Our Story of Change

We all have a story of self. What’s utterly unique about each of us is not the categories we belong to; what’s utterly unique to us is our own journey of learning to be a full human being, a faithful person. And those journeys are never easy. They have their challenges, their obstacles, their crises. We learn to overcome them, and because of that we have lessons to teach. In a sense, all of us walk around with a text from which to teach, the text of our own lives.

Marshall Ganz, Sojourners’ Training for Change conference June 2008

We appreciate the power of story to reveal the storyteller’s values, to pass on lessons and to move people toward a shared purpose. In the coming months, we welcome our members and partners to share your stories—the challenges you’ve faced, the choices you’ve made, and the lessons you’ve learned—and, your call to action. To get us started, here’s one of TPW’s stories:

Before creating The Philanthropy Workshop 25 years ago, our founder Jacqueline Novogratz led a $100M private foundation and quickly came to see that philanthropy had fallen into a deadly trap: trustees wanted to be loved for their giving rather than create change. Even though philanthropic resources could be society’s greatest risk capital, philanthropists themselves were cautious and unimaginative, focused more on what they wanted rather than on what society needed. Jacqueline had a decision to make: get out of philanthropy or revolutionize it. What if we could teach the next generation how to be true partners for social change? With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, TPW was born.

With our first group of nine intrepid philanthropists, we believed from the start that you have to get out of the institution and into the streets. On day one of a year-long workshop we showed up in New York’s housing courts to understand challenges faced by people living in low-income dwellings. We saw people of color without legal representation; and we saw no landlords, just their lawyers. We talked with judges. We went to Harlem and the South Bronx, listening to tenants’ association advocates and learning about housing policies. We saw systems built to work for landlords, not tenants, and came to understand the pieces needed to make change. These lessons animated the strategies of each philanthropist moving forward.

From that first cohort 25 years ago, we’ve grown into a community of 450 philanthropists and social investors. We believe that if we have the humility to learn and the guts to dare, we can collaborate to accelerate positive efforts for the good. We learn by getting close to uncomfortable truths about the root causes of problems that create unjust outcomes for our communities. This is another story—one of our collective learning journey:

It’s 2019, and 30 TPW members are headed on a bus through the heart of Alabama’s rural Black Belt leading from Selma to Montgomery. We deboard and huddle around Catherine Flowers, founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise. Now 60 years old, her environmental and social justice activism was sparked decades ago when hookworm, a parasite typically found in raw sewage, was re-discovered here in her hometown. Catherine leads us down a neighborhood road to hear from a mother whose home has had raw sewage seeping up from the ground for years. We form a circle around her, listening to a story of repeated attempts to get a working sewage system for her family and neighbors. The city doesn’t provide one. Instead, she’s fined for health violations. She is forced to purchase a system, now broken due to shoddy design. “Can we fix it?” we wonder aloud. We mostly listen.

Later we ask Catherine what we can do. “Show up, listen and bear witness. The politicians, urban planners and engineers need to be held accountable.” We come to see that Catherine has the community’s trust and input, and the experience to advance solutions. We can make way for her leadership, following and supporting her. We can signal what works. And we can take action. Some fund voting rights advocacy; others back Black leaders running for public office; and still others shift investments into a venture capital fund led by and for people of color to experience true agency and participation in the American economy.

Join us. If you possess power that comes with having resources, join us in pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones; in challenging ourselves and each other to be better listeners, better partners; and in sharing our own power. Let’s replace the belief system that some people are more valuable and have more resources than others with a new model that values human beings and contributions equally. Let’s expand our circles of engagement with a diverse group of people and commit to lifelong learning. Let’s say “yes” to the beauty and potential of us as a collective body, interconnected and interdependent. When we arrive at this level of community building, truth telling, and equity loving, there’s no stopping us from a world that flourishes.

By: Tracy Mack Parker

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