Beyoncé & Black Philanthropy

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So, as they say in church, the spirit moved me to wake up at 3:00 this morning and write my one and only “think piece” about Beyoncé. I tried to go to bed and get up early to write it. But it wouldn’t go away until I got it out. Here goes.

I loved being in education and working with youth, because they kept me current. I just had to overhear a conversation to know the latest slang: on fleek. Janky. And so on. And continue to be a contributing member and consumer of pop culture. I learned who I should download on iTunes (Adele, a few Drake songs, Beyoncé, of course), and that even those of us coming from the most meager means, will find it hard to purchasenecessities but will find it among their purse strings to purchase a ticket to enter a cultural conversation, to share in an experience of seeing an artist perform live.

Quite literally. Let me explain where I’m coming to this conversation from: I have spent the last nine years in the non profit world in New York City. Primarily in education. Concomitant to my work in the supplementary educational classroom where I taught in Saturday’s and after school to high school or adult learners of color of varying degrees of ability, I began to think about switching to working in development in the cultural sector. I had come to education by happenstance, but my heart was in arts and culture and I had understood that there existed a very real ceiling if I were to attempt to cling the program management ladder. Besides, I had (have) dreams of running a non-profit of my own, and so I knew in addition to working on my program development and management experience, I had to get my hands into fundraising.

It started with institutional giving. I started writing the grants for the programs that I was running and began to see the direct correlation between what I was doing with the students one on one and how that translated into metrics that might attract five and six-figure support from major donors. I leaned on the strength of my writing background to settle into my strengths as an institutional giving manager and started outsourcing my skills to small niche culturals in Brooklyn, where I had ultimately wanted to settle.

Fast forward to being the Director of Strategic Development at Weeksville Heritage Center. One day I’ll tell you the full story of how it went from vision board to office space in four years, but I’m sure you’re wondering what all of this has to do with Beyoncé?

Having only been officially in seat since January 4, 2016, it wasn’t much longer into the new year or into my tenure of my vision-board job that Beyoncé dropped her Formation video–of course I heard about it from my students, who decided it was OK to be friends with me on social media since my departure–and Black Twitter and the world went insane.

Of course I watched the YouTube video. Several times. I, too, read think piece and think piece. And defense of. And in praise of. And in critique of this black woman creating a world through song and dance. And when she opens her mouth, we move.

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I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, probably because I was writing a grant for Weeksville. I want so badly for this organization, this history, to survive. For the story to reach the worlds psyche. Imagine: there was a place created by free blacks just 11 years after slavery ended in NYC (but not the rest of the U.S.) in Central Brooklyn. Imagine there was a place where people went to live. There was a place where people–black people–went to get free. And they invested in that dream. They put their hard earned dollars on the table so that they could have and investors put their dollars on the table so that others could have and centuries later the organizational founders put money on the table so that we could have the historic houses. So that we could have these structures to tell the story of a life we lived once. In our own communities. When we were thriving. And building and supporting and maintaining the institutions we built by our own hands.

So I want to make sure that Weeksville Heritage Center exists not only for any future children I may have, but for the students today. So I wrote a grant and waited to watch the half time show on YouTube the next day: Wherein Beyoncé had captured the entertainment imagination (and white fury) of a country for her references to black political and radical organizations during her performance. Wherein Beyoncé had my whole timeline of friends proclaiming they don’t have money for anything but they will purchase a ticket to the Formation tour. Wherein.

Weeks later I’m watching my feed and seeing an article passed around about Chicago State University. This is another old story I’m about to tell, but here it is: an institution built to service and serve black students is facing shut down because of lack of funding–at the state level, sure. But also at the individual Giving level. Where are the black philanthropist to save it?

My connection to CSU is personal. And institutional. The first reading I gave out of state as a fledgling poet was at CSU in the Gwendolyn Brooks Center, a beautiful facility named after this beautiful dark skinned poet (not unlike myself) who had become the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize (and let me tell you there have only been a total of 5! Ever). CSU was also home at the time to Haki Madubuthi who started Third World Press, another black owned institution wherein Gwendolyn brooks could have had her poems published by any other mainstream (read: white) press but she chose Third World Press. Some would argue to the detriment to her career. But no matter. We have her collected poems because of that press. And many other writers of color. But I think it might be gone. And now, this University could be gone.

But Beyoncé. She is going on a world tour.

This is our inheritance: We give to church. We give to entertainment.

Not even 8 weeks into my new post and already I tire of community members approaching me, telling me their dreams for Weeksville and what the organization should be doing and for whom and how and so on. Being the person in charge of developing strategies for raising funds for the organization, I have access to years of giving data. Immediately leaving the meeting wherein I’m instructed on what Weeksville needs to do to “be better” to “ensure its survival”, I look back at the records. Never a gift. The classic story of chicken and egg I like to say. Where is the egg? Your dollar on the table?

But I see the Formation World Tour tickets flash across my newsfeed.

What if we gave to the institutions a fraction of what we give (or consider giving) Beyoncé? It really is that simple. And I don’t mean to target Beyoncé only, except the quick succession of all of the recent events begs me to put the two ideas into conversation.

At Weeksville, in addition to preaching and working to instill a culture of philanthropy among my colleagues (that they think one person can and should do the job of raising 1.5+M is cray), I teach that philanthropy is and should and can be for everyone. Philanthropy is for everyone. Even the least among us, as they say on Sundays when the ushers bring down the offering plate, even the least among us can have an exponential impact on the future of the institutions that we love to watch and instruct from the sidelines.

Everyday people build empires. I watch my everyday friends contribute to the empire of entertainers. But what about our schools?What about our small museums in under resourced neighborhoods looking to tell a young black girl that she had a history beyond slavery and one that thrived. That small museum saying your history deserves to be preserved as any other white man. Our founding Executive Director, Joan Maynard, said it best: “every place has a Weeksville. Where ordinary people came together…” To insist on a better life for themselves, for their children, and for the future. We have to get into a philanthropic formation. (My students will probably kill me for that reference. Shane, Lisa, Kristen: did I use the phrase right?).

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Joan Maynard + Children at archeological site–Weeksville dig.

And sure. When disaster strikes, there is a response. And sure we should continue to support life-saving organizations that save small children and support medical research. But I am still thinking of the convening spaces, the places where culture is made and exhibited and talked about. The places where a safe space is provided for you to bring your children and celebrate what it is to be human and black and alive. That deserves love and support and I’ll say it: dollars on the table.

And there are a growing number of us who are taking up the charge. Weeksville Ambassadors for one. It is a great move, and a great gesture by young professionals who have gathered together and said: I want to keep Weeksville Alive, I want to be a part of its today, and it’s tomorrow.

I’ll just say it plain: $15 a month could change world of a small cultural organization insisting we invest and preserve and document our history. We have to invest in the world we want to exist for our children. I hope you’ll choose Weeksville.

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