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Ignite the Comfortable

I have really struggled to put into writing the emotions I have felt over the last three months. From the anticipation of opening a new performing arts center to helping address locally how we responded to a world-wide pandemic, to, now, another act of racism.

When the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro was founded 37 years ago, the founders’ vision was to create an organization for the community to rely on in times of need. An organization for individuals to be able to give back to their community, and an organization for leaders to be collaborative around critical community issues. Never has that vision been more relevant than in today’s times.

I have learned in my 26 years of working professionally in philanthropy, that the hardest thing to do in a community is to “ignite the comfortable.” Let me explain.

In 2001, after 9/11, everyone said we are living in “unprecedented times.” We had just been attacked by terrorists, and it made us all uncomfortable. It was easy to ignite a response because it was about someone else. It was not about “us”, and we were going to go after “them” to hold “them” accountable for their actions. Now, almost 20 years later, we are once again saying, we are living in “unprecedented times”. But this time it is not about “them”. Sadly, it is about “us”.

Never has it been more important for “us” to work together, to combine our resources for others, establish partnerships to effectively help our neighbors, and leverage those connections such that we can navigate this storm in our own personal and unique ways. And communities across the country and in Greensboro have been doing this. Locally, we have raised millions of dollars for nonprofits providing direct services to those in need. Companies have shifted their manufacturing capabilities to provide critically needed PPE, and countless small business owners have found assistance with loans and grants.

It is quite inspiring.

Personally, I have been optimistic and hopeful that this new sense of togetherness, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit would help forge a new path for us as individuals and as a community. It would ignite a path to re-design outdated systems and old institutions in a way that was inclusive and equitable. These 20th century systems and institutions suddenly had the opportunity to adapt, evolve, and transform into new digital systems and modern institutions for a 21st century world. And, along with it, new attitudes and perspectives on each other and our world.

Then, a black man – yes, another black man, George Floyd – is senselessly murdered by a police officer, and we are thrust back into, once again, conversations about the huge injustices present in our outdated systems and old institutions. Many of us (mostly white people) have the privilege of not having to live with these injustices every day. As upset as we are about this incident, and as unfair and wrong as we know it is, many of us will have the privilege of going back to our comfortable and safe lives after all the noise quiets down.

Philanthropy has been at the heart of major advancements in society for generations and will continue to play an important role long into the future, but only if we can ignite the comfortable to use the power, privilege and resources we are afforded to create meaningful, deep and transformative change that combats racism as its own deadly disease.

Sometimes a system must come to a breaking point to be ready for change. In that moment, something tips. There is a broader understanding that the pain of maintaining the status quo exceeds the pain of change. I am hopeful that moment is now.

What can your Community Foundation do? We will continue to use a racial equity lens in all our work. We will continue to expand our Expanding Community Giving Initiative. We will continue our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work with an even greater commitment. We know the issues, but we have not solved them. We do not know the answers, but, with humility, courage, and commitment, we can cultivate and grow the relationships that will. Join with us in this work so the conversation doesn’t simply quiet down. We know it is not going away.

Walker Sanders
President, Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro
June 2, 2020

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