Dear White Funders: I Can't Breathe Either

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Chicago Peace Fellow

My name is Frank Latin and first and foremost I’m a black man. I am also the founding Executive Director of Westside Media Project, a small non-profit organization on Chicago’s West side that works to provide exposure to students (and now adults) in media/technology related fields.

I’ve been wanting to get this off my chest for a few years. Now, with the unfortunate murder of George Floyd and the ensuing worldwide protests, which have led to ongoing discussions around the topic of systemic racism, I feel this is the perfect time.

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What I’ve learned in 14 years of running a non-profit is that philanthropy is one of the most racist sectors of society, competing neck and neck with the criminal justice, education and the health care systems in America. In fact, my view is that philanthropy works to bolster and prop up those other sectors by reinforcing the status quo. It is based on white society’s ‘Savior complex’ and supports white leaders at all costs, even those doing work in black and brown communities.

The perceptions I had of an uneven playing field used to upset me and have me somewhat disgruntled. However, I came to realize my perceptions were reality and have been substantiated in multiple studies, the latest published in December of 2019 by the Bridgespan Group, titled ‘Disparities in Funding for Leaders of Color Leave Impact on the Table.’

Philanthropy assumes that black and brown people living in distressed communities are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. I come to realize that as a professional, educated black man, I simply do not fit within the current model of philanthropy, primarily because I look like, walk like and talk like the residents on the west side of Chicago. The notion of a black man doing positive work in a black community without a white brain-trust or network to validate the organization is not enticing to funders. I lack what I term “white insurance” to make funders feel comfortable that their support is safe.

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I’ll admit, when I started the organization back in 2006 I had little to no knowledge of how philanthropy worked. What I did have was a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in economics with years of experience working at a government agency so I was more than capable of learning the ropes. I decided to begin a volunteer project that eventually became something much bigger; but which I still do voluntarily.

Chicago is home to a vibrant philanthropic community and they support issues and causes not only here in the city but around the globe. However, here in the city they seldom support organizations led by leaders of color working to address those very issues, and in those instances when they do, it will rarely, if ever be at the same level shown for white led organizations doing similar work.

This has directly led to a tiered, apartheid-like structure within non-profits in Chicago where there is a huge gulf between white led organizations and those headed by leaders of color. It also perpetuates ‘culture vultures’ who seek advancement, profit and notoriety off both the misery of black and brown people as well as the structural racism that exist within philanthropy. It also encourages phony alliances in which whites who yield privilege and influence utilize people of color as fronts or tokens to gain inroads into certain communities.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the health disparities that have always existed in America. Police misconduct has been thrust back into the headlines again, and rightfully so.

Philanthropy on the other hand, is a sector that often goes unnoticed and its racist policies and practices never get splashed across the evening news or social media posts. However, the lack of funding provided to leaders of color added with the desire to prop up white leaders to do work in minority communities has devastating effects. At times, it works like a sniper, taking would-be leaders right out the field. Other times it provides a slow death, reminiscent of a choke hold or a knee to the neck not allowing organizations ran by leaders of color to service our communities.

To the philanthropic community of Chicago...I CAN’T BREATHE!!

Learn more about Chicago Peace Fellow Frank Latin's work at WestsideMediaProject.org.

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