It’s been about two weeks since we gathered more than 2,000 changemakers from across the country at Upswell to discuss two of the most pressing issues of our time: COVID-19 recovery and systemic racism.
As the president and CEO of Independent Sector, I am incredibly proud of this event and grateful to everyone who had a hand in putting it together. I am also deeply reflective on some of the crucial moments of the virtual gathering that called on us to face our challenges head on and look to the future with a commitment to values that allow us to actually feel optimistic about our ability to see all people, particularly Black, Native, and other people of color, thrive in this country.
The main stage speakers, which included best-selling authors, researchers, faith leaders, nonprofit visionaries, and journalists, all brought a focused perspective on how we both understand and choose to change ourselves, our organizations, and our systems in order to create better outcomes for people and the environment. We began every morning with mindfulness, including antiracist yoga practices, that helped ground people in how they could use themselves as instruments of change in the communities they serve. The focus on self-care felt especially powerful in a year like 2020. We also heard from Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, who powerfully laid out the system we are all a part of in the United States. She made clear that whether you have Native roots here, your ancestors were forced here, or your ancestors immigrated in the 1770s or 1970s, we are all part of this caste system and it is up to all of us to disrupt and dismantle it. Rev. Samuel Rodriguez also focused on how individuals’ deep personal faith coupled with care for all humanity can be a powerful combination.
Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, and Stephen Heintz, president and CEO of Rockefeller Brothers Fund, made an important argument for our role as nonprofits and foundations to get serious on making democracy stronger. Stephen said we needed a “fourth founding” of the United States following the last three: initial founding, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement. Marc reiterated the role of the nonprofit sector and social movements to power us forward. He said, “We are once again reminded that democracy has to be protected and fought for by each successive generation. It is never guaranteed.”
More speakers than ever, both on the main stage and in other sessions, focused on how we deal with our large systemic issues. Ibram X. Kendi gave a powerful charge to us all to embody what is necessary to change racist policies to antiracist policies. He cautioned us to remember that looking at racial disparities and concluding that the problem is with the people, and not the policies, is how we ended up with centuries of racist systems. “Once we recognize that the problems are policies, we need to start asking: what new policies can eliminate this disparity?”
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II also reminded us to see that we can, in fact, come together on these issues and think about a fusion coalition centered around love and the eradication of an unfair system. “Institutional racism isn’t just about injustice, or police brutality, or even overt hate,” Rev. Barber reminded us. “It is about power.”
It is my sincere hope that the energy we created through our three virtual days together have helped catapult anyone who participated into a season of action. We all have an opportunity in this week and next to take action, whether you’ve mailed in your ballot, are going to vote early in your state, or have your safe plan ready to vote in person on November 3. In the last month, we also released a new report, Health of the U.S. Nonprofit Sector, where our aim is to create a platform for a sustained and data-informed conversation on what we know about our health, what we don’t know (and should), and what we should be doing in response to both sets of understandings. The information in this report, coupled with the lessons we gained from Upswell, will help Independent Sector shape a strategic plan and policy agenda on behalf of the nonprofit and philanthropic community moving forward.
We are incredibly proud of the work we’ve accomplished so far in 2020, but we are clear-eyed on just how much we must do in the months and years ahead to advocate for:
- Sustained COVID-19 relief for our organizations and communities to recover,
- A nation rebuilt that is better than before, prioritizing infrastructure investments that advance equitable outcomes for the Black, Native and other communities of color that have borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic and deeply imbedded structural inequities; and
- A strong and healthy nonprofit sector that is capable of ensuring all people in the U.S. thrive.
We can do it together. After what I witnessed from participants and speakers at Upswell, I’m more sure of that than ever.