“Why do you call yourselves philanthropists? That’s like calling an average student a scholar,” a woman said to me once when she learned the label I had adopted for myself. She is a member of one of the wealthiest Black families in America. How could I dispute her claim when obviously she knew about a world — and a level of giving back — that I was far from? Nevertheless, I did the best I could to defend the use of the word "philanthropist" to describe myself and the cohort of young, Black community leaders I have come to know through my work with Friends of Ebonie. Yet, nothing I could say could convince her that I wasn't abusing the label. Her words took the wind out of my sails.
The fact that most givers in our communities don’t see themselves–or each other–as philanthropists isn’t odd. For a very long time the term has only been applied to the extremely wealthy, who also happen to be White. That's why, despite serving as a vice president on the junior board of a large non-profit, being a member of two giving circles and a young patrons circle, taking on at least six volunteer projects a year, and making significant year-round donations–including my tithes–using the word "philanthropist" to describe myself hadn't entered my mind. I was a do-gooder, an agent of change, or just a really busy young professional outside of my day job. A philanthropist? Nah.
Until about a year and a half ago. That's when I met an organization full of young Black professionals doing the same type of work I do who called themselves "young philanthropists." They described philanthropy as an action of donating time and money. That sounded just like me! And I have called myself one ever since.
The word's Latin and Greek roots mean the “love of humanity,” which can be translated as selflessly giving to others in need. Nowhere in this definition does it say, "only those who write really big checks." In fact, it implies just the opposite: anyone who gives of himself or herself to another human being in need is a philanthropist. According to the W.K. Kellogg Cultures of Giving Report, “philanthropy is being expressed in communities of color in a multitude of ways that are not always recognized, counted or valued as philanthropy.” But as times change, passions increase and the realization that philanthropy means generosity in donating time, money and know-how, communities of color–and particularly African Americans are, “re-framing philanthropy,” as Valaida Fullwood, Black philanthropy thought leader says. And in this new frame also exists millennials: Black millennials.
"The days of old, rich men dominating the philanthropy space are long gone,” penned Eleanor Goldberg in a "Huffington Post: Impact" article describing the new wave of young, black philanthropy. Acknowledging the sentiments of other leaders, Goldberg continued, “young African Americans are an untapped resource when it comes to encouraging charity and volunteerism.” This potential, this capacity, is why we must take our place at the table of philanthropy.
Getting humble people to adopt the label isn’t an easy feat, but it is necessary if young, Black donors and volunteers are going to continue to shift the old paradigm of the word. I’ll admit, it took awhile for me to bounce back after the wealthy woman shot down my right to the term. But it only proved that the work to inform the world about the expansive truth of philanthropy is far from over. No single person, race or class of people has the right to claim ownership over impactful giving or limit it's scope to merely dollars paid or money raised. The more mirrors we see of ourselves as grassroots organizers, board members, and financial donors, the more we will be able to accept our place as modern-day philanthropists who look into our own communities and define for ourselves who we are and what needs to be done.
If we don’t, someone else certainly will.
Ebonie Johnson Cooper is a freelance writer, philanthropist and thought leader on millennial social responsibility and professional development. Her energy can be read weekly the blog of Friends of Ebonie. Home is Brooklyn, NY; she frolics often in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter @EJCThatsMe.