As we continue to honor the legacy and numerous accomplishments of African Americans during the month of February, I encourage us all to take time for personal reflection. Black history is indeed American history; furthermore, history never stops developing and each of our individual accomplishments continues to add to the rich tapestry of African American history and life in America today. In fact, African American history has contributed to almost every social and economic system we work in, including the charitable sector.
I am proud and deeply grateful to be the first Black woman to lead Independent Sector in its 50-year history. As one of the premier national voices for the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, I deeply feel the significance of this honor and the gravity of its responsibility. I also know the organization, in partnership with our Board, has put in significant work to ensure that racial equity is engrained in every aspect of how we operate and our future aspirations for a just and equitable society.
So much about our own racial equity journey, as an organization, has included the intentional act of loving and protecting a sector that provides the soul and care for millions of Americans daily. The people who make up the institutions – whether philanthropic or grassroots in nature – of this vast and diverse sector are necessary for any forward movement toward a healthy and just nation where all people thrive.
And even still, in my own reflections this month, I was reminded of a bell hooks quote, “True resistance begins with people confronting pain…and wanting to do something to change it.”
The last several years have been full of challenges for all of us. From living through the chaos of a woefully underdeveloped government health care system hurrying to inoculate over 300 million Americans, to continued economic hardship for our sector as we partnered with government to feed, clothe, and strengthen a sense of civic hope among millions of citizens. The sector is exhausted! Many of us might long for a time when we can just work on our missions as we did pre-pandemic and reimagine a new and more equitable future for this country. I hold space for that renewal of energy for the sector and American civic life. I am laying the groundwork in my early days at Independent Sector for this type of change — but I can’t do it alone. I plan to listen to what sector leaders believe has worked well, what has not, and what type of America we can collectively imagine. Planning is under way for Independent Sector to launch a multi-city Listening Tour this year. I’m so grateful that I have a chance to work alongside many of you in confronting our challenges, as well as lifting up the opportunities and hopes we have for doing this work differently in the future.
Independent Sector will continue to provide the many amazing programs and supports we’ve offered for many years. We’re excited that we’ll be working with American Express again to conduct another year of the American Express NGen Fellows Program, which will immerse 12 emerging leaders 40 and under from around the country into a leadership development experience, and present one of our incredible emerging leaders with the 2023 American Express NGen Leadership Award. Within weeks, we’ll also be opening our call-for-session ideas campaign, known as Co-Create, for Upswell 2023. Upswell 2023 will be hybrid this year with two virtual Pop-Ups in the spring and summer — and our first in-person conference since 2019 this November. We are so grateful to the incredible community of Dallas-Fort Worth for welcoming us into their region for the Upswell Summit this November. We are especially pleased to collaborate with Social Venture Partners (SVP) Dallas on the Upswell Summit.
Our federal policy work continues to be the backbone of what many expect from Independent Sector, and I am grateful for the members of the Public Policy Committee and the National Infrastructure Investment Advocacy Group (NIIAG) for the work they’ve been doing to refine a policy agenda ahead of what is expected to be a challenging year on Capitol Hill. While our advocacy efforts will not slow down, we are facing a daunting year as Congress weighs what spending cuts to include in a package that would also raise the national debt ceiling. This topic and more will be top of mind for us as we partner with United Philanthropy Forum and the Council on Foundations for the 20th Annual Foundations on the Hill later this month. We hope to see many of you there.
Reminiscent of the bell hooks quote shared earlier in this piece, the “pain” — whether it’s from political conflicts, pandemic recovery, or systemic racism — helps galvanize us to do more and do it better. I know this community is up for the challenge and I am thrilled to be your partner in our effort.
Dr. Akilah Watkins is president and CEO of Independent Sector.