City Club of Chicago Address, Summer 2021

Prepared Remarks City Club of Chicago, July 28, 2021

Thank you, Jacki, for your kind introduction. And thanks to the City Club of Chicago for inviting me to speak at this virtual luncheon. I wish of course we were all together in person, having a nice pasta at Maggiano’s, but that will come in due course I hope.

  1. Opening

We are all a product of our family histories, one way or another. As a new president of the MacArthur Foundation, I’m acutely aware of the way in which our institution has grown out of a single family’s generosity, the work that many people have done as MacArthur Staff and Board members—as well as grantees and partners—for more than 40 years, and our relationship to the city we call home—the city of Chicago.

There is much to be proud of in the history of MacArthur Foundation and in the history of this city. MacArthur is known the world over for its Fellows program, now in its fifth decade of honoring creative and effective individuals. Imagine what it must be like to get one of these surprise phone calls in the fall from a phone with a 312 area code, offering a no-strings-attached five-year grant, for which you did not apply or even know you were a candidate, to keep doing the great things that you are doing? Grantmaking in the areas of peace, justice, the environment and climate, journalism and media, have supported creative and effective institutions around the world with grants in the billions of dollars since 1978.

Of course, the world is a vastly different place today than when the MacArthur family set up its Foundation in the 1970s. Just as we must be aware of our family and institutional histories, and honor the past, we need to recognize the ways the context has changed, address where we haven’t gotten things entirely right the first time around, and imagine a better future.

Billions more people coexist on the planet today. For many of us, life spans have dramatically increased. The Internet has completely transformed communications and touched virtually every aspect of life. Information—and misinformation—is more readily accessible than ever before in human history.

We have witnessed extraordinary progress. The grantmaking MacArthur and others have done, on balance, have indeed led to a more just, peaceful, and verdant world.

And yet. And yet, in 2021, so much remains unchanged. So many massive problems remain to be solved. So much of the world continues to hurt, like a dream deferred in Langston Hughes’ famous poem.

Some problems are so entrenched that they are woven into the fabric of our shared experience. . . homelessness. . .climate change. . .racism. . .

It’s no secret that these challenges disproportionately affect people who are already among the most marginalized. . . And that is the hard truth behind why these problems still exist.

George Floyd, Adam Toledo, Ma’Khia Bryant, Daunte Wright, Anthony Alvarez, Breonna Taylor, and so many others’ lives were cut short by our acceptance of the unacceptable racism in our entrenched systems. Their deaths remind us that it is past time to choose a better way forward.

My topic today is our collective project in philanthropy at this moment in history. At MacArthur Foundation and across our sector, we confront this injustice with the fierce urgency of now. While we have reason to be proud of the work we have done and the work our grantees have done, we cannot be satisfied with what we see around us in 2021. We all have a role to play in creating a brighter, more equitable, more inclusive future, here in Chicago and around the world.

At MacArthur, our day-to-day work is centered on a concept we call the Just Imperative. The Just Imperative demands that we center racial and ethnic equity in all that we do. As we seek to remake our systems and our society—it keeps us focused on what we do and how we do it. It reminds us to center and lift up the voices of individuals and communities we seek to serve.

Just as I am acutely aware of the family and institutional history of the MacArthur Foundation, I come to this work aware of my own family story and how it shapes the role I play as MacArthur Foundation’s sixth president.

I come to this work with a sense of optimism that is fueled by my experiences going back to childhood.

Each morning, my parents—both pediatricians—would travel from the relatively comfortable, predominantly White community where we lived to the hospitals and community health centers where they served. Every day, they responded to the needs of communities in Boston that have been, and continue to be, underserved. They retired a few weeks ago after careers, like the MacArthur Foundation’s history, that spanned more than 40 years.

I admired their trip by the city bus down Massachusetts Avenue to the communities of Boston in which they engaged and served. At the same time, I admired their clear sense of global interconnection and our shared humanity. In my mom’s case, for instance, she started her career focused on neighborhood health in Boston. Today, even in retirement, (that’s in “air quotes”) she is focused on global health, with projects from Chile to China. For both of my parents, their careers have been rooted in understanding and addressing the contexts that create inequities, both locally and globally.

I am proud of and grateful for my parents’ example. At the dinner table in the evening, my parents taught me and my siblings to understand where we came from and the privilege we hold, to examine the inequities of the present, and to put our shoulders to the wheel to bring about a more equitable future. This experience as the child of two activist doctors informs the thinking I bring to my work every day as president of the MacArthur Foundation.

This upbringing also informs how I seek to live the Just Imperative, a framework that started before I joined the Foundation—for which I call out my predecessor as president, Julia Stasch. It is a set of ideas and commitments that I hope lives on long after both of our tenures.

I, as an individual, and we, in philanthropy, have much to learn as we organize our collective resources to meet the moment and fund a movement. A movement that makes real a dream that has, so far, been deferred.

In the spring of 2020, none of us could have foreseen the extraordinary toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have all been transformed in ways told and untold, seen and unseen. Our collective trauma, loss, and grief seemed to know no end. We must acknowledge that fact, while recognizing our shared humanity.

We must also acknowledge the disproportionate harm in historically marginalized communities in Chicago, across the United States, and globally.

The twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism are very much intertwined. They have led to an outsize impact on the physical and economic health of Black, Latinx, and Native American people. In communities of color, rates of COVID-19 exposure, illness, hospitalization, and death were all higher.

As we work together to create a future where people of color can survive—and thrive—we must commit to a reimagining of what is possible. We must prioritize their vision, their needs, and their dreams.

Even before the pandemic, disparities in life expectancy in Chicago foreshadowed the unequal impact it would have. I remember being so struck by one statistic when I first arrived in Chicago in the summer of 2019. You are probably all familiar with this terrible fact, but for someone moving to the city anew, it was a way to visualize what we needed to do.

This fact was the gap in life expectancy based on where one lived. As this study showed, the life expectancy in Streeterville, a mostly White and wealthy neighborhood, was 90 years. Nine miles south in Englewood, where most residents are Black, life expectancy was just 60 years. Last month, when Mayor Lightfoot declared racism a public health crisis, she cited an overall 9.2-year life expectancy gap between Black and non-Black Chicagoans.

Meanwhile, across the country, we have seen a rise in xenophobia and violence against people of Asian descent, particularly women and the elderly.

Here in Chicago, in recent months, a young Latinx man and teenager have been killed in police shootings.

While these are unprecedented times, the problems we are confronting are not new. Racism is a contagion that existed long before COVID-19.

In this context, MacArthur’s Just Imperative calls us to action.

White people, myself included, have an essential role to play in dismantling the structures that uphold systemic racism. We must deconstruct the thinking and practices that brought us to this point of reckoning. And we must construct new systems in their place—this imperative applies both to individuals and to institutions.

It is clear that we need new directions in philanthropy to help communities recover and thrive.

If money is medicine, as Edgar Villanueva writes in his book Decolonizing Wealth, how do we ensure that we use it to heal the people and communities we seek to serve?

For decades, privilege has reinforced grantmaking methods that do not center the leadership of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.

To that end, today I am excited to share how we hope to realize the promise of this moment, to work for this dream that can no longer be deferred.

2. Equitable Recovery Initiative

MacArthur has a long-standing commitment to Chicago, our hometown, where we invest in people, places, and partnerships to advance racial equity and build a more inclusive Chicago. Over 40 plus years, we have invested $1.4 billion in more than 1,600 organizations and individuals—more than any other place in the world.

The Just Imperative calls us to examine how our work in Chicago upholds an unjust status quo. We have listened, learned, and adjusted, and we have worked to follow the lead of people most proximate to the communities we aim to serve.

However, there are times when those of us with power and resources must do more. 2020 was such a time.

So last summer, we launched an Equitable Recovery Initiative. In the depth of the COVID-19 crisis, the last thing we wanted to do was cut our grantmaking to organizations more in need than ever—in communities across the United States and in Mexico, India, and Nigeria. At the same time, our endowment had fallen in value, so we did not want to sell our holdings at a deep—and, as we now know—temporary discount.

So instead, we did something unprecedented, for MacArthur and for our sector. We decided to borrow money so that we could give more money away.

Last summer, we issued social bonds to raise $125 million for grants and investments above our typical annual giving. We took advantage of historically low interest rates, so we could give out more money in a time of great need.

We leveraged our balance sheet to support individuals and communities, who, in turn, will generate high social returns on these funds.

Given the urgency of the moment, we announced $40 million in grants for the Initiative last year. These grants addressed voting and democracy, anti-Black racism, and the impact of COVID-19 on Native Americans. They also supported technology and justice, and Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous arts organizations.

Then we needed to decide how to spend the rest of the bond money with a bit more strategic thinking.

In the fall of 2020, we co-created a novel, collaborative approach for allocating the remaining $82 million in bond proceeds.

Building on our recent experience in participatory grantmaking in the arts and the 40 years of grantmaking in our Fellows program, we invited 12 people with a diversity of perspectives to advise us on how to apply an anti-racist lens to our Equitable Recovery grantmaking. The input of these external advisors was critical to help us focus and avoid spreading funds too thinly, one of our guiding principles.

In consultation with these external advisors, our Board, and our Staff, we arrived at the overarching theme: Advancing Racial and Ethnic Justice.  

Under that theme are four focus areas:

  • First, providing infrastructure support for Black-led organizations and efforts related to reparations and racial healing.
  • Second, acknowledging and honoring Indigenous communities’ authority over themselves, their distinct needs, and their right to determine how best to heal and build the post-pandemic future they want.
  • Third, increasing health access, equity, and accountability to communities most affected by COVID-19, including our Latinx communities here in Chicago.
  • And fourth, a cross cutting Equitable Housing Demonstration Project. This idea seeks to address the challenge of sustainable housing for those returning to the community from jails and prisons.

Throughout our Equitable Recovery grantmaking, our goal was to allocate more than half of these funds to organizations that are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-led or -serving. I am proud to say that we have far exceeded that benchmark, with most of our funding going to Black-led, Indigenous-led, Latinx-led, or Asian-led and -centered organizations.

3. Local Focus of the Equitable Recovery Initiative

Since MacArthur is a global foundation, and our Equitable Recovery grantmaking reflects that commitment. We made grants to assist with COVID response and recovery in India, where cases skyrocketed this spring. Our racial justice grants included a focus on Nigeria and other parts of the African continent, while our support for Indigenous communities included locations across North America, India, and Nigeria.

I appreciate, however, that you may be especially interested in how funds were deployed in Chicago [HANDS]. In the early days of the pandemic, MacArthur contributed to several shared funds. We supported the Chicago Community and Illinois COVID-19 response funds, both of which helped provide immediate relief to families and emergency response to organizations. We joined our peers in creating funds to shore up both arts and journalism organizations, which in many ways weave together the fabric of our city. 

As the pandemic persisted, we interrogated our actions, asking if there was more we could do to create the conditions for justice to thrive. How could we remove the barriers that create inequities in our city?

Through the We Rise Together Fund at the Chicago Community Trust, we hope to be part of a large group of partners who catalyze economic growth, mitigate the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19, and address racial inequities in the Chicagoland region. And to promote relationship building among the city’s diverse populations, we supported the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation initiative. We also joined IFF, Ford Foundation, Joyce Foundation, and several other local funders to launch Chicago’s Cultural Treasures, which helps create, preserve, and disseminate art by and for people of color.

More recently—under the theme of health access, equity, and accountability—we made grants to facilitate vaccine access and distribution. We supported efforts that address immediate needs and look to the future, ensuring that Chicago builds a strong and effective public health infrastructure. . . led by the communities most impacted.

Community-based organizations have taken extraordinary steps to aid our neighbors and populations hardest hit by COVID. They helped families and seniors navigate complex systems to make vaccination appointments and established convenient neighborhood-based vaccine sites. Through these efforts, organizations in Austin, Auburn Gresham, Belmont Cragin, Little Village, South Shore, and other communities, have lowered barriers to access.

In addition, we supported mental health initiatives for young people of color in the metro region. This recognizes the toll the pandemic has taken on those who have experienced loss and whose education has been disrupted for well over a year.

In our local response, we have paid close attention to the heavy load COVID-19 placed on members of the Latinx community, many of whom are essential workers whose jobs put them at high risk. Many suspect that the Latinx COVID case count is even higher than reported because some individuals fear tests or treatment because of immigration status or lack of health insurance. But state and national data show that more than 70 percent of Latinx individuals want to receive the vaccine.

So, we invested in an initiative called Illinois Unidos which responds to these challenges. Originally volunteering its time and expertise, Illinois Unidos created a portal where residents can find up-to-date information on COVID tests, vaccines, and other health services in English and Spanish. Now it also offers information on assistance with housing, food, employment, and immigration issues.

It uses traditional media, such as Telemundo, to spread its message. It is also placing digital ads on social media and deploying creative outreach. Powered by more than 200 volunteers, Illinois Unidos ensures that the pandemic’s impact on the Latinx community is understood widely and addressed equitably.

4. Applying a Racial and Ethnic Equity Lens

We have applied a racial and ethnic equity lens in all our work throughout the pandemic. Every effort was made to identify, listen to, and support organizations led by, serving, and centered on Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. And with the Just Imperative as our north star, we are working to apply this lens to all our work.

This lens was especially focused in the Racial Justice Field Support area, which funds Black-led efforts and organizations. We are also taking a leadership role to position reparations and racial healing as issues philanthropy meaningfully helps to address.

The massive demonstrations for Black lives during the spring and summer of 2020 re-centered the issue of racial injustice in the public realm and renewed debate on how to address more than 400 years of violence and oppression against Black people in the United States.

Our Racial Justice Field Support work strengthens Black-led power building and organizing in the United States, and sister movements in Nigeria. We support organizations that recognize that in order to fix structural and systemic racism, we must collectively disrupt existing structures of power that have upheld it.

Last fall, we made an initial award to the Chicago Racial Justice Pooled Fund at Crossroads, which was co-designed by organizers, activists, and community leaders. The fund supports Black-led nonprofits working to address anti-Blackness through grassroots community organizing. In June, we made a second grant to the fund, bringing our total contribution to $2 million to build and sustain movements for justice that center Black lives.

MacArthur’s investments in Black-led and Black-focused racial justice organizations also help to address our own history of underinvestment in this area. It was a pattern we found when we examined our work with a Just Imperative lens. A pattern that mirrors philanthropy and the nonprofit sector more broadly.

Black-led organizations have played a role in every major social movement in the U.S., but they face abysmally low funding relative to White-led organizations. A resource shift is beginning, but we must accelerate and sustain it over the long term.

5. Reparations

At MacArthur, we are guided by our belief in reparative justice, or the belief that major civic, philanthropic and business institutions have an obligation to provide reparations to the communities that have suffered the most from the forces of White supremacy, systemic racism, and European colonialism in Asia and Africa.

Our belief in reparations is founded on the simple premise that we cannot solve our most pressing problems unless the individuals and institutions that have benefited the most from the subjugation of Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities do their part to promote healing today.

This means working to rebuild or restore the health, economic prosperity, and communal land rights that were stolen from communities in the United States and around the world as a result of slavery, colonization, and the systems of oppression that followed in their wake.

Reparations is one way to create the conditions for justice to thrive in the United States. The legacy of slavery and anti-Black oppression has made reparations necessary. We follow the lead of activists, including MacArthur fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates, who have, for many years, advocated for it.

To amplify calls for reparations, we supported a project associated with the Northeastern Illinois University Foundation called the Grassroots Reparations Campaign. This campaign shares the stories and experiences of Black people in the United States to address the legacies of racism. It followed the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown and the community response to the lack of police accountability. The campaignis working to advance a culture of reparations that emerges from spiritual practice, transformative education, and action.

And we support the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, also known as “N’COBRA,” one of the premier grassroots organizations formed to achieve reparations for people of African descent in America. N’COBRA has spearheaded, led, co-led, or supported every major reparations action to date in the United States. It also supports local and state level reparations efforts, including in Evanston and Chicago.

6. Reimagining Public Safety

Many of the organizations we fund are also considering how to reimagine public safety and policing. This emphasis is a critical one for us to address in Chicago, given its disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx communities.

Through the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities, or PSPC, MacArthur and 50 other funders—many of you included—have invested more than $90 million over five years towards reducing gun violence, building trust between residents and police officers, and reforming the Chicago Police Department.

PSPC is now joining the conversation on reimagining public safety and policing, a conversation in which each and every one of us must engage. If any resident of Chicago feels unsafe or experiences harm at the hands of the police, we must hear their calls for justice. It is a problem we must solve together.

Recently, the Harris Poll and MacArthur surveyed Chicagoans to better understand the city’s biggest challenges, particularly regarding public safety. The response shows a city with fraught feelings towards a police force which they both support and want reformed.

One finding was that 58 percent of Chicago residents oppose the “defund the police” movement. Yet, they believe police can improve interactions with people of color with better training—including de-escalation and race-focused training—and more alternatives to police response.

Residents who want to cut police spending would like to see the money used for mental health care programs, gun violence prevention, and homeless services and shelters.

While the central tenets of the “defund” movement can be divisive, supporters and non-supporters share common ground on some of its goals—such as investing in and using non-policing alternatives. This gives city leaders a roadmap for workable solutions with broad-based support.

The paradigm in Chicago makes it abundantly clear that guns, racism, and law enforcement are interconnected challenges. Policymakers cannot make progress on any one of these issues if they don’t address all of them, together.

7. Business Diversity

One final idea, an invitation actually, before I come to a close. I realize that not everyone here today is a grantmaker, and so joining us in making grants or impact investments is not something every institution can do. But when I looked at the wonderful list of RSVPs for today’s event, I realized that most everyone here today is a leader of some type of organization in Chicago. That means that we all make decisions about who to hire and who to do business with across a wide range of industries.

I hope that each person here today, if you agree with the idea that we need to close the yawning wealth gap, do something about the ill effects of segregation, and address the disproportionate deaths from gun violence and disease in Chicago—and I hope everyone does—then we might also agree to team up when it comes to accomplishing business diversity. By using the term “business diversity”, I mean focusing on who we hire as law firms, search firms, investment firms, advertising firms, just about any partners to help us accomplish our missions. I credit this term and this push to John Rogers of Ariel Investments and others who have made such efforts a priority in their firms.

As part of the Just Imperative, MacArthur has committed ourselves to improving the diversity of the businesses we work with and the diversity within those firms. We all have a role to play in who we invite to bid for our work, how we manage the hiring processes, and with whom we choose to work. I hope we all might commit today to bringing about a more equitable, inclusive, and vibrant economy in Chicago in the years to come through a deep and enduring commitment to these practices.

8. Closing

As I close, I want to emphasize the importance of standing in solidarity with the leaders of social movements. Listening to the perspectives, dreams, and ideas of the individuals and communities most impacted is essential to our work.

We made this a hallmark of our Equitable Recovery Initiative, leaning into the advice of our external advisors. We strive to follow this model across all of our programs as we seek to become an anti-racist organization. MacArthur is also a learning organization, devoted to the work of evaluation and holding ourselves accountable for our progress as well as our failures. We will make mistakes, we will adjust, and we will aim to do better.

Internally, our aspiration is for each member of the MacArthur Foundation—nearly 200 Staff members around the globe—to feel a sense of belonging and a profound recognition that the Just Imperative is a part of all of our work. We continue to become more diverse as a Foundation, as do the organizations and people we support.

This imperative calls on us to lead with justice.

Now is the time to fundamentally transform our systems, structures, and practices—to imagine and then use everything we can to reconstruct something better.

The old way in philanthropy is broken. But there is good news for our sector: the changes we need to make—to be better stewards of our vast resources—are well within reach. Let us stand in solidarity to create a future where equity and justice can endure. Where this dream will no longer be deferred.

I am delighted to be living in Chicago with all of you. I’m grateful for the chance to share our Just Imperative with you today. I am indebted to so many of you who are working shoulder to shoulder with us at MacArthur Foundation. And I hope many others will join us on this journey toward a more equitable and inclusive future for Chicago and the many communities in which we work.

Thank you. . . I’m happy to continue the conversation and do what I can to answer your questions.

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