In June 2018 I proudly became the first African American to hold the title of Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana in the organization’s 66-year history. During my four-year tenure, the nation has reckoned with the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing global outcry for police accountability through the Black Lives Matter movement; rampant voter suppression and the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, the most significant piece of civil rights legislation of our generation; violent white supremacists attacks on our democracy; and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. For this reason, the mission of the ACLU of Louisiana is squarely focused on dismantling white supremacy and protecting the fundamental constitutional rights of the most vulnerable people. This has meant that we apply a lens of racial and gender justice to all of our work.
Over the last four years, the ACLU of Louisiana helped pass a ballot initiative to strike down a 120-year-old racist provision in the Louisiana Constitution that allowed for non-unanimous juries in criminal cases, thereby protecting Black people’s right to serve on juries and receive fair trials. To combat the brutality that marginalized communities face at the hands of police, the ACLU of Louisiana has filed 40 federal lawsuits challenging unconstitutional policing tactics, including unlawful searches, seizures, racial profiling, and excessive force. Dovetailing this litigation initiative, the affiliate passed a bill to protect officers who report the unconstitutional behavior of fellow officers as whistleblowers.
Moreover, our organization led the advocacy for the recent pattern or practice investigation of the Louisiana State Police by the Department of Justice. To secure access to the ballot, our staff directed a statewide redistricting campaign, lobbying for fair maps, educating and engaging thousands of BIPOC Louisianans in the process, and litigating against unconstitutional maps that were eventually passed; and much more. Behind this litigation, legislative, and community work, I am working to change a 400-year narrative about who is deserving of freedom, dignity, recognition, and love. When I began my fundraising career in this position, I immediately noticed that the racism, patriarchy, and erasure of Black people and women’s contributions is also deeply woven into philanthropy.
There is a disconnection between even the most powerful people in the Black community, and the word philanthropy. Many of us don’t think of ourselves as philanthropists. We just give. We give our time, we give our talent, our labor, and many folks who were alive during the Civil Rights Movement sacrificed themselves and their children to advance a collective greater good. We give our treasure too. In fact, Black people give 25% more of their income per year than white counterparts. Two-thirds of Black households donate to community-based organizations and causes, and our collective giving amounts to $11 billion per year. And yet, because of the history of this country, many top fundraising institutions are white-led, and historically white-benefitting. Some who give a portion of their wealth to sustain these institutions can trace that wealth back to slavery, or a benefit, like the Homestead Act or the GI Bill, which people of color were denied.
To honor, celebrate, cultivate and support our Black donors, this year the ACLU of Louisiana launched a first-of-its-kind Black Donor Network, a group of 30 African American supporters who work in philanthropy, education, public health, finance, law, and other fields, and range in age from late 20s to mid 70s. Among the participants of honor is civil rights legend Leona Tate, who integrated McDonogh #19 Elementary School with Gail Etienne and Tessie Prevost, on the same day that Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Elementary School a mile away. Through the Black Donor Network, we sought to accomplish the following goals:
- Create a philanthropic community between our Black supporters and honor their support of the ACLU of Louisiana and allied organizations as part of the historic movement for racial justice;
- Foster a peer learning group where members can safely discuss lived experiences, philanthropic goals in Louisiana, and the challenges faced in pursuing those goals;
- Support members in advancing your philanthropic goals by bringing in desired speakers and resources;
- Cultivate a joint gift to the ACLU of Louisiana, and individual gifts to allied organizations working in the spaces members are passionate about;
- Glean insights and feedback from members on how the ACLU of Louisiana can grow our base of Black supporters.
Since the program’s launch in March, our Black Donor Network members have met monthly and participated in virtual opportunities for engagement. Together, we’ve studied Black philanthropy as movement work throughout history; shared examples of what giving looked like in our own families - from cooking for the neighborhood every Sunday, to creating an endowed scholarship that would honor our ancestors; and we stretched the definition of philanthropy to include all the giving that the Black community does. We’ve gotten clear on our passion issues and where we want to make the most impact individually and as a community. And in September, Michelle Singletary – an award-winning columnist for The Washington Post, book author, and financial planner – will lead us in a workshop on building wealth and honing our philanthropic strategies.
We’ve also cultivated the group’s support. Before launching the program, Black Donor Network members had given nearly $80,000 collectively to ACLU of Louisiana over their lifetimes. This year, they will announce a collective gift when we conclude the program in October. In addition, one of our members is the program officer for a national foundation, and facilitated a $350,000 unrestricted donation to our organization, in part, because of the outpouring of support she witnessed from Black Donor Network members of ACLU of Louisiana’s leadership and staff.
Representation in leadership is necessary to launching a collective like the Black Donor Network. As a Black woman, mother, and community leader, giving of my time, effort, and energy has always felt organic, but historically, I’ve approached donating money from a conservation mindset. I saw my parents start with earning $13,000 a year for their work, and learned the importance of saving. Now that I am fundraising as a civil rights leader, I know the impact financial resources can make on the movement for freedom. I’ve asked myself: Because I’ve been given so much, what can I give back to my community, by way of money, and not just time and effort? This lived experience guides my leadership of the Black Donor Network.
From Reconstruction, through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, to today’s Racial Justice movement, Black philanthropy has made organizing for civil rights possible. It has sustained our churches and Historically Black Colleges and Universities, nurtured our families and our neighbors’ families, and preserved our culture. The ACLU of Louisiana’s Black Donor Network is grounded in the recognition that Black philanthropy matters. Join us in celebrating the impact of the Black community’s generosity this Black Philanthropy Month.