A Note From Home

By Darren Walker

Dear colleagues and friends:

During these strangest of days, one cannot help but feel disoriented.

Our circumstances—and the way we make sense of them—are evolving so rapidly that, even as I draft these lines, I cannot know which will hold true tomorrow or the day after, much less during the weeks and months ahead.

The strangeness takes many different forms. As I work from home—practicing the “social distancing” that the experts counsel—the speed of news, closures, and conference calls is juxtaposed with an unsettling quiet. No one is bustling around my home office the way they would the Ford Foundation corridors.

How can things be moving so fast, and also so slowly?

And yet, I recognize that my lockdown in a Manhattan apartment, while hard for me to process, is certainly no hardship. Those of us who benefit from such privilege would be well served to remember this during the days and months ahead. Far too many are facing real hardships: frontline healthcare professionals, as well as retail, hotel and restaurant workers, and others for whom survival depends on hourly and tipped wages.

No matter where we find ourselves, though, we share the anxiety that comes with staring straight into the unknown—even if we’ve already been living with some elements of this altered reality. In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis is an extreme extension of trends and feelings of uncertainty that have defined the past few years: The unprecedented has become the ordinary, in nearly every facet of life.

Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, I have been reflecting on the timeless words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

As the pandemic and its consequences threaten lives and livelihoods, we see—yet again—just how inextricably our fates and fortunes are intertwined. We see how each of us is directly, and indirectly, responsible for those around us.

And even as this interdependence reveals certain vulnerabilities—this virus knows no borders—we must take heart. For, in these moments, our “inescapable network of mutuality” also serves a common good. It serves as a kind of social immune system.

With a crisis of this scale—given the volatility and velocity—we all wonder, what can I do? What can we do? And apart from washing our hands, avoiding crowds, working from home if we can, and supporting those who cannot—we must ask: What can philanthropy do right now?

If the specifics are still hard to grasp, the principles are clear. Now is the time for leadership and action—for common cause and common effort.

Already, many in our sector are joining together and delivering. Our colleagues at the Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, for example, have long engaged in a worldwide effort to improve public-health systems. They—along with Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Wellcome Trust, and others—are now undertaking bold and ambitious initiatives in response to this pandemic.

In real time, philanthropy is mobilizing across the United States, with foundations and funders establishing more than 25 emergency response funds in a matter of days—including our friends and colleagues in Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle. I’m pleased that the Ford Foundation is part of a group of New York City-based foundations and businesses that have raised $75 million and counting for the COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund. (Learn more about how to apply for support or contribute as a donor here.)

Meanwhile, the United Nations Foundation, the World Health Organization, and numerous international foundations have launched the Solidarity Response Fund to address COVID-19’s spread in the Global South.

In all of these ways and more, philanthropy is stepping up and stepping in. And these examples represent but a small slice of the total philanthropy nationally being marshaled at the regional and local levels.

Meanwhile, as funders play a modest short-term role in ameliorating this crisis, our grantees are providing the pathways to long-term solutions with powerful policy ideas and innovation. Organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Employment Law Project, Family Values @ Work Consortium, and others are championing bold ideas—once considered marginal—like paid sick leave, increases to the minimum wage, and even cash transfers to low-income households. All of these policies are now under serious consideration by policymakers in Washington and state capitals as leaders look to help communities that will be disproportionately impacted by this crisis.

As funders, we must continue to provide support—general operating support—to fortify their organizations so they are prepared to work with the private sector and government over the long term.

Speaking of government, the current crisis has brought in sharp relief and made crystal clear the compounding, pernicious effects of the decades-long assault on competent, productive government: We are relearning, once again, that a sclerotic and eroded public sector is not a point of political pride, but a matter of life and death for thousands. Now, more than ever, we see the necessity of a robust, capable, and coordinated federal government and thoughtful, inclusive, and trustworthy leadership.

No doubt, these are frightening times. And yet, from history, we can draw hope.

In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously exhorted that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Today, of course, we do have much more to fear: the unknown. The COVID-19 virus already has taken thousands of lives around the globe, and likely will take more. The markets are in freefall and economies are in turmoil, locally and globally. But even as the workings of the world slow down, we cannot be paralyzed. We cannot abide the anxiety or fear that keeps us from moving forward, and doing what must be done.

So, while the employees of most foundations today are working from home, we will not be sitting on the sidelines. None of us can. We need the same boldness, and truth-telling, and endurance for which President Roosevelt called, all those years ago.

We need caution, and courage, and calm.

And for all that remains uncertain—about the extent of this crisis and the ways that things may change—there is plenty we do know:

We know that facts matter—and that there is a difference between educating the public and stoking anxiety with hearsay and speculation. We must not succumb to fear and falsehood (especially online), and instead find ways to cope with our anxiety and console others. Above all, we must keep our heads and our cool.

We know that the devastating impacts of this crisis will be measured in cases and deaths, as well as the economic ripple effects for workers and their families. As with so many crises, inequality in the United States and around the world accelerates and intensifies these effects for untold millions. To paraphrase the old line, when the privileged sneeze, the poor get pneumonia.

We know our systems—our health systems, and our economic and political systems—will need to be rebuilt and repaired in order to address all manner of inequalities, and in order to handle continued disruption and dislocation.

We know that as this pandemic continues to evolve, we will need to bend without breaking—to be nimble, and agile, and flexible as the times require.

We know we must not act as though we are headed “back” to some kind of “normal”—because we also know this will not be the last crisis. We ought to learn from this moment and prepare for the next.

And we cannot say it enough: We will get through this, even if it is difficult to remember at every moment of every day. We know we will.

We will get through this. And we will be the reason.

After all, our “inescapable network of mutuality” is more than a web that ties us together. It’s the way we serve, and give to, and honor, and love one another—especially in times of trial. If our destinies are bound together, let us wrap ourselves in this garment of care, and let it shield us from the storm.

Wishing you renewed mutuality and good health,

Darren

Previously published on fordfoundation with Creative Commons License

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