Could institutional philanthropy follow Prince’s example?

Living in Minneapolis I’ve followed the life of our dearly beloved Prince perhaps more than others have, but I was very struck by Van Jones’ powerful story he put forth on CNN’s Don Lemon show. What a wonderful story of personal philanthropy! But listen carefully at 2:40 – what if institutional philanthropy – official foundations with boards and staffs – could allow themselves to work like this? Not necessarily all the time, and probably not for everyone. On the other hand, why not?

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Education works when Justice and Economics work

Doubling down on Education has long been a favorite policy option when unrest brews and the people in charge realize there’s trouble ahead. “Something must be done.” Education is the time-honored ticket to the comfort and security of the middle class – so let’s throw more money at it.

And why not? There’s plenty of reason to think that Education can help. Most people who’ve experienced success in life have benefited from at least some formal education and are comfortable assenting to more money for the schools. Who doesn’t favor education as a cure for what ails others?

The deeper problem is, investing in Education won’t close the achievement gap or lift the downtrodden if our other systems of opportunity still say No.


  • “No, you can’t earn a wage that feeds your family, much less sock money away for your kids’ education.”
  • “No, you can’t get a job here beyond the apprentice track, I don’t care if you just got your GED and you were a model inmate.”
  • “No, you can’t get a job here; if you’ve got two kids at home, you won’t be coming to work very often.”
  • “No, you can’t get a loan to buy a house or start a business even if you’re as educated and credit-worthy as that White guy we just said Yes to.”
  • “No you can’t get out of debt without paying all these extra fees that we normally charge people who are trying to get out of debt.”
  • “No, you can’t have a future, because you have a past. Those appearances in Juvi when you were in middle school mean you’re doomed, I don’t care how much time you’ve been Reformed, Corrected, or made Penitent. I’d rather take a chance on my goofy neighbor’s son.”

Extreme examples? Not hardly, these disparities have been documented over and over, almost as much as the dangers of tobacco or alcohol.

The point is, disparities and dysfunctions in the justice system and in the economic systems greatly limit the benefits to be achieved through improving the education system.

The disparities in systems that adjoin the Education system have the effect of damping or suppressing better educational outcomes, and can perpetuate bad outcomes for a long time, even over generations. Here’s how:

  • The children of parents who are kept away from their families by incarceration are not likely to do all that well in school. Healthy, secure, hopeful adults in the home make a difference.
  • The children of parents who’ve not been allowed to make ends meet or accumulate savings with an eye to moving on up are not likely to do all that well in school. Healthy, secure, hopeful adults in the home make a difference.
  • The children of parents who have no realistic chance of becoming meaningfully employed are not likely to do all that well in school. Healthy, secure, hopeful adults in the home make a difference.

Parents have to be able to see and communicate the possibility of a success track for themselves and especially for their children.  Parents have to see avenues for making life better for their own family. It’s the American dream and always has been. For people who can see or imagine the possibilities, education certainly can make a difference.

Sensing such hope is practically a prerequisite for encouraging effort in one’s school-age child. But the legacy of Jim Crow is deeply ingrained in the bones of our social systems that still say No to African Americans. Opportunity is still denied. Hope is still snuffed. The humiliation of being repeatedly told No creates a death spiral. Post-traumatic stress from that Jim Crow era still continues, and for these people, education is not sufficient for breaking out.

What we have to do is make all social systems say Yes in a more fair way, so that Education can indeed become a more reliable pathway to success. That’s a long haul but that’s where the effort must go.

Pressure has to be applied at key points in the Justice and Economics systems so that the new rules for saying Yes can be applied to let everyone get a fair shake.  Fortunately, these rules are made by humans, and these systems are operated by humans, and are therefore subject to change.  There’s actually signs that these systems are ripe for a bipartisan approach to change.

It starts by discovering opportunities in these systems, like the justice systems and economics systems, for intervention – opportunities for changing the written and unwritten rules to level the playing field and assure more equal opportunity.

And it also starts with choosing different metrics for measuring success. If it’s true that we get what we measure, let’s choose to measure “successful re-entry to a more productive path and onto a path of improved financial security” instead of the usual “recidivism – return to futile incarceration and doomed future.”


Next: How smarter social investments can support needed change. And the metrics that spell success.





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A Dignity Gap

Since I made such a big thing about dignity in my last post, can we acknowledge something like a “dignity gap?” Not trying to introduce new jargon, but the notion is this:

We’re familiar with the “school achievement gap,” where the educational establishment produces lower scores for traumatized and unmotivated kids than for those who assume they have a decent chance in life.

There’s also a justice gap, an opportunities gap, an income gap and a wealth gap – and many more.

There’s also, I suggest, a dignity gap, where those in power are allowed to slap those without, but those without power are not allowed to slap back. If “slap” is too shocking a word, substitute “insult,” “humiliate,” “unfairly deny,” “spit,” “stop and frisk,” and “terrorize.”

In fact, that’s how one knows who has power in this society. If you can slap, insult, humiliate, unfairly deny, spit, stop and frisk, or terrorize without fear of repercussion, as if it’s you’re right, you’ve got the power. Otherwise, you’re known as “underprivileged.” Each of us grows up learning what we’re allowed and what we’re not allowed to say or do, and what could happen if we cross that line. People on both sides of the power divide learn this at their parents’ knee, and watching those with the power.

Not that I’m encouraging that the offended spit back – obviously there shouldn’t be any spitting or humiliating of any kind. Humiliation is a form of bloodshed, if you think about it; it’s obviously hurtful, and life’s too short to make a practice of spilling others’ blood. It might rub off on you.

Dignity is kind of an old fashioned concept, and isn’t talked about much. But we all know what it feels like to be robbed of it. Don’t we? And dignity is what we saw in the faces, words, and actions of the victims’ families in the immediate aftermath of the Charleston massacre.

Such a scene allowed shame to emerge in the demeanor of those who recognized their culpability. It set a stage for change.

We saw leading elected officials at all levels saying things never-before-said. We saw them taking down provocative symbols of their dark power in gestures of conciliation. We saw them act with, dare I say, a measure of dignity of their own.

Let’s hope it’s sustainable.

Maybe all those “celebrations of diversity,” all those trainings where we learn to be nice to an Other, all those panel discussions at professional meetings, all the work done by so many different kinds of nonprofit and community organizations working to restore some measure of dignity and to celebrate steps towards self-empowerment, all those efforts to help more informed and well-meaning conversations along, all those petitions that we either signed or implicitly supported or at least knew about — maybe all of those are having a cumulative effect.

Maybe the Charleston massacre shocked so many sensibilities that the leading elected officials and even state Governors was compelled to heed and even get in front of a call to take down that flag.

There’s an opening for even more meaningful change – not just in hearts and minds but in changing systems that produce the gaps and disparities that keep millions of Americans down for the count. It’s time to take advantage of that.

Next: Opportunities abound for creating system change.

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