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What should donors learn from Ibram X. Kendi’s problems at Boston University?

by Michael Nguyen
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Racial Justice Philanthropy

“What Can Donors Learn from Ibram X. Kendi’s Challenges at Boston University?”

Ibram X. Kendi, a renowned author and academic, has been a focal point of public discussion since the release of his book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” in 2019. However, in September, the spotlight on Kendi intensified when Boston University (BU) announced layoffs at the center he oversees, along with changes to its operational model.

This development prompted former colleagues and current collaborators to raise concerns about the BU Center for Antiracist Research’s ability to fulfill its commitments to its funders. Some former colleagues asserted that too much power was centralized in Kendi’s hands, while those opposed to racial equity seized the opportunity to criticize.

Earlier this month, the university reported that an initial inquiry found no financial mismanagement at the center. According to BU and Kendi, the decision to lay off staff in September was driven by financial sustainability concerns. Despite having raised over $50 million since its establishment in 2020, the center decided to host academics for nine-month fellowships rather than continue with its own employees. Additionally, plans for a Master’s program in antiracism studies curriculum, an academic minor for undergraduates, and a database of antiracist campaigns across the U.S. were abandoned.

Despite the controversy, the center’s funders have not publicly voiced concerns about its work. Grantmakers and advocates for racial justice in philanthropy have emphasized that the center’s difficulties do not represent a broader trend in donations made in 2020 for racial justice causes. It’s not uncommon for new organizations to face challenges during their early years.

Experts in philanthropy and academia, like Earl Lewis, have stressed that the difficulties encountered by a new leader and organization, including financial constraints and recalibrations of plans, are typical. Lewis questioned why this particular situation garnered national attention and speculated if some were hoping for Kendi’s vision to fail.

Kendi himself acknowledged “missteps” during the center’s early years, stating that new organizations often undergo a challenging evolution before finding a successful model.

In an interview with The Big Big News, Kendi attributed questions and doubts about the center’s financial management to racist stereotypes. He expressed frustration over character attacks against those engaged in antiracist work and organizations striving for equity and justice.

It’s important to note that Kendi’s center is not the only target of such attacks. The foundation born from the Black Lives Matter movement faced similar scrutiny over its governance, and the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down affirmative action in college admissions has fueled attacks on diversity programs across various sectors.

While scrutiny and accountability for commitments made in 2020 to support racial justice are encouraged, experts argue that Kendi’s center’s fate does not reflect the overall health of the racial justice movement. Of the $50 million raised, $30 million is held in an endowment. Although this is a substantial amount for a new institute, it could not sustain a staff of over 40, leading to the layoffs.

Moving forward, the center will host research fellows, maintain its online publication, “The Emancipator,” and organize public events. Kendi has also launched a new series on racism and sports on ESPN and a Netflix documentary based on his book “Stamped from the Beginning” is set to premiere on Nov. 20.

Chera Reid, co-executive director at the Center for Evaluation Innovation, emphasized that despite the controversy, she hasn’t observed any negative repercussions in the philanthropic ecosystem. She cautioned against overgeneralizing from one example when evaluating the outcomes of commitments made by philanthropic organizations in 2020, as it could undermine the progress being made.

Reid cited the CHANGE Philanthropy Unity Summit as an example of ongoing efforts in philanthropy to promote equity and change within institutions and practices. She urged philanthropic organizations to articulate their plans for advancing justice and equity rather than dwelling on past shortcomings.

The abrupt termination of the center’s research projects led some within the racial justice movement to criticize Kendi’s leadership. Observers like Jenn M. Jackson questioned the alignment between funders’ stated goals of ending racist policies in the U.S. and their approach of funding a new research center at a university. Jackson called for a deeper engagement with decolonization and funding radical organizations focused on freedom.

Kendi countered that most of the center’s funders already supported antiracist community organizations, although a complete list of donors is not publicly available.

In conclusion, the challenges faced by Ibram X. Kendi’s center at Boston University provide valuable lessons for donors. They underscore the complexities of launching and sustaining new organizations in the pursuit of racial justice. While criticism and scrutiny are essential, it’s crucial not to judge the entire racial justice movement based on one example. Instead, donors should focus on the ongoing efforts to promote equity and justice in philanthropy and society at large.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Racial Justice Philanthropy

What are the main challenges faced by Ibram X. Kendi’s center at Boston University?

The challenges faced by Ibram X. Kendi’s center at Boston University include layoffs, changes in its operational model, and criticism of power concentration in Kendi’s hands. These challenges prompted concerns about the center’s ability to deliver on its promises to funders.

How did Boston University respond to the layoffs and changes in the center’s operations?

Boston University conducted an initial inquiry and found no issues with how the center managed its finances. The university and Kendi explained that the layoffs were due to financial sustainability concerns, leading to the decision to host academics for nine-month fellowships instead of maintaining a staff.

Have the center’s funders expressed concerns about its work?

Despite the controversies, essentially none of the center’s funders have publicly raised concerns about its work. Grantmakers and advocates for racial justice in philanthropy have emphasized that the center’s problems do not represent a larger trend in donations made in 2020 for racial justice causes.

What lessons can donors supporting racial justice causes in 2020 learn from this situation?

Donors can learn that launching and sustaining new organizations in the pursuit of racial justice can be complex and challenging. While scrutiny and accountability are essential, it’s crucial not to judge the entire racial justice movement based on one example. Donors should focus on ongoing efforts to promote equity and justice in philanthropy and society at large.

What is the significance of the $30 million endowment held by the center?

The $30 million endowment is a substantial amount for a new institute; however, it was not enough to support a staff of over 40 employees, which led to layoffs. The endowment provides financial stability for the center’s future initiatives and research activities.

How does Ibram X. Kendi respond to criticisms of his leadership?

Kendi acknowledges “missteps” during the center’s early years and attributes questions and doubts about the center’s financial management to racist stereotypes. He emphasizes that many funders who supported his center also supported antiracist community organizations.

What is the future direction of the center?

The center will no longer develop a Master’s program in antiracism studies curriculum, an academic minor for undergraduates, or a database of antiracist campaigns across the U.S. Instead, it will host research fellows, continue publishing its online publication, “The Emancipator,” and organize public events. Kendi is also involved in projects related to racism and sports and a Netflix documentary based on his work.

How are philanthropic organizations addressing racial justice commitments made in 2020?

Philanthropic organizations continue to work toward advancing justice and equity. Some, like The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, view their commitments as a “ramp up” and are actively seeking ways to further their impact. The philanthropic sector remains engaged in shaping the legacy of commitments made in 2020 through events like the CHANGE Philanthropy Unity Summit and ongoing efforts to promote equity.

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