La June Montgomery Tabron, President and CEO, W.K. Kellogg Foundation: Philanthropy and Racial Healing

July 22, 2018
La June Montgomery Tabron, President and CEO, W.K. Kellogg Foundation: Philanthropy and Racial Healing

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation was one of the first large foundations in the U.S. to apply a racial equity lens to its grantmaking, beginning in the mid-1960s with its investments in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, continuing in the 1990s with initiatives aimed at narrowing the digital divide in poor and rural communities, and more recently under the banner of America Healing, a five-year, $75 million initiative launched in 2010 to improve life outcomes for vulnerable children and their families through the promotion of racial healing and the elimination of barriers to economic opportunities.

In recent years, the foundation has moved to amplify its racial equity and reconciliation work through its Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (THRT) framework, a national and place-based process launched in 2016 to bring about transformational and sustainable change and address the historic and contemporary effects and consequences of racism.

Recently, PND spoke with Tabron, who became president and CEO of the foundation in January 2014 after serving in numerous leadership positions there over twenty-six years, about the foundation’s TRHT work, the importance of emerging leadership in such work, and what institutional philanthropy can do to advance those efforts.

Philanthropy News Digest: The Kellogg Foundation launched its Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) effort in 2016. Are you pleased with the results of the effort to date?

La June Montgomery Tabron: As you know, the Kellogg Foundation has been working in this space strategically for several decades. Roughly a decade of that work was done under the banner of America Healing, which was an initiative aimed at addressing what we believed was a lack of connection and of mutual understanding in American society. The goal of America Healing was to foster a different level of awareness of how relationships are built by sharing stories and enabling people to come together in their common humanity. And what we learned is that, yes, we need to encourage people to build these relationships and share these stories, but at the same time the real levers for change are at the local, grassroots level, and that by embedding this kind of work in communities, it truly can be transformative.

That realization led directly to the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation effort, which took what we learned from America Healing and our knowledge that relationships were at the root of this kind of work and placed it squarely in a local context. Racial healing has to be rooted in relationship building and common experience, and so TRHT brings together people who live in the same community to think about how they can create a better, more equitable community together.

Racial healing has to be rooted in relationship building and common experience....

To your question of where we are to date, I think it is moving in exactly that direction, of making change happen locally. We have fourteen places in the United States working in this space. They all are creating their own plans. And no plan looks alike, which is exactly what we expected. But those plans all are characterized by the richness of diversity that comes from being place-specific, from different sectors coming together to work on a common problem, from identifying a starting point and coming up with real, practical solutions for how transformation can be achieved. We are very pleased with the work to date and the fact that it's taking place at the ground level, which is where the Kellogg Foundation is most comfortable.

PND: Would you say the country is more divided or less divided on issues of race today than when you launched TRHT?

LMT: I'm not sure we know. We see and hear the divisive discourse in the media. We look at polls, but polling data can be informed by the divisive discourse we all are exposed to. What I see and hear is a weariness in people with respect to the division in the country. Personally, I don't believe we know whether things are better or worse, because back when we launched our Truth, Racial Heal­ing & Transformation work the conversation was different, and it's hard to compare conversations that are rooted in different circumstances.

However, I can say that when we bring people together in communities and there's a space made for authentic dialogue, which is the basis of our TRHT work, people are willing to be open with each other. Even if they don't start there, that's where they end up. There's a positivity that emerges when a group of people decides to leave the divisive rhetoric behind and engages in a very local and often personal conversation. No one wants to live in a community where the police are seen to be racially biased. No one wants to live in a community where the public schools are failing, and kids are being denied the opportunity to achieve. No one wants to live in a community where a few people have a lot and most people don’t have enough. Most people see those kinds of communities as the exception, the anomaly, and they're eager to make sure their community isn't one of them. That's the kind of thoughtfulness and commitment we are trying to leverage as we engage with community leaders and ask them to be more forward-looking and equitable.

PND: Over the last few years, we’ve seen a growing number of foundations — large and small, local and national — adopt a racial equity lens in their work. Do you see that development as a vindication of TRHT?

LMT: First, I'm very pleased to see that this conversation is becoming more widespread and is being acknowledged as the norm. There was a time when Americans didn't want to speak about race, and the fact that race-focused conversations are more common today and we have a shared vocabulary that we can use to discuss these issues is something we at the foundation are pleased about. That change required leadership, and I think we were willing, and our board was willing, to step into that leadership space and name, squarely and forthrightly, what was happening in our country and the impact it was having on our children.

There was a time when Americans didn't want to speak about race, and the fact that race-focused conversations are more common today and we have a shared vocabulary that we can use to discuss these issues is something we at the foundation are pleased about....

And, of course, we want the transformative part of the work to be embraced and funded by others. This cannot be the work of one foundation; this has to be the work of a nation. The way we have approached this work has always been to be fully inclusive and collaborative. It was always our goal that this would extend well beyond the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Indeed, we believe it should extend far beyond the United States of America; this is a global issue.

PND: One of the key components of TRHT is its focus on emerging leaders. Does the Kellogg Foundation have a working definition of emerging leadership? And why is emerging leadership so important in the context of racial equity?

LMT: We do believe emerging leadership is important, extremely important. The Kellogg Foundation was created because its founder believed that people are the most important ingredient in the change equation. And at the end of the day, people not only make change, they sustain change. Leadership is critical to creating the kind of community you want, and to sustaining that community. As we think about our work, everything we do is fundamentally built on supporting leaders, their aspirations, and making them the agents of the kind of change they want to see.

Your readers may not know this, but our leadership programs date back to the founding of the institution. And in all our leadership programs, we address the issue of equity and racial equity as a fundamental aspect of effective leadership. Regardless of the level at which they are working, leaders have to understand this context as they are working. Our new leadership program, the WKKF Community Leadership Network, isn't separate from our Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation work; it's connected, as is all our work. So, as we are working to build and sustain racially equitable communities, our leadership program is focused on collaboration, networking, and how you make and sustain local change. That work is critical.

PND: When we spoke with you in 2014, you told us that the fact that women had been tapped to lead several major foundations wasn't necessarily proof that gender equality in the sector had been achieved. I think you analogized the development to the election of Barack Obama as president, referring to both as "transactions," albeit positive ones, in a long process toward racial and gender equality. In your view, are we making progress as a country in terms of full equality for women and people of color?

LMT: My fundamental sentiment hasn't changed. I still believe that we've had transactions, both good and bad. When you look at the data, you still see disparities in earnings for women: white women earn 82 percent of what their male counterparts earn, while African-American women earn 63 percent. Clearly, we still have work to do in this space.

What we at the Kellogg Foundation would hope to see is a more systemic approach to these issues, one that goes beyond transactions. That's how we think about all our work. Things happen, but it will take a systemic approach at the national level to transform those transactions into everyday practice.

We're not there yet. We are making progress. There have been policy shifts in that direction, but we can't claim victory, and it would be naïve to do so. What we can do is continue to be a good partner and highlight the evidence and best practices that come out of our work, share them more broadly with others and support them as they work to advance systemic, sustainable change that impacts everyone.

PND: Do you think foundations, and the sector more generally, are doing enough to support not only organizations working in communities of color, but also organizations led by people of color? And do you have any specific recommendations for donors and funders who are thinking about doing more in this area?

We can all do more.... I encourage all funders to increase their level of awareness of the landscapes in which they are playing as they enter a new field or geography....

LMT: We can all do more. It's very important for us, as we partner with a community, to get to the level where we understand the dynamic of who these organizations are and what the community mapping looks like. I encourage all funders to increase their level of awareness of the landscapes in which they are playing as they enter a new field or geography. What I find too often, however, is that when you try to do that, the data you need isn't always available. One of the things we've been thinking about as we examine our community leadership network, as well as our Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation work, is how we can help communities build and collect that type of information so that it’s readily available to funders who want to understand the players in the community, how they connect, and what the larger ecosystem looks like. But again, the best thing we can do as funders is be more informed as we enter these spaces.

PND: Is there an organization in particular that should be filling this role? Or is it something for a coalition of funders and nonprofits to do together?

LMT: That's a good question. I think it could be an entity that already has a role in the space that is willing to take on the larger ecosystem. But it should be a part of the first conversations that any coalition has as it starts to come together. One of the first things we think about is the landscape. Again, it's only one way, even though we hope every com­munity across the nation conducts such an analysis. As you know, we've produced a Business Case for Racial Equity nation­ally, as well as in Mississippi, Michigan, New Mexico, and New Orleans. And if you look at those reports, it's both a compelling way of thinking about landscape and a tool that any community could use to quantify its own growth potential if it were to make everyone in the community a productive citizen and full participant in the life of the community.

PND: If I'm not mistaken, the figure you came up with for the U.S. economy is $8 trillion.

LMT: Yes, $8 trillion by 2050, and for our home state of Michigan the figure was $92 billion. I was recently on Mackinac Island for the Mackinac Policy Conference, which brings together business leaders and policy makers from the state, and our business case was distributed to and discussed by conference attendees. What was so interesting was that the findings were juxtaposed with another con­versation about how commun­ities and municipalities are woefully underfunded. It was a perfect opportunity for us to demonstrate that there's money being left on the table as we all think about how to grow and strengthen communities and municipalities and families.

The real value of these reports is in connecting dots that people don't normally connect. If you're an elected official in a municipality and your only concern is to complain to the state about the inade­quate flow of resources to your city, maybe these reports will help you see that there are things you yourself can do to transform your city and bring more people into the workforce, grow your tax base, and create opportunity where maybe those things were lacking.

PND: It sounds ambitious. Where does it start?

LMT: We started nationally, and now we're doing it state by state. Our theory of change is that it is a very useful document if you're a policy maker looking for wins in your community. It's an important document for businesses as well, in that business leaders are always thinking about ways they can grow their business. At the Mackinac conference, we had several conversations with business leaders who were thinking about their workforce needs, and how critical it is at this moment to create a pipeline of skilled workers who will are able to do the jobs that need to be done. But, of course, we can't talk about the workforce of the future without talking about biases, including racial bias, however unconscious it might be.

That said, we've seen a great deal of interest in the reports on the part of business leaders. In fact, later today I'm meeting with a repre­sentative of the United States Chamber of Commerce, which is considering sharing the national report with every chamber chapter, because they see the potential from a business strategy perspective, just as we see it from a human and equity perspective.

At the end of the day, we believe a multi-sectoral approach is needed to address these issues, which are public issues, they're busi­ness-economic issues, they're faith-based issues. And so, we're working to forge coalitions and share with them our Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation message. And we hope other places will look at our report as a tool as they begin to think about the changes they want to make in their com­munities. Creating productive human capital is something we should all be for.

Creating productive human capital is something we should all be for....

PND: Can you imagine a future in which the Kellogg Foundation no longer will feel the need to apply a racial equity lens to its work?

LMT: I don't know. Racial equity isn't something we do because it's a nice thing to do. It's the core issue out of which everything else we do flows. Whether it's growing the economy, improving the education system, having a healthier nation — racial equity is at the core of the transformation that needs to happen in all those areas. In that respect, we will continue to work to connect the dots and bring people together.

Your question reminds me of a moment I had when we were opening two museums in Mississippi. Myrlie Evers, Medgar Evers' wife, came up to me and said, "I've gone through days of feeling great, and sometimes health challenged, but through all of this, I've never felt more hopeful that my husband's life and death has not been in vain. I see what you are doing at the Kellogg Foundation, and it gives me hope that we are continuing to make the progress we need to make as a country."

And you know, when I think about young people, particularly those young people in Parkland, Florida, I am hopeful. What I see from our younger generation is people who are not in denial about the issue of race. This country has spent centuries in denial, and one thing I am thankful for in this very tumultuous time is that it is no longer possible to be in denial. Our young people are living the reality and the truth of who we are as a nation, they are courageous, and they are taking these issues on. And they are moving at a much faster pace than I've seen in the past. I think we're on the threshold of a great new movement that will change the face of the nation, and it will be led by young people. So, I'm hopeful about the future and believe our young people will get this done.

PND editor Matt Sinclair spoke with Montgomery Tabron in June. The transcript of that conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at [email protected].