NURTURING THE NEXT GENERATION OF TRANSFORMED NONCONFORMISTS
An address delivered at the Council on Foundations Annual Conference, Breakfast Plenary, Atlanta Marriott Marquis Hotel, Monday, May 4, 2009
I’d like to thank the Board, Ralph Smith and Steve Gunderson, the host committee and the conference planning committee for the honor of this invitation. It is especially good to see so many former friends and colleagues from the Ford Foundation, the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund and Sherry Magill, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The last presidential election revealed that Americans were so energized by a certain kind of leadership that they/we transcended past and present fears and voted for a more hopeful future. I’d like to suggest that the place of generative philanthropy today and especially tomorrow will be to nurture the next generation of transformed nonconformists. I’ve just used two phrases that require definition. I’d like to use two concepts from Erik Erikson and Martin Luther King Jr. to frame the place of philanthropy and its most important occupation.
The Harvard psychologist, Erik Erikson, provided insight into the psycho-social and moral qualities of each stage of the human life cycle--from basic trust as an infant to the identity crisis of adolescence to the final stages of life. During the sunset season of life, a healthy aging adult should turn attention to concrete actions on behalf of the next generation. The generative person is capable of taking less from life for herself and investing more in the world that one’s children and grandchildren will inherit. Erikson believed that it was important to one’s sense of integrity that one have a sense that he has done all he could to leave the world a better place for the next generation. Generative people prepare the world for children and they prepare children for the world. They have lived well and have become benevolent and wise people.
I’d like to use Erikson’s notion of generativity to describe the role of philanthropy that looks forward and outward to provide what the next generation will need.
As for the second concept, many of you know that Morehouse College is the proud owner of the Martin Luther King Jr. Collection. It is our intent to construct an archive for his and other Morehouse leadership alumni papers. In the collection is a book, Strength to Love. where Dr. King said,
“This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not from the action of a conforming majority. But, from the creative maladjustment of a transformed minority.” (Strength to Love)
Dr. King maintained that there was a difference between the social impact of conforming majorities and the creative and redemptive maladjustment of the few who see possibilities in every crisis. The spirit of the transformed nonconformist is best captured in George Bernard Shaw’s words, much beloved by Robert F. Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.”
Philanthropy’s Place Today
In 2006, at this meeting, Barry Gaberman, former senior vice president of the Ford Foundation, claimed that foundations play an important role in democratic society. He offered 10 specifics about the profile of philanthropy:
|1.||Take risks and can afford to fail|
|2.||Take on sensitive issues public institutions will often step away from|
|3.||Take on activities not sustainable with only earned income and that require a subsidy since they are not governed by the tyranny of the bottom line|
|4.||Help sustain services desired by a particular segment of society. but that are not priorities for government|
|5.||Afford to think long term|
|6.||Flexible and incorporate mid-course corrections to their programmatic efforts|
|8.||Test innovative and new initiatives that can be brought to scale|
|9.||Fund independent policy analysis as a check on the claims of the public sector, and|
|10.||Fund advocacy organizations|
Gaberman’s observations hold true today. But, the earth has shifted a bit since 2006—at least in two important ways. The recent and continuing economic downturn has proven to be global not national. And, seven months ago, Barack Obama was elected with a mandate to lead change. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “A man’s mind once stretched by some new idea can never return to its original dimension.” One could argue, without hyperbole, we can now never return to the old version of reality. The goods that philanthropy accomplished in the old order, just a few years ago, must continue. But, a new agenda for philanthropy can and should be imagined.
Here, I offer my own humble thoughts and wishes. As a college president who has been baptized in the energizing waters of philanthropy, I offer these comments with a keen awareness of how these two sectors—education and philanthropy--could do much more to nurture leaders who are transformed nonconformists.
Philanthropy’s Place Tomorrow
Philanthropy should prioritize the production of ethical leadership for the nation—Dr. King’s “transformed nonconformists.” Some colleges and universities are the nation’s laboratories of ethical character development. Philanthropy should focus on those schools that are striving to produce the kind of citizen a free society requires.
I’d like to briefly highlight seven key opportunities that generative philanthropy should seize upon as we go forward. I frame them as opportunities that merit investment by those who care about the next generation.
|1.||Educational Affordability Opportunities: According to Tamara Draut of Demos, “Today, two-thirds of high school graduates take some type of college-level courses after high school, but only 29% of today’s 25 to 34-year-olds have a bachelor’s degree.” (“Strapped,” p. 216) The desire for higher education is high but the means for supporting that aspiration are sparse. The Atlanta University Center is the largest center of higher education for African Americans in the world. But, all of our schools are struggling with the same tragic reality. Hundreds of our students are unable to persist and graduate for financial reasons. This is a stain upon the reputation of a great nation. After all of the sacrifice and struggle to enable black students to attend college, how can we allow hundreds of them to drop out for want of a few thousand dollars each? Philanthropy could challenge state and federal government and corporations to develop more compelling and creative responses to this crisis. We could create modest education savings accounts for every child born in the U.S., the funds of which could only be spent on higher education. And, colleges that serve a high percentage of low-income students should have endowments to provide the need-based scholarships that could stem the flow of this exodus of talent.
Global Opportunities: Many of us thought that 9/11 would be sufficient to accelerate the de-parochialization of the American college curriculum and student outlook. But, nine years later, only 1% of American college students study abroad, and only 3% of American college student populations are comprised of international students.
As a study abroad alumnus of the University of Durham (UK), I can attest to the extraordinary benefits of spending a semester or a year at a foreign university. Despite this urging, we have noted that black and Hispanic students are studying abroad at much lower rates than their white counterparts. America’s black and Latino students could become exceptional ambassadors for the U.S., but they need the education, exposure and experience that come from overseas study and travel. Philanthropy should work with universities to expand and deepen global awareness and experience of American students. And, this should be done with an eye for equity for smaller, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving colleges and universities.
A few years ago, there was an Internet thought-exercise titled, “Something to think about.” It reminds me of a device used by former COF president James Joseph. It asked the reader to shrink the earth’s entire population to 100 people, with all the existing human demographic ratios remaining the same. This is not what we might look like or could look like, but what there actually would be – given the ratios. (Although it is several years old now, and some ratios may have changed, still it makes the point effectively.) The model indicates our breakdown would consist of:
Then, it concludes:
Ethics Opportunities: Benjamin Franklin said that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” Given the public moral crises of recent years—from Enron to AIG—generative philanthropy must help strengthen the public’s capacity for ethical reasoning and the development of moral character. At Morehouse, I have decided to frame my vision statement in audacious terms: We will produce Renaissance men with social conscience and global perspective….
We would do well to rediscover Aristotle’s ancient wisdom about how educators can move beyond transferring theoretical knowledge (episteme) to forming people of character. It requires three fundamental foci: knowledge, desire and practice. We can teach what is right and good and praiseworthy. Then, we must incent and reinforce the desire to choose and do the right thing. But, we must also encourage and reward its practice. And, over time, the habit of doing what is right becomes deep; it becomes one’s character. Aristotle said that “excellence is not an act, but a habit. We are what we repeatedly do.” (“Smart and Good High Schools Report,” Lickona, p. 16)
In addition to this focus on producing better people, philanthropy and education should work to revive a national conversation about standards of public morality. Derek Bok believes that elite colleges miss opportunities to challenge and educate the best and brightest about ethical reasoning and becoming virtuous human beings. If this were a greater emphasis, we might have avoided some of the excesses of institutional greed and selfishness that fostered our economic crisis.
Racial Reconciliation Opportunities: In view of the Obama phenomenon, we should seize the opportunity to catalyze or reenergize racial reconciliation, restorative justice and intergroup communications. Consider the power and intellectual range and depth of candidate Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race. We have not engaged it in a sustained way. Philanthropy should help reenergize the race conversation that Bill Clinton led. But, it should do so with an eye toward the policy agenda that should follow a more humanistic exercise of listening, storytelling, and practicing reconciliation.
I was in Jackson, Miss., last week where many of the mayors of the state along with a former governor gathered under the banner of an organization called Mission Mississippi. Its goal is to mobilize faith communities to eradicate racism and to practice racial reconciliation—perhaps work that America’s 320,000 houses of worship could undertake.
Healthy Relationship Opportunities: The arena of interpersonal relationships, family formation and the nurturing of children is in flux. Philanthropy should invest more in intermediaries and policy frameworks that shore up anchor institutions like families. Given the rise of online social networking and virtual relationships and the verbal ugliness present in that community, the nation needs a campaign for healthy relationships. The world in which young people are learning the dynamics of commitment, intimacy and mutual respect is different from the one most of us knew. Many kids assume that sex is a normal part of a first date (or hook up) and neither the young men nor women feel empowered to insist that certain moral boundaries be respected. We desperately need a national movement to renew emphasis upon communication and conflict resolution in healthy relationships, commitment and respectful love. The healthy relationships message should stand apart, as well as overlap the important messages and movements in the parenting movement, the healthy marriages movement, and the fatherhood movement.
At Morehouse College, we recognize that we have an opportunity and an obligation to lead change around the culture wars between gay and straight men. On Saturday, a Washington Post op-ed focused on a speech I delivered two weeks ago to the students of Morehouse where I outlined the ethical obligations of those who take seriously Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence. And, Spelman President Beverly Tatum and I are working together to promote healthy male-female relationships among college students.
Religious Pluralism Opportunities: Since 91% of Americans believe in a divine reality or God, we should invest more resources in understanding how faith can and should co-exist or synthesize with science and technology (Recall the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow’s important book, Two Cultures). America is undergoing staggering religious diversity, and philanthropy has an opportunity to ensure that it is the healthy development of religious pluralism. In her book, A New Religious America: How a Christian Country has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation, Diana Eck notes that:
“There are more Muslim Americans than Episcopalians, more Muslims than members of the Presbyterian Church USA, and as many Muslims as there are Jews, about six million. We are astonished to learn that Los Angeles is the most complex Buddhist city in the world, with a Buddhist population spanning the whole range of the Asian Buddhist world from Sri Lanka to Korea.”
We should know more about the role of religion in motivating civil and anti-civil behavior. This may require that some of us cultured despisers of religion relax the cynicism we have about religion and people of faith. Although, some of our best jokes about faith come from those who are not so enamored of religion’s achievements. H.L. Mencken observed that “Sunday school is a prison where children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents.” But, Snow was right, when the cultures of science and humanities (faith) cannot communicate, it results in major hindrances to solving large public problems. Generative philanthropy could ensure that the leaders of America’s diverse religious communities gather and have opportunities to understand the U.S. Constitution and how their own traditions can support dialogue, peace, women’s dignity and rights, and the environment.
Green Opportunities: By now we are all aware of the dangerous trends that accompany our current habits of fuel and energy consumption. But, many do not realize that the Native Americans practiced reciprocity and respect toward nature. The Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy might be a model of generative philanthropy today. It states, “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” (Van Jones, 37)
It is now time for us to expand the green movement throughout youth culture and across all campuses. This should be linked to unleashing the power of aesthetics and beauty in the urban environment. We have not paid sufficient attention to the role of environmental beauty and learning. Harvard has an outstanding green initiative called “Green Your Scene” where sustainable practices are framed in a clever and engaging way, such as costing out the equivalent number of cars that could be taken off the road by turning off lights or eating vegetarian once a week. And, last year, two Morehouse students were honored at the Clinton Global Initiative University for outstanding leadership in taking the message and practices of sustainability to low-income neighborhoods that surround the Morehouse campus. My students spend Saturdays going door to door exchanging energy-efficient light bulbs for the old-fashioned kind.
These are seven opportunities for generative philanthropy. Each offers opportunities for creative partnerships with the educational sector to pursue research, develop programs, measure efficacy and nurture effective leadership. Tomorrow’s philanthropy should have a long view and lots of patience. It should insist upon outcomes that can inspire. Paraphrasing Pascal, philanthropy should confer upon humans the dignity of being causes. Philanthropy should advance the common good by tackling the difficult topics and doing the heavy lifting.
This work will be difficult and may require sacrifice, but Atlanta has shown that a few transformed nonconformists—black, white, Hispanic and Asian—can turn the world right side up. Our students marched for justice throughout the streets of the South; sat at lunch counters where they were brutalized; registered to vote while people spat upon them; entered universities where governors stood in the door to prevent it; and organized in late nights where some were never again seen alive. And, in the end, their sacrifices were validated by putting a transformed nonconformist in the White House.
Now, it is time for members of the Council on Foundations to do something large and noble, something that will make the world pause to listen. Nurture the next generation of transformed nonconformists. Make this part of your mission.
W.E. B. DuBois said:
“When I say sacrifice, I mean sacrifice. I mean a real and definite surrender of personal ease and satisfaction…To increase abiding satisfaction for the mass of our people and for all people, someone must sacrifice something of his own happiness. This is a duty only to those who recognize it as a duty. It is silly to tell intelligent human beings: ‘Be good and you will be happy.’ The truth is today, be good, be decent, be honorable and self-sacrificing and you will not always be happy. You will often be desperately unhappy. You may even be crucified, dead, and buried. And, the third day you will be just as dead as the first. But, with the death of your happiness, may easily come increase happiness and satisfaction and fulfillment for other people—strangers, unborn babes, uncreated worlds. If that is not sufficient incentive, never try it…remain hogs.”
Carry with you the words of Rabbi Hillel, the first century teacher:
“The world is equally balanced between good and evil…your next act will tip the scale.”