It’s all about listening. As I had the honour of talking with Theo Sowa, co-chair of the Equality Fund, during our keynote session at the Innovations in International Philanthropy Symposium, that word, listening, resonated again and again.
Too often, she noted, we ask those whom we seek to support only questions about the problems they face, not about the solutions they might embrace. We ask them, as Theo put it, about their victimhood. But too often we miss the seeds of solutions that are in their statements and answers.
The good news, such as it is, in all this might be that we are more aware of that shortcoming than ever. We embrace the concept of proximate philanthropy, of the value of lived experience. We talk about bringing others to the table, and of shared decision-making. And we know, especially in international philanthropy, that those elements can be hard to embrace, when those people closest to the challenges are distant from us: geographically, technologically, or experientially.
In my first weeks and months at the Boston Foundation, I have had the opportunity to do a lot of listening to better understand our work as a grantmaker, a partner with donors and a civic leader. I’ve also gotten to listen and learn of the important opportunity we have as a community foundation with a local focus and a global reach. Through The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI) and TPI’s Center for Global Philanthropy, a co-host of the Symposium, we are uniquely poised to support more thoughtful international philanthropy that begins with listening and learning from people with lived experience.
What seems incongruous at first – a community foundation hosting a global initiative – appears less so when we look at our current crises and the best practices to address them. As we continue to experience a triple pandemic of a global pandemic, racial injustice and economic inequities felt in Boston and abroad, it is clearer than ever that there are few issues that can be defined as only local.
Just a few weeks before the Symposium, Haiti was rattled by the assassination of their leader and the second major earthquake to devastate the nation in a just over a decade. Boston is home to one of the largest Haitian populations in the U.S., and after the 2010 quake, we established a fund to support Haiti in its recovery and rebuilding. Over time, that has transformed into a robust, community-focused, Haitian-led and Haiti-based effort to foster systemic change – the Haiti Development Institute.
Listening to Theo, it’s clear that approach is one we need to emulate in other parts of our work – in Boston and far beyond. ‘To shift power in philanthropy we need to shift our mindsets,’ she said. ‘And that means recognising your privileges, recognising our preconceptions, recognising our limitations, but more importantly recognising other people’s expertise — recognising that you do not have to have been to an Ivy League school to have expertise on peacebuilding or conflict resolution or economic justice, and that indeed, the very fact of living (through) injustice, living through inequality and coming out the other side of discrimination gives you an expertise that you will never learn in an ivory tower.’
We are continuing to strive to bring that power of lived experience into our work — to, as Theo put it, shift control of our funds closer to the issues we are trying to change, combining our ability to take risks and couple our experience with the knowledge and understanding that only comes with proximity.
Our Vice President and Chief Program Officer, Orlando Watkins, uses a set of four ‘Action-Based Principles’ to help his team define and focus their work. The fourth one reads: ‘We don’t have all the answers; as such, we commit to listening and learning from the communities we serve.’
As Theo Sowa shows us, it’s a principle that works whether that community is half a mile or half a world away.
Lee Pelton is President and CEO of The Boston Foundation