The following is a conversation between Tonyel Edwards, Partner at The Bridgespan Group and Aria Florant, co-founder and CEO of Liberation Ventures, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Today in the United States, if the wealth of White households remains stagnant, it would take Black families 228 years to catch up. That’s more than 10 generations. The philanthropic community is poised and duty-bound to champion reparations for Black individuals and cultivate a reparative culture as essential steps toward healing and restoration.
This topic was recently examined in a thoughtful paper titled “Philanthropy’s Role in Reparations and Building a Culture of Racial Repair.” And here to discuss it with us are two of its authors, Tonyel Edwards, a partner in the San Francisco office of The Bridgespan Group, and Aria Florant, co-founder and CEO of Liberation Ventures. Welcome to The Business of Giving, Tonyel and Aria.
Tonyel: Thank you, Denver. Thanks for having us.
Aria: Thank you for having us.
Denver: Let me begin with you, Aria. Tell us about Liberation Ventures and its focus on reparations to tackle racial injustice at its root.
Aria: Yeah. Our North Star at Liberation Ventures is to see federal comprehensive reparations for Black Americans. And our role in the work is really to support all of the amazing organizations across the country that are doing work to build momentum toward that North Star.
So, we exist as an entity that just tries to make the movement thrive, and we do grantmaking; we do narrative change, and we do capacity-building. And I think something that’s really important to know about how we think about this work is that we have a really expansive definition of how we view what reparations really mean.
Most people, when they think of reparations, they think, “Oh, that’s cash for Black people.” And we do believe that there is a really important financial component to reparations, but also that it is non-financial.
And often when we talk about the work, we think about it as: policy change is that North Star, but we know that actually to get there, in order to be successful and for any policy that we win to actually be durable, we know that we have to be changing culture along the way. So, often we also talk about our work as really trying to build a culture of repair in this country.
So, I think with that, what I would say is that reparations is not just an economic project, but it’s a political and a cultural project. And it’s really actually kind of part and parcel. It’s like one of the things we have to do along the way to get into a true, just, healthy, multi-racial democracy.
“So, Bridgespan’s mission is to work to build a better world, which we see as societies characterized by equity and justice. And it’s our goal to ultimately get capital to flow to leaders and organizations that are leading this work. It’s our belief, too, that the work of racial repair is necessary as a part of advancing that mission.”
Denver: Cool. You know, when you were talking about your organization, I thought of an old commercial, which was BASF, which was a German chemical company. And I remember the commercial really well. It’s late ‘80s, early ‘90s. And it says, “We don’t make the carpets. We make the carpet stronger.” And it sounds like for what you’re doing for the movement, you’re making the movement stronger in all the support you provide to the ecosystem.
Tonyel, can you shed some light on how this collaboration began and the journey that Bridgespan has been on?
Tonyel: Absolutely. So, I’ll just start with Bridgespan’s mission and then talk a little more about how we had the opportunity to partner with Liberation Ventures. So, Bridgespan’s mission is to work to build a better world, which we see as societies characterized by equity and justice.
And it’s our goal to ultimately get capital to flow to leaders and organizations that are leading this work. It’s our belief, too, that the work of racial repair is necessary as a part of advancing that mission. That can be seen in previous articles that we’ve done, the way that we engage with our clients, and the way that we are really committed to ensuring that the work that we’re doing is truly contributing to that mission.
This article specifically focused on motivating philanthropy to engage in building that culture of repair and investing in the reparations ecosystem in the way that Aria was speaking to, and I’ll just share the way that we met Aria. I have been a partner at Bridgespan for about a year and a half now, right out of philanthropy.
So, I’d been in philanthropy before that. Before that… nonprofits and finance, other things. And when I was exiting philanthropy, oftentimes we talk about systems change and doing systems change work. And we’d haven’t quite solved the problem yet; we’re still working on most of the gaps and all of those things.
And so, when I entered my work at Bridgespan, I was like, “You know what? I want to be sure that we’re working on what is the root. Where are the actual root problems? And as I think about my lived experience as a Black woman, as a Black woman in the South specifically, who my ancestors were directly and how they were on plantations… like I can directly trace that.
We never really talk about the need to address the structural racism, structural inequities that exist in our country. And one of the first meetings I had at Bridgespan was with Aria.
And I learned about the incredible work that Liberation Ventures was doing as it relates to strategy and actually thinking about racial repair in a concrete, strategic way, really kind of touching all of the different parts of the movement. The movement is vast. Lots of folks have been working to achieve reparations for decades upon decades upon decades.
And so, it was just an absolute honor to learn more about the work that they were doing and just figure out, “Okay, what does it look like for us to try to achieve this work together?” And so, had a chance to connect with Aria, and from there, had lots of different interviews with movement partners, movement leaders, folks who were scholars in this work, people who are donors and funders in this work.
And really wanted to just share, shed light on the reality that a strategy is already underway. The work is moving forward. It’s exciting work. It’s just under-resourced right now.
Denver: Yeah. Kind of crazy, Tonyel, that the first meetings you have in a place are almost always the best meetings you’ve ever had.
It’s been my whole life. Let me stick with you, Tonyel. I mean, how is the concept of reparations typically framed, and what challenges does that pose for a deeper understanding and for meaningful conversation around it?
Tonyel: Yeah. So, Aria alluded to this in her introduction, in the way that Liberations defines reparations. And I will say that was another piece that I was like, “Oh, it makes so much sense!” Typically, when we think about reparations, we think about a paycheck. It’s like… it’s just a paycheck.
And oftentimes, it’s characterized with these large sums that are like folks get sticker shock. I think in the article, Daniel Anello had a quote and he was like: You get sticker shock, and you don’t want to get paralyzed. And so, we think: Well, there’s nothing we can do because this number is so big.
So, how do we just all go hide and go work on something else? And what I appreciate so much about the way that both Liberation Ventures and all of its partners that it works with thinks about this work is: it’s both, you know, Big R
So, certainly, federal policy, a comprehensive federal program is critical that really addressed the legacy of slavery and the centuries of race-based policies thereafter. But it’s also about building that culture of repair, focusing on reckoning, acknowledgement, accountability, redress.
So, those are the pieces that we are hoping to lean into and really share because at the end of the day, the reality is, regardless of what paycheck is put out there, if we still have the same policies and practices, nothing will be sustained, and we really won’t be able to move forward as a nation.
And so, that’s the hope, that we’re pulling the conversation away from the paycheck into the more comprehensive, durable approach that really benefits us all.
Denver: That’s great. Aria, what ramifications does this vast wealth disparity have? And why does this disparity remain so entrenched?
Aria: Thank you for that question. So, when we actually started this work, one of our orienting questions was: How do we get to the deepest part of the root of the problems of structural racial injustice?
And our hypothesis and what we know from so much incredible work by academics and researchers, et cetera, is that actually, wealth disparity ends up impacting Black people and all people in so many ways, like downstream. So, wealth ends up impacting your access to education, your ability to get great healthcare, your ability to get a great job, et cetera.
And so, that was actually one of the big reasons why we started thinking about reparations as: What will enable us to intervene at the deepest part of the root? And we would consider that, not only wealth disparities, but also anti-Black narratives because it’s those narratives that actually then help keep the wealth disparity in place.
I’ll also say a statistic that was in a report that McKinsey published a couple years ago about the state of the economy of Black communities. And they studied the disparity in wealth flow between White and Black families and essentially looked at the drivers of that disparity.
And what they found was three drivers. One driver, which was approximately 20%, was essentially savings potential based on earned income. Another driver, which was also approximately 20%, was the return on investments and cost of debt. And then the last driver was 60% of the problem, and that is intergenerational wealth transfer.
And so, we know that that wealth has been transferred for centuries since the time that Black people were wealth, much less were able to actually build wealth and then pass it on to their families.
And, I remember thinking: I used to be a consultant and I used to support institutions that were running out of money, and I would go in, and I would look at the drivers of why they were running out of money.
And if I saw what we see with the 60% driver being that one thing, and I said, “Okay, 60% of your problem is X, but we’re not even going to try to touch it; we’re not even going to try to work on it,”… people would laugh me out of the room. That would be an absurd strategy in trying to actually solve the problem.
And I think that’s another thing that Tonyel and I just really vibe on is we need to be thinking about solutions that are at the scale of the problem if we actually want to solve the problem.
Denver: We don’t do that in philanthropy. You know, I think the average grant is $35,000 to deal with the most intractable, vexing problems ever. And we’re throwing nickels and dimes. Well, Aria, let’s talk about a case study. And Bruce’s Beach would offer, I think, a real tangible example, and I’m going to ask you to also explain it, but put it into the broader context of what’s going on.
Aria: Yeah. So, Bruce’s Beach was an instance where basically, in L.A., there was a piece of land that basically was seized from Willa and Charles Bruce, I think as a part of policy related to eminent domain. And there were some amazing organizers, led by Kavon Ward in California, who really pushed to have that land returned to the Bruces.
And they worked on this for a long time; they were not compensated actually when they were working on it. And, that was successful just a couple of years ago. So, I think that’s a really important case study, an example of what this can look like. And there are other examples across the country. You know, Evanston, Illinois is a city that passed reparations policy a couple of years ago.
And I think, what’s really important, and I think was one of LV’s biggest roles in the work is really trying to make sure that we’re connecting the dots between these different case studies that are happening more so on the local level across the country, and demonstrate how they are building momentum together towards this larger movement.
And that is absolutely the case now in California, actually. There was a reparations task force that stood up about two years ago that just presented its recommendations. And now, there are a number of community-based organizations working on picking up those recommendations, turning them into legislation, and running the campaigns to get the policy passed.
And so, I think, this also does a good job of sort of exemplifying how we think about all of the different domains where it’s relevant to build a culture of repair. It wasn’t just the federal government that harmed Black communities. It was state governments; it was local; it was institutions.
And that’s part of why we talk about the culture of repair piece so much because this isn’t just something that we have to put on other people in government; this is actually something we can do in our schools, in our institutions, in our workplaces, in our families, in our churches.
And I think that that’s just so important because what it really means is that this is a collective project. Black people can’t do this on their own. We also need allies. And that’s an important part of the relational piece of repair work as well.
Denver: Yeah, well, I love you’re connecting the dots of all these different cases because patterns are everything, and unless somebody’s able to do it, we will not identify those patterns.
Tonyel, let me go back to Bruce’s Beach. You know, that was pretty much done by a number of Black women. And, if I remember correctly, philanthropy was a little late to the game, you know, maybe got in there just before the final wire. How could have it been different if philanthropy had stepped up much sooner?
Tonyel: So, one of the things that I want to just name that we’re not saying in either of these pieces, we’re not saying that philanthropists should be paying reparations, and we’re not saying that a grant, in and of itself, is reparations at all, so just really wanting to name that. But we do think that there’s an opportunity.
Philanthropy has a track record for providing seed funding or providing sustaining funding, or to have solutions that catalyze movements and catalyze a potential impact, and you’re able to get the proof of concept. I know that was a big thing when I was in philanthropy, and you’re able to monitor and assess over time and just all of the resources to do work well.
And Kavon, in her… we had an opportunity to interview her and just hearing her story and her struggle. And we asked, “What was the role of philanthropy?” And Kavon’s response was, “Honestly, philanthropy was absent.” It wasn’t until the very end when philanthropy came in and provided some resources on the back end– which the team was incredibly appreciative of– but it was literally women who were going to their full-time jobs, coming home to volunteer.
And some of them lawyers, just been playing roles, but imagine what it could have looked like for there to be a well-oiled infrastructure that was built to do the work, to assess different cases and provide just a thorough team when we think about any of our roles. They also currently have a wait list the last time we had the conversation with her. It was at about 700 families with credible claims.
And so, think about scale and what that could potentially mean for folks being able to essentially get most municipalities and others and just getting right with how land is our own. It’s such an opportunity for progress for a nation. And so, I think about multiple examples of what it could have looked like for philanthropy to engage for sure.
Denver: You know, Tonyel, I want to return to something that Aria said a moment ago, and that has to do with this massive wealth transfer, this intergenerational transfer of wealth. What unique opportunities and responsibilities do philanthropists have in bridging the racial wealth gap and fostering racial reconciliation?
Tonyel: So, when we approached it in the piece, we had to have three different ways for philanthropy to engage that we’ve outlined at a really high level upfront.
So, the first is an organization doesn’t have to complete their institutional process and assess where they are and go through their whole reckoning, et cetera, before they can actually give resources. Philanthropy is required to give 5%. If you’re an institutional funder, you’re required to give 5% every year.
And so, there’s a way to just start resourcing the ecosystem. One of the things that we hope to do through the article and through the interviews was to provide a jumping off-point for folks who want it and just engage in the work quickly and start to provide some resources to organizations that are on the ground doing the work. And so, that’s one way, resourcing the ecosystem for sure.
There’s also an opportunity for philanthropy to model what it looks like to go through that cultural repair. And so, really stepping back and understanding their institution’s origins, et cetera, and being really thoughtful about what it looks like to acknowledge. And so, it’s just providing that early model of excellence.
The unspoken part that we seldom talk about is the role of the 95% and how we’re thinking about the corpus that’s being invested. There’s an opportunity to truly invest that corpus in values-aligned firms, et cetera, and really thinking about the impact of that potential work, and also resourcing the ecosystem with different tools that philanthropy has to engage. So, those are certainly three ways for philanthropy to engage in this work quickly.
Denver: Let me dig into one of those with you, Aria, if I can. And that is: live into a culture of racial repair in their own institution. And you’ve created a four-phase framework for that. Why don’t you walk us through it?
Aria: Thank you. Yeah. So, when we started this work in the very early days, we had this question of: What is repair? Repair itself is such an abstract concept. And so, in order to actually operationalize it, you have to kind of break it down into its component parts.
So, we did a ton of research about reparative processes around the country, across the globe. We learned from so many different communities that have done this before. And we learned from different disciplines that we think have learnings that are applicable to us. So, Psychology, a lot of the study of what a great apology means, even if you’re thinking about it from an interpersonal context, et cetera.
So, we did a ton of research, and we developed this framework. And so, the way we think about it is that repair is sort of four component parts. It’s reckoning, acknowledgement, accountability and redress. And it is those four things in a continual cycle.
And so, we often talk about it as muscle-building, like going to the gym. If you want to build strong muscles, you actually have to keep going to the gym. If you stop, your muscles will atrophy. It’s not as if you’ll stop and stay the same. You have to keep practicing. And so, that’s why we put it as a cycle because we feel like this actually is something that we have to keep doing as a society.
And the other thing that we think is so important about that framework is we’re still learning a lot about the framework. For example, we want to learn more from partners in the field about the order in which things often happen or should happen or, for example: What are the conditions that really enable that cycle to spin?
But what we really know at this point is that you need all four of those components for something to feel really reparative. And I think, too often institutions will do one or two of them, but not all four of them. And we wrote a report on our website… this was published back in February… that outlines these four components and the evidence behind them and what happens when you actually don’t do all four at the same time.
And so, we thought this frame was really important so that we could actually translate this work from just being about government and the public sector to being about what can all of us do. What can the private sector, what can the social sector institutions also do, in order to really engage their institutions in building a culture of repair?
Denver: I got a flat tire this summer, and I realize you cannot drive a car with three wheels.
Aria: You cannot. I’m going to use that. Ooh!
“…young people are going to save us, truly. So, young people have always been so important and critical to the success of social movements in this country; so let me just say that, that’s not a surprise. That has always been the case. And something that I always try to remember and put in perspective is that we’ve always seen backlash. And backlash, actually, it comes when we’re winning. We’re seeing the backlash because we’re winning.“
Denver: You do need all four. And if I went… I almost blew my rim on it as a matter of fact. So, in terms of great apologies, wasn’t Bruce’s Beach… it took about two years before any kind of apology was forthcoming from that? So, it’s great, the apologies… sometimes the timing of them could make a big difference as well.
Let me stick with you, Aria. I want to ask about youth because they really seem to be engaged in this reparations movement. Tell us a little bit about that and the energy and momentum that they’re providing.
Aria: Yes. Oh, my gosh. I mean, young people are going to save us, truly. So, young people have always been so important and critical to the success of social movements in this country; so let me just say that, that’s not a surprise. That has always been the case.
And, when we’re thinking about or applying that specifically to reparations, when you look at the general population, support for reparations hovers around in the low 30%, which I will say is actually higher than support for marriage equality was when that movement got started.
And so, support has doubled over the last couple decades. And so, the way we think about it, like, wow, that means what might be possible when this movement is resourced in over the next couple decades. But when you look at people, 18 to 29, that support goes up to 45%… 45% of 18 to 29-year-olds are supportive of reparations.
And, of course, we also have data that young people’s preferences change. But I think that that difference is actually pretty stark. And I think that young people are growing up in a world that is just, in many ways, burning. And I think they are seeing we can’t keep doing this.
We actually have to stop and reflect and say: What does it mean for us to repair the harm that we’ve caused in the past? And that’s not just as it relates to Black communities. I think that young people are thinking about that as it relates to climate, in particular, as it relates to broader democratic reforms.
People always ask about the backlash that is coming. And, we’re seeing backlash to this work in Florida and the book bans; we’re seeing it on this topic of critical race theory, et cetera. And something that I always try to remember and put in perspective is that we’ve always seen backlash. And backlash, actually, it comes when we’re winning.
We’re seeing the backlash because we’re winning. And, I think, what really signals to me that things are changing is that piece about young people. I think that for young people, what is appropriate culturally is just totally different than it was when I was 20 years old. And, so much of our work at LV, and I’m so excited to continue to invest in young people in this movement.
“And I really believe that this space, whenever we start talking about race, and we talk about history and systemic inequities, there’s truly an opportunity to invite everyone into the future.“
Denver: Yeah. if you are not gaining traction, they’ll just ignore you. It’s when you begin to start to make a difference all of a sudden, you know, you get those challenges, right?
Tonyel, tell us a little bit about some of those challenges that you have encountered because all advocacy movements have those challenges, and how that has informed your strategy and how you plan on moving forward.
Tonyel: Yeah. So, I like to think about it. So, the glass half- full part of me, which is the way that I typically operate, is I love to think about what we want to build. At the end of the day, we can talk about what we want to fix all day long, and philanthropy has tried strategies.
I remember being in my strategy sessions and developing our organizational strategic plan, you know, doing all those things. And I really believe that this space, whenever we start talking about race, and we talk about history and systemic inequities, there’s truly an opportunity to invite everyone into the future.
What do we want our future to look like? And what will it take for us to get there? As Aria mentioned, certainly, there has been backlash. There have been challenges. And one of my colleagues always says, “When you look around and you see that there’s backlash and this is happening, it means that we’re winning. We’re making progress as a world.”
And so, what does it look like for us to truly just, okay, we see that something is shifting. All movements have ups and downs, and there are moments where you’re able to really play offense. And then, sometimes, there’s times when you need to play defense. And so, that’s what I’ll name there.
I’ve been really grateful with how receptive the folks are that I’ve typically worked with. So, institutional donors, thinking about Houston or Texas, as an example, have been to the article and learning. Lots of folks were truly like, “I just didn’t know. And I didn’t want to say the word reparations because it was seen as toxic.”
And so, I think one of our strategies in this piece– to call it– that was to truly name reparations, like name the word. We did hear like, “You have to say that word? Can you say something else?” We should reclaim the word. It’s a beautiful word. Reparations, the root of it is repair. You know, we want to repair in order to heal.
And so, that was kind of the biggest hurdle that we had to jump over to really get this piece out. And, overall, I think everyone was really bought into: Okay, let’s do it, let’s say it, and be really clear when we say it… what it means.
Denver: Yeah. When you’re losing is when you change the word, not when you’re winning.
Tonyel: That’s right.
Denver: Just to follow up on that, Tonyel. I mean, what struck you from all the interviews you guys did? Did anything emerge from that, any themes that you hadn’t expected, because you guys did some exhaustive research? And I’d be curious as to what really maybe grabbed you during the course of that research… about something maybe that you had not thought about before.
Tonyel: You know, Denver, I cried at the end of almost every interview because it’s when we ask the question… we were talking to folks who were experienced and have been doing this work for decades. One scholar we were talking to is very pragmatic and just has a very specific approach to things, and he kind of shared his perspective, et cetera.
And then the last question of every interview was, “What’s on the other side of reparations? If we are successful, if the movement achieves the goals that it seeks to achieve, what will be on the other side?” And he paused and like truly teared up because I don’t think he thought about winning.
He didn’t think about what it looked like to truly get to the other side. And so, I think that really struck me, specifically with this particular scholar, who just has a very pragmatic, math-based approach… like everything is super deep.
I would say that’s the one that continues to stick out to me the most, just the vision of what it could look like for us, us being the US, to truly get to a place where we’re in right relationship with our history and our resources and all of those things.
Denver: That’s a great insight. Sometimes, when you’re in a battle, let’s say you’re so much in the present that you don’t even think about what’s around the corner, because you’re just living in the moment.
Aria, as the momentum builds for reparations, because we’re looking for that goal, that moment where we get beyond, what are some of the concrete milestones you’re looking to achieve over the course of the next several years?
Aria: Thank you for asking that question. We think about this work as happening in three phases, and we have a 20 to 25-year timeline for those phases. The first is really focusing on building a thriving and sustainable field. As Tonyel mentioned, this movement has been underfunded since prior to emancipation. And so, we want to be driving resources to it and really developing leaders in it so that the movement is solid.
The second phase is really about local and state pilots. There are already local and state efforts being implemented. And, I think, what we will need to do is continue to see more and more reparations policy passed at the local and state level.
But in addition, we want to be learning from the policy that gets passed because all of that learning will then inform the third phase, which is a more national, federal strategy: pass reparations at the federal level. And so, we sort of break down each of those phases. Right now, we’re in the first phase. We’re early in the first phase.
Liberation Ventures has five outcomes that we are driving, that are related to building a thriving and sustainable field. So, you know, increasing funding to the field, building knowledge products that the field can use, increasing the narrative power of the field, strengthening organizations and their relationships within the field.
And the fifth one is really trying to build more of a shared identity within the field, and those outcomes are drawn from some of Manuel Pastor’s work on effective movement, as well as Bridgespan’s strong field framework. And, you know, as the movement grows and evolves, Liberation Ventures will need to grow and evolve because the needs of the movement are going to change.
And so, we will need to adapt to meet those needs. So, I think, that’s part of also what I love about this work is that it’s so dynamic. The things that are needed today are not the same things that will be needed tomorrow. And as a result, you know, we are always growing; we are always learning. We are always being transformed by this work.
And I think that’s where I come back to on the tough days. When things feel hard, what I return to is just the gratitude for working in a job that is just so core to my purpose and so core to supporting me and my growth as a human.
Denver: Yeah, nothing like that kind of alignment, and I love your local focus on the state levels because I think the old line is that: Change doesn’t happen in Washington. It comes to Washington.
Aria: It comes to Washington. Absolutely.
Denver: That’s exactly what you’re doing. The report is called “Philanthropy’s Role in Reparations and Building a Culture of Racial Repair.” Tonyel, is there a place where people can get their hands on this full report?
Tonyel: Absolutely. So, we’ve released the article in three pieces. For folks who just want to get to the action and understand the strategies, we recommend they go to this SSIR article, “The Roadmap for Philanthropy.”
For folks who are interested in hearing the whole story and understanding, more from an intellectual place, where we landed, you can go to bridgespan.org. The article is there, “The Role of Philanthropy in Reparations and Racial Repair.” And then, on the Bridgespan website, we have links to all of those phases.
The third one is actually what we call a Movement Series. So, if there’s a desire to understand what reparations has looked like across different sectors– media, housing, all of those different pieces, they’re welcome to take a look at the Movement Series and see the profiles and recommended investments there. But it’s all on bridgespan.org.
Denver: And, Aria, what’s the website for Liberation Ventures?
Aria: You can go to liberationventures.org and check out our work. Go to our news and resources page if you’re interested in just reading and learning more about the movement, about what’s going on. We do a lot of really in-depth thinking about what reparations means. We apply it to different scenarios.
So, check us out there. You can also find information about our movement partners on our website. And we always love it when folks find us and then they find our movement partners and they decide to invest and resource their really important work.
Denver: Great stuff. Well, thanks, Tonyel and Aria, for being here today to share all of this with us. It was a real delight to have you on the show.
Aria: Thank you, Denver.
Tonyel: Thank you so much for having us.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.