A Tribute to Phillip Jackson

A number of people have applauded me for having the courage and conviction to demand that wealth be decolonized. They have acknowledged my critique of philanthropy, noting that my challenge to even the so-called “Good Guys,” funders working to address systemic racism, is long overdue. While the praise is appreciated, the true hero when it comes to demanding that philanthropy live up to what it claims on paper is Phillip Jacksonwho passed away last fall.

His distinguished record includes serving as chief of staff for Chicago Public Schools, chief of education for the City of Chicago, CEO of the Chicago Public Housing Authority and CEO of the Chicago Boys and Girls Club. Jackson also founded the Black Star Project, which advocates for eliminating racial inequities in education and closing the racial achievement gap in Chicago. Regardless of the role he held, he was a fierce champion for children.

When I was writing Decolonizing WealthI had the opportunity to interview Jackson who I had only read about in the papers. Jackson was also a truth-teller. Jackson offered one of the boldest critiques of philanthropy when he characterized the $375,000 in funds given to Black organizations working to improve conditions for Black families and communities out of the total $56 million in grants given to Chicago organizations by the MacArthur Foundation as “modern day redlining.” 

Jackson was clear that many foundations, and American institutions for that matter, earned their wealth off of the backs of Indigenous people, slaves, descendants of slaves and low-wage workers. He knew that even though philanthropy was sitting on stockpiles of financial reserves, they weren’t doing enough to, in my words, use money as medicine. 

While the leaders of foundations weren’t directly responsible for many of the atrocities inflicted on Indigenous people and African slaves, they can in fact perpetuate harm on the descendants of these groups. This happens by not investing enough in communities of color and by shutting impacted communities out of the decision-making loop so that they lack input and influence in determining where to invest and how much to invest. Instead of creating fair processes for people whose ancestors had a direct impact on the accumulation of wealth, too many funders manage wealth without including communities of color. 

I am not sure if you fully appreciate how bold Jackson’s critique was. He was going to foundations that declared themselves committed to addressing racial, social and economic injustice, and he was telling them, essentially, “You’re not doing enough.” His boldness created space for people like me to continue pushing for progress.  In 2016, Jackson organized a “Children’s March on the MacArthur Foundation” and urged the foundation to devote $100 million of its then $7 billion in resources to helping Chicago children survive violence in their communities. It is truly remarkable he had the imagination to conceive of such a gesture, and it’s a testament to his character that he had the courage to act on his imagination and his sense of right and wrong. 

A few months ago we had a huge Decolonizing Wealth event in Chicago, hosted by many foundations and community groups.   In planning to go to Chicago, I wanted to invite Jackson to be my special guest and to finally meet him in person – that’s when I learned of his untimely passing. Jackson may not have couched his critique in my terms, but he was essentially saying that philanthropy was perpetuating colonial dynamics by controlling access to capital and refusing to proportionately distribute that capital. When one considers who is making decisions about how to invest wealth, allocate wealth and distribute it to grantees, we learn that it is the people whose ancestors benefitted from slavery and the genocide of indigenous people still controlling public coffers. Jackson push philanthropy to do better. Funders cannot keep patting themselves on the back if we are not centering  communities of color wo continue to suffer in the margins. 

Decolonizing is a lifelong journey, but I am thankful to my Native elders and also to those who came before me, like Jackson, who shaped my early thinking on what philanthropy should and could do to right historical wrongs.

Edgar Villanueva (@VillanuevaEdgar) is an author and social justice philanthropy expert. He serves as on the boards of Native Americans in PhilanthropyNDN Collective and the Andrus Family Fund and is vice president of programs and advocacy at The Schott Foundation



Edgar Villanueva