Angelique Power, President, Field Foundation: Rethinking Racial Equity

May 28, 2019
Angelique Power, President, Field Foundation: Rethinking Racial Equity

A Chicago native, Angelique Power started her career in philanthropy in the public affairs department of Marshall Field's Department Stores, where she learned about corporate social responsibility and what effective civic engagement in the business world looks like. She went on to serve as program director at the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation and as director of community engagement and communications at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, before being named president of the Field Foundation of Illinois in the summer of 2016.

Since stepping into that role, Power has helped catalyze new ways of thinking about racial equity and social justice at a foundation that has engaged in that kind of work for decades. Under her leadership, the foundation has expanded its relationships with the community-based nonprofits it historically has supported as well as a range of philanthropic partners in Chicago.

PND spoke with Power recently about how the foundation is rethinking its approach to racial equity, its new partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and why she is optimistic about the future.

Philanthropy News Digest: The Field Foundation was established in 1940 by Marshall Field III, grandson of the man who founded the Marshall Field’s department store chain. Although the younger Marshall Field worked on Wall Street, he was also a committed New Dealer. What did Field think he could accomplish through the foundation, and what happened to the foundation after his death in 1956?

Angelique Power: As someone who in the day practiced what we refer to today as racial equity and social justice grantmaking, Marshall Field III was a leading financial supporter of Saul Alinsky, the godfather of community organizing. And the Field Foundation in the early '60s was a significant supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, especially around some of the voter registration campaigns that Dr. King led. It's always interesting to me to reflect on Field's trajectory, a person who was born into great wealth but who saw the racial inequality in Chicago and nationally and decided to use his resources and his platform as a white man of privilege to effect change in the system.

Marshall Field V is on our board, and I often tell him, "You know, I never met your grandfather, but I have such a crush on him." Marshall Field III was a visionary in the way he thought about democracy and the institutions that hold power accountable in a democracy and how you can support individuals who are working to create change at a systems level. And I'm pretty sure he had all of that in mind when he set up the foundation.

After he passed away in 1956, the foundation was broken up. His widow moved to New York and created the Field Foundation of New York, and his son, Marshall Field IV, stayed in Chicago and created the Field Foundation of Illinois. The Field Foundation of New York spent itself down after twenty years, while the Field Foundation of Illinois is what we today refer to as the Field Foundation. In many ways, I feel like the path we've been on since I arrived three years ago — and going back beyond that to the tenures of the foundation's last few presidents — has been to try to put into action the ideals of Marshall Field III.

PND: You're the third consecutive African American to serve as head of the foundation, and individuals of color comprise a majority of your board. Whom do you credit for ensuring that the leadership of the foundation reflects the community it aims to serve?

AP: In the late 1980s, the Field Foundation made a couple of very interesting and unusual moves for the time. One was adding Milton Davis, an African-American man, to the board. The other was hiring Handy Lindsey, Jr. as president. Handy, who recently retired as president of the Ruth Mott Foundation, is so well respected in the field, both locally and nationally, that for years there was a lecture series named in his honor.

[T]here was a decision early on here at the Field Foundation to put the resources and influence of the foundation in the hands of civic leaders, as opposed to solely family members....

There are a couple of other things about the Field Foundation that make it unique. One, we are not a family foundation, although we do have some family members on our ten-person board, including Marshall Field V, who is a director for life, and two other family members; everyone else is a person of color. And the board has a keen interest in having the foundation operate as a private independent foundation, rather than as a family foundation. Family foundations are great and allocate capital in really interesting ways. But there was a decision early on here at the Field Foundation to put the resources and influence of the foundation in the hands of civic leaders, as opposed to solely family members.

Marshall Field V was instrumental in that decision, and he has never served as board chair. He is also very careful about how he participates in board meetings. I'm talking about a brilliant human being who serves on many boards, who has raised a tremendous amount of money for conservation and arts organizations and other causes, and who understands that his voice carries a lot of weight. He is very intentional in the context of his Field Foundation duties about sharing power, and always has been.

The decision to diversify the center of power at the foundation began in the 1980s, and that's also something I attribute to Marshall Field V. It's because of Marshall that our last two board chairs — including Lyle Logan, who recently stepped down as chair after serving more than ten years in that role — have been persons of color.

According to the D5 coalition, nationally, 14 percent of foundation board members are people of color, while the population of Chicago is 60 percent people of color. Our new board chair, Gloria Castillo, who also serves as CEO of Chicago United, a robust organization of CEOs of color that is working to create a more inclusive business ecosystem in Chicago, is very thoughtful about how leadership should look and operate, and she is absolutely committed to making sure that our organizational culture reflects equity in every sense of the word.

I would also mention Marshall's daughter, Stephanie Field-Harris, who chaired the search committee that selected me and was fiercely committed to speaking to candidates for the job who could come into a situation and not do what most people expected them to do but would be willing to lead an inclusive process that tried to radically re-imagine philanthropy. I credit all those folks, and each of our board and staff members, for making the Field Foundation the special institution it is today.

PND: How has the foundation changed its approach to grantmaking and evaluation since you became president?

AP: I joined the foundation in 2016, and since then we've changed how we fund, who we fund, and how we evaluate our grantmaking. We've even changed the way we look at the function of a foundation.

It all started with a process we initiated in 2016, shortly after I arrived. It was a time in Illinois, and in Chicago in particular, that a lot of us were asking, "What can we do differently?" When I started at the foundation, in July, the state's budget had been frozen for a year. It would remain frozen for another year, which meant that a lot of nonprofits were put on a starvation diet. They were not receiving their usual funding from the state, and they were turning to foundations and the private sector to keep their doors open. At the same time, the city was halfway through what would, because of gun violence, turn out to be the second bloodiest year in its history. The video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald, the African-American teenager who was shot sixteen times by a white police officer, had been released about eight months before I started, and the sense of urgency in the city was palpable.

The Field Foundation had had a history of funding community-based organizations under Handy Lindsey, and that work had continued under the brilliant leadership of Aurie Pennick, who succeeded Handy. We had a thirty-year track record of building deep, trusting relationships with local organizations that didn’t always receive funding from foundations, and that helped lay the groundwork for what followed.

Staff and the board were starting to ask questions about impact and whether our resources were helping to reduce violence in Chicago. But with the number of shootings going through the roof, it was hard to argue that the grants we were making were helping to reduce violence. So staff and board got together to study the problem and possible responses to it. We looked at being both more responsive and more strategic. And we talked about an equitable approach where you focus more on dismantling power dynamics within philanthropy and try to move the needle on questions like, Who gets to establish theories of change? And who gets to decide what success looks like?

The full board — and this is extremely important, in my opinion — as well as staff went through racial justice training....

Then we took a deep dive into racial justice. The full board — and this is extremely important, in my opinion — as well as staff went through racial justice training. I started that session by reciting a parable I'm sure many of your readers have heard. I'm sure you've heard it:

A woman is walking along a river and all of a sudden sees a baby floating downstream. Alarmed, she jumps into the river to save the baby, only to see another baby floating in her direction, and then another, and another. She saves as many of the babies as she can and starts to panic about how she is going to shelter, feed, clothe, and educate them. All the while, babies keep floating down the river, and she never has a moment to think about heading upstream to find out where all the babies are coming from.

That was really important in helping my board understand the difference between charity and social change work. In the nonprofit sector, writ large, it's the difference between direct service and systemic interventions. If we are standing on the banks of the river, so to speak, and are asking questions like, "Have we helped reduce violence in Chicago?" we really either have to ask ourselves better questions, or, if the answers are unsatisfactory, we need to travel upstream to the source of the problem.

PND: What are the biggest challenges you and your colleagues face in working to advance racial equity in Chicago?

AP: One of the biggest challenges is that nobody knows how to talk about race in mixed company. We are all scared of offending, and we’re all scared of being offended. And most of us have not been given the tools to do it properly. It's really important to engage in training, to have a shared language, and to have the presence of mind to avoid the obvious traps that await everybody when the conversation turns to race.

We also find ourselves in a period when hate crimes are on the rise, and you have this extreme rhetoric coming from the highest office in the land, and you have racism showing up in unexpected places and ways. What's especially difficult is thinking that race conversations are mostly about unpacking individual racism, when in fact you need to be able to identify its influence in policy, and how it shows up in a city budget, and how it shows up in philanthropy, particularly in philanthropy metrics.

PND: Can you give us an example of how it shows up in philanthropy metrics?

AP: Say, you're giving a capacity-building grant to a small ALAANA organization [African/Latinx/Asian/Arab/Native-American organization] and expecting that the organization will use it to build out its board and increase its ability to access working capital. But, as we know, there's a significant racial wealth gap in many of these communities; you won't necessarily find a lot of high-net-worth individuals who are spending their volunteer time sitting on nonprofit boards. That's a metric that's never going to be attainable for a lot of these organizations.

And, yet, lots of studies have been done about the number of people in communities of color who volunteer and about how they give their time and talent and treasure, which they do; it's just in different ways. It doesn't show up in the same format that it does in, say, white, communities. Which means if we have metrics designed to gauge whether ALAANA organizations operate the same way that larger, mostly white organizations do, we are asking the wrong questions.

PND: How did your recent collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation come about, and what is the primary goal of the collaboration?

AP: It's a new chapter for us. We've never had this type of re-granting partnership with a foundation, and it's enabling us to do interesting things that we weren't able to do before, things like giving dollars directly to individuals.

It came about as a result of conversations with different people at MacArthur, which as you know awards hundreds of millions in grants annually and is a global foundation with tremendous reach. And even though MacArthur is headquartered in Chicago, and many of its staff are based here, due to the leadership of the past two presidents, the Field Foundation has extremely deep relationships in the city and a level of trust among nonprofits that we've earned through thirty years of local funding characterized by intentionality and trust building.

When we sat down with the folks at MacArthur, there was an understanding among everyone at the table that there are different kinds of capital — including social and financial capital — and that, collectively, we were all interested in doing something beyond how our respective foundations normally operate. So, we began to unpack the differences in the way we think about our work, and how we could learn from and with each other, and then we tackled the question of how we could do something that is better for the people we serve here in Chicago. We weren't fooling ourselves, thinking that from our positions of privilege we could create transformative solutions to all the major problems in our city. Instead, we asked folks in the nonprofit community to help us design a new giving program — what do journalists and storytellers need? What does philanthropy need to understand and do differently? So now we're rolling out a program designed by journalists and storytellers rather than by us on their behalf. We also heard that nonprofit visionaries need unrestricted capital to further develop their leadership capacity. We are listening and doing our best to respond.

PND: Is the collaboration with MacArthur an example of how the Field Foundation punches above its weight?

We think of ourselves as being in the civic architecture business. Yes, we award grants, and that makes us a conduit to cash, which we try to provide responsibly and respectfully. But like any foundation, we also have a power and privilege that grants us access to many tables, in many different rooms....

AP: We think of ourselves as being in the civic architecture business. Yes, we award grants, and that makes us a conduit to cash, which we try to provide responsibly and respectfully. But like any foundation, we also have a power and privilege that grants us access to many tables, in many different rooms. In some rooms we get to hear the voices of people who are smarter than we are, the nonprofit folks who are doing the actual work. In other rooms, often where decisions about policy or capital are made, those voices are woefully absent. We see our job as changing the architecture of those rooms, so all voices are deciding together.

PND: In recent remarks you made at Northwestern, you analogized diversity, equity, and inclusion work to owning and operating a restaurant. Focusing on diversity, you said, is like giving a handful of new customers a prized table in your restaurant and inviting them to enjoy a meal from a menu that hasn't changed much in years. In the analogy, inclusion is equivalent to checking on the folks you've seated to see how they're enjoying their meal. And equity is about totally re-defining the dining experience by disrupting the power dynamics of the business. Do you think philanthropy needs to be disrupted in order for it to advance racial equity more broadly?

AP: One hundred percent, which is why Winners Take All, by Anand Giridharadas, and Decolonizing Wealth, by Edgar Villanueva, are resonating so much right now. We're living in a time of intensely concentrated wealth and intensely concentrated poverty. At the same time, we're watching the equivalent of modern-day lynchings on our iPhones, we're seeing children torn from their parents and thrown into cages, we're seeing a huge rise in Islamophobia and outright bans on people from certain countries.

Solutions to problems like those cannot be dictated solely by people for whom access to capital is a given. While many of us might have been born on third base and had home plate moved halfway up the line in our direction, we are not in the best position to conceive of the solutions we need to the urgent problems we face. Those solutions need to be designed by folks who have struggled and are more resilient because of that struggle. By folks who have a deep understanding of the problems and who have a vision for their communities. If those people are not at the table with us determining how philanthropic capital is allocated, it means we are wasting resources and diminishing our return on investment.

Right now, the conversation people are having about racial equity is largely about the sharing of power and resources. It is not a conversation about representation. Equity is about changing the default operating system. Do I think philanthropy is a space with well-intentioned, thoughtful people and a tremendous amount of resources? Yes. Do I think it is as accountable to the communities on whose behalf it works as it needs to be? No.

PND: You did an interview with Marshall Field V for StoryCorp in which you mentioned the "unsaid" in the work of philanthropy. What are some of the things that go unsaid in philanthropy?

AP: First of all, that was one of my favorite interviews. I love that he sold encyclopedias door-to-door to learn everything about the businesses he ran. We have it on our website if anyone is interested in hearing more of his story.

But to answer your question about the unsaids in philanthropy, racialized systems and racism are the biggest. We talk a lot about "achievement gaps" and "immigration reform" and "community engagement" and "hard-to-count" populations. But we avoid the word racism, and I think that's because we associate it with people with tiki torches and polo shirts spewing intolerance and hate. As I mentioned earlier, hate crimes in the America are on the rise, and we haven't seen this kind of blatant dog-whistling in decades. But when we attempt to be race agnostic in philanthropy, we ignore how racism is designed. If we can't start with the correct diagnosis — which is that the history of our country is one in which genocidal policies targeting Native peoples were the norm and black people were enslaved for centuries and poor white people were trapped in indentured servitude well into the twentieth century and immigrants from some countries were and are turned away while immigrants from other countries are welcomed — then we will never be able to design solutions that address these problems.

I don't think most people understand what we mean when we say 'racial equity'. People think it's about including a person of color here or there. That's not what we mean....

To be honest, I don't think most people understand what we mean when we say "racial equity." People think it's about including a person of color here or there. That's not what we mean. What we are talking about is a rethink. It's about rebuilding systems so that they benefit everyone, and I mean everyone. Often in these conversations we pit communities against each other: urban communities of color versus white rural communities, for example. We need to understand that there are more similarities there than differences.

PND: When you look at where we are as a country, where we've been, and where we're headed, can you say that you are optimistic?

AP: I am an optimistic person by nature. While I believe one can and should be skeptical of systems, especially entrenched systems, I think you have to be optimistic because those systems, at the end of the day, are controlled by and can be changed by people. Today, more than ever maybe, people are desperate for connection and to be understood. We long to belong to something bigger than ourselves, to let our bravest selves shine through. People are awake. There are more women in Congress than at any other time in our history, we have our first black openly gay female mayor in Chicago, and people across the country, from every walk of life, are getting involved, joining school boards and running for city council and working to turn out the vote.

So, I am optimistic, extremely optimistic, that by shifting the allocation of power and resources we will go much further, much faster, toward designing the solutions the country desperately needs. And we will be a better country for it.

PND's Matt Sinclair spoke with Power in April. For information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at Mitch.Nauffts@Candid.org.