You Think You Know

Jan 10, 2022 | Features, Opinion

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Melanie Davis-Jones

In typical icebreaker games, one of the questions inevitably is, “If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?” I usually choose flying because it seems like fun. Now, what I would do facing the bad guys on the ground, I’m not sure, but I suppose a quick escape would be my thing. I am always fascinated when people select being invisible. They cite having access to all sorts of places and conversations, which does seem intriguing, but I suppose I’ve had enough of invisibility.

That’s what happens when the way you go through the world frequently makes you feel invisible. As a woman I can enumerate – as I’m sure my sisters can – the presentations, meetings, and mundane encounters when we were ignored, talked over, or dismissed. And how many times are women treated with pure derision or condescension? If you’re not certain of the answer, I encourage you to start conversations with your colleague, partner, sister, friend, or mother about their experiences. Seriously. Ask them and then listen carefully. Keep the conversations going – you don’t know unless you ask. Hold a space without judgement. Assess your own actions. Watch encounters closely and speak up. (Here I am not suggesting women need rescuing or coddling; it would be nice simply not to feel like we must fight to be heard.) Being marginalized isn’t something “in our pretty little heads.” Mansplaining became a buzzword for a reason!

As a black woman, the instances are amplified. I’ve had many encounters with men who ignored my ideas or challenged my direction (including male assistants when I was a senior executive). However, in my experience the encounters of being instantly assessed and categorized are not only the purview of men. One of the most exasperating came from a female consultant who I had worked with for more than two years. She told me I shouldn’t lead the board discussion on creating equitable programming for people living in poverty given ‘my background’ – the subtext was that she assumed I had grown up in poverty and therefore, talking about my circumstances would be “uncomfortable” for the board members. (Yes, that in and of itself is an issue.) Hmm. I grew up decidedly middle class in New York, third generation college graduate, and my father was a psychology professor with a Ph.D. When I pointed this out, she was completely dismissive and astonished when I called her on her baseless assumption. “I don’t know why you’re offended or think I should apologize,” she said – chalking it up to me being overly sensitive rather than her acknowledging her own insulting bias. My male boss had the same reaction. I was offended because I had a right to be, for myself and for those who could be triggered or hurt because they had been raised with less privilege than I. We are all entitled to own our stories … and to insisting others treat our stories (and us) with respect.

Why does this matter in philanthropy? “Based on salary and demographic data from more than eight hundred organizations, [Council on Foundations’] 2020 Grantmaker Salary and Benefits Report found minimal change in the diversity of foundation staff in terms of race, age, and disability over the last five years.” What we think we know gets effectively challenged when lived experiences are heard and are influential.

If, for example, the women who sit in meetings, on grant panels or on board committees with you struggle to be heard, consider the implications for those organizations you fund. How are their stories assessed? How are their needs evaluated? (Do you take mental shortcuts, thinking you know?) Who is listening – and responding – to their realities? Pause a moment and reflect. How open are your eyes – and your heart – to their truths? And are philanthropic efforts addressing long-term, sustainable change – as defined by those communities – or have we settled into a comfortableness that makes us feel good but glosses over the real issues and opportunities?

Significant strategic and cultural shifts are required. It is not enough to simply hire or promote a woman, person of color or anyone from historically marginalized groups. It is necessary to create the conditions for them to succeed and for all to have equal access to training or funding or job opportunities. And the conditions for change must be valued and nurtured in this time as the awareness that a chorus of voices, dissimilar yet unified, will bring the change so much of our world is crying out for. That is the nature of progress. What might that look like in your organization? In your own work?

There are lessons in bringing about change in the corporate sector. This Harvard Business Review article emphasizes How One Person Can Change the Conscience of an Organization, noting that “clarity of conscience and a willingness to speak up can make a difference,” along with “the power of using privilege to support people with less privilege.”

The documentary, 9 to 5: The Story of a Movement is a stark reminder that it was only a few decades ago that working women fought for and eventually won the right to policies – like health benefits and paid maternity leave – we take for granted now. They used their voices; raised awareness of their experiences; and held their employers accountable. If we raise our voices and advocate for change, where might we be a few months, years, or decades from now?

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy asked a group of leaders this question, “What should philanthropy look like in 45 years? Most shared visions of hope, including this by Edgar Villanueva, senior vice president of programs and advocacy, Schott Foundation for Public Education and author of Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance. “By 2066, we are not having the same conversations about race, climate and economic justice, because we didn’t give up — we chose to heal.”

Not giving up means starting now. As Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said, “We make progress in society only if we stop cursing and complaining about its shortcomings and have the courage to do something about them.” Let’s stop thinking we know one another. Resolve to let all voices be heard and valued. Respect our stories and our lived experiences. Start today … and don’t stop. Let’s choose to heal.


Melanie Davis-Jones is an experienced corporate and nonprofit executive, currently leading Soul Seeds, a nonprofit that teaches meditation techniques to groups working with historically excluded communities.

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