the past few weeks, I joined staff and trustees of Meyer Memorial Trust in mourning the racist slayings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others by recklessly violent police and white vigilantes.

Billions of people around the world subsequently watched the slow, calculated indifference of Minneapolis Police officers as they stole the life of George Floyd, a Black father and nightclub bouncer. Like the death of Emmett Till in 1955, the murder of George Floyd has thrust the country to the brink of change.

Sixty-five years ago, the lynching of a 14-year-old boy spurred a movement that eventually spelled the end of Jim Crow laws that denied Black Americans their share of the American Dream. With the murder of George Floyd, we are again at a precipice of change. This time, my neighbors here in Oregon and across the country are taking on the very systems that largely remain unchanged from the Jim Crow era and slavery before that.

Philanthropy spends a lot of energy talking about systems-level change. It can seem a dull topic when cities are not on fire. But it should be the root of what foundations do. I often ask myself, to what higher purpose can philanthropy aspire? And I consider how a sector that was built on inordinate wealth and privilege can help shift the conditions that hold inequities and disparities firmly in place.

But I worry. And I am not alone.

Vu Le, executive director of RVC—a Seattle-based nonprofit that promotes social justice by cultivating leaders of color—is no stranger at calling out philanthropy on his blog, nonprofitAF. Like me, Vu has been re-reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which Dr. King warns of the white moderate, who presses for order over justice, for calm rather than for change. Vu asks, have nonprofits and philanthropy “become the ‘white moderate’ that Dr. King warned us about?”

It is the right question, and the answer is troubling.

Dr. King wrote: “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.“

Now is the time to push forward to change the broken systems that allow more than 1,000 people to be killed by police year in and year out, and allow those killers to face little more than slaps on the wrist.

This week, in a video town hall series and a pair of online essays, former President Barack Obama addressed the calls for culture change echoing across the country, saying the status quo cannot shift without pressure. “That’s why protests work.”

He, too, spoke of systems change.

“Most of the reforms that are needed to prevent the type of violence and injustices that we’ve seen take place at the local level,” President Obama said on Wednesday. “There is a change in mindset that’s taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better. That is not as a consequence of speeches by politicians. That’s not the result of spotlights in news articles. That’s a direct result of the activities and organizing and mobilization and engagement of so many young people across the country who put themselves out on the line to make a difference.”

Justice often isn’t orderly. Philanthropy can and should break down barriers to justice anyway.

Meyer is committed to investing in meaningful, transformative shifts in policies, processes, relationships and power structures. To upend generations old systems takes collective, multi-layered, long-game work and we do not do it alone. Our grantees and community partners stand on the front lines, moving the needle and advocating for measurable change. We hear their calls and we are by their side.

At this moment, when despair threatens every moment, Meyer celebrates their uphill work as the clearest path to create an equitable Oregon where all people can flourish.

— Michelle J. DePass
     President & CEO
     Meyer Memorial Trust