“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last, you create what you will.”
― George Bernard Shaw
So much fun embracing my idea whisperer ways and sharing thoughts about creating, imagining, dreaming BIG, manifesting and more with Donna Scott and Rachel Sutherland, the producers ofSmart Mouth Life.
This piece was published by QCityMetro.com on Nov 20, 2019 to mark National Native American Heritage Month and Charlotte’s observance of National Philanthropy Day.
Imagine a new age of ideas, leadership and people
If we’re going to heal, let it be glorious.– Beyoncé
Just before Independence Day this summer, Edgar Villanueva, author of the bestselling book “Decolonizing Wealth,” engaged in a series of talks in Charlotte. In his book, Edgar, a foundation executive and member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, poses the question: What if we used wealth to heal, rather than harm?
“Decolonizing Wealth” analyzes dysfunctional racial and colonial dynamics at play in philanthropy. Drawing on personal experiences as a Native American and professional in the philanthropic sector, Edgar offers a prescription for restoring balance and healing divides.
To decolonize, as Edgar describes it, is to reckon with and reconcile wrongs—historical and contemporary—from which a large share of today’s wealth and privilege is derived. It is a process that entails admission and accounting of the exploitation of indigenous and enslaved people during the colonial era and the compounded trauma and impacts on Brown, Black and White people today. Central to decolonizing is a commitment to disclosure, contrition and amends as a means to heal and repair, all of us.
Listening to Edgar made me ponder, what if our community dedicated itself to healing? What if we decolonized Charlotte?
At first blush, the idea might seem improbable for a city built on a proud colonial history. Heck, Charlotte is named for King George’s wife herself. And our city’s symbol is a crown!
Cynics might exploit our standing as the nation’s third largest financial hub as a barrier to change. The mere phrase, decolonizing wealth,would seem antithetical to a bank town.
Then too there is our reputation as a vibrant “New South City,” which would seem to provide sufficient, albeit thin, cover. The implication being we have already grappled with and successfully overcome an unjust past.
Contrary to what these characterizations might suggest, I believe therein lies Charlotte’s big opportunity.Our Southern heritage, our colonial history, and our prominence in the financial sector make an altogether compelling case to decolonize—systematically purge relic ways and mindsets that betray our grasps for racial equity and economic mobility.
Decolonizing Charlotte is not that far-fetched. The city has long boasted vanguard status with the 1775 “Meck Dec.” With that civic DNA, why couldn’t Charlotteans lead again as revolutionaries? This time though, in lieu of ousting Brits, let’s end colonial reign by repudiating economic exploitation, cultural dominance, forced assimilation and other precepts of colonists.
Imagine, the symbolism and the substance of our history and status as driving forces to shake free of colonialism. We are a city that emerged from Native American trading paths and that recently celebrated its 250th anniversary. We, along with the nation, just marked 400 years of documented Black life in America.
We are a Southern metropolis that was once part of the original 13 American colonies and, too, the 14 Confederate states. While our storied past holds many points of pride, it also mires us in contradictions and complicates our lives, relationships and philanthropy.
Like an ancestral brownfield site, our civic landscape holds contaminating elements that have not been washed away and cannot be wished away. Yes, the Queen City is on the rise and a newcomer magnet, yet the “Chetty study” sniffed the toxicity.
Dysfunctional relationships and toxic power dynamics introduced generations ago still haunt our civic life. Even with all the lip service about equity, funding decisions lay bare leaders’ priorities and beliefs. Vestiges of colonial mindsets and the ideology of white supremacy linger.
It is evident in the fact that a third of Brown and Black children here live in poverty, seen in schools that are the most segregated in the state, and obvious in how we live and do things. Troubling patterns are especially stark in our nonprofit and philanthropic sphere.
When “the Charlotte way“ is perceived a term of endearment by some and an indictment by others, you could say, Charlotte’s got a lot to heal.
While many cling to fiction, the truth remains. But wonder if we dropped the façade. Masking how race, wealth and power play out in Charlotte only exacerbates issues. Suppose instead we scrutinized the problematic history of philanthropy and studied today’s data on where the money goes to inform more equitable approaches.
In lieu of assembling another task force, let’s use“money as medicine,” as Edgar puts it. Let’s direct resources to excavate the roots of injustice and examine its messy fruit. In addition to the litany of pre-K, literacy, mentoring and scholarship programs, let’s also invest in disrupting systems and institutions that perpetually feed the disparities that make such programs necessary. We need to be courageous enough and forward thinking enough to undertake that work, both internally and externally.
The great news! We need not wait for citywide buy-in or a large-scale initiative to begin. One foundation, one organization, one family or one person can choose to decolonize and start the journey. One by one, we each can become decolonizers and transform this city.
How you ask? Debunk the myth of meritocracy. Focus unblinkingly on power and race dynamics. Demonstrate an intolerance of injustice. Interrogate presumptive gatekeepers. Set new expectations for leaders. Listen and learn to sit with discomfort. Expose fake equity and keep pushing for the real thing. Read Decolonizing Wealth.
Glory exists in the work, even when it is inconvenient and uncomfortable and overdue. Decolonizing holds the power to forge our center, to heal, and to reveal at long last our civic soul. Charlotte’s elusive identity found. A so-called identity-crisis averted. You’re welcome.
Valaida Fullwood is author of Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists, creator of The Soul of Philanthropy exhibit, and a founder of New Generation of African American Philanthropists, a giving circle in Charlotte, NC.
Grateful to my friend, the poet Quentin “Q” Talley, who wrote “Full Circle” nearly 11 years ago. I commissioned the poem, initially, for a special event in 2008. Since then Q has breathed new life into it again and again. A print version was featured in my book Giving Back. He has performed it live at my book talks and various events. He recorded it for kinetic typography that is featured in The Soul of Philanthropy exhibit. And he worked with me to create this video.
I am equally grateful to my friend, the videographer Sino Chum, who filmed this piece. As with Q, Sino and I have collaborated numerous times over the years, like here and here and here. This project includes footage shot in Atlanta, Columbia, SC and Denver. It took more than a year to complete. A year that included Sino returning to his ancestral homeland, Cambodia, and getting married. Mazel tov! 💖
Steve Jobs once said the most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. Though it doesn’t always start out that way, somewhere in the process of writing a story I do feel powerful. It is a satisfying (and rather magical) process that brings me immense joy. With film, poetry and theater, respectively, Sino and Q are great storytellers and work hard at their crafts. That’s why I relish opportunities to collaborate and thus unite and activate our super powers.
“Black Americans have exercised collective giving to finance social resistance in serial struggles for liberation.” That line is from my recent essay, The Sweetness of Circles. In those struggles, the questions Am I Not a Man? and Ain’t I a Woman? and the assertion I Am a Man have been used and adapted over history to proclaim dignity, declare independence against oppression, and push for equality.
Fifty-one years ago this week, “I AM A MAN” was the slogan of the Memphis Sanitation Strike. The strike brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr to Memphis (instead of Charlotte, as originally planned) on April 4, 1968 — the fateful day of his assassination. MLK’s death in Memphis intensified the strike and eventually led to its end on April 16.
Today, people on the margins of mainstream institutional philanthropy are borrowing from the past to proclaim: I Am a Philanthropist. It is an assertion of our presence and power in shifting narratives, values, priorities, ways of giving and measures of impact.
In Atlanta, hosts of The Soul of Philanthropy (TSOP) exhibit created buttons in a style harkening back to the picket signs in Memphis. Exhibition hosts in Columbia, SC followed suit, and hosts in Cleveland plan to do the same, as these communities elevate stories that reframe philanthropy. The photo collage above features historic and contemporary images.
I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver. — Maya Angelou
April 4th is Maya Angelou’s birthday. Values espoused in her writing inspired me to join with Tracey Webb and Akira Barclay to write The Sweetness of Circles. Like me, Tracey and Akira are chroniclers and members of giving circles. Our collaborative piece was initially posted on Medium and then later picked up by The Charlotte Post and The Nonprofit Quarterly.
In October 2018, my giving circle New Generation of African American Philanthropists hosted “Making Change,” a reception and forum with ABFE President Susan Taylor Batten. The event drew 50 attendees, stirred powerful discussions and seeded ideas about our work ahead.
Ancestors and family are subjects I often write about. Like here and here. So I was excited when a reporter from The Charlotte Observer reached out last week for my input on a piece about Fonta Flora, the storied community of my paternal great-great grandparents.
“There once was a vale of peace and beauty in the NC foothills, the story goes, where crops grew tall and neighbors both black and white lived in harmony. Even its name sounded lush: Fonta Flora.”
The newspaper article includes an account from my family’s oral history that I shared. Below is an excerpt.
“Just the connection to the land and what’s under that lake is strong and really powerful for all of us,” (Valaida) said. “There’s also the sense of loss, in my mind. After the Civil War, for families that had been enslaved people, even though we didn’t have grand plantations like in other parts of the South, people still struggled to make lives for themselves in a new place, and work for decades. And then to be uprooted.”
The full Observer article by Bruce Henderson is found here, and it features a beloved family portrait from around 1903.