Commentary by Philip Henderson, President

Twice in the past month, I have had the pleasure of hearing Angela Glover Blackwell, Founder and CEO of PolicyLink, speak.  The first occasion was at Surdna's Strong Local Economies grantee convening at the end of October in Baltimore, and the second was just last week at the annual Board Leadership Forum hosted by BoardSource in San Francisco.  Angela has been crisscrossing the continent over the past couple months promoting the new edition of her book, Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America's Future, co-authored by Manuel Pastor and Stewart Kwoh.  The audiences and context for the two speeches I witnessed were different, but Angela's finely tuned message was the same for both: we must lead with equity.  We, as nonprofits and foundations, cannot do our work in economic development, in health care, in environmental preservation, in education successfully, without first considering the equity problem.  Angela's message is crystal clear and compelling.  In order to solve the social problems we care about, we must put equity first and face it head on.  Only by solving the equity challenge are we going to make deep and sustainable change in the areas we care about.

For a good portion of the last twenty years, Surdna has worked on equity.  We have cared deeply about the injustice of our institutions and our power structures that make it enormously difficult for the poor generally and for people of color specifically to succeed.  However, for most of the past twenty years, our work on social justice and equity was in the background.  It was an unexpressed and underplayed aspect of Surdna's work.

Over the past couple years, Surdna has worked to develop a new mission statement and new programs.  During the mission development process, we came upon the importance of sustainability as a core concept that has infused our work all along and that would be emphasized as the central theme of our work going forward.  But, in conversation about sustainability, we came to realize that without equity, without social justice, the communities we care about and that we'd be trying to develop could never truly be sustainable.  So we began to talk about our work not as fostering the development of sustainable communities but as fostering just and sustainable communities.  We felt that it was no longer sufficient to imply that we were working on equity or to leave that to the background of our work.  We needed to put it front and center.

Angela Glover Blackwell would not be surprised to hear me say that this simple change - putting equity first - has truly reshaped the conversations we have internally, the thrust of our grantmaking objectives, and the kinds of strategic discussions we have with our grantees and partners.  When we talk about transportation reform, when we discuss entrepreneurship, when we wrestle with community driven design, Surdna staff always stop to ask ourselves and our interlocutors, what about equity?  To be clear, we are not an "equity" funder.  We are a sustainability funder.  But we understand that we cannot achieve our goals without considering equity because, in fact, we believe what Angela believes.  To achieve our aims, we have no choice but to put equity first.

Fostering sustainable communities in the United States — communities guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures.