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Black History in Philanthropy, Community Development, and Environmental Justice

One of my missions is to help change the perception of philanthropy, charity, and community development, especially in inner-city communities. Often, I was fed the narrative that inner-city neighborhoods like mine in Chicago, were suffering because we, as black people had let down our communities. I was taught that we were in charge of our own destinies and that White Flight and urban decay, crumbling commercial buildings from divestment, environmental injustice, heavy policing and mass incarceration was my community’s fault. It’s an attitude and narrative that continues beyond the community into mainstream perception that often goes into shaping policy that keeps communities entrenched in self-blame and repetitious cycles. It’s an attitude and stereotype that now shapes decisions to change the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program and control what recipients eat.

I am a believer in taking our destiny into our own hands, and I do think there can always be more done within communities to better ourselves. However, a lot of communities have been at the mercy of policies that were meant to degrade, and there is so much wrong with the popular idea that social responsibility, charity and philanthropy have not been long embedded in black communities to overcome the barriers.

An example that displays community betterment from within community is the Breakfast Program started by the Black Panther Party in Oakland, CA. In an article, “The Black Panthers: Revolutionaries, Free Breakfast Pioneers” in National Geographic, writer Andrea King Collier discusses the success and dismantling of the Breakfast Program.

“When you mention the 1960s Black Panther Movement to those who are old enough to remember, the chances are great that it conjures images of beret wearing, angry revolutionaries with big Afros and guns.” What often gets lost in their story is their program to provide free breakfast for school children,” Collier says in the article.

She further states that this was the first organized school breakfast program in the nation and that careful attention was paid by the Blank Panther Party to ensure that the food was nutritious. Some important stats are that they were at one time serving full free breakfasts to 20,000 school aged children in 19 cities around the country, and in 23 local affiliates every school day, according to Collier. And in the all too familiar trope of the 1960’s, the party was dismantled: imprisoned and assassinated.

In the 1970’s, on the south side of Chicago, a housing project had its own version of Erin Brockovich named Hazel M. Johnson. Altgeld Gardens was a predominately African-American public housing community, which was built on top of an abandoned waste site near heavy manufacturing facilities and closed/active landfills, according to “Environmental Health Literacy in Support of Social Action: An Environmental Justice Perspective” published in in the Journal of Environmental Health. Just north of the public housing sites are Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District sludge beds, steel plants, and automotive plants, which lead residents to be worried about their air and water quality due to having the highest Infant Mortality and low birthrates in Chicago. Hazel M. Johnson, a then resident of the community, started an environmental justice group named the People for Community Recovery (PCR). Struck by the cancer rates in her community compared to other communities, Johnson began educating herself and began holding corporate polluters and government officials accountable for the environmental injustice in the community. PCR has continued to be an institution fighting environmental pollution in the Altgeld community and beyond.

There are so many stories and faces of philanthropy, charity, and social responsibility counter to what is portrayed in popular culture. Most recently, rapper Drake chose to give away his over $900,000 video budget in a mix of charitable acts in Florida. CNN has highlighted rappers like 2 Chainz, Nas, The Game, Lil Wayne, Queen Latifah, J. Cole, and more for their charity work. In 2017, my hometown hero, Chance The Rapper donated $1 million to Chicago Public schools and continues to do various philanthropic and educational work through his organization Social Works.

While some of the same tropes continue like neglect of poor and communities of color from institutions that should be tasked to ensure equity for all, people are continuing to step up and do necessary work that is not always highlighted above stereotypical narratives. And it is my hope to dig beyond the narratives to celebrate those diverse faces of philanthropy, charity, environmental justice and community development to spark a new generation to value the work of the past and continue to rise above the misconceptions of their communities.

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