A Time for Courage

At the Trust, 2023 has been a year of deepening our commitment to transparency, racial equity, and systems change. It has been a year of using our voice to amplify the power of the residents we serve in Forsyth County and around the state. It was also a year for celebration as North Carolina finally expanded Medicaid, clearing the way for more than 600,000 residents to access affordable, quality health care.

And it has been a year of setbacks as state and federal policy decisions overturned affirmative action at colleges and universities, restricted women’s health care choices, and threatened efforts so many have been making for racial equity.
This is no time for philanthropic mediocrity. It is a time for courage and action.

As we continue this journey to change the systems that have marginalized people by race and place for far too long, applying Mrs. Reynolds’ vision on today’s terms, we have learned important lessons.

Lesson 1: Be truthful

There is no trust without truth. What we continue to hear when we listen to North Carolina residents is that the past is still present, and healing has not occurred.

That is one of the reasons that, during our 75th anniversary in 2022, we acknowledged where our foundation has caused harm. We were transparent about the fact that the money we invest in North Carolina today came from tobacco profits and inherited funds originally earned from the sale and labor of enslaved Black people. We are now divested from tobacco and have committed more than $100 million to businesses that more directly benefit North Carolinians. Our decision to be transparent and to change our investments signals our commitment to the people we serve and our acknowledgement that to truly make a long-term impact, we must start with ourselves.

In 2023, we released an Equity Framework. It offers a collective understanding of what we mean when we talk about equity. To understand why our work focuses on racial equity and systems, we must start with the data, which shows the greatest disparities by race and place. But data alone does not explain the outcomes we see today. The Framework digs into our state and country’s history and context around education, health care and economic policies. The Equity Framework gives us an accurate diagnosis of the problem—people are not broken, systems are broken.

Lesson 2: Be bold

We decided to publicly reckon with our past because philanthropy has a unique opportunity to lead in this space given the power, privilege, and resources we hold.

When the US Supreme Court effectively ended affirmative action this year with its decision in ‘Students for Fair Admissions’ cases, there was discussion in the field about the risk to foundations if we continued to center diversity, equity, and inclusion in our work. I believe that is not the fundamental question we should be asking ourselves.

When foundations assess risk, we should be talking about the risk to the communities we serve if we stop centering equity.

Data shows across nearly every health, education, and economic indicator that inequities persist by race, meaning there is no credible route to systems change to eliminate disparities that does not go through racial equity.

If there ever was a time to be bold and proactive, it is now.

The people experiencing poor outcomes don’t have the luxury of going silent and halting the work needed to improve their lives. And we should not have that luxury either—we must continue to do the hard work to achieve our missions and use our voices to amplify the work on the ground. One of the ways we are doing this at the Trust is by funding more grassroots groups and organizations led by people of color.

Lesson 3: Amplify

First, we must amplify the data that paints the picture of what communities are actually experiencing. To that end, we created a Data Resource Library that can be used by grantees, community partners, foundations, and other stakeholders to access and collect data about the health issues impacting their community.

Second, we must amplify the voices and stories of people on the ground. We are supporting grantees’ communications, education, and advocacy efforts to illustrate how those disparities we see in the data impact people’s day-to-day lives. For example, we continue to invest in the PreK Priority–a coalition of Forsyth County nonprofits, grassroots groups, parents, and early childhood educators–to communicate and advocate for affordable, quality PreK for every child in Forsyth County.

Third, we must use our voice and leverage as philanthropists to share this work far and wide. After our 75th announcements last year, we spent 2023 sharing our story because we know we cannot do this work alone. It will take all of us—business leaders, government officials, teachers, parents, community groups, children—to achieve the long-term change that eliminates disparities and systemic racism.

In March, we were featured in the Chronicle of Philanthropy story “More Foundations Are Examining the Ethics of Where Their Money Came From – and Changing Their Grantmaking” along with other foundations leading the way around acknowledging their history and apologizing for places where they have caused harm.

I have traveled around the state and country this past year sharing our story. I have talked with foundation leaders at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Race and Health Equity Summit, the Grantmakers in Health annual conference, the REACH Foundation in Missouri, and CHANGE Philanthropy’s Unity Summit.

Our team has presented to national communications leaders at the Communications Network conference, southern funders at Philanthropy Southeast, and health care funders interested in supporting the news ecosystem at the Grantmakers in Health Fall Forum. We have met with healthcare providers, childcare advocates, entrepreneurs, small business owners and more asking others to join us in this critical work for systems change.

Lesson 4: Center hope and action

Our voices are louder and stronger when we work together. This means signing on to a joint philanthropic statement responding to the overturning of affirmative action. It involves pooling funds with other North Carolina funders to ensure we can get as many people enrolled in Medicaid as possible. It requires reaching out to unlikely partners to understand where our values and goals align and how we can partner to make real change.

This also means taking time internally as a team to reflect on the successes and challenges of our work, and taking time for ourselves, to catch our breath and rest, and enjoy our holidays fully.

This is hopeful work.

We are fortunate to work for an organization that strives for a more equitable, healthy world and state. I believe that together we can make progress toward long-term change.

As we approach 2024, we hope you will join us in creating a just, equitable society where everyone can thrive.

Dr. Laura Gerald, President, Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust