Channeling Today’s Noise and Confusion into a Social Justice Symphony

The Equity Summit, which took place on October 27 through 29 (2015) in Downtown LA, was a perfect example of all the mayhem going on in the United States. The event highlighted the tensions in addressing equity issues at a time when the media and individuals’ personal politics are polarizing our objective view of today’s world events.

However, mayhem is sometimes a good thing. Mayhem gives us, as a society, immense fodder to create brilliant solutions and disseminate information in ways that can sometimes be a sensory overload. When done right, this overload is not always a bad thing. During the summit, there was a gripping mobile tour focused on displacement in East and North East LA’s surrounding transit system, which inspired me as much as having the opportunity of being front row in a room of 2500 people for the Black Lives Matter mega-break out session (*think crackle connections unifying to so many people where you feel like you are even breathing as one unit).

My emotions ran high throughout the conference, and my already creative and hyperactive mind was racing and trying to figure out what I can do, as one person in a pivotal time of such need.

Now that the “noise and confusion” piece is clear, why a “social justice symphony?” The word symphony literally means “sounding together.” Symphonies require members of orchestras to work together to create starkly different, yet harmonious, movements. I see these movements, layered with knowledge gained through the Equity Summit and another event, as approaches that will help individuals advance their social justice work.

Movement 1 – Fast, usually in sonata form, and falling into three sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. Find the calm from your inner self – just be fearless and simply, unapologetically, you.

A resounding message from many of the most coveted names in the field of social justice field was that they followed their gut, even when literally all, including mentors and supporters, thought they were crazy. During the closing plenary “Building a Multiracial, Multigenerational Equity Movement,” moderator Bob Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, recounted a story. He said about 10 years ago, his friend Angela Glover Blackwell came to him and said she had an idea to create a convening focusing purely on equity. Bob discouraged Angela saying there is no way people will come to an all-day event to discuss these issues. Fast forward 10 years later, and the Equity Summit was a sold out melding of 3,000 souls fighting “the good fight.” They all gathered at what had turned into the now Policy Link Equity Summit, and Bob said, “I am so glad that she did not listen.”

Movement 2 – Slow movement, in simple form and often containing some beautiful melodies. Speak truth to power and three things to have present in your job.

David Wertheimer, deputy director for the Pacific Northwest initiative at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, shared some kernels of wisdom at the EPIP of San Diego Leadership Salon preceding the San Diego Grantmakers October 8, 2015 Conference. He said one thing that has helped him work with people in power is to speak your truth at all times, even to people in power. Whether you are speaking to power in the form of immense knowledge, fame, wealth or any other form, it is essential to present your thoughts and ideas in their purest forms. This is exceptionally rare, and even more valuable to those people who have the majority of people saying what they think they want to hear. David also never settles. Unless he has two of three things in his job— passion, challenge, and fun—he will move on to another opportunity. David has been at Gates for just about 10 years, so it is great to know he is living and breathing his own advice while having tremendous impact on homelessness in the United States.

Movement 3 – Minuet and trio, a dance borrowed from the Baroque period and in ternary form. Being great means dedication to the future, and check that ego at the door.

The trio here is the past, present, and future. During the Equity Summit’s closing plenary, Geoffrey Canada, founder and former CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), reminded the audience that it is essential leaders be mentors. He encouraged mentors to hand pick and cultivate the next generation of leadership in the field. This includes seeing the potential in someone, imparting special knowledge, and really investing in their futures. I couldn’t agree more! I have personally been the beneficiary of having some of the most incredible mentors in philanthropy; and I always attribute their pushing me, checking me, and support as a critical part of my personal and professional growth. Geoffrey went a step further and advised us that if you build something, you need to “hand it off” while it is on its way up. Canada did exactly this to now CEO of HCZ, Anne Williams-Isom. She was picked, groomed, and now is leading a thriving institution as the beloved new leader. I cannot tell you how many case studies we went over in my nonprofit management classes at NYU Wagner that this simple equation would have solved.

Movement 4 – Fast speed sonata, often light-hearted in style. We are all busy, but be accountable.

Jamie Bennett was not afraid to voice his opinions on the “Grantmakers Take the Lead on Advancing Racial Equity” breakout panel. As the Executive Director of ArtPlace America, a 10-year fund of 15 foundations creating community development projects via arts and culture, Jamie has shaken things up into a unique form of philanthropy that mirrors Amazon’s one-click ordering: it’s a clear, streamlined, and reasonable effort for what you are aiming to get. Jamie explained that every decision we make has equity, environmental or social impact implications. This is why his mantra is that “there are no side effects, only effects.” This mantra provides a lens to fully look at and consider your impacts, whether intentional or unintentional. In essence, we are all accountable. #hero. This is why Jamie tries to reduce the immense amount of cultural competency needed to be in the running for a grant. Unlike most foundations, ArtPlace America only requires prospective grantees one line item budget, and a mere two pages of text. “Prospective organizations are only required to give 3 percent effort, since as a whole only they only have a 3 percent chance of being funded,” he said. He also pushes philanthropists, and all of us, out of our “neutral” territory. You know, the territory that always makes us feel safe and comfortable.

A subtle message in the Summit that we should not overlook as we work on ourselves and our work, is that it is important to not lose the essential bonds and freedoms that we currently have. These key bonds paired with the four movements of 1) embodying your inner beliefs, 2) being truthful and fulfilled, 3) giving back to the next generation and moving on while on top, and 4) being accountable are the components that help us orchestrate a beautiful social justice symphony.