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Darryl Lester - Q & A

Darryl Lester is the Founder/Principal of The Institute for Building Communities by Design which seeks to build communities, not out of crisis, but through growing philanthropy and promoting Civic and Community engagement. He works to develop leaders that are purposeful, grounded, culturally appropriate and competent. Darryl also serves as a Senior Advisor for Armstrong McGuire, an executive search firm that provides Leadership Development, Strategic Direction, and Philanthropic and Fundraising counsel for nonprofit organizations. BRIC was fortunate to have Darryl speak during the inaugural EDCI Leadership Retreat to the current cohort class of executives and directors and alumni. We are proud to introduce him to you and share this Q&A to learn more about him, his work and his philosophy about philanthropy.

Q: Please tell us your path to the philanthropy/sector.

My informal path to philanthropy and giving began when I was born into the “Village” of Marion, SC, a small rural town in the South on 800 Strawberry Street.

Marion, in my opinion, embodied the spirit of community philanthropy. Community philanthropy has its origins in long-held practices of exchange, mutual aid, solidarity, and community development. ‘Local people helping each other by sharing resources for the common good,’ is an inclusive and caring practice that is found in most, if not all, cultures and communities.

With this as my foundation, I found myself in various positions of higher education as an advocate and administrator for Black and other students of color. Even though many of these positions were inwardly focused, I spent a great deal of my time getting students to reflect on how their gifts and talents could be individually and collectively organized to improve the conditions of communities outside the walls of their various campuse

As my passion intensified, I transitioned out of higher education to the National service and nonprofit sector focused on creating civil societies through service. Through my work with public allies, I was able to refine and sharpen my lens on how change happens. This grassroots nonprofit work led me to seek a position within institutional philanthropy as a Program Officer (Grantmaker) at a community foundation. While employed at the community foundation, I embarked on a journey to find some answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the narrative of philanthropy/giving that drives the work of community foundations and other institutions of philanthropy?

  2. Why are there not more interactions and intersections between philanthropy in communities of color and institutional philanthropy?

  3. How do I learn more about the “philanthropy for” communities of color and “philanthropy of” communities”?

  4. How can institutional philanthropy learn from, and partner with, community philanthropy?

My experiences in Institutional philanthropy as a Program Officer, as well as a Trustee, help inform and drive my work as a consultant in the field of philanthropy as it relates to affirming and growing philanthropy in communities of color.

Q: How has your background and lived experience influenced your role as a historian and curator of Black giving?

The African proverb states, “Until the Lion has its own historian, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the Hunter.”

The journey of Africans to America reflects the African ethical concept of ubuntu – “I am because we are. Because we are, I am.” Black philanthropy, as it has evolved in North America, has been highly influenced by ubuntu and the tradition of African communalism.

Before the millions of Africans who were taken from the Continent were put in the holds of slave ships that would take them across the Atlantic Ocean as part of the Middle Passage, they were held in slave castles near the ports of departure. The conditions and practices in those castles were designed to strip a slave of the knowledge of who he or she was, prevent him from having any memory of his homeland and to convince her that being a slave had been ordained by God. Part of that “seasoning process” was thought to strip slaves from being a communal people who took care of each other.

However, as we reflect on those horrible journeys from the 16th to 19th centuries, we know that somehow the millions of Africans who were brought to the Americas or sent to the Caribbean maintained their innate sense of survival and of taking care of one another. Wherever they found themselves—on a sugar plantation in Antigua, in Charleston, South Carolina, in Mississippi or Alabama or somewhere up North— reaching out to take care of each other was a constant. They came from different tribes and villages, even different walks of life. However, they created a system for taking care of each other. These traditions, while strong, became dispersed as Africans landed in different places in North America, the Caribbean and South America.

What some people would today recognize as a form of “philanthropy” originated out of a gut-based sense of survival. For African Americans, giving is often driven by a need to “take care of one’s own.” Displaced Africans brought to the Americas had to take care of the land—and each other. In fact, they collectively realized that if they were going to survive in this strange new land, they had to take care of each other. The communal traditions that Africans brought from the Continent fostered survival techniques, which led to self-help and mutual aid, and later, other kinds of collective efforts for the common good. The three pillars of Black philanthropy— the giving of time, talent and treasure—have been repeated over hundreds of years.

From slavery, to Emancipation, from the long struggle for civil rights to today’s African Americans with millions of dollars of charitable spending, we can trace the lines of a deeply rooted tradition of giving. The evolution of this tradition of nontraditional philanthropy is complex. It is misunderstood by many outside the African American community, and taken for granted or seen as “just what we do” by some inside it. Long before the concept of “community philanthropy” came into being, Black people were exhibiting their inherent nature of giving. Many African Americans who have been giving for decades don’t think of what they do as philanthropy—mainly because no one has framed it that way for them. They may believe that philanthropy is only for the rich, not “regular people.” They may be outside the lines of the traditional (European) notion of a philanthropist.

Yet, the there is a long tradition of self-help and empowerment among people of African descent. The tenets of racial uplift and mutual aid have been an organic way of life for a people who took up collections at church, provided communal daycare, sat with the sick and shut-ins, and shared resources to help family members keep a roof over their heads. Black people have consistently come together to keep extended families intact through informal adoption and to respond to moments of crisis or emergency. There is a tradition of pooling funds to support individuals, programs and dreams of a brighter future. African Americans are passionate about this type of giving.

Because of the circumstances of their arrival in America, and the treatment of their ancestors once they came here, most African Americans don't have a long tradition of wealth that has been passed down to them from generation to generation. However, that does not mean they are not generous with their time, talents and treasures. Statistics show that African Americans give away a higher percentage of their incomes than any other U.S. racial group, mainly to churches and religious and education causes.

Many researchers and institutions have failed to include African American philanthropic traditions in their studies or their strategic framework of philanthropy. They underestimate the power of Black giving, because they don’t understand its roots. At the same time, when philanthropic institutions do attempt to define and quantify collective giving among African Americans, many of their efforts have been shortsighted, furthering the notion that only certain socioeconomic and ethnic groups are “real” givers and philanthropists. Some researchers focus on whether the motivation of Black givers is different from traditional (mostly White male) philanthropists, while others fail to understand the power of Black giving’s ripple effect in the African American community.

Without a nuanced knowledge of the history of people of African descent in America, one may not see this giving tradition as firmly within the framework of philanthropy.What is needed is a broader look that considers the varied collective giving traditions that have occurred in communities of color for many decades. One aim of this report is to make a close examination and a reframing of these traditions. While the “elite philanthropy” that generates multi-million-dollar donations to universities, healthcare facilities and arts institutions may grab the most headlines, it is Black giving that may be making the most creative investments in community-based grassroots solutions to the enduring social and educational inequities in our nation.

Q: There have been many inequities that have been exposed during the pandemic. How have you seen both the philanthropic and nonprofit sector change or not change?

The pandemic created some reflections and conversations that have led to some micro changes and some macro changes in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. The micro changes were the creation of public statements about the affirmation of diversity, race, equity, and inclusion. For some of these organizations this was the beginning of examining and acknowledging practices that created many inequities, but for many, there was no substance behind the symbolism of the public diversity, equity, and inclusion statements. Some of these organizations pivoted quickly but without recognizing the substance that must be undertaken to achieve the public statements put forth. Going forward it is important for philanthropic and nonprofit organizations to move past SYMBOLISM to SUBSTANCE.

Q: What do you see as nonprofit leaders of color's role in advancing equitable communities?

Nonprofit leaders of color and their organizations must probe the following questions of purpose as a foundation for advancing equitable communities:

Individually Collectively (organizationally)

Who am I? Who are we?

Whose am I? Whose are we?

Why am I here? Why are we here?

Where have I been? Where are we going?

Where am I going? Where are we going?

What contribution will I make? What contribution will we make?

These questions will provide nonprofit leaders with greater and redefined purpose which will lead them to more clarity on their WHAT and their WHY. Leaders of color must continue to derive strength and vision from those folks that came before them that blazed paths. built bridges, built civilizations, and practiced RECIPROCITY

Q: What has been the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received?

My most valuable advice came from the woman that brought me in the world, my Mother, my first teacher, the first community philanthropist, a community health provider, and a community organizer when she said to me “If your mind can perceive it your behind can achieve it.” My Mother raised me to see myself through my own eyes, and not through the eyes of someone else. I learned to see myself and my people in the center of my worldview and not on the fringes. Another piece of advice came from how my father raised me which can be summed up in the Words of Billie Holiday:

Them that's got shall have

Them that's not shall lose

So the Bible said and it still is news

Mama may have, Papa may have

But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own

Yes, the strong get smart

While the weak ones fade

Empty pockets don't ever make the grade

Mama may have, Papa may have

But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own

Money, you've got lots of friends

They're crowding around the door

But when you're gone and spending ends

They don't come no more

Rich relations give crusts of bread and such

You can help yourself, but don't take too much

Mama may have, Papa may have

But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own

Mama may have, Papa may have

But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own

He just don't worry 'bout nothing, 'cause he's got his own

Q: Looking at the sector's landscape, what do you dare to hope is different in 3-5 years?

In the next 3-5 years, I hope that we will see the evidence of more SUBSTANCE and less SYMBOLISM around the diversity, racial equity, inclusion, and cultural competence:

  • Hope that the primary dimension of diversity continues to change at the Executive Director Level and in the boardroom.

  • Less dysfunctional rescue among nonprofit organizations in how they are engaged in service delivery in communities of color.

  • More strategic and genuine engagement of donors and givers from Black and Brown communities.

  • More fundraisers of color in the sector because philanthropy has invested in programs that address the lack of fundraisers of color in the pipeline.

Darryl is a graduate of Brevard College (A. A. in Business Administration), Wofford College (B.A., Economics) and North Carolina State University (M.Ed. in Counselor Education and minor in Psychology). He enjoys the brotherhood that he shares as a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. as well as the President of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club – Raleigh Chapter.

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