Getting uncomfortable

The Nathan Cummings Foundation


Getting uncomfortable

What does it take to shape a national conversation?

Sometimes compelling grassroots movements can do it.  We’ve seen the Tea Party and its allies compel a conversation about government spending and national debt.  More recently, the Occupy Movement, in dramatic fashion, has gotten the entire country talking about income inequality, tax fairness, and the corporate capture of government.  Historically, other social change movements have made invisible oppressions visible and conversations about them unavoidable.

What about the philanthropic community?  Can we help shape a national conversation?

The Nathan Cummings Foundation believes we can, and must. We have made it a hallmark of our grantmaking.  Listening to President Obama’s State of the Union this week, I was proud to hear him draw on the work of so many grantees of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.  One example: It was a Breakthrough Institute investigation of federal funding for natural gas extraction technology that helped the President underscore the importance of government support for innovation in the energy sector.

Yet despite some success by us and other philanthropies, we have a long way to go. This week I spoke to two different audiences, 3000 miles apart, which made clear how difficult this can be.

In New York I was a guest of Edgar Bronfman, where I spoke to a group of forty Jewish communal and philanthropic leaders. The talk was titled “Jews and the 99 Percent.”  Opinions in the room diverged, but many expressed discomfort at the current national conversation about income and wealth disparities and the culpability of the finance industry in the ongoing struggles of so many Americans.

In Seattle a few days later, I shared a stage with University of Washington Professor David Domke.  Our topic was a little different – “How Can America Move Towards a Just Domestic Agenda?” – yet once again attendees of all ages and backgrounds also felt the tension between the pressing issues facing our country and the challenge of engaging these conversations head on.

The nation is having a conversation about how to create a more equitable and effective economy.  For those of us in the philanthropic sector, where significant wealth is concentrated, this conversation can be uncomfortable.  That’s good. We should have uncomfortable conversations.  We should challenge each other about our philanthropic priorities given the issues at stake today.

The Nathan Cummings Foundation will do our part to support this vital conversation, lifting our own voice and supporting others who do the same.  I look forward to engaging with you in this, and other crucial conversations, every step of the way.


P.S. The League of Young Voters Education Fund, another Nathan Cummings Foundation grantee, is providing national platforms for young people to actively engage in important dialogues about where the country is headed.  Their BarackTalk SOTU Interactive Discussion, a 2012 State of the Union viewing event and panel discussion, drew 33,000 live viewers.  See excerpts If turnout for BarackTalk is any indication, the time is ripe for honest discussions and there's no turning back.