Grant Oliphant of The Heinz Endowments at ComNet17
Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments and former Board Chair of The Communications Network, gave a rousing, inspirational, and impactful keynote address at ComNet17, urging social sector communicators to use their voices and speak up for their values in a time when none of us can afford to be silent.
Hi, everybody. My name is Shaun Adamec. I’m the director of strategic communications at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. I’m here to introduce Grant Oliphant, who’s the CEO of the Heinz Endowments, but interestingly who also was once the Heinz Endowments’ director of communications. When I learned that, I thought about all the bosses that I’ve had that just didn’t get it. Right? Those bosses that just … they didn’t get the perspective of a communications professional, couldn’t see when I was presenting a strategy or whatever, and giving that odd look, like something between dismissive and disdain. I thought about that look, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to work for a guy who’s had my job, who’s been a communications director?” Then I thought about all the good talented communications colleagues that I have that would make terrible foundation CEOs, present company excluded, of course. There’s something really special about Grant to have been great at both jobs, because he certainly is that.
For anyone who’s read any of his writings recently, most notably on Charlottesville, I don’t have to tell you how inspiring of a thinker, not to mention writer, that Grant is. I can tell you that his words, particularly related to Charlottesville, in that piece, gave voice to a sentiment that I was even struggling with articulating, but it’s something that Grant said two years ago at this event. Where were we two years ago? San Diego was two years ago? Raise your hand if you were at San Diego? Okay.
Two years ago at this event, Grant spoke, he said three things that he thought foundations did really well. The first thing he said, “Foundations bear witness.” We see what’s happening in the world and we reflect it back. The second thing he said, “We awaken empathy,” helping people to see themselves in the issues that we work on. The third thing he said that foundations do well is, “Evoke action.” Most importantly, he spoke about the inescapable connection between these things, how each is a precursor to the next.
I think about the times that we live in, the times that somehow gave license to events like what happened in Charlottesville, and I can’t help but think about how important all of our jobs are, and I’m really glad Grant is here to share more. Let me welcome to the stage, the CEO of the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh, Grant Oliphant.
Thank you, everyone. Shaun, thanks for that. Actually the worst thing in the world is to get a boss who knows what you’re doing. That’s the title of my talk.
I vividly remember my first Communications Network conference. You think I’m kidding, but the first couple of conferences that I attended, very small group. Actually in the years that I was chair, I think a couple of years, we actually could fit all of us in one of the breakout rooms. I was a bad chair. It was a small group of folks who were doing this work in those days, and yet an extraordinary opportunity. Actually, being back here at this conference has given me a bit of a reawakening. I am so impressed by how many of you are here and how serious you are about this work, and I’m tremendously grateful to the network. Hats off to the board, hats off to Sean, hats off to all of you for going from an organization that once upon a time had 50 people, and now we have 800 people here, and 800 people who are doing good, important work, because it’s really not about the volume. It’s about the nature of what you’re doing.
I am, I think, where I am in the position that I hold, which is the second time I’ve been privileged to be president of a foundation, because I came up through communications. I think the presence of so many of you in the room today speaks to the growing importance that foundations are properly placing on the craft of communications, and I think that’s to the credit of the field, and it’s to the credit of the network and to the credit of all of you that you’re impressing your organizations to do that.
However, I want to challenge you today and not leave it at that, because I don’t want you actually to leave here feeling satisfied with the progress that you’re making. I have never felt more urgently in my life that what you do is needed and you have to step up. We, all of us who care about the craft of communications and the practice of this work, have got to seriously step up our game.
“What I’m going to ask you to do today for the sake of the field and for the sake of the country, and for all the communities that you represent, is to speak as clearly and as forcefully as your purpose, your position, and your privilege, not permit, but demand, because I believe that they demand something of you, not permit you to do it.”
The place I want to start is with Darren Walker from the Ford Foundation’s annual letter, and he expressed in this letter a very simple, but fairly damning indictment of foundations in a period of time when we are being called to express moral courage and falling short. His basic premise was, “Look, we’re afraid of sticking our necks out, and we’re afraid of what people might think, and we play it cautious. This is not a time to play it cautious.”
If you doubt that, if you’re not convinced or maybe you think because the organization you work with may be a little further out on this, I’d just like you to think for a moment about the entire field and tell me how many foundation announcements you have seen with the moral clarity of the Golden State Warriors’ press release from two days ago. In that release, they managed to express precisely what needed to be said about the state of conversation that was coming out of the White House and out of Washington, and the priorities that they would place in response to that. The fact that they ended with such a clear statement of equity and inclusion, we’ll deal with the debate about equity later, but the fact that they put that out there, I thought was admirable, and so much clearer than so much of what I’ve seen from our field.
What I’m going to ask you to do today for the sake of the field and for the sake of the country, and for all the communities that you represent, is to speak as clearly and as forcefully as your purpose, your position, and your privilege, not permit, but demand, because I believe that they demand something of you, not permit you to do it. That, by the way, right there, was the short version of the speech. If you want to go out and have a drink and come back in 40 minutes, you can do that, but if you want to stick with us, I’m going to explain a little bit more about what I see.
“What does it mean to be, quote-unquote, ‘objective, neutral, nonpolitical,’ whatever term you want to use, in the context of a moment when people who oppose what you stand for are successfully defining your values as partisan, political values?”
I want to walk you through … Everybody talks about this moment in time that we’re in, and we all nod as though we have a common definition of what that is. I’m going to share mine. I’m going to talk a little bit about what I see is the moment, and I’m going to look at what I think that means in terms of the type of work that we do, and then I’m going to give you a bit of a framework for how I think people in our profession, people who care about communications, can respond to this moment in time. There are no silver bullets in this, but there are principles that you actually heard this morning from the brilliant conversation with Sarah Hurwitz, which I just loved. I thought there was so much in there, and you’ll see some similar themes, actually. Hopefully, they’ll resonate for you.
Three quick stories to frame this for you, and they’re stories about people I work with, heads of organizations that we’re privileged to work with as grantees and partners. This one concerns the head of a cultural institution, a very bright woman who is nearing the end of her career, who as the result of a strategic planning process in her organization, decided that the museum needed to become more culturally welcoming to a diverse community. They put up signs at the entrance to the museum that welcomed people of all categories of difference, and included on that list immigrants and refugees. She faced within a matter of hours an insurrection from her volunteers and docents. Docents, by the way, are the people whose job it is to welcome people into an institution, and the docents rebelled because the signs, they said, were too political. She refused to take them down.
Another story, head of an organization, very large, credible organization, had a group of young employees in his staff come to him and say, “We really think it would be a great team-building exercise and help the members of our staff from the LGBTQ community if we could march as a group in the Pride Parade.” He said, “Not only do I think that’s a great idea, I’m going to march with you,” and so they planned to march in the Pride Parade, and then a member of the board got wind of it, called a board meeting, and they were prohibited from marching in the Pride Parade. They marched anyway, but not under the banner of their organization.
Head of a science museum, who was doing an exhibit on the Anthropocene, the period of time where human beings are reshaping the planet, decided to do a deep dive, and that is an exhibit on climate change. When she shared news of the very serious, in-depth exhibit that they were planning, members of her board told her, “Be sure you present both sides.” She’s a very, very smart woman and she said, “I will present both sides of the scientific argument.” There isn’t another one.
“We cannot hide behind silence as though it doesn’t make a statement. You can lie in your silence as much as you can in your words. Everyone here has a responsibility in this privileged, amazing work to ask the question, how we personally and professionally aid and abet that.”
In all three cases, the people involved persisted to the extent they could, but this is a dynamic that we see happening all across America, particularly in any community that you think of as purple, where different opinions are butting up against each other, and we are encountering a nonprofit sector, the organizations that we are privileged to fund and do our work with and through, who are being stymied in their efforts to speak and exercise moral leadership, what they believe, the leadership that they must provide.
There’s a wonderful line. Actually, I never thought I’d see George H. W. Bush quoted in a way that I really admired, but there’s a wonderful line in Timothy Snyder’s book on tyranny, which I’m going to mention again in a minute, where he talks about the social sector. He says there was a former president who likened the social sector to 1,000 points of light, and Timothy Snyder’s line is that, “Like real stars, they are best seen against a darkening sky.” We’re experiencing a darkening sky for nonprofit organizations and for the social sector, and for people all across our society, and there is a real risk that those points of light will begin to wink out because they do not have the support to exercise the moral leadership that they know they need to in order to be relevant players in our society.
Here’s what I want you to think about in your work and to take home to the work that you do in your organization. What does it mean to be, quote-unquote, “objective, neutral, nonpolitical,” whatever term you want to use, in the context of a moment when people who oppose what you stand for are successfully defining your values as partisan, political values? A couple of years ago, you could not have had an argument with the science of climate change, but now for you to have an opinion on climate change is an opinion, not a scientific statement. To express that is a political statement, not a scientific statement. What does that mean for the work of the social sector?
Again, we get this word, “equity,” and I’m just going to say this quickly about equity. If Sarah’s in the room, I apologize, but here’s the thing. I’ve used “equity,” I’ve used “justice,” I’ve used “behaving justly,” I’ve used the diagram of the fence, and I’ve used fairness. I suggest using all of them. People who don’t want to hear the word aren’t going to get any of them. Use the one that in the context that makes the most sense seems the most comprehensible to you.
The point of this list is that, many of the things that we take as bedrock aspects of the social sector mission, these values that you see listed here are being defined as political and thus off-limits for the leaders of organizations that you fund. Not in every community, it varies, but I talk to colleagues across the country, and we are all experiencing this.
What happens if you get to a point where, as a nonprofit organization that is not allowed to talk about politics, your opponents have successfully defined your mission as off-limits because it’s partisan? What can you talk about?
There’s an odd variance of this, that actually didn’t start recently under this administration. It started years before, and I think it was started really by people who have seen an opportunity to silence the voice of the nonprofit sector on issues that it finds controversial. That dynamic is what comedians would call the “too soon problem.” In comedy, the “too soon problem” is, you can’t really make a joke about a real disaster in the immediate aftermath of it, because it doesn’t work, but if you wait a little while, suddenly it becomes funny. Thus does tragedy become comedy. The “too soon problem” for the social sector is that there are people who do not want you to discuss issues at the moment where they are most relevant.
I got a little annoyed the other day when I was looking at Twitter, which I try not to do, but I saw a post from somebody who said, “Oh my God, earthquakes in Mexico and three hurricanes in a row, it feels like the end times.” I immediately responded by saying, “It doesn’t feel like the end times. It feels like science.” I had people say to me, “You can’t say that. It’s not compassionate.” Well, so it’s okay to talk about what’s happening as though it’s the apocalypse, but not as though it’s something we can do something about.
You see this repeated over and over again. You see it with the fact that we had three catastrophic hurricanes in a row really ought to get people talking about climate change, but no, too soon. Shooting after shooting after shooting in this country really ought to get us thinking about gun policy, but in the moments after these shootings, nope, too soon. Catastrophic floods, supposedly 500, 100-year events that are happening every 15 years, telling people that, nope, too soon. Racist incidents like we saw in Charlottesville, talking about the fact that, gee, maybe they relate to the racist rhetoric coming out of the White House? Too soon. You might misjudge some of these very fine people.
I am not a cynic, but I couldn’t resist this when I saw it going around, because what they want, what you are told you are supposed to do, is thoughts and prayers. Send your thoughts and prayers. That’s okay. You can do your little compassion thing, but God forbid you would talk about how to stop these things from happening. Even if you fill that truck with food, and even if you fill that truck with supplies and badly-needed money, but don’t talk about why it’s going to happen, you’re just going to have to fill that truck again and again and again, and what you are doing is sending truckloads of empty promises.
When I was thinking about this talk, Sarah mentioned Judaism this morning, I’m inspired in a lot of my work by Buddhism, I was listening to a dharma talk about a concept in Buddhism called “right speech.” The concept in Buddhism about “right speech” is that if you really want to engage in wholesome speech with people, you have to ask yourself five questions, and I’m going to come back to these in greater depth in a moment, but they’re, “Is it true,” “Is it kind,” “Is it beneficial,” “Can it be heard,” and, “Is now the time?” That’s the sequence in which you ask the questions.
The beauty of this concept is, it also works for the flip side of this notion, which is “noble silence.” When is our silence noble? I think this is a question our field needs to ask itself at the moments when we are falling short in the way that Darren Walker pointed to. If we’re not living up to the full potential of our moral courage and we’re being silent, you have to ask yourself if that is true to what we are feeling and seeing in the moments when tragedy strikes.
“We cannot hide behind silence as though it doesn’t make a statement. You can lie in your silence as much as you can in your words. Everyone here has a responsibility in this privileged, amazing work to ask the question, how we personally and professionally aid and abet that.”
You have to ask yourself if it’s kind to the people who we say we care about, or is it just covering our own asses? I’m not sure if the word “asses” works like the F-bomb, but there you go. You have to ask if it’s beneficial to the situations that keep repeating and keep happening and to the people who suffer as a result of them, if we remain silent. You have to ask if our silence can be heard by the people whose lives that we’re trying to affect, and whether our silence is sending a message that they will hear, be it the people whose hearts and minds you want to change, or the troops you want to rally. You have to ask yourself if now is the moment for our silence, if now really is the moment when we should speak out instead, or maybe if we’re silent for a little while longer, a better moment will come along, because surely if we just wait a little longer, if we just be silent a little bit longer, then everything will be different.
Feminist writer and poet Adrienne Rich, I think, captured perfectly the concept that I’m trying to convey to you here in terms of our silence. We cannot hide behind silence as though it doesn’t make a statement. You can lie in your silence as much as you can in your words. Everyone here has a responsibility in this privileged, amazing work to ask the question, how we personally and professionally aid and abet that.
The tragic thing about this lying is that, things grow in the dark when you lie. We all know this to be true. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, though, who has studied this, and one of the things that he has found and scientific studies have found is that once people believe a lie, it’s almost impossible to disabuse them of that lie. It becomes an entrenched fact for them, no matter how much evidence or data you later present.
We have to be exceedingly careful about the lies that we allow to come into the world, and what happens in the context, what we are seeing right now, make no mistake about the moment that we’re in. Do not take it as lightly as we might be tempted to, because what we’re seeing growing in the dark right now are some very specific things. The rise of old hatreds, and these are things that we have talked about for decades in this country, like racism, but there are also emerging new strands of old hatreds like anti-Semitism. It’s suddenly okay not to be okay with gays and lesbians and march in the Pride Parade. We are seeing a rise of old hatreds that many of us might have wished or thought had gone away.
We’re seeing the return of old impulses, and this is the book I mentioned earlier. If you haven’t read this, please go buy yourself a copy. You can read it on the plane back to wherever you’re going. Timothy Snyder is a Yale historian who studied the extremist movements of the 20th century fascists and communists, left and right, and he found a set of common behaviors that allowed these extremist movements to rise and to power. If you feel this is too political a statement for you about one administration, here’s what I’d suggest to you. We are in a new period in history where the behaviors of this administration presage what will be coming next. The communications behaviors, the ways of thinking, the messaging that we see, do not expect it to go away suddenly overnight, regardless of what changes are made. Read this book, because you’re going to have to know it for your future.
We’re seeing inaction in the face of peril, so instead of being moved by the obvious warming of the planet and the scientifically proven, 97% of the scientific community agrees on this, instead of being moved by it, we’re frozen, we’re paralyzed. The North Pole isn’t frozen, but we are.
We’re seeing inaction in the face of peril on another front, maybe closer to home, with the worsening divide between the 1% and the 99%, which now actually is becoming more like the one-tenth of 1%, and the 99.9%. The latest estimate I heard was that the top one-tenth of 1% have wealth equivalent to 65% of the world’s population, and it’s getting ignored. A survey of my colleagues, foundation CEOs across the country by the Center for Effective Philanthropy recently, found that this was the thing that foundations were most worried about. This issue was the one that foundations were most worried about, and when was the last time that you remember our leaders talking about it?
We get attacks on truth and trust. You’ve got to give me some points, I made it all the way to the presentation without a photo, but I thought it was important in the context here, of messages being sent by the White House that speak to a divisiveness that really is, in my opinion, reprehensible and scary, but a willingness to attack each other and a willingness to attack the very idea of trust in any institution. We’re seeing this across the board from courts, to the media, to Congress, to whatever institution seems to get in the way. Of course, that is having the predictable result of dividing America.
I want to say something quickly about the aspect of this that has been in the news in the last few days, because I think it’s especially important for a white foundation leader, standing here in front of you, to address this, because I think too often we leave it up to people of color to have to talk about this. The President defended these folks and attacked this man. He can’t get a job because he is, quote-unquote, “disrespecting the flag.” Anybody who knows anything about the rite or ritual of kneeling knows what Eric Reid, who’s kneeling with him and helped him reach the decision to kneel, knows about what that symbolizes. It symbolizes reverence. It symbolizes a kind of prayer. What might he be praying for?
I’m struck by the absolutely staggering argument being made by folks who want to continue to attack Colin Kaepernick and folks in the NFL and in other sports who have followed him, who will argue that it’s not about race. It’s about race. Toni Morrison once wrote that the function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. What could the President in this case, or anyone else supporting him, want to distract us from? Maybe it’s the fact that Colin did this originally, and does it still, because this was happening and still is. Everyday in America, this continues, and because the initial response of the Black Lives Matter movement, and people in their communities in their rage stepping up against what they saw as police brutality in community after community, the original response, they were told, “This isn’t acceptable. You can’t protest like this.” You protest by taking a knee, and that’s not allowed either.
It’s about race, and the notion that these players are disrespecting the flag for expressing their deeply-held commitments is as silly as saying that Rosa Parks was disrespecting public transportation, it’s not my line, I stole it from somebody online, or as silly as assuming these people at a march are disrespecting the capital building. This is as American, in fact as democratic, as anything we do. Understanding that and embracing that is important, but this illustrates to me the stakes that we are facing.
What’s a framework for responding to this? I want to take the model that I gave you before about “right speech” and talk to you about courageous communications. We have to actually ask ourselves whenever we are undertaking the opportunity to speak. We have to ask ourselves the same five questions. We have to ask, when we see an opportunity to speak, “It is true?” What I would urge you to do is, as a practice, “Speak truth and call out lies.” I hate people who read slides, but these ones are important to me, so I’m going to read them to you. “Support organizations that do the same.”
That means despite what anybody will tell you about data not being relevant, support science, because here’s the thing about history that we tend to forget. In any one moment, it is much more effective to tell a person a story than a bit of data, but over the course of centuries, data wins, because people ultimately adapt to the data, because facts have this horrible way of intervening and making lies false over time. Invest in the cultivation of science, invest in journalism that actually attempts to tell the story of what’s going on, and in your roles in particular, call things what they are, and urge your CEOs to call things what they are. We do not need to do window dressing and call the alt-right “alt-right.” We could call it neo-Nazis. We could call what happened in Charlottesville what it is, like this woman’s sign says, but that’s on us. That’s on us not to use polite language for fear that it might be controversial, and instead to call things as they are.
The second you heard from Sarah this morning. Actually, you heard the truth one from Sarah as well, but the second question is, “Is it kind?” To me, the notion of kindness is all about intention. It’s about what you want to bring into the world. We’ve all had people who delight in delivering us bad news, and they’re saying, “Well, I’m doing you a favor.” You know that’s not true, but if the person’s intention is really to help you and uplift you, it can be true. What drives the difference for kind communications, in my opinion, is that it’s about purpose, that you are expressing your purpose and your values and you are being absolutely true to them. You are remembering that moral authority unused when it is needed most has no merit or value. You’re engaging around your purpose and your values.
If Frank Luntz had been here, one of the things he told us he would have said when we were doing one of our original planning sessions was that, America has two sets of values now. There are two Americas, and they have very different sets of values. I want you not to care about that. I want you to care about in the sense that, of course you want to bridge that divide, but if you’re not speaking for your values, who the hell is? Please.
A lot of us have been impressed by, again, okay, Golden State Warriors, comedian Jimmy Kimmel has done an amazing job of speaking about healthcare. He’s probably crossed a line we can’t cross in terms of advocacy around specific legislation, but he’s done a lot of things we could do. One of the things that we could do is be so passionate, as he is, being absolutely clear, unfailingly clear, about the values he’s bringing to the table. Why is he doing this? Because he had a sick kid. What did he see when his kid was sick? Other sick kids who couldn’t afford healthcare, and it changed his life. The values that come through from a story like that are intense and affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Why shouldn’t we do the same?
“Begin and listening means to get in proximity with people, get near to people who you are wanting to help and actually bear witness to some of what they’re struggling with, and try and connect with them in language and ways that they can understand.”
Notion of beneficial. Is what we are doing and communicating beneficial, really to me comes back to how you set a positive tone for the future. You have to point people towards somewhere that they want to go. I think this sector in particular has a responsibility for that. Let me tell you that you will never out-crazy the political guys. They win every time, but you can out-inspire. You can out-forecast. You can outshine them where it comes to pointing a portrait of the future that maybe people will want to be in. I’d really urge you, as you do that, to think about those who look to you for support, who look to you for inspiration and guidance. When you talk about an issue like refugees and immigrants, reminding people that we’re all immigrants, but also pointing to what immigrants bring to the country and the amazing strengths that they bring to the country, actually we can talk about how that’s what always made America great, and the future that we can create is the one built on the same bedrock principles but better than ever than they were before.
This notion of thinking about who’s listening is really important to me. In every one of your organizations, you may not get this sometimes unless you’re really, really arrogant, but you may not get sometimes how many people are listening to what your foundation is saying or isn’t saying. If your institution is conveying moral clarity and delivering tough messages, that inspires and awakens in them an ability to do the same. If you’re not and making it their responsibility, there’s almost no way they’ll get out front of the issue the way that you would hope they would.
I think our field is incredibly hung up on the notion of proving that something matters, and I actually had this debate with somebody the other day who asked me, “How do you really know that your Charlottesville blog made a difference?” I don’t care. I don’t care. I wrote that blog because it ripped out of me and I had to say what I had to say, and I believed it consistent with the values of the foundation that I’m privileged to lead, and I believed it consistent with the need of our community. I don’t know. I’ve heard from lots of people who have read it and have said that it helped. This often happens, but no, do I have an evaluation of it? No.
This is something that Rebecca Solnit said once that I just found brilliant, actually this was told to her by her partner who said to her, “You know what you do, but you don’t know what you do does.” We work in a field where we have to know every minute of every day what we do does, and maybe in the communications area in particular at a time like this, we have to let go of that and be willing to speak in a way that can’t be proven, but that definitely can inspire.
Notion of “can it be heard.” In Shaun’s introduction, he mentioned the three concepts that I shared with you a couple of years ago, and basically this is the same notion, all wrapped up into one. We know storytelling is effective. We know the way you get to a good story is actually by beginning and listening. What does that mean? It means actually spending time bearing witness to the lives of people that you want to help. I thought Katherine Boo’s presentation today after lunch captured the spirit of that perfectly. Taking the time to get to know folks and understand what they’re feeling and what they’re up against. Not the best, by the way, skill in philanthropy, not something we do exceptionally well.
Best speech I’ve seen delivered in the last five years was by Brian Stevenson, who told a deeply personal story about his going to a prison and being made to be strip searched every time he went to see this client of his in this prison, by a guard whose pickup truck outside had Nazi symbols on it. He shared how he went through this process of everyday going to see his client and putting up with this gross humiliation at the hands of this man who clearly hated him because of his race. Then something happened in the course of that story where that man suddenly got to know Brian Stevenson and what he was doing to help that man and other people like him. Suddenly there was a personal connection. What Brian Stevenson says when he talks about that is, “Get proximate.” Begin and listening means to get in proximity with people, get near to people who you are wanting to help and actually bear witness to some of what they’re struggling with, and try and connect with them in language and ways that they can understand.
We actually have a variety of tools to do this. One video that’s currently making, I guess, the circuit is a video called “Sacred Cod,” which actually does look at the plight of poor, mostly white fishermen who are struggling to deal with the impact of climate change on their livelihood. It attempts to make sense of what that crisis means for them in terms of their lives, and the economic activity that sustains them. It’s a documentary that attempts to get proximate with the people that it wants to communicate with.
We have a public media outlet in Pittsburgh called Public Source that we helped create, and they do this all the time. They recently did this project called “I Am a Black Girl And,” where they reached out to young black girls in the community who wanted to be journalists, and they started a storytelling campaign for these girls to tell their stories. Get proximate.
Finally, “Is now the time?” Ask this fifth question in the same way that you would of silence. My message here is that, there is no choice but to communicate when it counts, not when it’s convenient, because it will never be convenient. The thing about this work is that, the journey is forever, but the moment is now. The moment where we have to act and try to intervene and make a difference, where you and I have the opportunity to do this, is right now. I’ve been doing this work for about 25 years now. That slipped by in the blink of an eye, and I look at all of you in this room, and I think about what you’re going to accomplish over the next 10 years, and I hope to God that what you will accomplish over the next 5 to 10 years is that you will take seriously the moment in time that we’re in, and view it as a moment, and actually move to change what is happening.
We’ve all been exposed to this terrible photo, and I don’t want to leave it on for long, because it always feels exploitative to me, but here’s a truth about modern attention spans. We move from tragedy to tragedy with stunning alacrity, because the world is moving so fast, and by the blessings or curse of media, we’re exposed to everything that’s happening, and we’re changing the world so that it’s speeding up, both through technology but also through climate and other means.
The reality is that we have about a nanosecond of people’s attention to actually bring home a message, so that whole “too soon problem” that shuts us up and makes us be silent, get over it. Use the moment when terrible things happen to motivate people to compassion, to do the right thing, to do what the federal government should have done in Puerto Rico days ago. Definitely that’s part of our job, but so is part of our job calling attention to the fact that Harvey, Irma and Maria are no accident. We’re fueling the creation of this more difficult reality, and we only have the moment where people are paying attention to convince them of that.
Vince Stehle, who’s somebody who I actually met originally through the network and has been a colleague ever since, heads the Media Impact Funders Group, has made this statement and I thought it was worth sharing. “We need to stiffen our spine about acting when the tough moments come, and making the points that need to be made in the moment when people can hear them.”
On a larger scale, here’s what I’d invite you to consider. The moment we’re in now is now the time, is a moment where all of these values are in play, and all of the values that you go to work everyday to defend or to advance, and it doesn’t matter what your foundation does. If you’re a foundation in some way shape or form, you’re trying to do some version of these. All of these are in play. The whole notion of a civil society is in play at the moment. I just ask you, what of your work, your colleagues and grant-making, your CEO, your finance people, what of your work can you accomplish when these get taken away?
Okay, so that’s a lot of heavy stuff. I’m going to end with “Game of Thrones.” Every era has its metaphor, and sadly, our metaphor is walls. We’re going to build the wall. Many of us who came of age in a different era remember Ronald Reagan saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, take down that wall.” Now we’re going to build a wall. There’s a mythology about walls, that they protect us, that they are going to make us safer from some alien threat. Believe it or not, a lot of people actually find solace from “Game of Thrones.” They believe that that confirms … Do all of you watch it? I’ll try to explain it, for those of you who don’t watch the show. It’s so much in the culture right now.
“What your job is to do is to figure out through the asking of those five questions, is how we can as a sector fulfill our promise of tearing down walls and building bridges, and creating the society that should exist when those walls are no more.”
A lot of people think, “Look, if you know the story of ‘Game of Thrones,’ the reason the wall matters is that on the other side of the wall is the army of the dead, and they want to kill us.” Pretty much what was described in the campaign, right? It feels very reminiscent. The notion is that, on the other side of that wall, if you keep the army of the dead on the other side of that wall, everything is great. Here’s what we forget about “Game of Thrones,” unless you watch it, and then you don’t forget it because it’s so painfully apparent. Everybody on this side of the wall are truly horrible people. There’s nobody in “Game of Thrones” who deserves to live. They’re locked in this eternal battle, they’re horribly divided, they destroy each other all the time. Metaphor begins to feel a little more real, doesn’t it?
Okay, for those of you who are watching the show and didn’t watch the last episode of the last season, cover your ears, spoiler alert. In the last episode, the ice dragon, through some weird technology, burst through the massive wall, and the army of the dead breaks through. Here’s what’s going to happen as a result of that. I hate to spoil the literature for you, but if it’s like all literature, here’s what’s going to happen. The people on the other side of the wall, after great “Sturm und Drang,” are going to have to figure out how to get their shit together. They’re going to figure out how to save themselves, and there will be a new dawn for humanity. You see where I’m going with this.
Basically, your job is to tear down the wall. It doesn’t mean you’re the army of the dead, but it means that you play the function of people who understand that walls lock us into place. They lock us into opposition. They protect us from growth. They protect us only from the capacity to bump up against people who are different and people who can teach us in their differences. They really only freeze us into a horrible existence. What your job is to do is to figure out through the asking of those five questions, is how we can as a sector fulfill our promise of tearing down walls and building bridges, and creating the society that should exist when those walls are no more.
Thank you for giving me the gift of listening, and I just love the fact that I’ve been able to come back and talk with you all. Thank you.