By Gary Steuer, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation President & CEO
I have been working for days trying to write an official statement from the Board and staff of Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, expressing our outrage over the brutal murder of George Floyd and so many other incidents of Black and Brown people being so senselessly murdered, or threatened, such as recently happened in Central Park to Christian Cooper – causing us to have to add “Birding While Black” to the long list of normal activities for White people that can become deadly for someone with Black or Brown skin.
As many of you know, I am not often at a loss for words. I normally find it easy to express myself. But I find myself now grasping for language. I am reading and hearing the words of my many friends in philanthropy, government, business, and the nonprofit sector. My colleagues of color see this time of crisis through the very specific lens of their lived experience, of personal connection to racism, harassment, micro-aggressions, even arrests and beatings. As a White person who acknowledges that my skin has granted me privileges in life I did not earn, I cannot begin to imagine the pent-up anger, grief, frustration that some of you are feeling.
Well-intended words of “I feel you,” I hear you,” “I am an ally,” combined with wonderful appropriate quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Cornell West or Maya Angelou seem insufficient to me, as inspiring as those quotes may be. I truly mean no disrespect to the many people and organizations that have issued such statements. We all must respond in our own way. I have also been torn between calls from thoughtful Black and Brown leaders that say this is a time for White leaders to sit back and listen, to avoid the tendency to lead, or even speak out, to give space to the voices of people of color who are in pain and need to have their voices heard. And, on the other side are those who state effectively that silence is complicity, that racism and structural racial inequity will never be changed unless White people are right alongside people of color and make clear they will no longer tolerate this.
So, what am I to do? I find myself in tears multiple times a day struggling with empathy for not just the people that have lost their lives, but for all the Black and Brown people who have dealt with structural racism, outright racist actions, more subtle micro-aggressions, their entire lives – let’s be clear: for generations. I understand the anger. I understand their frustration with well-meaning platitudes from White folks – I recognize that sometimes I may be seen that way, despite my best intentions. So many White leaders seem more upset about property damage than about the root causes of the frustration and anger that has led some to believe peaceful protest may not succeed. When will policies and systems truly be changed? When will talk turn into action?
I grew up in New York City, totally unaware of my White Privilege, as superficially I was surrounded by diversity, went to public school, played hoops in the park. I know even talking about this background can come across as the offensive “some of my best friends are…” trope. But it is part of my lived experience and I think heightened my understanding from a young age – to the limited extent I was able to absorb – of the Black and Brown experience. And later, as an adult I knew from interactions with wealthy, powerful, famous Black leaders that for them– despite their superficial success – when they go out on the street at night, that a cab may not pick them up, that somebody walking past them might quicken their pace or cross the street. There is a direct and unbroken chain between that and a cop putting a knee on your neck until you are dead.
So here is the bottom line. I am angry. I am sad. I am more determined than ever to fight systemic racism, in my life, my home, my work, my community, this nation. It will never be enough, I will always feel like I am failing, and I know that as has often been said, I must “get comfortable with being uncomfortable”. As powerful as the voices and actions of people of color are – and as needed as they are – we, the White, the privileged, must act. Philanthropy must re-examine its norms, look at the data on inequitable funding of organizations led by and serving people of color, and take steps to change that. Examine our reluctance to invest in policy change as “too political” even though it is a totally allowable philanthropic activity. Invest in our leaders of color and support them in their growth and work. And as an arts funder, we must specifically look at how this work manifests itself in arts and culture.
The Bonfils-Stanton Foundation believes that too many lives have been lost and injustices perpetrated against Black and Brown Americans and there has not been enough progress to fight the disease of racism and discrimination in our country – including in Denver and in Colorado. We are committed within our mission and programs to strive to do our part to fight systemic and structural racism. We believe the arts are a powerful tool to educate, enlighten, humanize, inspire, move, and – yes – even express rage, frustration, and grief – in the fight against racism. We will continue to prioritize investments that support such work and do our part to reverse structural racism in arts philanthropy, as well as through our investments in nonprofit leadership. We know we have much to learn and that this will be hard to do. We will listen and learn from the groups and people we seek to serve more equitably. We have already started down this path and are committed to this work now more than ever.
There are some resources I have found helpful as I have been listening and learning these last few days. Here are a few:
75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice – Medium (from 2017 but shared widely recently…)
And for a little more background on what the Foundation has already been doing: