‘Of Dreams and Mountaintops’ Interview with Men Tchaas Ari

BPM LOGO (FINAL)BPM 2013 | Of Dreams and Mountaintops

In observance of Black Philanthropy Month, interviews in this series feature African Americans engaged in multiple facets of philanthropy and focus on interests and concerns, 50 years after Dr. King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.

Chief Program Officer, Crisis Assistance Ministry

Men Tchaas Ari | Photography by Charles W. Thomas, Jr.

Men Tchaas Ari | Photography by Charles W. Thomas, Jr.

HOMETOWN: Bloomfield, Ct


EDUCATION: BA, Morehouse College

PREVIOUS POSITIONS: Various at Mecklenburg County DSS

PHILANTHROPIC INVOLVEMENT: Currently a Mentor for the Y Achievers Program.

BLACK PHILANTHROPY IS . . . The key to eradicating poverty and all of the other ills plaguing the African American community.


What is your first memory of generosity?

When I was a small child, I can remember accompanying my mother, once a week to visit Ms. Shepard.  Ms. Shepard was an elderly blind woman, who had no family in the area.  My mom made it a priority to look after her and to get her out of the house.  During these weekly visits we’d often venture to the local grocery store.  As I grew older, and got used to accompanying my mom on these visits, it became my responsibility to navigate Ms. Shepard through the aisles of the grocery store.

How does that memory influence your philanthropy and your work in the field of philanthropy?

It instilled in me the commitment to help those less fortunate than me.  It also taught me to value the gift of time.  When people think of philanthropy, they often think of making a financial contribution.  Observing my mother’s gift of time to Ms. Shepard, long ago, reminds me of how precious the gift of time really is.

What can you share about the history, mission and services of Crisis Assistance Ministry? 

Crisis Assistance Ministry was created in 1975 as a place of financial recovery for families in urgent financial crisis.  Its mission is to provide assistance and advocacy for people in financial crisis, helping them move toward self-sufficiency.

Tell us about your work and responsibilities at Crisis Assistance Ministry.

As the Chief Program Officer, I am responsible for developing, planning and directing the operations of all client programs.  It is my responsibility to ensure that the provision of services is done in a manner that is dignified and in accordance with our goal of helping customers reach financial stability.

Why and how did you become involved in this field of work?

Sixteen years ago I started working at DSS as a bilingual Case Manager.  It was through that role that I learned the importance of having a safety net in the community.  I also learned first hand how systems could help or hinder someone getting back on their feet.  Some sixteen years later I am still committed to building systems that will help people become self-sufficient.

What are some of the issues and challenges that Crisis Assistance Ministry is focused on addressing in 2013? Are there trends or patterns that you’ve observed of late?

The customers that we serve were the first to feel the effects of the Great Recession and they will probably be the last to feel the recovery.  It doesn’t help that our state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and has just made significant cuts to unemployment benefits. Two years ago Crisis Assistance Ministry underwent a strategic planning process to ensure that its services focused on helping people reach financial stability.  A direct result of that planning has caused us to focus on building strategic partnerships with other organizations working to  help customers become stable.  Through these partnerships we are able to expand our reach into the community and help more persons become financially stable.

What are some of your thoughts on where America stands 50 years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? 

It seems that the racial barriers that divided  our country 50 years ago have been replaced with socio-economic/class barriers.

When it comes to society or our community, what is your “dream” or aspiration? 

According to a 2012 Nielsen study, African American’s annual buying power will reach one trillion dollars in 2015.  My dream is for that money to circulate in the African American community a few times.  This would stimulate the economy in our community and improve its infrastructure.  My ultimate goal would be for African Americans to collectively invest a mere 1 percent of that (i.e. $10B) annually.  From this collective pool we would be able to address many of the ills in our community and, ultimately, the ills of the world at large.

In terms of your philanthropic endeavors, what’s your “mountaintop” or highest achievement to date?

I would have to say that it is giving of my time to teens in the Y Achievers mentoring program.  This program focuses on curtailing the drop out rate at three local high schools.  This year, all of the high school seniors that participated in the program graduated from high school.

Name a book that has shaped your philanthropy?

Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, by Colin Grant (2010)

How can readers play a part in addressing the critical needs of people struggling with limited resources? 

I encourage them to find a cause that is dear to them and make a contribution of their time, talent and treasure.  I would also encourage them to find opportunities to formally and/or informally mentor someone less fortunate than them.  Studies have shown that the key to getting out of poverty, is to have significant interactions with someone who is not living in poverty.

Please leave us with a favorite quote that characterizes an aspect of your philanthropy. 

Charity is no substitute for justice withheld. — St. Augustine


BPM SPACE 1Nearly a dozen interviews compose the series “Of Dreams and Mountaintops” and are slated for multiple media outlets including: Charlotte Viewpoint, Collective Influence, Mosaic Magazine, QCityMetro.com, The Charlotte Post (print version) and thecharlottepost.com. To get connected and involved in BPM 2013 during August and beyond, visit BlackPhilanthropyMonth.com and follow the hashtag #BPM2013 on social media. 

About Valaida Fullwood

Described an “idea whisperer,” Valaida brings unbridled imagination and a gift for harnessing wild ideas to her work as a writer and project strategist. She is author of Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists. Follow at valaida.com, @ValaidaF and @BlkGivesBackCLT.

On The Horizon: An August of Dreams and Mountaintops

Black Philanthropy Month 2013 begins this week, and it’s “An August of Dreams and Mountaintops.” Below is content from the media release about BPM 2013.

BPM LOGO (FINAL)Remembering 50 years of historic achievements with calls for greater African-descent giving and community-led change

The month of August has become a momentous time in the global history of the Black giving movement. Entering its third year of observance, Black Philanthropy Month 2013 (BPM 2013) is an unprecedented coordinated initiative to strengthen African-American and African-descent giving in all its forms. High-impact events, media stories, service projects and giving opportunities compose the campaign, which kicks off in August 2013 and continues through February 2014.

BPM SPACE 2“Black Philanthropy Month gives our diverse communities an opportunity to celebrate and renew their rich, shared traditions of giving, self-help and innovation throughout the US and the world,” says Dr. Jackie Copeland-Carson, Executive Director, African Women’s Development Fund USA (AWDF USA).

Coinciding with commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Dr. King’s unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech, BPM 2013 provides both time for reflection on the state of the “dream” a half-century later and calls for action to address the most pressing challenges of the 21st century. With a base of activities in place, the primary goals of the campaign are to inspire people to improve their communities locally and globally, give back in smarter and more strategic ways and transform people’s lives for the better. Self-organized events, community conversations and charitable fundraising in recognition of BPM 2013 are encouraged.

Events across the country start in August 2013. Special gatherings taking place in cities nationwide include: a summit on Black philanthropy on Martha’s Vineyard; a Northern California benefit in support of improving maternal health in Africa; and a moderated panel discussion in Charlotte commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington while examining the history and possibilities of African-American giving and civic engagement. A regularly updated calendar of events can be found at BlackPhilanthropyMonth.com.

According to Tracey Webb, founder of BlackGivesBack.com, BPM 2013’s media hub, “Combining the power of print, broadcast and digital media will strengthen Black philanthropy’s voice and increase its impact for new times.”

BPM also aims to expand the ways that people give. Fund-raising efforts and community drives to be mounted and publicized in August and beyond include Black Gives Back to SchoolTM (school supplies and clothes); Community Investment Network 2013 National Conference (giving circles and collective giving); and AWDF USA’s Mother Africa Campaign (maternal health).

“We expect to see more people giving in strategic, new ways as well as groups investing in Black philanthropic know-how and leadership, across generations,” says Valaida Fullwood of the Giving Back Project.

“Empowering communities to be the change they wish to see will help shape the philanthropic landscape of the 21st century,” says Chad Jones, Executive Director, Community Investment Network.

Beginning this August, help us renew the commitment of time, voice or money to be a part of Black Philanthropy’s future. Join the campaign to create a diverse global community that Dr. King spoke of, thousands marched for and you can participate in.


African Women’s Development Fund USA (AWDF USA) provides a vehicle for effective American philanthropy to Africa and builds the capacity of the continent’s women for social change and sustainable development.  Through its research, public information and convening initiatives, it also seeks to highlight the tremendous impact that African women-led philanthropy and nonprofits are having on the lives of their families and communities across the continent and Diaspora.

BlackGivesBack.com (BGB) informs as the premier website on Black philanthropy since 2007, reaching readers in the U.S. and abroad and attracting major media attention. BGB uses original, in-depth and engaging philanthropy-themed story angles, vibrant imagery, features including “The Insider” that profiles African American donors and nonprofit and foundation executives, event coverage, celebrity philanthropy and more.

Community Investment Network (CIN), formed in 2003, invests in cultivating donors of color and giving circles and has emerged a leading national resource that bridges institutional philanthropy and diverse, everyday givers. From developing a new cadre of philanthropic leaders to facilitating learning-centered approaches, CIN empowers its members to give their time, talent, treasure and testimonials to be the change they wish to see.

The Giving Back Project (GBP) inspires by reframing portraits of philanthropy with stories, photography and community conversations. GBP emerged from the work of New Generation of African American Philanthropists (NGAAP-Charlotte) and led to the publication of Giving Back, the award-winning book by Valaida Fullwood that profiles African American giving. GBP ventures to ignite a movement of conscientious philanthropy by empowering a generation to recognize its power and responsibility to give back.

License…Poetic, Philanthropic and Otherwise


Gave away my soul.
Giving back to get it back.
Given what I know.

Ava Wood

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.license 

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.

— VF

Generations of Generosity

giving back giveaway winner_Neosha

People talk a lot about “finding your purpose.” I generally don’t think about life or my pursuits in exactly those terms. Yet, when I see or hear from people whom I’ve never met, living in distant places clutching or glowing about Giving Back, I think I might have found mine.

Above is a photo of Neosha who won Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists as a giveaway during the recent Friends of Ebonie event, “Defining Young Black Philanthropy,” in Washington, DC.

The panel discussion and networking event, organized by Ebonie Cooper Johnson, was featured in The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. HuffPo asked, Will Black Millennials be the next wave of philanthropists? noting that “the days of old, rich men dominating the philanthropy space are long gone.”

I’m thrilled that attention is heightening and the frame is indeed widening around philanthropy and Black donors, across every generation—Millennial, Gen Y, Gen-X, Boomer and Greatest.


Luxuriant Soil

“Whereas our ancestors (not of choice) were the first successful cultivators of the wilds of America, we their descendants feel ourselves entitled to participate in the blessings of her luxuriant soil.” — Richard Allen

Richard AllenAs a descendent of Africans on America’s “luxuriant soil,” I relish celebrating and honoring my ancestors—their struggles, courage, achievements and imprint on our country’s history. In celebration of Black History Month, each day in February I’ll post a short story or other info about history makers, pathfinders and do-gooders in the realm of African American philanthropy.

Today, we honor Richard Allen (1760–1831), a minister, educator and writer, and the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Allen also was co-founder in 1787 of the Free African Society, which represents an early form of collective giving. His selfless deeds during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 well as his formidable role in founding of the Black church, place him among the early framers of American philanthropy (as I talked about here).

— VF (#BHM Day One)

Reclaiming The Root Meaning of Philanthropy

  Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’ — Angela Davis

Let’s engage in the radical work of reclaiming the root meaning of philanthropy: love of humanity. Philanthropy, a curious word to many, evokes a range of images, beliefs and emotions. To contemplate its semantics and evolution and then to initiate anew our collective philanthropic practice could prove a seminal undertaking for black America.

This moment hangs ripe. The “season of giving” is near and clears the way to a new year of possibilities. The election of President Barack H. Obama has substantiated, again, the might of black unity. And yet, between the hopes and history making and the thanks and gifts giving are uncharitable acts and vitriol that signal a shift back in time, not forward. Indignities, inequities and injustices do not simply dissipate; instead, we must come together in systematically uprooting them.

With community needs great and the need for unity greater, the times beckon a new era of conscientious philanthropy rooted in a love for community and expectations of social change. Let this generation, both young and old, embody a social transformation with bold recognition of our power and responsibility to give back.

Philanthropy is a gateway to power. It is a chief means to acquiring, sustaining and strengthening our status—economically, politically, socially and spiritually. Our ancestors knew this. They originated and supported systems for giving and assisted members of the community, whether neighbor, stranger or kin. Remarkably, a fundamental source of our progress at times seems forgotten.

Remembering our long and prolific history of philanthropy is crucial. Historical accounts of black largesse and examples of culturally significant vehicles of giving abound. Look up the Free African Society, an 18th century mutual aid organization established by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. Study the social justice philanthropy of the legendary Madam CJ Walker. Before the Civil War, up through the Civil Rights struggle and after, our forebears charted paths and lay blueprints for progress. While the impulse to “give back” lives on in the community and opportunities exist to bring new twists to old traditions, this work must be encouraged and nurtured.

In the starkest of ironies, black Americans give the highest percentage of discretionary income to charitable causes when compared to other racial groups in America; and yet our philanthropy is discounted and overlooked by mainstream society. Indeed, within the black community, our traditions of giving are seldom acknowledged or celebrated, or even described as philanthropy. Absurd as it is, this cultural disconnect persists for many reasons and shortchanges us all.

Ideas and images of present-day philanthropy frequently fail to resonate and, worse yet, serve to alienate black Americans. Particularly unsettling is the stunning absence of black people in representations of philanthropists—a few select luminaries notwithstanding. A point of view endures that renders black donors and benefactors, in effect, invisible. The familiar picture of philanthropy is narrowly framed and thus gives a false impression that the only giving that matters is beyond the average person’s means.

On the demand side of philanthropy—as beneficiaries and “the needy”—is a common context for depictions of black children, families and communities. While but one facet of philanthropy, imagery around whites as the benefactors and blacks as those in need has devolved into a stubborn stereotype and produced a picture that distorts and is incomplete.

A richer picture exists. Widening the lens to include our customs and stories of giving yields a different view. Vibrant philanthropy is occurring in black communities, whether labeled as such or not. Even so, great promise rests in sharpening our focus to affect social change. Collectively, black America possesses the assets—heart, head, heritage and dollars—to eradicate a host of social ills. With our legacy of generosity, our shared stake in change and our capacity to leverage centuries-long gains in wealth, education and access, how could we not?

Exercising this power first requires a shift in thinking and wider recognition of the power of black philanthropy. Strategic alliances among black donors, across black communities and with institutional partners also are vital.

Significant in seizing the moment and sustaining the effort is love. Love of family. Love of culture. Love for thy neighbor as thyself. In its truest sense, philanthropy is rooted in love. Advancing social change with that spirit opens opportunities for everyone to participate and fixes the focus on liberating people not elevating oneself.

Putting our money where our heart lies. That is the charge. Begin doing your part today by deepening your knowledge of philanthropy, by examining your motivations for giving and by joining with others to grasp at the root causes of our collective concerns—for love.


Rebuilding Our Communities, Inside Out

“The messages in your book and the work of the Community Investment Network are critical today. Local African American donors and others are replicating the early investments that our ancestors made in building the United States. 21st century technological innovations and the resulting economic shifts obligate us to rebuild our communities from the inside out. We must all invest in places where we live, work and worship—the places that we love.

“Thank you for reminding each of us that strong democratic communities require all to give time, talent and money. Our families, institutions and communities are depending on us.”

— Linetta J. Gilbert, co-leader of The Declaration Initiative and longstanding CIN supporter, in response to my recent interview on The Tavis Smiley Show about Black philanthropy and Giving Back.

Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

Keen Line of Sight on Philanthropy

Photograph from "Giving Back" | Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

Everyday givers from African American communities have an acute line of vision and insightful stories to tell; yet these perspectives are often absent from dialogue and decisions in philanthropy.

Narratives about community and mutuality are woven into Black culture and influence how many people see the world, choose to give and define success.

Through storytelling and photography, Giving Back reveals motivations, reflects proud traditions and relays a wisdom about giving and generosity that has newfound relevance today.

Giving Back gives glimpses of the change we wish to see in the world and provides a springboard for deeper conversations on inclusive and responsive philanthropy. — VF