Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published in July, 2017.
I have spent the past few years observing, writing about, and getting more involved in the world of women’s philanthropy. During that time, multiple experts have referred to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw as being essential to the changes we now see going on in philanthropy, with more efforts to apply both a gender and race lens when framing problems and funding new strategies.
Indeed, with her scholarship, advocacy, and legal expertise, Crenshaw has helped build and disseminate whole new areas of knowledge including critical race theory and intersectional theory. These concepts have helped philanthropists like Peter Buffett and organizations like the NoVo Foundation apply an inclusive gender and race lens that values and addresses the needs of women and girls of color in the United States.
Crenshaw holds multiple titles on multiple coasts and in multiple countries, including Full Professor at both UCLA Saw School and Columbia Law School, and Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics. On top of that, she is the author of several books and articles. She is also (in her spare time!) co-founder of the African-American Policy Forum (AAFP), and continues to play a vital role with that powerful organization.
In case you don’t know, AAPF is a social justice think tank that brings new voices and broader frames to social justice practice in the U.S. In partnership with the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, AAPF promotes an intersectional approach to confronting discrimination in order to address the complex needs of marginalized communities. AAPF will celebrate its 20th Anniversary on June 10th honoring Rep. Keith Ellison, Eve Ensler, Joy Ann Reid, and Barbara Smith for their commitment to intersectional activism.
Related: Joy-Ann Reid to Receive African American Policy Forum’s Journalism Award
Crenshaw is widely regarded as the leading scholarly voice to introduce and develop intersectional theory — the study of how overlapping identities, particularly those related to race and gender, interact with social structures of oppression and discrimination. Intersectional theory has been around for over three decades, but only now does it appear to be approaching mainstream influence (Yes, intersectionalism is referred to multiple times in the new season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, when she visits Columbia University, so that, to me, is a sign of breakthrough into popular culture). As the influence of intersectional theory grows, we will likely see more philanthropy and social policy informed by it.
“There’s that famous women’s studies title that starts — “All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men,” said Crenshaw, in a recent interview with Philanthropy Women. “I added to that, ‘And all the Women of Color are International. For many American philanthropists, they think about women of color existing somewhere else.”
But Crenshaw has already done much to change that thinking, and is poised to do much more as movements for equality come together to fight the regressive political climate.
Crenshaw has been working alongside the NoVo Foundation for the last three years to amplify the need to bring race awareness into gender funding, and also bring gender into race funding. “It’s a two-sided challenge,” said Crenshaw.
“We got a lot of conversation going when President Obama announced My Brother’s Keeper, which is an important undertaking to be sure, but in its exclusive focus on boys of color, it tended to lead to the inference that girls of color were not also in crisis.”
Crenshaw and others began to elevate awareness about what women and girls of color were experiencing by going around the country and conducting town halls to discuss the issues. Through this process of reaching out to the community and providing a safe place for public testimony, says Crenshaw,”We were able to bring into the community more awareness about the challenges women and girls of color were facing that we just didn’t know about.”
One of the revelations unearthed by Crenshaw was about how girls of color are mistreated by school systems. “We found that the racialized risk of suspension for African-American girls was actually higher than for African-American boys. A black girl is 6 times more likely to be suspended than a white girl. So this is troubling, but even more troubling is the fact that no one knew about the added risks that girls of color were facing.”
Crenshaw recognized how girls and women were falling out of the conversation about racial injustice. “It was important for us to put them in the conversation,” said Crenshaw, and doing so opened up new areas of knowledge for philanthropy to explore and consider when developing strategies that lift up marginalized communities.
“Philanthropy often helps elevate a particular framing of a problem, so if there’s an issue with the framing of the problem, then that frame is really doing us an injustice. It’s limiting what we can do to fix the problem.”
“Philanthropy is absolutely essential,” in Crenshaw’s view, to pressing forward for gender equality and developing models for progressive change. But she has a strong piece of advice for women philanthropists who want to do work that cuts across both race and gender in its effectiveness.
“I want women philanthropists to think twice about their theory of change. Many folks have a theory of philanthropy that ‘we need to fix the person’ so the person can better fit into the slots we have for them in society,” said Crenshaw. And while she acknowledges the importance of reaching individuals, she sees a stronger need for strategies that take on the structures that perpetuate inequality.
“It’s not enough to think intersectionally about the problem,” said Crenshaw. “We also need to think about the other partners who should be part of this conversation, so that we can do a better job of creating structural interventions instead of just individual remedies.”
Crenshaw wants to see more philanthropy aimed at infusing women with educational and economic power. “It’s clearly known that the more education that mothers have, the more capability they have to move themselves and their families out of poverty.”
Programs that provide education, job training, and capital resources to women and girls of color, are all areas where Crenshaw sees room for big development.
Regarding the overall prognosis for funding for women and girls of color, Crenshaw acknowledged she is concerned in today’s political climate that the advancements could taper off without more support.
“I’m completely worried about funding for women and girls of color,” she said. “It’s one of those situations where the foundation is not as solid as it should have been, and then there’s an earthquake, and rather than say let’s redouble our efforts to secure the foundation, people are saying we should work on the very top of the building.”
“They say we lost the recent election because we paid too much attention to women and people of color, but the issue is that we didn’t pay enough attention to either constituency,” said Crenshaw. “And we especially didn’t pay enough attention to those who are both women and people of color. These marginalized groups had every reason to be exasperated with politics as usual, yet resisted the scapegoating that other voters seemed to respond positively to. Wouldn’t this suggest that there is much more to be gained by moving closer rather than jettisoning our attention to women and people of color?”
Want to see Crenshaw in action? Below is an episode of the Laura Flanders Show featuring an interview with Peter Buffett. In the video, Buffett discusses, in part, the foundation’s early intentions to develop philanthropy further for women and girls of color. Embedded in the show is a clip of Crenshaw that sums up much of her argument about the need to attend to women and girls of color in philanthropy. The whole video is definitely worth watching, but tf you come in at about 14.10, you can see Crenshaw and her passion for this subject.
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