MacArthur President John Palfrey shares insights from our internal reparation and healing process and our work to be in right relationship with communities and one another rooted in the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
We are in a time of possibility. Joining with our partners who are leading communities on the ground and in the field, we are working to imagine the inclusive and equitable multiracial society we seek.
At MacArthur, we know that to get to that future we have to examine our past. Our institution has done incredible good over more than 40 years, and it has at times had a problematic and even harmful impact on people and communities. MacArthur, like many in philanthropy that have held the reins of power, needs to ask about the harms we have committed, even as we continue to strive to meet our mission.
MacArthur’s values include Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and our Just Imperative calls on us to lead with justice and create the conditions for more people to have equitable access, treatment, consideration, and opportunity. Our Staff, with the Just Imperative in mind, called on MacArthur to address and repair harms, so we can live our values—individually and collectively.
We aim to be in right relationship with communities and with one another. The first step to being in right relationship is to admit where we have been wrong.
MacArthur’s commitment to the Just Imperative has pushed us to consider how we can be more inclusive and equitable with our communities. In that process of working to ensure our partners, grantees, and Staff all felt a sense of belonging, we surfaced a history of harm.
Over MacArthur’s history, Staff have experienced microaggressions, felt overlooked, and have been undervalued, particularly our Staff of color and Staff in our offices in Nigeria and India. The Just Imperative Working Group (JIWG), Staff volunteers who lead us in this work, called the Foundation in to address it. If we were to truly live the Just Imperative, we would need to repair those harms.
We first established a Healing Working Group to guide a proposed process for designing, implementing, and redressing past harms. Based on this proposal, the JIWG, under the leadership of Co-Chairs Kimberly Collins, Yvonne Darkwa-Poku, and Jorge Lopez, implemented a yearlong Truth, Accountability, Repair, and Healing (TARH) framework.
The process was demanding. It required a combination of approaches that were never simple, often challenging, and always important. It was all worth doing. It involved an act of faith and trust on the part of everyone.
While it was a Staff-led endeavor, it had support from me, the Leadership team, and the Board. Everyone at every level needed to understand and repair harms to change our culture for the better and move forward with the goals of the Just Imperative.
Fundamentally, Staff asked for an openness to change. The people who make up the institution had to trust in a process where none of us would be in complete control. So the Leadership team and I made a commitment to trust Staff, with genuine power sharing.
Staff leading us to accountability was the right approach, but we also needed outside support from external partners who led us through the process. In part because this work is emotionally taxing, and our Staff also had their ongoing roles and responsibilities to meet MacArthur’s mission. We found this support in Dr. Shaniqua Jones and Jason Craige Harris of Perception Strategies, who were essential partners.
Any institution that is seeking to adopt restorative justice practices and address past harms can benefit from partners with the skills to hold space for healing. We found that with the right support, it is possible to come out with true growth and an actionable plan for repair.
The process was multifaceted and engaged all our Staff. It included mandatory elements to bring everyone in and opt-in spaces for thoughtful conversations, including:
- Restorative justice trainings;
- Dialogues on anti-racism work, including a Foundation-wide reading and discussion of the 1619 Project with MacArthur Fellow and journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones;
- A virtual exhibit of harms and healing, with space for deep reflection;
- Developing a shared understanding on leading for dignity;
- Establishing affinity groups for Staff who share similar experiences and identities, including Staff who are Asian, Black Hispanic/Latino/a/x, LGBTQ+, and parents and caregivers.
Through the process, the Foundation coalesced around a framework of dignity. In the words of Dr. Donna Hicks, “The glue that holds all of our relationships together is the mutual recognition of the desire to be seen, heard, listened to, and treated fairly; to be recognized, understood, and to feel safe in the world.” Together, we established a shared language that everyone could understand and get behind, to recognize one another’s value. The language of dignity helped us articulate and begin to work toward a vision for culture change.
The process had both hard days and easier days. The Foundation is made up of a wide range of people, with different perspectives and approaches. This was no exception: yet everyone was engaged, from those concerned about the process to those bearing the brunt of the labor. For this to work, we had to have 185 of Staff for 185.
Meeting people where they are required collective understanding, patience, candor. There were moments of discomfort as we discussed Foundation actions, colleagues, and processes—past and present, long-standing, and recent—and sought ways to strengthen our culture. The range of perspectives and engaging them in trainings and dialogue was essential.
From the beginning, the TARH process was rooted in our values. We articulated and shared our values in 2021 and shortly thereafter established a working group focused on Living Our Values to help us infuse them in how we work. The LOV working group—what better name for a Staff-led effort focused on helping us embody who we are as an organization and how we conduct ourselves—identified recommended approaches on our policy and governance, strategies for accountability, and creating a culture of belonging.
We, as a Foundation, have said “yes” to the recommendations that emerged from both the Living our Values and the Truth, Accountability, Repair, and Healing processes. The recommendations include:
- Hiring a Chief Equity Officer to steward our DEI work across the Foundation;
- A periodic review of our policies and practices with an eye toward transparency and equity;
- A Board commitment to ongoing education at the intersection of DEI and governance.
These plans are now intertwined, just as our values and our healing work are intertwined. And we have found that the learnings from one process informed the other. They have allowed us to do the work of internal reflection, while also focusing on external relevancy.
We now have the challenge of holding ourselves accountable. I believe we are in a better position now than we once were, and I hope that we are better partners as a result. The process has pushed us to be in better relationship to all our partners, contractors, grantees, and communities.
It remains true that we have work to do. What does it mean to engage in countries that are far from where the wealth was generated? What does it mean to do good with wealth that was generated through extractive means? These are questions philanthropy faces, and there are no easy answers.
And this journey continues in other ways. Our Board of Directors has pursued self-reflection and anti-racist trainings, and some are seeking to do reparative work in other organizations with which they are affiliated. Our March Board meeting took place in Montgomery, Alabama, where MacArthur Fellow and human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative is located. The enslavement, violence, and the lynchings that are acknowledged in The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is embedded in the foundation of the United States. And we all must grapple with how to repair that harm as well—beyond individual and institutional repair. I continue to reflect on what it means to be an ancestor—that you don’t become an ancestor because you have lived and died, but because of how you have lived and building a life that is worthy.
Five years from now—if not sooner—I hope that every person who joins MacArthur or is in relationship with MacArthur feels truly like they belong. The Truth, Accountability, Repair, and Healing work has helped move us to a framework of dignity and culture of belonging.
“As Just Imperative Working Group Co-Chairs, we are grateful for—and humbled by—the opportunity to steward the TARH process with our colleagues on the JIWG,” Collins, Darkwa-Poku, and Lopez said. “We are proud of the work we did and are acutely aware of the unique opportunity we had as Staff to come together and reflect on our experiences, uphold and share our truths, and imagine a path forward. The TARH process was challenging, incredibly time-consuming, and emotionally taxing. It tested our leadership; but in the process, we learned how to work with our ‘head, heart, and hands,’ often pausing to reflect, regroup, and course correct.
“We remain encouraged by Staff who showed up and did the work. While there is more work ahead, we are confident that the roadmap we left behind will be implemented with care and commitment. We are thankful to John, Jason Craige Harris, the JIWG, our Leadership team liaisons, the Leadership team, and the Board for their support and commitment to this process, and for meaningfully engaging with Staff to help create a more just, inclusive, and equitable work culture that embodies the soul and spirit of the Just Imperative."