When I cry at “rubber-chicken dinner” social impact conference plenaries, it’s usually from boredom at the self-congratulatory pablum which is standard fare at do-gooder mega-convenings. However, last week as protests swept the streets of Baltimore, I sat half a world away in a neon-lit, taupe-on-beige-on-taupe San Francisco Marriott basement at the Council on Foundations annual conference and there was one speaker who indeed made me cry – but for all the right reasons.
I’m lookin’ at you Cornell W. Brooks, President & CEO of the NAACP and slinger of zingers that had a dark room full of hundreds of philanthropists from some of the most powerful foundations in the world on the edge of our seats. We couldn’t be in Baltimore that day, but you brought Baltimore to us with all the fiery skill of four generations of Methodist Episcopal ministry accumulated in your voice as you said:
- “Young people are declaring with their bodies and with their protest: NOW is the season of our discontent.”
- “U.S. legislators have engaged in an unchecked Machiavellian frenzy of voter disenfranchisement, nullifying some of the greatest accomplishments and victories of the Civil Rights movement.”
- “You can’t march through hell unless you believe in this imperfect union we call America.”
- “If our ancestors could fall for this country, then why can’t we STAND?”
With one comment after another, you challenged every person in that room to ask themselves, “Where do I stand?” You declared that, “all lives matter, whether your skin is brown or your uniform is blue.” You reminded us of Cornel West’s words of wisdom that, “Justice is what LOVE looks like in public.” You reminded us that there are few higher callings for philanthropos than social justice. You reminded us of why we were all sitting in that darn basement, why we do what we do, why we struggle for wise and bold action with the resources at our disposal, be they large or small.
You reminded me of my belief that the very best philanthropy comes from a combination of rage and love – a rage against all that must be changed, and a love of this world that cannot be quenched.
We get the word “philanthropos” from a story about rage and love, starring Prometheus who dared challenge the fickle gods to bring fire, culture and wisdom to human beings. He rebelled on behalf of his fellow man against powers that seemed far greater than himself, and he did so with love in his heart, just as we should too at this extraordinary moment in history.
Thank you Mr. Brooks, for bringing the seething streets straight to my heart — our hearts — in that darkened San Francisco basement.
Support Cornell Brooks and those like him who bring the fire of justice to this planet. Follow his message not just on Twitter (@cornellwbrooks) but also in real life, in your grantmaking, in your service, in your quest to be on the right side of history, in learning how to be a change agent and an ally, and in our shared human journey from rage to love and justice.