Delivered in Pittsburgh at the Heinz Endowment’s Nonprofits and the Call to Moral Leadership: Courage to Act Conference"
My friends, it’s good to be with you in Pittsburgh today. It is an honor to join you for this important gathering to talk about moral courage in the nonprofit sector. I couldn’t imagine a conversation I’d rather be having at this moment or another community I’d rather have it with.
This community has been rocked, as has this country, by astounding injustice and deep heartbreak in recent weeks. I don’t have to tell anyone in this room that the mass murder of eleven people at the synagogue in Squirrel Hill was the deadliest anti-Semitic hate crime in America’s history.
I don’t have to tell anyone in this room about grief and mourning -- unfortunately, you know grief and mourning. Just last year you mourned the traumatic shooting of Antwon Rose. These injustices devastate our communities.
What I want you to know is that the response of this community has inspired countless people across the nation to do one of the bravest things we can in the face of hate. We can decide to stand together, to stand for one another.
When we do this, we build a powerful force: radical solidarity.
Like Jews all over America and the world, I went to my synagogue on that Saturday with my husband, Kevin, my daughter Millie, and my son, Jesse. We celebrated many of the same joyous milestones – a baby naming, two bat mitzvahs and a soon-to-be marriage. There was so much love in that space and in our hearts.
Of course, we know that this wasn’t the first time that white nationalists struck against houses of worship. Oak Creek, Mother Emmanuel, and Louisville just days earlier -- those who sow division and hate have made it a strategy to target us when we come together in prayer and community because the very act of joining together is unacceptable in their worldview.
After the shooting, I went to a vigil with Millie, although I have not yet told her all of what happened. I have not yet told her about anti-semitism and how it is on the rise in the country. I know the fact that I even have that choice is a privilege. I took my daughter’s hand, and I stood with the people of my community and with allies from black and brown, Muslim & Christian, and other targeted communities. We sang, we prayed, and we drew together in love, and in this togetherness, I found strength.
In this togetherness, I was reminded that hate fears unity. And that unity takes work, in times of crisis and for the long-term.
At the Nathan Cummings Foundation we know that to build a just and democratic society, we have to take the long view. We don’t jump from election cycle to election cycle or headline to headline. We fund efforts to shape narratives, not just react to them. We invest in the poets and prophets; faith leaders, cultural strategists and artists who shape how we view the world, who articulate our shared values and humanity, and who open up our consciousness, and who can change hearts and minds.
The work we are doing and the change we seek takes many committed leaders and organizations like all of you in the room.
We believe deeply that our privilege comes with great responsibility and that philanthropy is the risk capital that supports brave people who can stand up to challenge the status quo. As funders, we must be willing to be brave, too.
I began my tenure at Nathan Cummings as the Foundation celebrated its 25-year anniversary. At the time, I reflected that the next 25 years would require bold action and audacious optimism. Over the last two years, we’ve been standing up and sharing the risks with our grantees, using our own voice more than ever before.
We came together as a board and unanimously decided that in these times, we could not be silent.
We spoke out about Charlottesville, children being separated from their parents and put into detention centers, and about the climate crisis.
That’s what we do. We join forces with those who see a better world, who have creative ways to motivate hearts and minds towards justice, and who know how to organize and mobilize so we have the power when it comes time to push.
Because when we stand together, we are strong. And when we do that -- when we decide that we will not allow anyone to divide us with hate and fear, that is radical solidarity.
The world has seen that radical solidarity here in Pittsburgh.
I want to share one story in particular, from Bend the Arc, one of our long-time grantee partners. They told this story in the Forward.
The local leaders at Bend the Arc Pittsburgh have been organizing in the face of a growing movement fueled by hate toward vulnerable communities. They never expected that violence would erupt in their own backyard. And through their heartbreak, they found themselves in the position to organize what they described as a deeply Jewish response, one that was both “political and mournful.” A way of grieving that kept them moving forward. They created an opportunity to hold hands with the community while holding politicians accountable.
With news that the president was coming to Pittsburgh, they had only a few hours to set the stage that would put this tragedy in its clear political context. They called in the networks they had built across many different issues -- from their work with people seeking refuge, to their protests against the Muslim ban, and with those partners they stood together and told the world that President Trump was not welcome in Pittsburgh until he denounced white nationalism.
These activists are, in their own words, “software engineers, lawyers, consultants, social workers, non-profit directors, and college professors.” They are a community of people who care and who were willing to stand up.
And they were standing up against hate for the Jewish community and immigrant communities. Faced with a choice, they chose to stand together and not retreat. They saw their political activity as a deep expression of their Jewishness. As their march began on a day that started with funerals, they reported that thousands of people showed up, Jews and non-Jews, including people from Pittsburgh’s black & brown communities, Muslim communities, LGBTQ and more, joining together to march through the streets and to say with the power of many voices: anti-Semitism has no home in Pittsburgh.
That is the power of radical solidarity. It’s about building deep and trusting relationships over the long haul and coming together not only in the face of tragedy. With radical solidarity, we saw this community go from devastation to determination, from fearful to fearless.
It was also not the first time Pittsburgh communities have come together across lines of division to organize, to grieve, and to honor the lives of those killed tragically.
After the murder of 17-year-old Antwon Rose in June, youth organizers from our partners at 1Hood and a broad coalition of other local groups, took over Parkway East for hours. Their protest was so powerful that it won over some unexpected allies: two truckers who were stopped by the blockage left their trucks and took part in the protest. In a video that later went viral, the truckers having seen the video, said they were ready to wait on the side of the highway for as long as it took. Two months later, the community came together with Antwon’s mom to center a response in love and create a celebration of his life on what would have been his 18th birthday.
We all realize that we are in the center of history in the making. One where we are fighting for the heart and soul of our democracy.
And make no mistake; this fight is not new. It’s deeply rooted in this country’s history, infrastructure, and culture. Our challenge is to ask the deeper questions about what is happening in our country that allows anti-Semitism, racism and hate to gain ground, not just in the last two years but for much longer than that?
When I think about this moment in history, I think about my Aunt Annie Daniels, my grandmother’s sister. A Jewish woman born in New Jersey, she went to Germany as a court reporter for the Nuremberg trials in 1946. She served as chief reporter during the trial of Hermann Goering, Hitler’s deputy and the second-highest-ranking Nazi on trial at Nuremberg. Aunt Annie never told us many stories from that time in her life, and I can understand why. But I think about her, sitting through months of hearings as the atrocities of the genocide against the Jews in Europe were recounted, and as one of its chief architects sat in the room, claiming ignorance and innocence. I think about what it took for my Aunt Annie to show up every day so that history would know the truth – so that we would know the truth.
I think of Aunt Annie as I think about our responsibility to bear witness and to write the history that has to be remembered.
I believe that history will remember this moment as a time in which two fundamentally opposing worldviews clashed. On one side is an emerging nation of incredible diversity and vitality. Our standard bears the political values of freedom, equality, and justice for all. Our opposition is led by a white nationalist social movement that has rallied their conscripts by preying on the fears and anxieties of white people who believe that prosperity is a finite resource that can’t be shared; that their identities, their culture and their rights in this nation are being taken away. They aim to sever the bonds of solidarity and smashing our democracy. Their leaders carry the flag of “us against them,” and use it for political gain.
We didn’t need more acts of violence to know that this great conflict is upon us, that anti-Semitism and racism cannot be ignored or underestimated.
But our pain ignited action. And we have had choices: to turn inward, or to reach out. In Squirrel Hill, The Pittsburgh Jewish community and its leadership stood shoulder to shoulder with leaders from the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and every major religious group, speaking with one voice against antisemitism. And I know this: It is up to all of us to commit to a strategy of radical solidarity if we are to win equality, justice, and the vibrant democracy we need. It is through the practice of radical solidarity that we will build our future, one where we all belong.
Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King gave his last, all-too-prophetic speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Dr. King recalled the Exodus story and the journey of Moses, who was brought by God to the top of Mount Nebo but would never see the Promised Land. At the time of his speech, the civil rights movement was divided. Dr. King was working to bring the Black-led movement together with other communities of color, and with the antiwar movement. Dr. King met with 53 non-black people of color-led organizations to build a greater coalition for the Poor People’s campaign; He was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers’ strike and bridge divides between the labor movement and the civil rights movement. The speech also marked one of the earliest calls for environmental justice. It was a stark shift and one the larger movement was not quite ready for, but he was persistent. It was an audacious idea: a vision for a radical solidarity among communities.
Today, we are funding prophetic leaders like Reverend Barber who revived the Poor People’s campaign last year. He believes in fusion politics. I love that phrase. The idea is that we are stronger when we stand together – black, brown, and white; LGBTQ and straight; people of all genders; religious and not; from big cities and from rural communities.
On the day Reverend Barber was awarded the MacArthur Genius award, he was arrested as he stood with minimum wage workers outside a MacDonald’s, fighting for better wages. At a sermon in Raleigh, he said, “If you think this is just a left-versus-right movement, you’re missing the point. This is about the moral center. This is about our humanity.”
This is about our humanity. Only when we see our humanity, and each other’s, can we honor it with love and caring. Only then can we take the risks necessary to demand transformative change. This is what radical solidarity requires of us.
And that is why at Nathan Cummings we stand proudly behind courageous leaders who are willing to show up and to stand bravely next to one another.
Radical solidarity requires us to see connections where we once saw lines not to cross. We’ve seen this with the #metoo movement. When actresses started coming out with their stories, female farmworkers wrote them a powerful letter. They said those really important words: We hear you. We see you. We will stand with you. And we ask that you recognize our experience and stand with us too.
Radical solidarity is how we can have disagreements and still love one another, and how we can build the kind of trust that lets us have courageous conversations and come together rather than split apart. We need this kind of courage now more than ever. A country divided is weaker than a country united.
Let me put it another way: if those who oppose us want to sell us the notion that it’s “us against them,” it’s our job to rewrite the “us.” “Us” isn’t just those people we’re most inclined to think of as our tribe. “Us” is all of us who believe that we can have a better future when we show up and stand together. Radical solidarity requires a new idea of “us.”
This kind of unity sounds nice, but the truth is that it is very hard in practice.
In philanthropy, building toward that new future means showing up – not just with resources, but with the full force of our relationships, with trust in our partners, and the power our influence has to call for justice.
We can’t just “support” moral courage. We have to practice it.
If we know there are risks in speaking out, we need to take those risks, and show up with our partners when they do. If we know that we will get pushback, then we have to stand closer to the front lines and not expect others to bear the brunt. If we want our grantees to make change, we need to be willing to make changes ourselves – like looking at how we shore up systems that widen divides, increase inequality, and perpetuate damaging narratives. That’s an uncomfortable look in the mirror, but an essential and honest one, and I challenge all of my philanthropy colleagues here to do it. It is a privilege to be where we are, and we must use that privilege to push boundaries and to hold ourselves accountable as we back those who will break through.
Radical solidarity is how we go from breaking points to breaking though.
I want to ask all of us to imagine: what does it feel like to live in that future? What does it feel like to know that in our journey toward it, we are surrounded by many, many others – some who look like us, and some who don’t; some who will protect us on the front lines, and some who we’ll protect; some who will teach us their songs in their languages, and some to whom we’ll teach ours?
That feeling – of bold action together – that is radical solidarity. That is the deep well of love we will use to quench hatred and division. That is how we will win, together.