You’d be hard pressed to find two American cities any more geographically and demographically disparate than Portland, Oregon and Atlanta, Georgia. And yet, one thing they have in common is their commitment to to host the comprehensive, multimedia version of The Soul of Philanthropy. Following the IMLS grant-funded exhibit tour, managed by Johnson C. Smith University during 2015 and 2016, these cities are the first in the country to mount exhibitions and lead civic engagement aimed at reframing philanthropy for greater inclusiveness and lasting impact.
Vibrant big cities, both Portland and Atlanta benefit from prominent philanthropic families, businesses and foundations. Perhaps then it’s unsurprising that groups in each city would be intrigued by The Soul of Philanthropy, which invites people to see philanthropy differently. That is, come to know that philanthropy is deeper than your pockets.
The Portland exhibition, presented by MRG Foundation at Concordia University, opened at the start of this year and ended late March. The Atlanta exhibition, presented by Hammonds House Museum, is sponsored by the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and several other groups and individual donors. The exhibition will open at Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History in November 2017. Above is a photo from an early program in Atlanta; below is a photo collage from the Portland exhibition.
Since the inception of the Giving Back Project in 2007, I, along with Charles Thomas, aimed to create a body of work that would transcend race and place. Charlotte, North Carolina has been the epicenter of the project because that’s where our giving circle is based and where we each live and have formed relationships over the majority of our lives. Even so, we aspired to craft stories and release photography, so soulful and true, they’d resonate broadly and tap deeply at the core of people any and everywhere. I used to say, “I want people in Phoenix to see themselves and people they know in these stories and images.”
Ten years into this project and six years after the first printing of Giving Back, seeing sustained interest in the book nationwide and overseas, too, has been gratifying. Proving relevant and timeless, the book continues to sell steadily and, having again sold out, is presently being printed for the fourth time; over 200 books are now on backorder. It’s truly the book that keeps giving!
When the exhibit was announced in 2014 and opened at Johnson C. Smith University, it also began attracting attention and inquiries from coast to coast, including at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Leaders in Portland and Atlanta were among the first to express interest in the exhibit.
Three thousand miles stretch between Portland and Atlanta. The distance between their histories and demographics is wide as well, yet hosting The Soul of Philanthropy bridges these communities. It has provided space for uncommon collaborations, honest conversations and new insights, offering lasting benefit to both places.
Situated in the Pacific Northwest, Portland boasts a hipster reputation as a progressive, socially conscious city, which belies its racist history. Oregon enacted a shameful ban of Black people during periods of the 19th and 20th centuries. Generations later, Portland consequently stands labeled “the Whitest City in America,” because 78 percent of its population identifies racially as White. At seven percent, Black residents comprise a small fraction of the community.
Conversely, Atlanta is a cultural and commercial center of the Atlantic Southeast. A majority of its residents are African American, earning it the reputation of a “Black mecca”. While Oregon forbade Blacks from moving to the state until the 1920s, clear across the country, Georgia depended on the enslavement and exploitation of Black people well into the 20th century. At opposite corners of the U.S., both cities have legacies that can, at times, thwart or even pervert philanthropic efforts today.
The Soul of Philanthropy is a vehicle for communities to explore and celebrate multiple giving traditions, to learn about an array of philanthropic tools and strategies, and to break through barriers to inclusiveness. Even with vast differences in history and population, philanthropic leaders in Portland and in Atlanta have found value in engaging in vital community building through the exhibit. Whether Black, White, Latino, American Indian, Asian American, Middle Easterner, Pacific Islander, or any cultural roots, the stories, photography and themes of The Soul of Philanthropy hold relevance. After a decade, Charles and I have seen firsthand the ways our work persists and sustains significance and resonance in a complicated field and often misunderstood topic.
First Portland and soon Atlanta are reframing portraits of philanthropy and coming to see philanthropy differently. If America’s “Whitest city” and “Black mecca” have found value in this crucial work, there is ample room for cities in between to do the same.