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Meeting the Moment by Looking Inward

Wil Jones — Former Senior Analyst, Economic Equity Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation

Fear, anger, frustration, hope, pride, and exhaustion. These are our shared emotions as we work closely during this summer of uprisings to develop recommendations that support racial justice in word and deed, externally and internally, as co-chairs of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee.

These, and a deep sense of responsibility.

We are a Black man and a white woman, and though those labels are indescribably reductive, they also matter.


The Foundation chartered the DEI committee and gave it a budget of $150,000 annually in 2019, thanks to the hard work of fellow staffers Chukwudi Onike, Anthony Gomez, Taylor Denson, Durva Trivedi and Evan Tachovsky. We were elected co-chairs in April, after New York City was put under lockdown, after Breonna Taylor was killed in her Louisville home, but before George Floyd was murdered on a Minneapolis street and our nation erupted in urban unrest.

Through our work and in our personal lives, we want to make the world, the U.S., and the Foundation itself more equitable. The question we have been focused on over recent weeks is how?

The Foundation need not create new initiatives out of whole cloth. Both grassroots and larger organizations have been working in this arena for decades. Where we can be a pioneer is in how we invest, and how we convene partners, and how we reflect equity within our own walls.

For more than a century, the Foundation has worked to advance racial justice in America, from our founder, John D. Rockefeller Sr., who backed historically Black colleges and universities, to current president Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, who oversaw fiscal support for New Orleans so it could take down Confederate statues in 2017.

Still, this is time for a sea change. The promise of the United States—a fair opportunity for all—is not being met for many. Since George Floyd’s murder, the Foundation has made strong public and closed-door statements in support of protesters. We’ve begun internal training to look at the unconscious ways we might be engaged in racist behavior or thinking, and to ensure that we all share the same language and understanding of systemic racism.

Our recommendations for change can be broken down into three large buckets: funding, advocacy and internal responses. Once approved by our senior leadership, we will couple the action plan with measurable metrics to make sure we have impact at a moment that is historic, and possibly transformative.

Specific ideas we are considering include implementing an equity screen in our grantmaking, finding non-traditional paths for funding street-level organizers, hosting competitions that source anti-racism tech solutions for funding, sponsoring a bipartisan summit to look at broad reforms to fight racial inequity, and encouraging senior leadership to leverage their personal influence to spur change.

  • What we are responding to now is just the latest iteration of Black death. What we are seeing, we’ve seen before. I was the same age as Trayvon Martin when he was murdered. Muhlaysia Booker. Ahmaud Arbery. Same age as me when they were murdered. At almost every important juncture of my life, there has been a Black death that has mirrored my own life.
    Wil Jones
    Program Assistant, U.S. Equity and Economic Opportunity Initiative

Martin, Booker and Arbery were murdered by white Americans who felt they had the right to stop, question and police fellow citizens who were Black. This is part of why we need to tackle equity work broadly—not just criminal justice issues, but affordable housing, integrated classrooms, voting rights, food deserts—all aimed at changing the system that limits Black lives.

When Black lives are affected, all lives are affected. A society that fosters an environment where all its citizens have an equitable chance to contribute is beneficial to the society as a whole. Every life is valuable, and creativity and enterprise are not fostered in a climate of fear.

The media currently is granting a lot of needed attention to the trauma endured by Black men. We must act to make sure that Black women and trans people get that same benefit of visibility. Tony McDade, a Black transgender man, was shot and killed by police last month, but his case is rarely mentioned. And state-sanctioned violence has been part of the story of Black women since 1619. Under the “one-drop-rule” which dates back to a 1662 Virginia law, a pregnant slave, even impregnated by a white slave owner in an act of sexual violence, created another slave; it’s a part of the American story that get largely overshowed.

  • I feel a real responsibility to join the fight and to call on our white colleagues to join the fight. I also want to allow space for a wide range of emotions from all my colleagues. The idea that emotions do not belong in the workplace, and that only intellect and rationality belong in the workplace—that is a norm that was created by white culture.
    Claire Raynes
    Manager, Human Resources

Further, we must recognize that philanthropy, while intended to do good, comes from a place of privilege. Our founder generated his wealth within a culture of white supremacy that allowed him to do that. Under his leadership, the Foundation helped fund and found the racist pseudoscience eugenics program. We must reckon with this history.

In philanthropy, there is a tendency to look at a problem solely in terms of how we are already trying to solve it. Perhaps we also need to ask how we have contributed to it, including how inaction can help sustain inequitable systems. It is also important that we continue to focus on racial justice even once it falls from the spotlight and other issues take its place.

Antiracism is a lifelong, holistic practice. Being transparent about our institutional and personal shortcomings while working to overcome them is critical as we transform ourselves and our society. We pledge to use the platforms at our disposal to share our progress–positive and negative–throughout this work, for there are lessons in all things.