The Solutions Project recently hosted its third annual Black Climate Week in Los Angeles to celebrate Black climate justice leaders and the Black abolitionist history of philanthropy in America — including the work of Harriet Tubman, Madam C.J. Walker and Mary Ellen Pleasant, described by one journal as a “feminist, gun-toting abolitionist with a bankroll.”
I first connected with The Solutions Project when I wrote a story on Black environmental donors, part of our ongoing coverage of the ever-growing field of donors of color in the U.S. More recently, I wrote about what IP has been learning about this wide-ranging cohort of philanthropists, who have emerged from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and other sectors.
So I was excited when The Solutions Project invited me to host a panel on Solidarity Philanthropy during Black Climate Week. The event was held at Blackbird House in Culver City, a life-work community for women of color that was founded by Bridgid Coulter Cheadle, a longtime designer and wife of actor Don Cheadle. The couple are also donors to The Solutions Project, a philanthropic intermediary that supports climate justice, and Bridgid Coulter hosted a fireside chat with the organization’s CEO Gloria Walton before the Solidarity Philanthropy panel.
I was joined on stage by Linetta Gilbert, managing partner of Gilbert & Associates and a former Ford Foundation senior program officer; Solome Lemma, executive director of Thousand Currents, which supports bold solutions for climate, food and economic justice; and Doria Robinson, executive director of Urban Tilth, a community-based organization rooted in the Bay Area dedicated to cultivating a more sustainable, healthy and just food system.
It was a terrific panel, and the participants brought up many thought-provoking points. As a Black writer often covering wealthy white donors, celebrating the work of donors of color in philanthropy has been essential. But as I’ve learned, the story of Black philanthropy isn’t just of major individual donors, but of ordinary Black men and women giving all that they could, when they could.
But what exactly is Solidarity Philanthropy? What did I learn from the panel? And how do I plan on using what I learned at the event in my coverage of philanthropy going forward? Here are three takeaways.
What is philanthropy, anyway?
I kicked things off by first asking how these three leaders defined philanthropy. A key theme for Black Climate Week was Solidarity Philanthropy, which aims to address power and equity in the sector. The premise goes that for the communities who have been most impacted by systems of oppression and have been historically underinvested in, philanthropy needs now to over-invest in them.
Linetta Gilbert, a futurist who played a major role in recovery work after Hurricane Katrina, has been particularly interested in how philanthropy and politics have often been aligned. She sees philanthropy as strategy, and in many cases, the person who writes the check to a foundation is also the same person who writes the check for a public official to run for office.
Before Solome Lemma started at Thousand Currents, she founded an earlier organization called Africans in the Diaspora, which aims to move the conversation from always thinking of Blacks as recipients to agents and drivers of change. Born in Ethiopia, she notes that the Western understanding of philanthropy puts a high premium on strategic giving. But she reminds us that remittances are also a form of philanthropy. And remittances far outweigh any philanthropic or foreign aid giving that has ever taken place.
Doria Robinson, who was recently elected as a city council member in her native Richmond, California, wants to move from thinking about philanthropy as discrete programmatic innovations and initiatives and actually move toward collective liberation. In fact, she wonders how effective the big philanthropists of old can be at reshaping our school systems, for instance. So a key factor for her is making sure that the right people are leading from a strategy perspective, and not just the folks with resources.
“How do funders become ally/activists, and not always just the captain and the coach?” she asked in a conversation we had before the panel. This echoes some of the language I’ve heard in my recent coverage of family foundations in partnership with the National Center for Family Philanthropy.
Reframing the conversation
After being on stage for a while, I started to feel like I did when combing through Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project and then observing the subsequent backlash — which even included a controversial philanthropic twist. There is a true reframing going on in some parts of the philanthropic sector, which I don’t think big philanthropy is even fully aware of. And that applies even to the way Gilbert, Robinson and Lemma consistently distinguised between institutional philanthropy and the kind of philanthropy they envision. But part of the way these leaders chart out a new path is by reframing how we look at the past, just as Hannah-Jones did in her research. Throughout the night, there were reminders that Harriet Tubman wasn’t just a mighty emancipator, but a skilled herbalist, forager and healer.
And building on a conversation I had last year with author Tyrone McKinley Freeman, Madam C.J. Walker was framed not just as an early Black millionaire and entrepreneur, but as a significant Black philanthropist who built institutions and created opportunities for Black Americans around the country. And even earlier, James Forten, a free Black man during colonial America, funded the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator and supported the Lombard Street School, an early Black public school in Philadelphia.
I suspect this emphasis on history will continue in these spaces. Case in point: Every attendee left the event with swag, including Freeman’s book “Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy During Jim Crow,” and a collage of Black historical leaders who loom in the mind’s eye of a young Black leader in the present.
Climate justice and empowering leaders on the ground
The Solutions Project is one of a growing list of organizations that focus on climate justice, setting themselves apart from an earlier generation of environmental organizations. Given that Black communities are among the most impacted by climate change, an important part of the conversation that night involved making sure people on the ground in front-line communities are leading in the strategy component. For people in these communities, the issue of climate change is not merely one of polar bears and gigatons of emissions — it’s a matter of survival. Lemma pointed out the irony that in the midst of interviewing climate research fellows earlier, she had to postpone interviews in Brazil and South Africa because of catastrophic floods and climate impact —yet another reminder of the urgency of this work.