I think about the time before I met Valaida Fullwood, the creative genius behind the book Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists. This was a time before I knew someone had attempted to quantify and qualify the phenomenal giving of people of African descent. A time before what I have always known was affirmed: that we have always given, and given generously, and that despite that, our value in the American landscape (and further afield) has always been undervalued, undermined, and unrecognized.
When I think about this time, I am frustrated, pensive, and at times angry. I am forced to face a puzzling and unrealistic aspect of my profession. Why do I not see my reflection in the faces I encounter in the media, in tabloids, in emails extolling the generosity of those who are “selfless,” “kind,” and above all, “generous?” If, in fact, the largest group of philanthropists in the world are people who look like me and share my heritage, why am I not seeing that representation in publications revered by my peers and colleagues in philanthropy? Who is telling this story? Who is burying our story?
All of this changed, or at least started to change, as MRG Foundation hosted Giving Back: The Soul of Philanthropy, Reframed and Exhibited. With the opportunity to use the exhibit as the backdrop to 3 months of engagement with Portland and the statewide community (we even had visitors from California and Georgia), I gained much knowledge and imparted much more. I saw the backs of my African American brothers and sisters grow straighter. I saw the light flicker in the eyes of high school students who began to understand the worth of the legacy they’ve inherited. How theirs is a story of selfless generosity, not in spite of, but because of, the odds against their ancestors. I saw heads nod and mouths shape to “Ohs.” I also saw recognition and ownership. I saw empowerment and I saw joy. That is the essence of what Valaida Fullwood and Charles Thomas, the photographer for the book and the exhibit, have given us. A place to begin to get the narrative right and to share in the joy of what it means to give. Give freely, give joyfully, just give.
We were able to deepen the critical examination of what it means to be a philanthropist through the Civic Reflections training, the curriculum on Civic Reflection that came with the exhibit. The training was a deep dive into the self-reflection of How, To whom, Why, When, and In what way to fill your own hearts before encouraging others to examine how they fill their own.
Every project begins with a good, revelatory first step. MRG has taken the first such step in cracking open the mystery of Philanthropy and how it can be reclaimed by those most impacted by the way it is so often inflicted on the world today. The exhibit is an invitation to change how we see the world. In Valaida’s words, “a radical shift” in thought, actions, and outcomes.
As I was packing up the exhibit, I realized that for as much as we learned, we also know that much work needs to be done. Now without the visual representations, we have to work harder to convey the messages inherent in the book and the exhibit. Philanthropy belongs to no one because it is for all of us. Let’s take the next steps together. Stay tuned for more information on what is next in this journey. A very real “next step” is that the exhibit will be partnering with the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. They’re planning a special exhibition with the Smithsonian NMAAHC for the national conference of the Association of African American Museums (AAAM), which is being held in Washington, DC this summer. The plan is to install the exhibit at the conference hotel so that attendees are immersed in its themes and stories of philanthropy throughout the AAAM conference. A fitting place, yes?
MRG has copies of the book if you are interested in owning a copy and giving a copy to a friend. We have both signed and unsigned copies for purchase. Contact us to begin, or continue, your journey of philanthropic discovery.
A final thanks to our community sponsors and individual donors who helped us to share the exhibit: Concordia University, The Collins Foundation, KBOO Community Radio, Martha Richards, Meyer Memorial Trust, Moda Health, Multnomah County Cultural Coalition, The Oregonian Media Group, Spirit Mountain Community Fund, Street Roots, Willamette Valley Development Officers, and United Way of the Columbia- Willamette.