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Emmett Carson Elevates and Challenges Black Philanthropy

African-American philanthropy has been the subject of recent Charlotte-area nonprofit programming. Over the next month, PMA features blog content highlighting individuals influential in driving black philanthropy forward, both locally and nationally. Below is the first post in the series.

“Do we have a collective sense of destiny, or have we become too Americanized?”

Keynote speaker Emmett Carson addressed this question to the audience at the Black Philanthropy Month Forum for Civic Leadership in Charlotte, one of many thought-provoking remarks that stressed the growing need for unified African American giving. Carson is the founding CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Now in its eighth year, the organization manages over $4.7 billion, making it the largest grant maker among community foundations in the country.

emmett-carsonAs recently as 25 years ago, Carson asserted that many would have considered the term ‘black philanthropy’ to be an oxymoron. In reality, he argues, “there is in fact a deep, rich tradition of support within the black community.” Carson cites philanthropic activity among African Americans dating back to slavery, when fellow slaves supported each other in their sufferings and recently emancipated slaves risked their freedom to take part in the Underground Railroad Operation.

“Blacks had to do things for themselves,” Carson said. “This paved the way for black banks, insurance companies, schools, and collective money for black churches.” After the Civil War, when African Americans were supposedly separate but equal, Carson added, “black philanthropy taught newly freed slaves how to read”.

For the next century, blacks received little support from the outside in terms of rights and improving their quality of life. It was from within, Carson said, that organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, and the Freedom Riders were conceived.

The collective efforts of African Americans combated Jim Crow laws and fueled the Civil Rights Movement. “Black philanthropy funded Brown v. Board of Education,” Carson noted. “It funded the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

However, Carson continued with disturbing statistics about the black community today. Although there are a reported 35,000 black millionaires in the United States, “African American institutions are on life support,” Carson said. African American infants are twice as likely to die by age 1 as Caucasian infants. 48% of black boys drop out of school and 42% have failed at least one grade. Three times as many black boys have been suspended or expelled as white boys, and approximately half of America’s prison population is black.

Teachers are not equipped with proper training to cater to needs of students beyond the educational, leaving many to turn to unhealthy lifestyle choices and some to violence. Every year thousands of homicides involving black victims and black perpetrators go virtually unnoticed.

In other words, black philanthropy is struggling to survive at a time when it is needed more than ever. “The wealth and socioeconomic state of blacks is higher than it’s ever been before,” Carson said, “but our community is dying.”

Black philanthropy’s uncertain future makes collective giving even more crucial. “Community has everything to do with it,” Carson insisted. “We have more money, talent, resources, and networking than ever, but giving must extend beyond the individual.”

Carson urged taking advantage of constantly improving technology to crowd source and combat illiteracy. He also suggested using social media to more effectively raise money and awareness about pressing issues in the black community.

“We have to be in charge of our destiny,” Carson concluded.