Each time there is social upheaval, the corporations go on PR campaigns, promoting their concern for communities of color, and the millions of dollars they have set aside for community programs. It has been my experience that little, if any, of the resources actually reach relevant programs. As an arts advocate and administrator for the last 20 years, I’ve experienced promised resources go to established arts programs, but rarely to Black grass roots organizations, who are doing the actual work to lift the community.
Corporations and foundations certainly have the obligation to choose the causes that reflect their mission. However, creating the illusion that they are pouring millions into minority programs is not only deceptive, but affects how the philanthropic world views our need. I have witnessed this year after year and have come to believe that this PR deception should be met with consequences, because it ultimately hurts the progress of Black and Brown programs. Again, I mean programs created by, administered by and serving people of color!
[The Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) published a report in 2017 that discovered that less than 2% of funding by the nation’s largest foundations was explicitly directed to the African American community.]
A few years ago, I approached some of the major foundations and enquired as to why they did not fund Black programs. The program I began in 2001 had been serving hundreds of youngsters each year, providing free after school music instruction. We not only stimulate the lives of urban youth, but we also provide a source of pride for the families that experience the accomplishments of their children. But each year our program was passed over by many of the major foundations, often without the courtesy of a response. My inquiry received various responses, from righteous indignation to hostility, for my inferring racism. Most of these foundations believed that they were living up to their commitment to serve the community, equitably. One problem is that many foundations are unable to distinguish between a Black program; one founded by, administered by and serving the Black and Brown community, from a white organization that operates in a community of color.
Our program has received very generous support from several major foundations, as well as individuals. Organizations like the Herb Alpert Foundation are responsible for the growth of many minority programs. I believe it is because they carefully screen their programs and make decisions based on what will work for the community, not what will publicize their charitable work. Therein lies the difference!
However, to the vast majority of foundations we remain invisible. I would not infer that these organizations have formal racists policies, but the unspoken attitude that pervades the philanthropic landscape has the same negative effect on communities of color, as any other racist policy or attitude. I believe that many foundations believe that supporting the inner-city is a waste of resources, that inner-city programs will not yield the results expected, that these programs are historically mismanaged, or that inner-city programs can effectively operate with less resources than their White counterparts. Whatever the assumptions are, whatever the experiences have been, the affect that these attitudes have on “programs of color” are just as devastating as if written into law. When funders responded to my invitation to actually come to Watts to see the work that is being done, there was usually a change of heart. But too many foundations never quite “have time” to make that site visit and experience reality.
For me a greater problem is a direct result of how we relate to each other as Black people. For almost 20 years our programs have provided free music instruction to many hundreds of Black and Latino youngsters, preparing them for the countless opportunities that are available. Tragically, we have received very little support from the many Black organizations that voice concern about the conditions in the Black community. Only a few Black foundations have supported our efforts to increase opportunities for Black youngsters.
[In the interest of transparency, every organization and individual contribution SAPPA has received is listed on our website: www.sappa.net]
When we started the SAPPA program I assumed that black support was a given. I
was wrong! Programs such as ours are seemingly dismissed by the very ones we should be able to depend on. When I read that a Black person has donated millions of dollars to high profile institutions or colleges, that neither need nor appreciate their contributions, it is discouraging and hurtful! Whether it’s their attempt to ingratiate themselves with the white community or following the advice of lawyers and managers that direct money of successful athletes and entertainers away from the Black community, the result is the same. Dr. Dre and his crew, for example, would not be very welcome on the USC campus without his multi-million-dollar donations. At the same time, our program, that serves youngsters in the Compton community, Dr Dre’s community, received zero! Based on the history of our struggle in this country, I would think that Black people would have realized the importance of supporting their own. Unfortunately, we have not!
Billy Mitchell is founder and director of SAPPA and Watts-Willowbrook Conservatory. 2020 recipient of the Jazz Journalist Association, Jazz Hero Award and the California Jazz Foundation 2020 Nica Award. His book “The Gigging Musician” has been used as a reference in college curriculums. [email protected] www.sappa.net