Gave away my soul.
Giving back to get it back.
Given what I know.
Today is the last day of National Poetry Month and year-round I love sharing bits of poetry that were inked for Giving Back, hence the haiku above. After considerable consternation, I granted myself license while writing Giving Back to begin exploring and eventually exhibiting my poetic sensibilities. The experience has been liberating and, at times, disorienting. Stepping out of your comfort zone and eschewing safety nets can be just as scary as it sounds. Nevertheless, I have chosen the high-wire act of expressing myself more freely as a writer, as a poet, as a public speaker and in various facets of my life. Some might call these acts, self-determination.
I have learned that setting inflexible frames about how things are “supposed to be” based on others’ rules and measures is limiting. As is clutching too tight to the unessential. These and a string of other epiphanies are revealed in my recent TEDx Talk, A Picture Reframed.
One week ago, a story on Ebony.com—the online version of EBONY Magazine—re-stirred my thinking about the concept of self-determination and the word license.
‘Young Black Philanthropist’ Is Not an Oxymoron is a piece written by Ebonie Johnson Cooper, a thought leader on African American millennial giving and civic engagement. In her Ebony.com story, Ebonie recounts an unexpected conversation that left her troubled, momentarily. It was one in which a woman questioned broad application of the word philanthropist and chastised use of the term for givers deemed of average or modest means. Philanthropy as exclusive domain for the wealthy is, alas, a still widely held belief.
Etymologically, philanthropy is about love. Ironically, most folks believe it’s only about money. The word is derived from philos, Greek for “loving” in the sense of benefiting, caring for, nourishing. So rather than bastardizing a word, as suggested by Ebonie’s inquisitor, we are in fact reclaiming the word and returning it to its root meaning—love. Philanthropy literally means “love of humanity,” as in caring about what it is to be human.
As Ebonie found out, work in the field of philanthropy often brings one in proximity to a preponderance of people who exhibit a pronounced preoccupation with all things pecuniary and of position, power and privilege. Peculiar perhaps, but in the realm of endowments and grantmaking there are those who behave as if endowed with super-human power and thus proceed passionately as grantors of status, licensors of labels, keepers of community gates and authorizers of civic value.
Convoluted social constructs and hierarchies, in the name of philanthropy, do not warrant investment. For me, philanthropy encompasses simpler kinds of kindness, generic acts of generosity and humility amidst concern for humanity—all the while being no less thoughtful, strategic or transformative. Love is plain, yet potent that way.
Ebonie and I and others are part of a new generation of philanthropists that spans generations, race, class, position, income and wealth. It includes members of Community Investment Network who are giving, collectively, through giving circles. It includes Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, author of Giving 2.0, a book that makes a case about the future of philanthropy and how “individuals of every age and income level can harness the power of technology, collaboration, innovation, advocacy, and social entrepreneurship to take their giving to the next level and beyond.” It includes Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) which is “building democratic philanthropy.” And it can include you.
Ebonie made the case this way in her story:
“The more mirrors we see of ourselves as grassroots organizers, board members, and financial donors, the more we will be able to accept our place as modern-day philanthropists who look into our own communities and define for ourselves who we are and what needs to be done. If we don’t, someone else certainly will.”
True. Case in point, absent from tables in U.S. philanthropy are a representative share of African Americans, because we co-sign and are thus co-opted by a corrupted translation of philanthropist. As a community, African Americans have yet to tap our fullest power by determining ourselves assets within our communities, vital players in ending inequities and, yes, philanthropists. While we are free to claim ourselves philanthropists, ultimately the label is unimportant. It is care-full work, sustained generosity and a love of people that characterize a philanthropist.
Haiku introduces this piece and the poet shares what she’s come to know, the hard way. I am hopeful that we all will soon come to know the power of loving, understanding and respecting what it means to be human. At its essence, philanthropy requires no license, labels or limits.