By Emily Katz, Vice President of Public Affairs, Northern California Grantmakers
History is told through multiple, sometimes competing, narratives. Earlier this month, walking through downtown Montgomery, Alabama with folks from NCG, posted plaques told stories in the way official histories often do, highlighting founders and money-makers. I also saw newer plaques marking enslavement, lynching, and civil rights. And where the plaques left off, people had begun to mark grounds as their own, placing stones in the shape of burial plots, opening their private homes and community churches for tours, telling their living histories.
In Montgomery, the story doesn’t stop there. Community members in churches, in philanthropy, and in legal advocacy are threading together the stories of slavery, forced labor, lynching and the control of black lives through the incarceration of black men, even black children, making this country the world’s most imprisoned.
On another public tableau, in the news, a different and shameful story was playing out. The Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham had bowed to pressure from leaders in the Jewish community to rescind an award to a native-daughter of the city, Angela Davis. The Jewish Federation and the Holocaust Education Center had each protested the Institute’s choice to honor Davis, a civil rights icon and present-day activist for the boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel in response to its treatment of Palestinians. Over the course of our three days in Alabama, the Institute cancelled its annual gala and three of its top leaders resigned.
It struck me, as the story unfolded, that we must be vigilant to the ways that power and morality can be employed to silence others. It raised questions for me about the power imbalance between those who invest in our communities and the organizations themselves. How might the world look different today if funders took their cues from the people whose leadership they’re supporting? How might a people who carry the Holocaust in our embodied experience, and in whose name ‘never again’ was coined, be more expansive with that invocation? What role might we each have in contributing to the new narrative now being born—one that calls for peace, and justice, and honors the full humanity of all people by looking unflinchingly at our past and present.
Despite the setback, culture-making and history-telling in Montgomery, and Alabama more broadly, may be undergoing the next big wave of change. The Equal Justice Initiative has established the nation’s first memorial to black men, women and children who were lynched across the South. Still in its first year, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a sacred space for truth-telling about racial terror and its legacy. Visitors to the site, who have tripled the city’s tourism, are invited to consider what it might take to achieve truth and reconciliation, and what part we might play.
If you’re interested in learning more, or having an experience of your own, NCG’s Daniel Lau can offer a trip-template custom-made for funders. NCG’s Director of Equity and Social Justice Alice Y. Hom can offer support on how to guide foundation strategy on the return.