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Blog: THE Point


By Grant Oliphant



In the last week my team and I have been asked countless times what the 2016 election and the ugliness and rancor that surrounded it mean for our agenda. Now that the election is over, many of the organizations we fund are expressing deep concern about the people and causes they serve.

We share that worry. But we are undeterred.

Here is what I told our team at the Endowments last week, which I believe only more emphatically now: We are not in the politics business; we are in the hope business. We are in the social impact business. What happened in the election was politics; what matters for us is what happens now, what we do next.

How resolute are we in our goals? Will we be creative and strong, with the will and fortitude to find new paths forward? Or will we succumb to a changed landscape and let it dictate what we believe and pursue?

The fact is, the work remains the work. Yes, some of it will become harder, and in some cases dramatically so. Our work to protect the environment will face an unprecedented disdain for science and ecological stewardship.

Equally challenged will be our goal of creating a just future for our community and others like it. Values of equity and mutual respect have been bludgeoned in recent months, and the hate incidents that have followed the election, including here close to home, have ripped away any illusions we might have had about how close we are to reaching our goals.

But deep down, we already knew that. We do not take this work on because it is easy; we take it on because it matters, because it is important.

And important things take time. They take dedication. They take persistence.

Above all they take people and organizations that refuse to give up, whose ideals are not undone by circumstance, whose values do not shift with the political winds, who every morning greet the day with the same prayer of making the difference they believe in most profoundly to create the better world they envision.

Did we really believe, any of us in this nation’s robust civic sector, that progress would be linear and certain? No, of course we didn’t. It has never been that way, even under the best conditions. And so now falls to us in this generation the work of continuing onward under whatever circumstances we may now encounter.

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University professor who during his losing battle with cancer famously delivered a “last lecture,” said in it that barriers aren’t put in our way to stop us, but rather to see how badly we want to get to the other side. So for those of us concerned with the future of our planet and the shared destiny of its people, and with the future of community in a time when our common values seem so strained by distrust and division, that’s our test: How badly do we want to keep moving toward an inclusive, equitable society and a sustainable future?

Those goals didn’t suddenly become less important a week ago. If anything, they became more significant than ever.

For American foundations in general, I do believe two important lessons–no doubt among many others–should be drawn from the caustic roiling in our civic culture. First, as our field has grown ever more technocratic, it has sometimes seemed to focus more on math than on caring. If we hope to help rebuild a culture of understanding and respect in the country that is the cradle to so much of the means by which we do our work, we have a responsibility to use more of that wealth to bear witness to the strengths and struggles, dreams and fears of America’s most challenged and vulnerable citizens, whoever they may be.

Simply that: we must genuinely hear the truths and tell the stories the privileged cannot or will not hear. That is our sacred civic responsibility. In a culture that seems to be losing the capacity to care about those who are different from ourselves, we must determine to be a force to bridge that divide and nurture the mutuality of purpose that feels so absent in a time of resurgent racism, misogyny, hate crimes and fear.

Second, we need to reacquaint ourselves as a field with working at the level of community, investing in the health of the messy, intricate, chaotic, beautiful spaces where most of us live out our lives. As our field has become increasingly global, mostly for the good, it increasingly has come to see place-based community philanthropy as quaint, the legacy of a lost-age of industrialists whose worlds were smaller and less connected than our own. Even some community foundations have abandoned the notion of working for the benefit of the “homes” that birthed them. But what those long-ago industrialists keenly understood, and what we must now rediscover or ignore to our peril, is that philanthropy stripped of community, stripped of place, risks undermining the very society that makes it possible.

So to answer the question we have received so often in recent days: What does all of this mean for us here in Pittsburgh—or for foundations and nonprofits in every community around the country?

It means we must keep striving, with deep courage and conviction, to create a just community in the place we call home, a community where opportunity is shared, where the dignity and worth of every person matters, and where all the terrible and insidious ways in which we discriminate against each other are no longer tolerated.

It means we must stand with those who are attacked for being different, embrace those who are scared and vulnerable, and work to uplift those who have been left behind and neglected.

It means we must keep fighting for our right to clean air and safe water, and a climate that will keep our planet liveable. It means we must determine the path to a sustainable future and keep walking along it no matter the setbacks we encounter.

It means we must keep raising up the voices of the artists, storytellers, writers, and poets brave enough to tell us who we really are and what we are truly capable of. It means sharing the stories that let us see and hear each other across the widening gulfs of difference that rob us of empathy.

It means giving our children—and all our citizens—the tools and the information they need to grow and to keep growing, no matter where they were born or what their neighborhood looks like. It means continuing to pursue the shared future that we all in our hearts know is humanity’s only hope in an increasingly interconnected and shrinking planet.

In other words, it means the work continues. It means we have work to do. Let’s not waste time.

#JustPgh, Just Pittsburgh
Written by

Grant Oliphant


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