Arguably, Americans are the most divided they’ve been since the Civil War: by race, political party, ideology, religion, and geography. Our trust in our institutions and in each other has plummeted in recent decades. And yet, with the existential crises of climate change, global pandemics, political violence, systemic racism, and economic inequality facing us, our ability to reach consensus and act with a shared vision is increasingly tied to our very survival.
In the latest webinar in Arabella’s Future of the Social Sector series, Jeanné Lewis, interim CEO at Faith in Public Life, and Kara Inae Carlisle, vice president of programs at the McKnight Foundation, joined Senior Director Loren McArthur to discuss what’s driving the breakdown in social trust we are experiencing as a nation. They also talked about what role philanthropy and the social sector can play in countering these trends, and what approaches and frameworks have proven successful in bridging division. The conversation was far-ranging, energizing, and inspiring, and we encourage you to watch the recording if you were unable to attend. In the meantime, we’ve collected five highlights from the discussion below.
- Sometimes, distrust can be productive.
Jeanné reminded us that minority groups that experience injustice at the hands of American institutions have long had good reason to distrust those institutions. However, in our present moment, this feeling of distrust has intensified and spread to a broader cross-section of Americans who feel betrayed and harmed by our institutions. The response of these groups has overwhelmingly been anger—direct anger at the institutions themselves, and redirected anger at groups they perceive as “others” threatening their own precarious standing. Realizing that the injustices we face are systemic and not the cause of individual failures is disorienting and painful, but if we can channel that distrust and hurt productively, it can be a strong motivator to address inequity.
- Dominant institutions have intentionally deepened division to consolidate their power.
Taking a long view, Kara explained that throughout the American story, dominant institutions have intentionally codified systemic racism in laws and practices to centralize power in the hands of the few. These racialized divisions are not accidental, and philanthropy has a critical role to play in naming and analyzing how these power structures came to be. As Jeanné observed, “The current backlash against discussing systemic racism in education is an indicator that this knowledge is instrumental to dismantling it.”
- As Kara put it, “Diversity is a fact, not a choice.”
Pluralism is baked into in American society, whether in terms of faith, race, gender, ethnicity, or any other identity—and with the rise of Gen Z, the so-called “plural” generation, this is only becoming more apparent. The choice facing society now is how to come together to understand who we are and who we want to be. Existing in diverse societies can be more uncomfortable than our idealized narratives make it out to be, but it is also a rich opportunity to make meaning together.
- Identity politics are deeply rooted in American history and public life.
Despite far-right talking points, both Jeanné and Kara emphasized that America was founded on identity politics—that is, our founding documents were written to honor a specific and limited set of identities. Given this, Jeanné expressed that she finds the idea of universal American values problematic, as groups with the most power tend to force others to assimilate to the dominant interpretation of what it means to be American. Kara emphasized the importance of “looking to the past to inform the future,” identifying core tenets and principles such as voting rights and freedom of speech while simultaneously opening doors for those who have traditionally been excluded from the American narrative.
- Philanthropy cannot remain on the sidelines.
Both panelists discussed philanthropy’s significant potential to strengthen the social fabric, given its position at the epicenter of different types of power and ideas. Jeanné raised the importance of acting equitably and inclusively at both the micro and the macro level, dismantling false notions of scarcity and empowering grantees to respond creatively to complex problems. Kara, highlighting the sector’s tendency to “overthink and under-act,” emphasized that philanthropy needs to own its voice and power in such conversations. “Justice is love plus power,” she said, paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “and philanthropy is, at its core, love of humankind. We combine power and love in our work, so it’s our responsibility to stand up and work toward justice.”
To hear more from our panelists, including examples of organizations and diverse coalitions already coming together to help bridge our social divides, watch the full conversation here. We hope you will join us in the coming weeks and months for more conversations in the Future of the Social Sector series, in which we will discuss more ways philanthropy can rise to meet the moment and strengthen the ties that bring us together.