Covid-19 and racial disparity: A time for urgent action

from Derek Bardowell

Last month, ACF convened an event titled ‘Covid-19 and racial disparity: A time for urgent action’, attended by more than 200 foundation representatives. A recording is available on ACF’s  Diversity, equity, and inclusion resources page.

This blog by panelist, Derek Bardowell, is closely based on his remarks at this event.

The first thought that comes to my mind is a WhatsApp message I received recently from an ex-colleague, who is a woman of colour and a grant-maker. She said that her ‘anger had turned to heartbreak’. My friend was referring to how her employers, a funder, had been behaving during the Covid-19 outbreak concerning race. I could feel her point.

On 19 March, Future Foundations UK (FFUK) released its first statement expressing, among other things, how foundations could improve their funding by grant-making through an equity lens. Initially, we were going to say, in the statement, that it felt as if the funding sector’s behaviour was akin to a doctor turning black people away from a hospital door. We omitted the line, and rightfully so because it was insensitive. But it feels relevant now.
Three months on and considering the lack of action by funders, it genuinely feels as if philanthropy has turned its back on black people. The pain for people of colour right now is particularly high, yet our expectations of funders are low, and it shouldn’t be that way.

I think the following statements are obvious, but they keep popping into my mind as I think about philanthropy in the UK:

  1. We, as people of colour, experience British society entirely differently to the way most of the people who govern and run foundations experience life in Britain. They don’t understand us or our experience. And this disconnect fundamentally undermines foundations’ abilities to distribute funding equitably and competently.
  2. We are still in a situation where black people generally have to ask white people for money. Trust and honesty will always be problematic because of this dynamic. On the whole, funders’ inability to boldly invest has shown that they do not trust us. If they did, there would be more action and less fragility.
  3. Racism only ever springs to light when focussed on our pain, and never on our abundance or our innovation. Civic Square’s Immy Kaur and MAIA’s Amahra Spence appeared on my Just Cause podcast last year. They spoke of ground-breaking work in black and brown communities and how so few funders understood this. Thus, donors ignore our innovation, or we are subject to different ‘rules’, a narrower lens, longer processes, little trust, no risk.
    It shouldn’t take George Floyd’s murder for there to be an interest in or concern about racism or investment in black or brown-led social change. Over the last three years, we’ve had numerous reports about structural racism and the lack of diversity in the charitable sector. We have yet to see significant change or investment, barring the work of a few smaller foundations.
  4. We’re living through unprecedented times, which calls for unprecedented responses. Are we sure that funders have started to do anything fundamentally different or radical to respond to this issue adequately?
  5. FFUK, #CharitySoWhite, Ubele and others have all tried various tactics to try and get the funding sector to move. We’ve sat in on endless consultations. We’ve been polite. We’ve been antagonistic. We’ve provided practical solutions. We’ve supplied endless lists. We’ve provided data. Through it all, we’ve endured painful conversations and little action. Quite frankly, it has probably been one of the most undignified periods I’ve suffered in my professional career.
  6. Evidence, data and learning have been ignored, which makes it a fallacy that the funding sector values these things. The lack of urgency is a conscious act. We’ve gone through Brexit, Grenfell, Windrush, George Floyd, Covid-19 — it has been a relentless onslaught over the last four years, and I’m not even going to go into the historical injustices. It is a conscious act to ignore it, to ignore us. When we look at racial disparities in society, and when race intersects with other issues and other identities, then the inequalities faced by black and brown people are frightening. But apparently not scary enough.

I think back to an incident when I turned down two older white men for funding. One of them responded by saying: “Do you realise that black people were happier when they were in subservient positions?”
I didn’t know who to speak to about this comment within my organisation. I didn’t know whether anyone in power would understand. There wasn’t a safe space. Every day, people of colour in funding are experiencing racism; seeing actions and inactions that are harming communities of colour. Structural racism runs through the lifeblood of Britain, so anti-racism needs to underpin philanthropy’s approach to tackling racial injustice.

In terms of solutions, here are some suggestions:

  1. Reconciliation —  Chris Grant, a trustee at Sport England, talks a lot about the need for a truth and reconciliation commission in sport to support radical change. There has to be an acknowledgement and admission of the systemic failures around funding and structural and historical racism. And I’m not talking about a 10-day consultancy gig. A commission wouldn’t only address the governance and investment legislation required for change but also support the shift towards the anti-racist mindset and leadership needed to deliver this work well.
  2. Reparations — we cannot wait for foundations to work this out before there’s change. So there needs to be a substantial investment, which is long-term, flexible, and varied (not just service delivery, but research, start-ups, infrastructure, capital, tech, etc) to black and brown-led organisations. The wealthy are beneficiaries of an economic system where the exploitation of people of colour and our natural resources lie at the heart of their success. Funding is not about giving but redistributing.
  3. Divestment — stop investing in companies and charities that exacerbate racial inequalities.
  4. Independence — trusts and foundations have the wealth to create an independent endowment or national body, led and governed by black and brown people. Hackney CVS ceo Jake Ferguson, CORE (Coalition of Race Equality) members and others have, in various discussions, mentioned the need for the creation of an independent entity.
  5. Infrastructure — long-term support to regional infrastructure bodies led/governed by people of colour.
  6. Partnerships — funders could easily add money to funding pots that are already distributing funds to black and brown communities such as Resourcing Racial Justice and Kwanda.
  7. Fund the organisations on the lists we send — like Racial Justice Network, Healing Justice London, Black Thrive, Ubele, You Make It!, Project 507, #CharitySoWhite, Rekindle, Centre for Knowledge Equity, Made Up Kitchen, Power the Fight, Glitch, StopWatch, Black Land & Spatial Justice, Granville Community Kitchen, Black Cultural Archives, Amahra Spence, brap, Civic Square, Voice4Change, Solve and Free Black University, etc.
  8. Give up power — because that’s what real change takes; anything less will not be sufficient.

We have just seen Black Lives Matter UK raise over £1m from the public. Often, funders will say, ‘we don’t want to go against public will’. But now, funders’ inactivity is actively ignoring public will. It is ignoring data and evidence. I wonder how much of the £3.3 billion or so invested by the top-300 UK foundations goes to black and brown-led organisations? Would it match the 13% of minoritised racial groups who make up the UK population?

I wonder if any independent foundation has ever invested as much as £1 million to a black or brown-led organisation?

As a final point, I think back to the Civil Rights Movement. Civil Rights theorist Lani Guinier once used the comparison of black men as ‘canaries in the mine’. When bad things happen, they tend to affect black and brown and indigenous communities first. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t just benefit black people. It benefited everyone. Its success liberated everybody, particularly the marginalised. I, like many others, always say that our liberation and our dignity are tied together.

To reinterpret Guinier’s words, if black and brown people are the ‘canaries’, then we need to heed the canary ‘not focus on simply fixing the canary’. And I don’t just mean heeding the canaries in their pain, but to heed the canaries in their abundance.

Derek Bardowell is a writer, philanthropy adviser, and former director of programmes at the Stephen Lawrence Trust and Laureus Sport for Good. As a journalist, he has contributed to Time Out and BBC World Service, in philanthropy he has directed funding portfolios for Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the National Lottery Community Fund, among others, distributing over £150 million to good causes in 34 countries

Derek is a founding member of Future Foundations UK, a trustee of ACF member Thirty Percy Foundation, and he currently hosts the podcast Just Cause, exploring the intersections of race, culture, and social justice. His first book , No Win Race, was a Sunday Times and Financial Times Book of the Year in 2019.

Twitter: @DerekABard

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