Courage and Commitment: Our Personal Journeys for Racial Equity

There's a blackboard with "are you ready?" written on it in white writing

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

—Winston Churchill

As NCFP’s 2020 Class of Fellows, we’ve been sitting down and doing a lot of listening. Not the kind of listening you do at a plenary session or on a webinar. The kind of listening that requires some courage. Courage to be in spaces and conversations that are often uncharted waters and make us entirely uncomfortable. Experiences that bring up unspoken realities that weren’t taught in our education system…and in many cases are still not taught or spoken about. Discussions with people from all different races, classes and lived experiences that illuminate personal stories and raw emotions. Inner dialogues that examine our unconscious biases. This takes the kind of courage that allows oneself to be truly vulnerable; gives permission to fumble and recover; and turns the mirror on ourselves to unpack how we are really showing up in these spaces.

Welcome to three women’s journeys around racial equity in the field of family philanthropy.

Our hope is that sharing our journeys and putting ourselves out there in uncomfortable ways may inspire others to do the same, for if we are to truly be effective change makers in philanthropy, we must intentionally examine the history that has created so many of our social problems and inequities and we must center race in our thinking and approach.

We definitely don’t presume to be the experts. But what we do know is that each of us individually has been navigating a path that has led us to believe we need to speak up…we need to sit down and listen…and we need to understand that this work is forever work.

Here’s a brief look at where we each started…

June Wilson – NCFP Fellow Class of 2020, Executive Director Emeritus, Quixote Foundation

I joined the staff of Quixote Foundation in 2007, entering the universe of family philanthropy eager to expand my experience as a grantmaker and strategic thinker. Early in my tenure, while attending a conference, I was asked, “Are you staff or family?” When I answered staff, the person politely ended the conversation, walking away from me, without exploring if I had anything valuable to offer. It was a missed opportunity for both of us. Over time I grew to accept this interaction as the way of family philanthropy, and I became less confident in my ability to effect positive change. My acceptance carried with it an unspoken belief that my value as non-family had limits.

Fast forward seven years: I am at the Grantmakers in the Arts’ conference, attending an off-site session at the Holocaust Museum Houston titled: Advancing Racial Equity in Grantmaking: A Long Table Discussion. The conversations on race and equity flowed freely within this improvisational story-based framework and I shared an unfiltered thought:

I have a scarcity mentality. As Executive Director and Board member of Quixote Foundation, I have all the power and privilege of my white colleagues, but when would I feel it?

Upon further reflection, I came to understand that feeling powerless to impact family philanthropy, for me, had roots in internalized racism. The only thing stopping me was me, and my fear. The Quixote Foundation family trusted me, and I had the authority to change how we operated and made decisions. I was the perfect person to make visible the ways the foundation reinforced racial hierarchy. It would take a leap of faith, it had inherent risks and I could no longer accept the implicit racial bias imbedded in our decision making. I jumped. And, in the end, everyone on the team came with me. Today, I eagerly continue my racial equity journey with family philanthropy through the NCFP fellowship. I am blessed to stand alongside Kelly and Mary, each of us on our own path. I’m committed to encouraging and amplifying our discoveries.

Kelly D. Nowlin – NCFP Fellow Class of 2020, Trustee, Surdna Foundation, New York, NY

When I was being interviewed almost ten years ago for board service on the Surdna Foundation, I was asked what social justice meant to me. While I had a general idea and was aligned with the values related to justice, I had no idea of what it meant to do work in this area. I quickly learned that naming social justice matters. It matters on how you operate, about what you learn and how you show up. It matters that we get as proximate (thank you Bryan Stevenson) as we can to the issues we are working on. It matters that we bring in diverse perspectives and leadership to lead our efforts. It matters to be authentic partners who listen, learn and co-design strategies and evaluation approaches with frontline organizations and communities. And, it also matters that the governing Board steps up with humility and courage to do the work needed to effectively lead a social justice mission that centers racial equity in its efforts.

I have spent the last several years learning from practitioners and grassroots leaders. I have listened to endless webinars around systems change strategies and power and privilege. I have asked thousands of questions and fumbled many times. It wasn’t until my first visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture that the complexity of this work and the need to go much deeper was illuminated. This was a curated history that I had never been taught before. What unfolded before me was overwhelming, horrific, shameful, and altogether disillusioning. Yet, what stands out the most is the resilience, power, community and amazing gifts of African Americans since the beginning of time. I find myself activated in a way that is altogether energizing and terrifying. The Surdna Foundation is a family foundation, but more than that, it is a public trust. One that I have been given the enormous gift and responsibility to steward. There is much we need to improve in our field to work more effectively and I hope my story might bring others along to teach me, to make me better and to join me on a march towards justice and equity.

Mary Mountcastle, NCFP Distinguished Fellow Class of 2020, Trustee, Mary Reynolds Babcock and Z. Smith Reynolds Foundations, Winston-Salem, NC

I realized early on that I had hit the jackpot in the accident of birth “potluck.” I appreciate my forebearers for their entrepreneurship and hard work to found a successful company and also their legacy of philanthropy and a progressive spirit. But those same progressive people came from families that owned slaves and paid blacks less than whites working in their factories. So their wealth, from which I benefit, was built partially on free and underpaid labor, as is so much of the wealth in our country.

The opportunity I have had to engage in philanthropy for many years has provided me with so much learning about heroic people across the South who have fought for decades to fight back against oppressive and often violent power, to provide opportunities and voice for marginalized people and communities and to build systeams that are fair.

Over the last number of years, I have spent time learning about my own prejudice and unearned privilege and how public policy and cultural systems have baked advantages for White people into their systems. This was not the history that I learned in school. If you question that putting racism into public policy was not intentional, google the Pocahontas exception or read Waking Up White by Debby Irving or The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein (among many good books).

I think working to achieve racial equity is what it means to be an American patriot in the 21st century. Philanthropy, especially family philanthropy, can do so much to advance this work. Our country’s stated values to become “a more perfect union” are what draws people from all over the world to our country. Let’s figure out how to live up to those values, and what we as individuals and as philanthropic institutions can do to march more quickly down this path.

Share Your Story with Us

As the three of us begin to lift up stories, models and tools around racial equity, we hope that you will share your insights and experiences; challenge us; and perhaps consider joining us as a thought partner on this journey. The more we can lean in together, and get comfortable with what might be uncomfortable, the greater chance we have to be effective in our philanthropic missions. We are grateful to NCFP for the support and opportunity to practice our work in real time with all of you. Stay tuned for more and please connect with us anytime at

June, Kelly & Mary