Racial Justice in Family Philanthropy: A Conversation Between Nick Tedesco and June Wilson

Edgar Villanueva and Liz Thompson at the 2019 National Forum on Family Philanthropy

Prior to Nick Tedesco’s official start as president and CEO of the National Center for Family (NCFP), he attended NCFP’s conference where Edgar Villanueva discussed white supremacy and racism in philanthropy. In a candid conversation with Compton Foundation Executive Director June Wilson, Nick reflects on his reaction to Edgar’s session at the Forum and how that was a catalyst on his own racial equity journey. Now, Nick and NCFP support a commitment that racial equity is essential to effective family philanthropy. In many ways, Nick’s journey mirrors the experiences that many family philanthropies are having–an essential time of growth and learning. We hope his reflections provide new insight as you continue to learn, and adapt your practices accordingly. 

Listen to Nick and June’s powerful discussion, which kicked off NCFP’s Racial Justice in Family Philanthropy Symposium.


June Wilson: Nick, thank you so much for agreeing to allow me to interview you. And I want to ask you to take a moment to reflect back. I met you as you were coming into NCFP. You weren’t even the CEO yet. You came to your first Forum and you and I met. And so I want you to take a minute to reflect back to the 2019 National Forum. And I want you to reflect… I’m going to invite everyone in the room to reflect with the clip. We have a 30 second clip of Edgar talking at the Forum.

Edgar Villanueva (recording): I have learned to use the word white supremacy, because when we say racism, it just is a little bit nebulous, right? When we say white supremacy, we are explicitly naming who benefits from the system and who does not benefit from the system. So it’s just a little bit more clear. The other thing that I want to say about white supremacy, when I throw that out there, I’m not talking about white people. I’m talking about a ideology.

June Wilson: So, remember that?

Nick Tedesco: I remember it well, I remember it well. So June, I wanted to really begin by acknowledging that this is a difficult conversation to have. I want to acknowledge my own feelings. This is a difficult conversation to have, but this is a conversation that needs to be had, and it needs to be had here in this moment, it needs to be had with families across the world. And I am learning, and through your mentorship, have been learning to sit with that discomfort. I just want to thank you, before we get into the conversation, for your guidance, your mentorship, over the past two years. You are an extraordinary and a patient person, and I am grateful to you and indebted to you for your guidance throughout my learning. So thank you June. It’s just been a privilege.

June Wilson: Well, you’re welcome. And let me just ask you a question to have you start. So, as you looked at that clip and the journey that you came in, once you really came in as the CEO, you chose to be explicit around race equity, and equity. How did you get there and what led you to that? And I’m guessing a little bit of this clip, but talk about that.

Nick Tedesco: Yeah. Yeah. So the Forum is really where it began in earnest. This conversation at the Forum that took place was a huge catalyst for me. So as I reflect back, I think of a few things, how I felt in the moment. Despite working in philanthropy for quite some time, on a personal level quite honestly it was jarring to hear the words white supremacy. And it really prompted me to reflect on the meaning of those words and interrogate the assumptions I had about them. So, as I sat in that conference, I had to ask myself, why am I feeling so uncomfortable with those words? Why am I leading with an emotional response? Why does this feel so personal to me? And it brought up a lot of questions. Questions that I hadn’t wrestled with, but questions that I knew I needed to wrestle with.

And it also prompted me to reflect on the conversations that I clearly had not been having, working in philanthropy for the 15 years prior. And it really brought up for me a question around why I have not been thinking about equity more clearly. I had been advising families, walking alongside families for the decade prior to joining the national center for family philanthropy and I always centered effective practices in my conversations with families. And yet I realized that I had not fully connected the concept of effectiveness with equity and that in many ways I was focusing too much on the academic side of this conversation. I was focusing on what the textbooks narrate around effective practices and not the proven practices of listening, of being in community, of understanding the deep bias, the deep racism that is impeding progress.

And so as I reflect back, I see with just stark clarity that the conversation on racial justice was just not one that I had brought forward really at all with donors. And in retrospect, it’s shocking because I recognize that equity must be present for philanthropy to be effective and I don’t know how I didn’t see that before. But I think it’s telling of where we are as a sector, and as donors, as human beings and where our blind spots are and also where the distribution of wealth is concentrated. But the fact is, and this is something that I have lived into, that we can’t separate effective practice from equity and justice. Equity is fundamental to effective philanthropy. And it’s the conversation that we need to be having.

A couple of more reflections on this. Listening to Edgar was akin to someone shaking me to wake me up and see something that I had not been able to see before. And with most opportunities for enlightenment, you now can’t unsee it. So I have been called to learn to reflect, and that’s what I have been doing. So ever since I’ve been on a journey to depersonalize, as Edgar mentioned, that as a white man, racial justice is not an attack on me as an individual. It’s an attack on the systems that have promoted my success, while impeding the progress of others. And while depersonalizing that, I recognize the need not to disconnect from that. And that is the important thing that I encourage us all to do.

Something else really struck me and June you and I have talked about this. You know, one of the things that really stood out to me is as a gay man, someone who has experienced discrimination in many forms, very explicit discrimination and hatred and bigotry, I didn’t understand in many ways the true depths of injustice. I recognized the bigotry of those who were perpetuating the hatred against me, but how did I not see my fellow brothers and sisters that were experiencing hatred and injustice? And so this has been an awakening for me. It’s been a journey to recognize my own privilege, to acknowledge it for the first time and to turn around and ask myself how I can be an advocate, how I can be an ally.

So in full disclosure, I’m on the front end of my own learning and exploration. And again, I’m grateful to you, I’m grateful to Edgar, to Bari and many others who have helped along the way. And I left that 2019 Forum in Chicago, not having the answers, but I left with questions and questions that really propelled me forward in this role. The questions of how we can elevate the uncertainty and discomfort and provide some way to discuss equity in a meaningful and productive way. And that’s really what guides me.

June Wilson: You know, Nick, I really appreciate the arc of both recognizing where you had your own blind spots, the arc of trying to challenge. I mean, it’s a huge responsibility. You’re moving family philanthropy. And so in that recognition of, I have my own blind spots, in that recognition of how can we be explicit? In these conversations because it means that philanthropy gets to be more effective. What’s been challenging in this process for you? What’s been rewarding in this process for you?

Nick Tedesco: Well all of it’s been challenging and all of it’s been rewarding and that’s probably how it ought to be. So part of the challenge has been, as I mentioned, depersonalizing privilege. And again, realizing, as I mentioned, that racial justice is an attack on broken systems, not on individuals and that yet we cannot disconnect to this conversation. We have to personalize the impacts that systems of oppression have on individuals and communities and we have to hold that. And that’s been difficult. And so for us here at the organization, the learning process has really challenged us to think about a number of things. It’s challenged us to think about the representation of our programming. It’s challenged us to think about the conversation we’re having. It’s prompted us to ask ourselves, “Who are we serving?” “How are we serving them?” “What are the messages that we want to put out into the world and how authentic are those messages and how can we live into those values?”

It’s also really prompted me to think about how we can move beyond platitude of conversation and really promote action and how we can explore together, how we can commit to action together. And you had asked about how we got to a place of being much more explicit and the motivations behind that and I’ll touch on a couple of things that I think are worth noting here. I look at again, coming out of the Forum and what really prompted me to say, “Now is the time for this organization and for the sector to be much more explicit.” And I want to highlight two things that really motivate me in this work… continue to motivate me and have really informed this. The first is, and perhaps the most profound, is the feedback from our community and our fellows.

So I just want to share a few things on this. At the 2019 Forum, following that conversation with Edgar, it started a conversation. I heard from many members of our network, some who affirmed how important it is to have these conversations and how we need more of them and how they’re not getting a lot of opportunity for those conversations. And then I heard from others who felt deeply offended. And I started to realize, given the feedback, given my own reactions, that it was clear to me that we needed to dedicate significant time, significant space, to further interrogate these assumptions, interrogate our hesitations and provide an opportunity to come together and to explore this as a network with an open and honest space. And once I officially began my tenure at the organization, the feedback that I heard at that Forum was reinforced.

It was reinforcing in conversations that I had with network members and with fellows. And there’s this loud call, this rhythm of conversation around how we can go beyond the surface of this conversation and provide deeper learning opportunities, how we can challenge the community to think, to act differently. And at the same time, we had planning conversations with the fellows, and this was January of 2020. And I heard a resounding call from the fellows for us to focus on racial justice and to think about again, how we can make this actionable. And so we started to move on this. And the last thing I’ll say on this is that another significant motivator for me and for us as organization is exactly what you mentioned, the blind spots. The blind spots that we have as an organization. And I want to bring something to the light that I think might help each of you in the conversations with your family members.

One of the real moments of pause for me that affirmed that we need to do this work came shortly after I officially joined the organization. We had started the strategic planning process. It was spring of 2020, and we had our very first board meeting to launch the strategic planning process. And one of our directors named with a prompt of a question of what are our strengths, named that one of our strengths is that we are an inviting community for all. We are a big tent. And I had to really pause that process and reflect on whether that’s true and whether in us being silent in our programming and in reaching out to the BIPOC community, if we have actually been inviting to BIPOC leaders, or if we have been acquiescing to the majority, to the white majority. And we had, and so we ended up June through your guidance and leadership pausing, caucusing, doing some deep work around what was needed to actually face the truth, the fundamentals of where we are as an organization and where we need to go to get to a place of equity.

And it really brought into focus for me that we had some work to do. And at the same time the universe gives you exactly what you need. I got a letter, a gentle reminder from a trustee of a private foundation who had challenged us around an image that we were using of a BIPOC leader in a program where there wasn’t BIPOC representation. And that trustee asked us to reflect on who we are and how we are living into our values and to name our values. And it clearly pointed out that we were not embodying a practice of equity. And in fact, we were perpetuating racism and it forced us to reflect on how we could be an anti-racist organization.

And that is one of the central questions that led me through the strategic planning process, through my own leadership journey and through the design and development of our programs, to encourage you all to come alongside us in that, learning in that journey, recognizing that it’s not easy and this is the work that we need to do.

June Wilson: Nick, thank you so much for the honesty around what came up for you. I would say in the next sort of two minutes, if you can offer families who are really trying to take on racial analysis and really understand the lens, what might you offer them as a light or hope for them, and to encourage them to do this work? Yeah.

Nick Tedesco: There are three things that I would ask of everyone. The first is to be bold. I go back to a quote that guides me in my day to day and guides me in my work. You’re playing small, does not serve the world. And it’s a quote that I hold truth as a fundamental. Be bold. Take a moment to pause, right? We all need a moment to reset and then lean into the discomfort, the discomfort of not only reflecting on who you are and where you’ve been, but the discomfort of more clearly defining where you want to go, who you want to serve and who you want to be and take the time to reflect on your purpose, reflect on what it is that you want to see out of this work moving forward. And I would say that my hope is that all families realize as that equity is fundamental to effective philanthropy, you cannot have one without the other.

It’s not an issue to support. It’s a lens to be applied to all. And you cannot delink effectiveness from a deep focus on equity and justice and on changing systems that have perpetuated systemic racism for many years and many generations. So my hope, my call to action is that we can learn alongside each other. We can hold each other accountable. We can ask the questions. We can feel uncomfortable, but we can hold each other’s hands and we can do this together. And we can get to a more equitable world for all coming out from many conversations and reflections.

June Wilson: Woo hoo. Wow. Let’s all take a breath. That was awesome. Thank you so much, Nick.