Skip to content

2023 Unity Summit urges philanthropy to use its power to advance racial justice

General Foundation News

Editor’s note: Nearly 20 Kresge staff members attended the CHANGE Philanthropy Unity Summit to build connections between funders and communities. In this commentary, Kresge Communications Officer and Equity Task Force Co-Chair Kaniqua Welch and Special Assistant to the President Chris LeFlore share key learnings from the conference that can be applied across the philanthropic sector.

Serving as a critical roundtable of diverse communities to drive racial equity, CHANGE Philanthropy hosted its biennial Unity Summit this year in Los Angeles.

One of the largest and most diverse convenings in philanthropy brought together more than 1,200 people to strengthen personal commitments and institutional practices that integrate diversity, inclusion, and social justice into philanthropic practice to transform the sector’s culture to be one that embraces equity.

Kresge’s Equity Task Force, which is a team of 13 cross-departmental members selected to steward the foundation’s diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) work, attended the summit as a team retreat to gain key learnings from the conference that can be applied at Kresge and across the philanthropic sector.

During the summit, philanthropic leaders heard directly from community organizers on ways we can utilize our individual power to advance racial equity and justice. Rather than creating a space simply for funders to speak, community organizers and leaders took the microphone to lift up their own priorities, needs and experiences — specifically what do communities need from philanthropy?

Here are some key takeaways:

  1. Fund reparations: All Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities have experienced some form of racial terror. There is no racial equity without reparations. Don’t just talk about it. Learn about it and fund it.
  2. Practice radical listening: Don’t listen just to respond. Listen to grantees and partners to learn and support. The role of philanthropy is much smaller today in identifying solutions. Philanthropy should not be at the center of the conversation. Those closest to the community are closest to the solutions. The expertise of funders does not matter as much as the expertise of those with lived experience.
  3. Be bold: Don’t back down against tyranny. The recent Supreme Court affirmative action ruling has the potential to impact so many sectors outside of education. To be silent is to be complicit.
  4. Learn lessons from the Right: They strategically invest in research, messaging and policy to build power and harm marginalized communities. Philanthropy must better align on strategies that drive progressive change and promote safety, joy and liberation.
  5. Lean into your power: We all have the power to “do” something in this moment. Use it. Narrative power. Funding power. Organizing power. Political power. Also, know who is benefiting from and being harmed by your power.
  6. Be kind: To yourself and others. Love and acceptance are vital during these moments. Rest and healing are essential to drive change.

Advancing reparative philanthropy

Throughout the summit, we were all asked to make one firm, tangible commitment that we would take back to our respective teams. Several of our Kresge colleagues committed to reading the California Reparations Report Executive Summary and learn more about the reparations work in California.

Much of the conference revolved around extending racial justice toward a reparative framework, while also combatting attacks and threats to the justice work we’re trying to achieve.

The Unity Summit took place on the Indigenous lands of the Tongva, Tataviam, Serrano, Kizh, and Chumash Peoples. The conference began with words from native Angelenos who lived through the 1992 uprisings following the Rodney King assault. The multi-cultural panel of speakers weaved their own personal experiences in community through the 1990s to today, within the larger context of the worldwide Black Lives Matters movement. They proceeded to give an intersectional analysis that cut across different topics, from the awakening caused by the murder of George Floyd to Indigenous movement building, protecting democracy, and the current impacts we’re seeing from the affirmative action ruling.

A panel of four people sit at a table with a screen to the right that reads: Change Philanthropy Unity Conference | Advancing Reparative Philanthropy: Decolonizing Practices to Share Power
Speakers at the Change Philanthropy Unity Conference panel on Advancing Reparative Philanthropy: Decolonizing Practices to Share Power, included (left to right): Chris Kabel, The Kresge Foundation; Craig Martinez, The California Endowment; Stephanie Simeon, Heart of the City Neighborhoods; and Sheena Brown, Decolonizing Wealth Project.

Many speakers touched on reparations. Chris Kabel, senior fellow with Kresge’s Health Program, spoke on a panel titled Advancing Reparative Philanthropy: Decolonizing Practices to Share Power.

“Often in philanthropy, too many of us are not set up simply to support multi-issue, multi-racial movements for the long haul,” Kabel said. “Across the sector, we have finely honed, intricate strategies and theories of change. There are some amazing organizations doing incredible work – and unfortunately, we can’t support them if they don’t fit or conform within our programmatic silos. Within our own organizations, we need to explore this potential harm.”

Kresge’s Detroit Program has begun to incorporate a reparative framework into its strategy. One example comes from the I-375 Reconnecting Communities project, where a federal highway destroyed the heart of Detroit’s Black business community during the 1950s. The freeways are now being reconstructed into a grade-level boulevard with opportunities for community development to recreate what was lost. Kresge sees I-375 as more than a transportation project, but one of restorative justice. The idea of repairing past harms and fostering healing after decades of disinvestment is being further explored by the Detroit program team.

Reflections from Kresge staff

Another powerful outcome accomplished by the Unity Summit was the simple act of convening. One of the best parts of the summit was simply talking face-to-face with people we work with across the sector (instead of Zoom), and getting a deeper understanding of who they are and where they come from.

Here are several personal reflections from Kresge staffers who attended the conference:

“The Unity Summit reminded us that regardless of our differences, we can be united by our shared values of human dignity, freedom from oppression, and self-determination. As several of the speakers noted, “Unity is not uniformity.” And while coming together can be challenging during times of struggle, these are precisely the moments when coming together matters most to work collectively towards a more just world. — Inés Familiar Miller, Program Officer, Arts & Culture Program

“Something I’ve been preaching for years is the need for us to do internal and individual work before building multi-sector, multi-disciplinary, multi-generational, multi-racial coalitions and unity. This conference confirmed that!” — Arturo Garcia, Strategic Learning, Research and Evaluation Officer

“The discussions around healing justice work were so vital. We must ensure we properly address harm and grief to move this work forward. Otherwise, we risk perpetuating the very harmful behaviors we are trying to heal from.” — Khalifah Green Buchanan, First Impression Specialist

This was my first time attending the Change Philanthropy Unity Summit. I appreciated being in a space that is vastly diverse with so many people representing different backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures. One profound learning moment for me is the historical challenges we’re up against. Whenever ethnic groups make gains, there is always backlash. How do we as funders get ahead of that challenge in the work we do? How do we learn from the right to strategize for the long term? This pushes us to think differently about how our investments can advance the work we want to do and the need to support our grantee partners for the long haul.” —  Phyllis D. Meadows, Senior Health Fellow, Detroit Program

About Change Philanthropy

CHANGE Philanthropy (formerly known as Joint Affinity Groups) was founded in 1993 to unify identity-focused philanthropic affinity groups into an empowered coalition. CHANGE represents a consortium of 10 different philanthropic serving organizations (PSOs) that give philanthropic leaders the opportunity to discuss important issues as it relates to racial justice. The 10 core partners are working to integrate diversity, inclusion, and social justice into philanthropic practice, transforming the sector’s culture to be one that embraces equity.

About Kresge’s Equity Task Force

In 2019, Kresge officially added Equity as the sixth pillar to its organizational values. In 2021, it adopted an organizational-wide Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) framework that can be broken down into five pillars: Kresge as a (1) funder, (2) employer, (3) economic entity, (4) community citizen, and (5) community. The Equity Task Force was launched in 2022 to support overall organizational learning, skill development, and shaping institutional policies, directives, and practices to align with the foundation’s Equity value. The team of 13 cross-departmental members works to advocate for and assess how equity is showcased in Kresge’s grantmaking and operational work.