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Dispatch from #ForumCon19: Partners Can Push Us Forward (If We Let Them)

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Anna D'Elia, Program and Services Coordinator at Council of New Jersey Grantmakers

This is a guest post by Anna D'Elia, Program and Services Coordinator at Council of New Jersey Grantmakers.

Partners remind us that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, that we’re not experts in everything, and to never underestimate the people who truly understand what we do. But most importantly, partners challenge us.

During the panel session “The Power of PSO Partnerships,” leaders of national and regional philanthropy-serving organizations (PSOs) spoke about the many benefits of partnership. What stuck out for me the most was that in coming together, partners grew bolder, more inclined to tackle sensitive topics, and more likely to dive into areas of advocacy and racial equity – themes repeated throughout the conference. After hearing from these leaders, it became clear that we need people who will take us out of our comfort zone. We need colleagues who will stand with us through our more daunting goals, while holding us accountable to these commitments, and speaking up when we waver.

I recognize that this is not easy.

I will be the first to admit that my first instinct is to do it myself. It takes a willingness to be vulnerable, knowing that colleagues may open our eyes to information that makes us uncomfortable, solutions we’re reluctant to try, and biases we never knew we had. In the Blanket Exercise, led by Gina Jackson and Vance Blackfox of Native Americans in Philanthropy, we learned that often information about Native Americans is not included in research reports because their population is “statistically insignificant” due to the millions killed in genocide. Gina found this out because she asked her research partners. I had to be honest, this is a question I never would have asked. And maybe it’s time to start not only asking these questions myself, but inviting others to look for the biases and knowledge gaps within my work. Our partners are experts in a wide range of issues that lead them to ask different questions, which forces us to rethink how we frame problems and come up with solutions that work for more than just ourselves.

I heard people at the conference become frustrated with all the talk, and not enough action around Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) work in the sector. I think this is a great example of an area where everyone could probably be challenged a little (or a lot) by a really great partner. A lesson I took away from the session with consultants for Racism, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (REDI), was that we’re only going to get so far having the same conversations within our own organization. But if we look to consultants and experts in this topic to name the problem we didn’t see before, reframe the solution in a way we never heard, and give us the courage to push the boundaries we’ve set – we may get a little closer to action. Of course, this is where it gets really difficult. It takes time, dedicated funding, and a personal commitment to forge a really great partnership. You have to want it.

At the closing plenary, LaTosha Brown, philanthropic consultant, political strategist, and co-founder of the Black Votes Matter Fund, asked the room “Who are you?” This plenary session was all about empowering PSOs to be leaders, to respond to crises of moral indignity, and to take a role in fighting for democracy. It was all about action. Reflecting on this, I asked myself three other questions.

How will I name injustice when I don’t always know what it looks like?

How will I lead when I don’t listen first?

And how will I think about social change if I cannot challenge myself to change?

A good partner helps us to see injustice when we are blind to it, encourages us to push ourselves when we don’t think it’s possible, and does not let us forget why we’re fighting. For these reasons, I follow the question “Who am I?” with “Who do I want by my side?”

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