Philanthropy, social change, and the tolerance of poverty


AntiPovertySoldierIn the wake of Prince’s tragic and untimely death, several of his more recent associates have disclosed details regarding the multitude of his philanthropic activities and participation in community development projects throughout the nation.

Author, attorney, and former White House advisor in the Obama Administration, Van Jones, revealed to CNN that Prince collaborated with him on a number of critical initiatives while preferring to remain anonymous. Such initiatives consist of his principal support of the Green for All solar panel project in Oakland, California, the #Yes We Code campaign to educate and empower low-income youth, and Rebuild the Dream, which has included concentrated efforts to address poverty, escalating violence and related issues in the city of Chicago.

Likewise, talk show host and political commentator, Tavis Smiley has spoken to Prince’s generosity since his passing, including a story in USA Today of how he secretly deposited a large check into the account of Smiley’s charitable foundation which is designed to develop young community leaders. And the local media have commented on Prince’s philanthropy regarding several anonymous and often unsolicited gifts that the Minnesota legend provided to Twin Cities area schools, arts organizations, and nonprofit agencies.

I tend to believe that this commitment to community and care for those less fortunate stems in large part from the tutelage he received from another North Minneapolis icon, Bernadette Anderson. Affectionately known as Queen Bernie, this mother of six was also a surrogate mother to Prince, and dedicated her life and career to the service of her beloved Northside community and its youth.

When one looks beyond the contributions of the Twin Cities’ favorite son, and considers the practice of philanthropy in the State of Minnesota at large, you find that its citizens have also established a tremendous legacy of giving through individual contributions, corporate giving programs, and public, private, and community foundations. In fact, according to the Charities Aid Foundation’s 2015 World Giving Index, Minnesota ranks 10th of all 50 states in charitable giving as well as fourth in volunteerism.

Nonetheless, while the state of Minnesota scores at or near the top of all states in most quality of life measures, rampant racial disparities continue to persist and proliferate, resulting in some of the worst conditions for people of color throughout the nation. In recent years perhaps the popular refrains in the philanthropic world has been, “Change, not charity.”

This phrase has been front and center in a concerted effort to address the need for structural and systems changes as the most promising methods to eliminate poverty and other social problems. A local example of this effort is the Headwaters Foundation for Justice, which focusses its giving, community education, and civic engagement initiatives toward groups affecting tangible social change.

It can easily be argued that installing solar panels, developing tech-savvy youth, and strategies targeting educational, criminal justice, and economic reform are indeed social change initiatives. These efforts are seeking to do more than simply throw money or “band-aid” solutions at a problem.

And yet, in spite of their ability to make an indelible impact in the lives of individuals, families, and communities, some might suggest that there are not yet enough of these enterprises to create wide-spread systems and structural change. Clearly, there are a lot of well-intentioned people and organizations that are fighting the good fight against poverty, inequality, and injustice each and every day. Their efforts should be celebrated, replicated and expanded, when and wherever possible.

Still, I can’t help but think there remains one fundamental change which must take place before poverty can truly be conquered. It is a change that must be made in our minds, our spirits, our thoughts, and our actions. I spoke of this need for change in one of the first Anti-Poverty Solider columns I ever wrote titled “The Tolerance of Poverty.” That is what is at issue here. As individual citizens and as a society, we may proclaim that poverty is wicked, immoral, vicious, violent, and disgraceful.

Yet for some reason, we seem to tolerate it. Otherwise, wouldn’t we rise up with our voices, our votes, our deeds, and our humanity and say no more? No more poverty in our neighborhoods, no more poverty in our cities. No more poverty in our state, our nation, or our world.

In 2016, approximately half of the world’s population is classified as poor. This shouldn’t be. It doesn’t have to be. It can no longer be tolerated.


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.