Optimism Tempered By Realism

Gita Gulati-Partee founded the national consulting practice OpenSource Leadership Strategies to build organizational and leadership capacity for breakthrough social change. Previously she was a senior consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, and she also served as a Program Officer for the Cleveland Foundation. A native North Carolinian and the daughter of immigrants from India, she publishes and speaks about advocacy, philanthropy, nonprofit management, education, and racial equity.

I began by asking Gita how she’s currently feeling about philanthropy.

Gita: I consider myself a critical friend to philanthropy. My general optimism is tempered by realism. Sometimes it feels so painfully obvious that philanthropy is inherently a manifestation of white supremacy and injustice. On the one hand, that’s not better and not worse than what ails any of our institutions, whether it’s public education or the media or anything else. But every system has its own unique twist, and philanthropy has this story of benevolence. That is a particularly poignant dynamic, you know? Plus, a lack of formal accountability. So I think we have to hold up the mirror and be honest about the roots of injustice in this field, but I also have obviously made the choice to help philanthropy work as well as possible as a tool for justice.

Edgar: What do you think of the efforts to confront the field about its fundamental White privilege?

Gita: The focus is often external. There are a lot of foundations that are concerned about racism, concerned about communities of color, but the thing is: it’s not about just helping people of color, it has to be about dismantling White supremacy. I want a conversation about why philanthropy is so White, not just how to get more people of color in. There is very little movement in terms of really taking that hard look, because, if you took that hard look, you’d have to admit to a whole lot. Like: I am sitting on a bounty that I did not earn and that actually belongs to a community. It was essentially stolen, right? Without a real exploration of White culture and White privilege, how could you ever have a different kind of relationship in your power dynamic with communities?

Edgar: So this whole focus on diversity doesn’t ever get us there.

Gita: I think as a baseline, of course we should have diversity. But diversity isn’t going to change structures; there needs to be a willingness for that. Sure, people of color can help add pressure to that, can bring in important perspectives and bring a sense of urgency. But there actually has to be will from the people who hold the power. Representation alone will not change the underlying structures that keep people of color and other marginalized people down and keep White people and other privileged people up.

Edgar: Great. What else.

Gita: Well, we have to challenge the assumption of perpetuity. It can help keep White supremacy in perpetuity. And it can challenge our sense of urgency.

And the whole payout conversation. The true potential of philanthropy as reparation is not about raising the payout from 5% to 7%. The only way all the good strategies can be enacted and where there can be real progress with all the issues we care about is if there’s a hell of a lot more resources being put to use. Not one percent more but like 95% more. Social justice demands a 100% commitment.

Edgar: I would love to hear you talk more about reparations since that is one of the proposals I’m making in the book.

Gita: Of course I think that reparations needs to happen on a society-wide level. I don’t think it’s just philanthropy’s job, but given that philanthropy occupies this unique space of hoarding a lot of wealth and also having that beautiful story of benevolence attached to it, I feel like it’s got to lead on this. Our responsibility is actually to return the resources to whom they belong, right?

Edgar: Exactly. What other mandates to the sector would you include? I mean, you do this for a living so I don’t want to give away your wisdom for free.

Gita: My firm is called OpenSource Leadership Strategies for a reason, so I’m actually very comfortable sharing. But I have some resistance to offering tactical fixes, versus the more fundamental mind shift that needs to happen. I feel like there are several typical questions, spoken or unspoken, that foundation people have that present a barrier to doing equity work in their organizations. One is this attachment to the universal. “We serve all people” is how that looks. But with equity you have to differentiate. You have to pay attention to different levels of suffering and different reasons for that suffering. So the first mind shift is around the myth of the universal.

The second that I find is this fear of being overly political. That is partly a misunderstanding about advocacy rules and the definition of partisan, but it’s also about –frankly— a genteel White society that doesn’t talk about politics.

The third piece is this idea that justice is too complex and can’t be measured. I want to actually interrogate that idea that only some things can be counted. There are actually measurable results in equity, in justice. They just look a little different than what you’re used to. That doesn’t mean it’s unmeasurable. In fact, if people’s lives improve, we can see that. Right?

There’s probably like a dozen others. Those are three that just come up over and over and over again.

Edgar: Thank you so much. I appreciate you taking the time.


Edgar Villanueva