White History, Black Futures

February 23, 2016 (originally published on Medium)

Last year, Quixote Foundation published this animated video about the foundation’s history and its vision of the future. But something went missing, hidden in our blind spots.

The video was created in tandem with our new website to highlight Quixote Foundation’s unusual take on what it means for a foundation to spend its entire endowment, which we’re doing by 2017. We view that commitment as spending up, not “spending down,” and wanted to spread our message within organized philanthropy.


As the video shows, we can trace traits of invention, social consciousness and personal activism several generations back in QF’s founding family. That history informs everything the Foundation does. The video evolved from a story about the founder, so it seemed natural to center the script on these characteristics and to highlight his second-generation heirs, Erik and Lenore Hanisch. As a couple they’d chosen to grow QF from a home-office enterprise into a professional organization with employees and a public face. They’d recognized “their” foundation was a public trust and opened it to outside influences, committing themselves to a whole lot of extra work in the process.

Months into working on the video, the QF communications team realized we’d allowed ourselves to be hijacked by a standard-issue definition of family foundation history: Our narrative had followed blood- and marriage-lines, lumping the members of QF’s “chosen family” into a generic acknowledgment that the foundation had involved “consultants, grantees, a new board and a new staff” over time. In the process we’d bypassed the organization’s current leader, June Wilson— an African American woman who is the executive director, 1/3 of the board and a singular force shaping what the foundation has become.

About that time, one of QF’s consultants, Zarina Parpia, encouraged us to look at an even bigger aspect of the storyline. Quixote Foundation’s “biological family” is white, and the first ancestors we know much about grew up when slavery was still legal. Family stories reveal admirable values and yet the context remains: the money handed down to QF originated in a system that offered privileged access to white-owned enterprises, and still does. As Zarina observed after watching the video, a white man would have “…Benefitted by his race, his gender, his class status…this simplified story misses the inequity piece of how money was and is made.”

Along with June, the communications team weighed these gaps against the pain of delays and the high cost of changing even a few words in a central section of an animated video. Out of expedience, we decided to go ahead and publish a story we recognize as lens-limited history. We still adore the piece. It’s funny, engaging, conveys love for the wonderfully quirky Hanisch family, and delivers the spend-up message to organized philanthropy.

The Quixote Foundation team is engaged in a facilitated process to build internal awareness and take organizational action promoting racial equity, identifying structural racism, and resisting the systems and habits of white supremacy we all share, regardless of color. Even so, we missed the opportunity to tell a more nuanced story about our history because we have been trained for as long as we’ve been alive to leave crucial points of context in the margins.

This training shows up broadly in philanthropic communication. When historically white foundations are asked “Where did your endowment come from?” the answers almost always reference ancestral wealth as if commerce has proceeded strictly “on the merits” and investments have grown without relying on discrimination. Our decision about the video is just one example of how much work we have ahead: Despite genuine efforts to promote equity, we still feel entitled and defensible in telling stories that leave out the Black and brown lives that have been pivotal to our existence and will lead our future.

So where do we go in 2016? First, we ask you to support Quixote Foundation in calling out the embedded white supremacy, racism and historical/cultural blindness in our narratives. We are working hard to tell fuller stories, and we’ll be grateful if you alert us when we go wrong. Second, we’re investing in a system of journalism and cultural arts led by people who are defining new narratives. Most recently, we’ve made these grants:

  • $200,000 to Blavity, a community of multi-cultural creators and influencers. In their own words: “We partner with diverse content creators and influencers to help them reach a wider audience, amplify their message, and fund their hustles. We believe that the world shifts according to the way people see it. If you change the way people view the world, you can transform it.”
  • $50,000 to The Media Consortium, for its support of reporting on #BlackLivesMatter and for the 2016 TMC conference. Again, in their own words: “The 2016 elections remind us how many stories must be told, from climate change to money in politics. Of all these stories, however, it is the ongoing struggle for racial justice and equity that most impacts progressive media. Let’s be clear: structural racism within our own sector impacts our capacity to cover stories, to diversify our talent, and to expand our audiences and revenue. On our 10th anniversary, this question thus guides our conference and conversation: In a world of limited resources, what choices can progressive news outlets make to expand racial equity and justice?”
  • $50,000 for Citizen Engagement Lab’s Culture Lab: “Culture, including movies, television shows, video games, the fine arts and more, reaches and influences the beliefs and behaviors of millions of people. CEL’s Culture Lab develops top line expertise, strategies, and technology-based services to help advocates for equity, democracy, and sustainability leverage the power of popular entertainment.”

Each February revives a debate about Black History Month’s pros and cons. What we know for sure is we need to stop telling the White History versions of events that have become our country’s default, and we need to do so 365 days a year. Let’s affirm the voices whose vision and standing will reshape how we see today, and reveal new truths about stories we think we already know.

—written by Keneta Anderson for Quixote Foundation