At the end of the 19th century, a phenomenon of free market capitalism emerged that resulted in growing inequality and a concentration of wealth by a privileged few, including Andrew Carnegie, who amassed a huge fortune (4X greater than Bill Gates'!) from the steel industry.He was called a Robber Baron, accused of ruthless and unscrupulous business practices. Ironically, he is also known as the Father of Philanthropy because he believed fiercely that it was a wealthy person's duty to give away all of his money to improve society during one's lifetime.In 1889, Carnegie wrote a treatise called, The Gospel of Wealth, to share his philosophy about "the proper administration of wealth." The following excerpt explains his views of how capitalism changed and why that was beneficial for society:
"The master and his apprentices worked side by side, the latter living with the master, and therefore subject to the same conditions. When these apprentices rose to be masters, there was little or no change in their mode of life, and they, in turn, educated in the same routine succeeding apprentices. There was substantially social equality and even political equality. But the inevitable result of such a mode of manufacture was crude articles at high prices.Today the world obtains commodities of excellent quality at prices which even the generation preceding this would have deemed incredible.The price we pay for this salutary change is, no doubt, great. We assemble thousands of operatives in the factory and in the mine, of whom the employer can know little or nothing. Under the law of competition, the employer of thousands is forced into the strictest economies, among which the rates paid to labor figure prominently, and often there is friction between the employer and the employed…The contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer with us today measures the change which has come with civilization.This change, however, is not to be deplored, but welcomed as highly beneficial. It is well, nay, essential for the progress of the race that the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts, rather than that none should be so."
When it came to philanthropy, Carnegie abhorred direct charity: "Neither the individual nor the race is improved by almsgiving."At the same time, he was paternalistic in his giving, believing that men of wealth were much better positioned to "decide how best to disperse this wealth for the common good, thus becoming the agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves."
Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, recently wrote a response to Carnegie treatise entitled, Toward a New Gospel of Wealth. In it, he challenges Carnegie's core arguments:
"Where Carnegie might have identified illiteracy as a source of inequality, for example, we now understand that the reverse is true—or, at the very least, that a complex symbiosis is at work. We understand, in a way he did not, that social, cultural, political, and economic inequalities set in place reinforcing conditions from the very start of life—in homes, in neighborhoods, and in schools—that create cycles of poverty, illiteracy, and lack of opportunity.We also know that inequality is built on antecedents—preexisting conditions ranging from ingrained prejudice and historical racial, gender, and ethnic biases to regressive tax policies that cumulatively define the systems and structures that enable inequality to fester."
Victoria Foundation's 50 years of grantmaking in Newark has not followed in Carnegie's philanthropic tradition of paternalism; rather, it sought to create opportunities for children and families struggling with the systems and structures that Walker sites. Looking back on Victoria's work in Newark and reflecting on the power that systems and structures have to re-create inequality and poverty for generations of Newark youths, staff and trustees have begun to grapple with whether the foundation could do more to support efforts that are tackling those systems and structures head-on.This might look like increased support for civic engagement to hold government and public schools more accountable for neighborhood quality of life, access to great schools, and a healthy environment.
It might look like increased use of convening power to coordinate and leverage resources in support of residents' priorities. It might take the form of a deeper examination of how historical patterns of racism and poverty infect present-day policies, with support for groups working to spotlight and shift those policies. In some ways, these profound inquiries harken back to the early days of Victoria's grantmaking in Newark in the late 60s, when Howard Quirk (Victoria's first director) walked the streets looking for visionary local leaders to support. We don't know where this new exploration will take us, but we are guided by the belief that guided Howard: that local residents are best positioned, with the right supports, to address those root causes and open up new opportunities for Newark families and neighborhoods.
The hard work to get closer to the root causes of poverty, inequality, and racism in Newark by connecting with and building the capacity of Newark residents is already underway in two target neighborhoods.With the Newark LISC affiliate serving as our intermediary on the ground, dozens of residents in Upper Clinton Hill and Fairmount Heights are authentically engaged in collective efforts to improve their neighborhoods, such as: Neighbors Helping Neighborhoods small grants program, Newark Leadership Resident Academy, participatory evaluation (conducting interviews and administering surveys), Fairmount Heights Neighborhood Association, and porch parties.Victoria's role, in part, is to unlock leadership potential, increase civic participation, and help create opportunities whereby citizens can mobilize their neighbors to effectively address challenges.
Victoria trustees have directed staff to examine how the foundation might increase civic engagement across the city. Of special concern to trustees is low voter turnout, especially in school board elections when less than 5% of registered voters show up to the polls. Victoria recently convened grassroots advocacy organizations to learn what their challenges were, and we brought in some highly regarded entities to support these social justice groups with technical assistance and capacity building.Many of these grassroots efforts are volunteer driven and under-resourced.We are working to develop a strategy for the Foundation's role in this space
I was particularly moved by trustees' responses to several one-on-one 'But Why?' interviews that took place at recent board meetings.This activity was intended to dissect a specific challenge to better understand its root causes.Several trustees concluded their conversation with "poverty" or "past racial injustices" as the key underlining problem.While Victoria does not have the power to eliminate poverty or racism in Newark, we can certainly direct resources to help residents and grassroots groups address their effects in ways that create more room for Newark youths and Newark neighborhoods to thrive.We will work hard in the months ahead to consider a pathway forward for the foundation to move in these directions.
- Irene Cooper-Basch