When I was first appointed president of the Ford Foundation, I felt joy and excitement about the work to come. Every year since then, I have offered a September message in this same spirit—to share my perspective, to honestly engage with issues facing philanthropy and the world, and to illuminate my sources of hope.
As I begin my fifth year, however, my sense of optimism has been tested like never before. For the first time I can remember, I am troubled by a deep sense of anxiety and anguish for my country.
As a native Texan, I have been pained by Hurricane Harvey’s devastating impact on the Texas Gulf Coast. I grew up in two small towns, between Beaumont and Houston, that were ravaged by the storm. My heart breaks for the people and families who, but for fate, would have been my neighbors, and for the community that nurtured and supported me. The news from Texas has only compounded the worry I have for America and clarified the need—especially during such troubled times—for compassionate, competent, and courageous leadership.
Like so many of you, I am bewildered, almost daily, by the onslaught of dispiriting, sometimes debilitating news. Just this week, a new, politicized (and heartless) assault on young, mostly Latino immigrants—the cancellation of DACA—has left me reeling. When I travel to visit the organizations we work with in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, friends and colleagues express shock about America’s leadership and standing in the global community.
While we’ve endured challenging times before, I have always maintained an unwavering faith in America’s promise and, more broadly, in our democratic values—and I still do. I have always believed that progress is cumulative—that, as more people and communities win their place in the circle of American equality and opportunity, this circle will continue expanding, in a virtuous cycle.
At the same time, I recall James Baldwin’s words during the heights of the civil rights movement in 1965: “History … does not refer merely ... to the past ... History is literally present in all that we do.” And so I am mindful that just like the leaders who came before us, we are caught between the history from which we emerge and the history to which we aspire.
A rumble of hate, a moment of clarity
A few weeks ago, the most insidious elements of our history—as much a part of our national character as the Constitution itself—announced themselves anew, and in the most disgusting and frightening ways. In Charlottesville, Virginia, racist, anti-Semitic white nationalists marched without hoods, shame, or stigma. As I watched the images emerging from Charlottesville, aghast, I worried that hate was being normalized in America.
I was not alone, of course. In recent weeks, the American people affirmed, as they have so often, that from darkness comes light. By the thousands, and in cities across the country, they expressed that, in Fannie Lou Hamer’s perfect phrasing, “righteousness exalts a nation; hate just makes people miserable.”
To me, it seems clear, not just in this alarming episode, but in the deeper history it has laid bare: America has reached another defining moment. We face a crisis—the next battle for the soul of this country, one that will play out on the battlefield of our collective consciousness.
How we got here
Even though only one month has passed since the terror and tragedy of Charlottesville, our news cycle has moved on. After far too many elected officials offered perfunctory or unsatisfactory disavowals, after blame was cast, this conversation—like so many difficult conversations—has already begun to lose its urgency, and perhaps even our attention.
This should not surprise us. Americans have been trying and failing to have a conversation about race and justice for the whole of American history. Indeed, what happened in Charlottesville was merely the latest tremor along fault lines that have been present in the American story since its founding, a reopening of wounds that have barely been treated, and never healed.
It bears repeating that at the same instant that 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence, swearing that “all men are created equal,” they founded a nation in which all people were not. And because we have never sufficiently acknowledged this fact, America’s original sin has never left us. Indeed, it has fueled inequalities that persist to this day—whether in the form of mass incarceration or wealth inequality, housing discrimination or education and health disparities.
All of these very current crises stem from our complicated, difficult, unaddressed history. The time has come for our nation to reckon with its past.
Reckoning with our history and reality
The United States is not alone in the need to evolve—and emerge stronger—from history marred by injustice and hate. Countries like South Africa and Germany have worked deliberately to address the evils in their own national histories, but America has been neither willing nor able to take comparable steps.
As emancipation and reconstruction in the 1860s gave way to a restoration of the antebellum order in the 1870s and ’80s, America made no sustained effort toward what some today might call transitional justice. The nation paid no reparations to freed slaves; the “40 acres and a mule” promised to most freed blacks never materialized. Our country never convened a Truth and Reconciliation Commission nor engaged in an officially sanctioned public interrogation of our shared history, North and South.
As a southerner, I grew up immersed in the romanticized memory of the “Lost Cause.” I knew people in college who hung Confederate flags on their dormitory walls, fraternities that held parties where men wore Confederate uniforms. To them, it was a source of southern pride, and while I found these symbols problematic, I understood their intentions on some level. We each put the best face on our history, as a way to reinforce our notions of our communities, our families, and ourselves. For all Americans—indeed, for all human beings—history is identity.
Nevertheless, we have failed to reconcile the airbrushed, heroic narrative with the searing reality. In this instance, the truth is that the Confederacy was founded—and its soldiers fought—to destroy the United States of America. Their cause was to defend and make permanent the brutal practice of slavery, the underpinning of the Southern economy (and a significant component of the Northern economy, too); their aim, to keep millions of black Americans in bondage. The Confederate position was not morally ambiguous; the intent to uphold and expand slavery was the Confederacy’s foremost objective. There is simply no way around these facts.
Despite this, astonishingly, it was not until 2008 that the US House of Representatives could muster the votes to offer an official apology for slavery and Jim Crow injustices. That it took more than 150 years to pass this resolution reminds us that America’s failure to deal with its history is also a failure of its leadership and of collective will.
The systems that constrain us
That is why last month’s events in Charlottesville were so revealing. Too many of our leaders remain uninterested in healing the wounds of discrimination and prejudice, injustice, and inequality. Our ideals have been hijacked at the highest levels, perverted by narcissism and selfishness. At the ballot box and in our digital public square, too often, our leaders are rewarded for practicing the divide-and-conquer, dog-whistle politics endemic to our modern era.
In the not-too-distant past, the American people would turn to their elected leaders—especially the president—for guidance and moral clarity. Today, in a vacuum of such moral leadership, fear tempts many Americans to hunker down, protect themselves and their interests, and withdraw for the purposes of safety and self-preservation.
To make matters worse, even our most honorable leaders are neither incentivized nor encouraged to make decisions based on what they know is right. Rather, they operate in—and are constrained by—systems that reinforce historical inequalities and perpetuate the status quo. Our entrenched structures push leaders to be averse to precisely the moral leadership they should embrace.
The most obvious example is in government.
It’s not controversial to say that our elected officials often are discouraged from putting nation ahead of party. In gerrymandered districts, they face retribution and primary challenges. With post-Watergate campaign finance norms obliterated, they are forced to spend far too much time fundraising, fearful of money pouring in to oppose them. The result is a broken set of incentives—all of which discourage bipartisanship and deter them from tackling the real problems facing the people they represent.
In the private sector, meanwhile, corporate CEOs are mired in a system that compels them to subordinate their personal values and beliefs. Yes, some have raised their voices—and this is progress—but too many feel pressured to focus on quarterly earnings and share prices, at all costs, rather than enter moral debates or consider the human costs of their silence or support. Why risk offending consumers, analysts, or stockholders by taking a stand, especially when the stock market is riding high?
The obsession with, and American addiction to, short-term gain—at the expense of long-term good—is the most obvious example of a larger phenomenon: leaders who make the trivial into the important and the important into the trivial.
In philanthropy and civil society, we have also been slow to recognize the ways our systems discourage moral leadership. We foundations often hide behind the particulars of our missions, rather than standing up for the deeper values our missions embody. We keep our heads down to avoid making our organizations targets for criticism, especially in the era of social media warfare.
Neither the Ford Foundation, nor I, are immune to these trends, and I know we must do better. I often wonder whether the foundation uses its voice in the most effective way. I question whether I have inadvertently contributed to these problems, or reinforced these entrenched systems.
I know many nonprofit leaders and university presidents face similar challenges. They worry about offending their wealthy donors. Some feel constrained in their ability to speak out. They have my empathy, because every day these leaders walk a tightrope to address the diverse and often conflicting perspectives of the constituencies they serve.
Even though these problems feel particularly acute in the United States, my Ford colleagues and I see these trends on every continent where we work. From exclusionary populist movements to attacks on public institutions, the media, and the very idea of knowable facts, the challenges we face are global—and so is our crisis of leadership.
Profiles in courage: The leadership we need
While systems conspire to constrain our leaders, the only acceptable response is courage—the moral courage to reject and rewrite the old rules. It was from the steps of the United States Capitol, in the presence of presidents, and with hope for the future, that Maya Angelou proclaimed, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
Already, I have been heartened by the many people practicing such moral courage, on the ground and in local communities, across every sector.
In spite of the disincentives facing CEOs—the pressures from consumers, shareholders, and boards—we’ve seen many industry leaders stand up and use their power, like Kenneth Frazier of Merck and Tim Cook of Apple (who himself frames the obligations of corporations as a “moral responsibility”).
In spite of criticism from other public officials, many elected leaders and university presidents have acted swiftly and courageously to remove Confederate monuments and address the uncomfortable truths of our history. In 2015, when South Carolina’s then governor Nikki Haley removed the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds, she noted that “this is a moment in which we can say that that flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state”; Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans reminded us, in his speech on the removal of similar monuments, that “now is the time to come together and heal and focus on our larger task.” Others, like Mayor Catherine Pugh of Baltimore and President Greg Fenves at my alma mater, the University of Texas, have done away with their communities’ own monuments to our country’s racist past.
In spite of the risk-averse cultures of many foundations, leaders like Jim Canales of the Barr Foundation and Grant Oliphant of the Heinz Endowments, among others, have offered powerful words rebuking the hate we saw in Charlottesville. Their admirable responses inspire me, as important examples of how we can speak truthfully and forcefully.
And in spite of many personal risks, leaders around the world are organizing and advocating for human rights for those who have been rendered invisible, exploited, and silenced by history. I’m talking about the moral courage of people like Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, and Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. I’m talking about Farhana Khera, president of Muslim Advocates, and Reverend William Barber, leader of a powerful moral movement for justice. I’m talking about the courageous young people known as the Dreamers, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, who contribute every day to the only country they have ever known.
These leaders are my reason for hope in this time of peril. They demonstrate how we might fill the moral void at the top of our government and dismantle the systems that stifle progress on the ground. They remind us what is possible when our political leaders, corporations, nonprofit organizations, foundations, and fellow citizens and neighbors take up the mantle and choose to lead.
We need more like them.
We need leaders who build bridges, not walls. We need leaders who work across party lines and bring us together, not politicians who degrade our discourse and drive us apart. We need leaders who transcend the politics of division, who reject the language of exclusion even though it has proved to be a powerful political tactic.
It is up to each and every one of us to stand up for what is right—to our boards and shareholders and political parties, to our friends and colleagues, if necessary—even when it is not in our immediate interest. And we cannot wait; we must be the leaders our countries need and the world deserves. After all, what is the point of leadership, if not to lead in times like these? What could we possibly be holding on to, or out for, when everything—everything—is at stake?
Soon, it may be too late for courage, too late to take the necessary steps to mend our society. We risk reaching a day when whatever ability we had to influence change or protect our democratic values will have been squandered.
Instead, I am hopeful that we can—and will—realize the urgency of now. I am hopeful because I see every day that we, together, are ready and eager and impatient to lead the way toward a more righteous world defined by its commitment to justice and fairness.
Now is the time for courage. Maya Angelou famously said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” And so this year, my message is simple: Like the poet says, let us show each other—and the world—who we are.