The heightened urgency to protect our democracy from outside interference in the 2020 election is getting a lot of media and political attention these days, but there’s a far more urgent need that is vital for philanthropy to foster and finance: ensuring that our democracy evolves toward greater justice.
We must not confuse democracy with creating equity or with creating a more just American society. It takes more than elections to make a sound democracy. We have lived in a democracy for more than 200 years, but never has our democracy been equitable or just for all people. As the presidential candidates develop their campaign platforms, philanthropy must press them to embrace what I call a “justocracy” — a society where the practice of democracy is not the only goal but where we deliberately use the tools of democracy to create justice for those whose rights have been historically denied and whose lives have been systematically put at a disadvantage.
That’s why in this election season, grant makers must go beyond the traditional support of groups that promote voter engagement and turnout and do more to support grassroots work as well as organizations and institutions that seek to create more just political processes and systems.
Our foundation is taking this charge to heart with a presidential forum we and other organizations are sponsoring in Pittsburgh on December 14. Through a grassroots and labor partnership called the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, our foundation — along with grassroots organizations — plan to lead the candidates in candid discussions focused on their commitment to education justice. The agenda will be shaped by the alliance, which includes organizations led by young people, parents, and educators who all seek to put justice at the center of public-education policy making.
Why Education Is Urgent
Given how many issues are at stake in the election and our focus on curbing inequality, some might wonder why education is commanding our top priority. After all, housing, health, immigration, and so many other topics are also urgent. We believe it is through public schools we have the best shot at promoting justice.
American public schools, as our nation’s only mandatory network of institutions for children and families, are a lifeline to opportunity in every urban, suburban, and rural community. That’s why we believe the public education system is also the lifeline for advancing our democracy.
For young people, our public schools are where they often experience their first engagement with society or initial feelings of being pushed out. It’s also where they are first protected or overpoliced, learn about justice, or experience injustice. And it’s where parents and everyone else in the community have the best opportunity to advance efforts to create a more just society, whether that is by putting pressure on local school boards or dealing with local control of state funding.
Our educators can’t help young people achieve their learning goals without adequate resources, and that financial support is key to tackling the disparities that today mean our schools offer unequal education depending on a student’s race, gender, disability, or socioeconomic status.
If philanthropy is serious about living up to its name — that it is about accomplishing goals that embrace our love of humanity — then we must ensure that in this election season we push our leaders to go beyond democracy.
While our foundation sees education as a significant step in promoting justice, other grant makers will see it as more essential to press the presidential candidates on other justice causes and missions. That’s acceptable but ignoring this moment is not an option.
We all must remember that the seeds of our democracy were planted during the unjust purging of Native Americans and its branches strengthened through the persistent inequitable treatment of people of color. That’s why America’s history requires that philanthropy remain committed to the evolution of our democracy and the promotion of a justice agenda.
And it’s why this critical question must be asked at each stage of the political process: To what degree are candidates’ policies and proposals seeking real change — or simply attempting to once again justify the denial of rights and opportunities to those long marginalized by our American systems and society?
Justice is an active sport, and philanthropy and its resources must show up in a major way to help nonprofit activists challenging centuries of inequity. If we do not provide our money, our voice, our advocacy, and other resources in this crucial run-up to the 2020 election, then the unfettered privilege we in philanthropy hold will be seen as simply part of the problem, not the solution.
John H. Jackson is CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. This article was originally posted in Chronicle of Philanthropy.