On Wednesday, March 3, 2021 the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) presented the latest event in its Humanistic Knowledge in the 21st Century series, “Forward-Looking Philanthropy: A Virtual Conversation Among Funders and Black Scholars.” The discussion was moderated by Richard J. Powell, ACLS board member and Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University. 

The featured panelists were:

  • Kal Alston, Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Syracuse University
  • Brandi C. Brimmer, Associate Professor of History, Spelman College
  • Andrew Delbanco, President of the Teagle Foundation
  • Adam F. Falk, President of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • Dorie Gilbert, Dean of Arts & Sciences and Dean of Graduate Studies, Prairie View A&M University
  • Dwight A. McBride, President of the New School
  • Na’ilah Suad Nasir, President of the Spencer Foundation 

ACLS President Joy Connolly’s welcome set the stage for a lively conversation, which drew a global audience of nearly 300. She noted the ongoing commitment of ACLS to building a diverse academy, emphasizing that the events of the last eighteen months “transformed principle, belief, and commitment ever more urgently into concrete action.” At ACLS, this included the introduction of the Emerging Voices Fellowship last summer, and an effort to increase the diversity of the ACLS Associate member network, which now includes 34 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI).

Following, Richard J. Powell moderated a rich, engaging discussion for 90 minutes on what forward-thinking philanthropy looks like, particularly for Black scholars. The esteemed panel represented diverse perspectives of scholars, administrators, and funders, all of whom emphasized the importance of intentionality in philanthropy directed toward Black scholars, as well as a need for continued questions and bold, concrete action.

The roundtable included a wide-ranging discussion of several topics including:

The Importance of Understanding and Addressing the Barriers Black Scholars Face

Brandi C. Brimmer: “These things just aren’t available all the time, or they’re there at a much lesser extent: support for research, the ability to go to conferences, support for writing groups, the ability to create the very cohort sense…there’s definitely a gap, certainly even at the associate professor level, what the options are at the institutional level.”

Kal Alston: “Particularly in going after foundation funding that’s not tied to a fellowship… you need to have a community in which you can develop a prospectus and a proposal. And I think it’s important for us to nurture those networks across kinds of institutions. I’m an interdisciplinary scholar, so I always think interdisciplinarily. I would hope that foundations can help to fill that gap because it’s not always viewed in institutional research offices.”

Adam F. Falk: “It’s very easy to sit at a foundation and think that all these pieces of paper that come over the transom with proposals on them had the same resources behind them [and] came out of the same context. That’s just not true. And so engaging with scholars and understanding the reality of the conditions under which people have had to do that work, engaging with a wider diversity of institutions, particularly minority serving institutions…is understanding the challenge of that lack of support because of lack of resources that many of many of those scholars might have.”  

The High Value of Listening Sessions In Creating More Equitable Philanthropy and Institutions

Brandi C. Brimmer: “As a Black scholar, working at a Black institution, I think it’s really important to see HBCUs as important sites of knowledge production…Moving forward, it’s really important to bring in Black faculty working at Black-majority institutions to the table at the planning phase…bringing these voices to the table at those stages might create something new.” 

Dorie Gilbert: “Intentionality is very important with funding scholars at HBCUs, and I’ve had the fortune [of] being able to speak with my faculty members and they have some very concrete ideas about how we can move forward with that. Having more summer research grants and semester-long courses, release grants, fellowships that bring scholars from diverse institutions together for book projects, and semester-long HBCU faculty exchange programs with other institutions and with well-established humanities research centers.”

I’m a Black person in this country. My ancestors dreamed of freedom when someone would have said that’s not realistic. And so how do we hold a vision that we can’t see, and then really fight in all of the spheres of influence that we have to make that vision a reality? Na’ilah Suad Nasir, President of the Spencer Foundation 

The Necessity of Collaboration and Considering the Health of the Higher Education Sector

Dwight McBride: “We have to begin to think about the health of our sector…and I think the future is going to be really leaning more into strategic partnerships, thoughtful ways of working with neighboring institutions, using this extremely powerful platform that we’ve all been now forced into of Zoom and online and video, using that and leveraging that in terms of helping to achieve greater access to the things that we do have on offer.”

Andrew Delbanco: “Private institutions have public responsibilities, and they have not been meeting them adequately. They need to rethink their relationship to their local community and the broader community beyond the welfare of the students who have the good fortune to get inside the gates…if we can do something to turn that around, that would be very valuable.” 

Carrying Forward Lessons From the Past Year To Create Long-Term Change

Kal Alston: “It’s not just students who are having a mental health crisis, Black scholars have been having lots of balancing issues all along, exacerbated by what we’ve undergone in the last year…Normality wasn’t all it was cracked up to be to begin with.”

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: “One of the powerful things about the reinvention we’ve seen is that all the rules that we thought we had to stick to all of a sudden got all thrown out the window…If we can just hold that spirit, that some of the things we think aren’t changeable or aren’t moveable actually are changeable and are moveable, then we can create anew.” 

Dwight A. McBride: “This is the time to be bold, and I don’t say that lightly, it’s not something that the Academy is known for. Change usually happens quite incrementally…But I do think it would be irresponsible to history, to this moment, and to the institutions we represent and their long-term sustainability, for us not to be courageous in these moments, in terms of imagining what are the new opportunities that have come out of this incredibly grand forced experiment that we’ve all gone through.”

Importance of Operating From A Place of Vision, Hope, and Possibility, Not Panic

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: “I’m a Black person in this country. My ancestors dreamed of freedom when someone would have said that’s not realistic. And so how do we hold a vision that we can’t see, and then really fight in all of the spheres of influence that we have to make that vision a reality?”
Adam F. Falk: “I think we should be acting out of a sense of possibility…we often fall into a narrative of impending doom. And I think that doesn’t motivate people. It makes people actually hunker down within the ways that they’ve already been doing things…and I think we need to do just the opposite. I think foundations, which can be as conservative as university faculty about what they’re willing to fund and how they’re willing to engage with those foundations, have to do the same thing. They have to be out there funding [in] really new ways.”