In October 2019, the trustees of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund traveled to the U.S. South for a deep dive into our Democratic Practice portfolio. We designed the trip to highlight the racial and economic injustices that underlie the issues our grantees work tirelessly to address: money in politics, partisan gerrymandering, and the erosion of voting rights, among others.
The trip ended in Montgomery, Alabama. From slavery to the Civil Rights movement, downtown Montgomery carries the weight of four centuries of brutal history. My wife Lise and I stayed an extra day to visit some of the touchstones: the slave market that was the epicenter of the domestic slave trade, the stairs on which Governor Wallace railed against desegregation, the church where Martin Luther King became pastor at age 26.
We came to the bus stop made famous by Rosa Parks. “At the stop on this site on December 1, 1955,” a plaque hoisted on a pole reads, “Mrs. Rosa Parks boarded the bus which would transport her name into history.” Before we could finish reading, a man approached us.
He was black and looked to be in his sixties. A T-shirt hung loosely on his thin frame.
“Do you know where Rosa Parks boarded the bus?” he asked.
“I assume here,” I replied, pointing up to the plaque.
“Actually, it’s there." He gestured down to a leaf-shaped medallion embedded in the sidewalk a few yards away, which we may have stepped over, unnoticing, without his guidance.
Sensing our interest, the man pointed out other historical sites, all within a stone’s throw, as he rattled off names and dates. I couldn’t help but ask him how he had come to acquire his encyclopedic knowledge of Montgomery’s Civil Rights history.
“I was in the penitentiary for 30 years,” he said. He told us about a former cellmate, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. "He asked me once, ‘Do you want to know how white folks keep things the way they are?’”
He paused to let the question sink in.
“They write it all down.”
The adage that history is written by the victor alludes to an underlying truth: written history is rarely complete. We white folks have kept things the way they are as much through what we haven’t written down as through what we have.
Many of the RBF trustees on the trip came to the South with years if not decades of higher education, social circles including the most distinguished researchers and academics, and homes filled with books. Our cell phones pinged with the latest alerts from CNN and The New Yorker. Yet time and again during our week-long trip to the South, we were reminded that the most important lessons can't always be learned through written reports or formal studies.
We were reminded of this on a tour of the Virginia State Capitol, home to the oldest legislative body in North America. The Capitol celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2019, proclaimed a guide who touted his deep local roots but failed to mention that 1619 was also the year that James Jope first brought slaves to America via Jamestown.
We were reminded of this at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. Every week, researchers there working under the guidance of the brilliant Bryan Stevenson are discovering more and more undocumented stories of thousands of black Americans tortured and killed by whites between 1877 and 1950.
Lise and I were reminded by the man at the bus stop. While his historical knowledge no doubt owed thanks to books, plaques, and maybe even local storytellers, his life experience as a black man—including his decades in a Jim Crow relic penitentiary system—inspired him to give this history new meaning and take responsibility for its proliferation.
It is one thing to read about the institution of slavery or the legal victories of the Civil Rights movement; it is quite another to experience every day their legacy through the lived reality of racism. At this intersection of learned knowledge and lived experience lies a turning point for philanthropy: earned knowledge.
Learned knowledge was the gold standard for 20th century philanthropy. Early philanthropists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie gave under the directive that “the millionaire will be a trustee for the poor, entrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself.” This model of philanthropic practice celebrates educational accolades, academic research, and professional achievement while glossing over—or outright dismissing—relationships, community engagement, and lived experience.
But the learned knowledge model of philanthropic practice is inadequate to the challenges of the 21st century. At its best, learned knowledge philanthropy is conducive to top-down solutions, often of a scientific nature, such as the discovery of the polio vaccine in 1955 and the eradication of the disease in the United States. At its worst, learned knowledge philanthropy can be arrogant and patronizing, entrenching racist systems and structures and reinforcing distrust in elites, thus undermining philanthropy’s legitimacy.
The enduring challenges we face today require us to elevate lived experience and value it with the same enthusiasm and passion that we have historically valued learned knowledge. As we move into the second decade of a new century, philanthropy must augment our learned knowledge with an earned knowledge model that can help unleash inclusion, bottom-up creativity, and bolder experimentation to uproot the legacies of inequity and violence that continue to plague our society.
We can never acquire the lived experiences of those most deeply affected by the injustices we hope to upend, but we can and must strive to bring them into our practice by inviting the earned knowledge of those who have it into our lives and work. For philanthropy, this means seeing grassroots and community leaders as more than grantees, but as partners and leaders in our mission to create a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world.
Inviting those who feel the everyday impacts of a history of oppression into our work requires vulnerability and humility. We must earn their trust. We must leave the comfort of our New York offices to meet face-to-face and develop authentic, inclusive relationships. We must be willing to experience discomfort and to confront the injustice of our privilege. We must turn to others and not simply expect them to come to us.
The Rockefeller family members on our board, heirs to one of the largest private fortunes ever known, cannot themselves acquire the earned knowledge of Americans descended from slaves. Lise and I will never fully understand the sins of our country’s past, and its present injustices, the way they are understood by the man at the bus stop who took the opportunity to show us where Rosa Parks really boarded the bus on that fateful December day. We will always be off, so to speak, by a couple feet.
Yet when we open up, listen to, and follow someone who knows where to look, we can get closer.