opening the ivory tower doors

Ivory Tower

Deeply imprinted into my psyche, the Ivory Tower from my favorite and most-viewed movie from adolescence, The Neverending Story

When I was in my mid-twenties, I began my career in the social sector working in philanthropy. I worked in a foundation that helped progressive individuals give money away to social change organizations all over the world. The internet was barely a thing back then – I think I had an AOL email address – and I got the job looking for an administrative assistant position in the newspaper. When I was called for an interview, I asked if they could send me information about the organization so that I could learn more about what they did. I didn’t know anything about foundations, about donors, about non-profit organizations and NGOs, or about grantmaking. A few days later a packet arrived in my mailbox – it was a grants list of the organizations the foundation’s donors had supported in the previous year, but it only listed the name of the donor funds and the names of their grantees. That’s not a lot of information to explain the work of an organization if you don’t have the ability to look them up online, and online didn’t really exist yet.

So off I went to my interview, and I sat in a small room with two of the foundation’s program officers – I didn’t know what a program officer was, either, and they were kind of intimidating. I was 24. The intimidating program officer who chose me to be her assistant has become one of my closest friends and most cherished mentors. From her and my other colleagues at the foundation – over four and a half years and afterwards when I branched out on my own – I learned everything I know about the world of giving and the incredible non-profit organizations that do so much to sustain and balance out our world. By the time I left the foundation to start a consulting practice working with non-profit and philanthropic organizations, I had become a program officer. Talk about the school of life.

During one of my first weeks working there, I was asked to contact a list of past grant recipients to ask for their reports on how they had used their grants so far. I left phone messages for the ones who didn’t answer, telling them I was calling from the foundation and could they please call me back. In under an hour, all of my phone messages had been returned. I was stunned, and when I shared this with my boss, she smiled and said, “That’s because they know you have the money.” “But I don’t have the money,” I replied. “I’m just an assistant.” “But you’re connected to the people who do, and money = power.” And she explained to me that, in our work, we were trying to redistribute some of that power to make things more equal – at least that was the goal of philanthropy.

We had a staff training during my time working at the foundation, and the theme was privilege. I’d worked there a few years by then, and I was aware of the incredible privilege of the philanthropists we worked with. But we weren’t talking about their privilege, we were talking about ours. It was uncomfortable. We were asked to think of the ways in which we had grown up with privilege, and no matter how rich or poor each of us were, just by virtue of being there, gainfully employed doing meaningful work managing great resources, all of us were privileged. And my list of privilege was so long, I realized, especially after listening to some of my colleagues share the challenges they had grown up with in disadvantaged communities or as immigrants or as people of color.

Privilege: I grew up speaking two languages. I went to schools with small classrooms and brand new textbooks. I grew up around technology years before technology was in every home. I grew up in a town influenced by a major university. We owned our home. I got to travel all over the world. I had a doctor and a dentist and a retainer for my overbite. My mom took me to her hairdresser to get my hair cut. My dad helped me buy a used car when I turned 16 by getting me a summer job filing receipts in his company. College was paid for and my grades and activities got me into every school I applied to. I grew up in a home filled with books and art and music. I had piano lessons and saxophone lessons, tried ballet and jazz dance, took art classes. I grew up in a safe place free from violence where I could ride my bike or take the bus all over town without a care. I had friends whose families came from all over the world – doctors and professors and researchers and tech executives. I had an allowance. I went to summer camp. I am white.

Privilege.

What an ivory tower I had always lived in! And what an ivory tower did I now find myself in, giving money away to communities in need. Those words: In need. They made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like the dynamic – that some people have and others don’t, and no matter how much we might try to redistribute the resources, there are always some with privilege and some without. And there are levels of privilege – we each fall somewhere on a continuum.

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I still think a lot about privilege. I think about it as the white mother to a black son. I think about our choice to move to a town with higher property taxes and excellent public schools for our children. I think about it every time I go to a doctor’s appointment or to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription and I am able to afford my co-pay. I think about it as I make the monthly payment for our mortgage, for our cars. I think about it as I look at the packing list for my daughter’s summer camp.

As a child, my favorite subject in school was social studies – that wonderful topic that encapsulated all things having to do with human beings and societies: history, political science, sociology, psychology, anthropology. The things I was most curious about. I wanted to be a psychologist, and I would watch Afterschool Specials and any Nine O’Clock Movie that had to do with a social issue: mental illness, addiction, homelessness, school reform, runaway teens. It was the eighties during Reagan, the years of This is your brain (camera zooms in on a whole intact egg). This is your brain on drugs (camera zooms in on egg frying in a pan).

I entered college as a psychology major, at some point changed to anthropology, changed again to sociology, and finished with a BA in history; so I got a nice well rounded liberal arts education and have done absolutely nothing related to my degree. But what draws me, what compels me, hasn’t changed since I was my daughter’s age. Social studies is still my favorite subject; it’s what I think about, read about, write about and try to teach my children about. It’s what I’ve been blessed for 20 years to have as the focus of my work.

I spent time in my daughter’s fifth grade class this morning, helping a group of kids with their end-of-the-year presentations about community and global issues. I was in social studies heaven. 11 is an incredible age because you can start to talk about the grey areas, the nuance in between black and white. You can start to talk about the complexity of issues like gang violence and global responses to natural disasters. You can start to talk about privilege.

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I thought about privilege a lot last night. I was the moderator for a local UNICEF event about the Eliminate Project, whose goal it is to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus worldwide through UNICEF’s incredible immunization and health programs. We watched a video and listened to first-hand stories about babies dying – 140 each day – from this vaccine preventable disease. I moderated a panel of speakers who spoke about how entirely possible it is to completely eliminate this disease – and how this has already been achieved in 36 countries, with 23 remaining. I thought about places where babies die each day from poverty and violence and lack of health care and sanitation. I thought of my own baby who had died, and all of the resources we were able to rally to give her every possible chance during her two months of life.

And I thought about tetanus here in the U.S., where babies don’t die of this bacteria that lives in soil. I remembered getting my tetanus booster as an older child, again as an adult. I thought about a conversation I had with a friend when my daughter was a toddler, how this friend who had been a pediatrician explained to me that tetanus isn’t just in rusty nails, but also in the dirt all around us.

I thought a lot last night about how privileged we are in this country to even be able to have a conversation about whether or not it is safe or necessary to vaccinate our children. We don’t see on a daily basis the diseases that kill children and adults in developing countries; some, like polio, which used to exist here. We don’t see an infant suffering from or dying from tetanus, so we have the luxury to actually consider whether or not our children need that vaccine. I know how much I wrestled with those questions when my daughter was little.

I just felt privileged, and I sat with that feeling as I drove home last night. And I’m sitting with it today. It still makes me uncomfortable – things that are unjust, unfair, unequal make me uncomfortable. And to be honest, I hope that never stops, because the moment I get too comfortable is the moment I stop caring, and I don’t plan to stop caring.

It makes me feel grateful, too. Grateful for my health. Grateful for clean water and a warm bed and my home and abundant nourishing food that is refrigerated. Grateful for the washing machine that spins my bedsheets as I write. Grateful for my children’s pediatrician, always available. Grateful for my safe neighborhood. Grateful for the school bus that picks up my daughter in the morning to take her to her wonderful school. Grateful for green space. Grateful for the community and culture and diversity I get to be a part of.

And grateful to be able to play my very small part to make things just a little bit more just, fair and equal.

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