A family at a 2020 Seattle Juneteenth march.

OPINION: Funding a Humane, Flourishing American Democracy

by David Sarju

Imagine an America where Black and Indigenous (B/I) families and communities are flourishing, alive with laughter, goodwill, and unlimited possibilities; where the grandchildren of today’s young adults are born into a beloved community, knowing their humanity is broadly valued; where America itself is ascendant, valuing the humanity of all creeds and tribes. The Puget Sound region possesses a complementary collection of decolonizing organizations that heal fragmentation, alongside science-driven organizations that together can create a scalable national model. But the way forward is different than popularly imagined. “Charity” that demands acquiescence, dyssynchrony, and near-term results has not solved America’s core vulnerability — dehumanization.

Funders must provide capital so family and community, not charity, are the sources of sustained well-being. Together with key, proven strategies, funds must be released to also heal historical trauma, strengthen the existing network of B/I community assets, and ensure children from birth to 5 years of age experience nurturing early-learning environments. Then America will have a better opportunity to achieve the economic and social well-being imagined.

Black and Indigenous peoples, colonized from the nation’s inceptions, represent an unrealized source of American social and economic well-being. Citigroup recently reported that anti-Black racism alone cost the U.S. $16 trillion in unrealized gross domestic product (GDP) during just the last 20 years. More specifically, like the game of Chutes and Ladders, Black descendants of the Middle Passage, for example, have experienced repeated cycles of partial repair and marginalization during the past 150 years. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in eight of nine well-being measures, including infant mortality, wealth, and employment, Blacks fare worse or no better today than on Thursday, April 11, 1968, when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Fair Housing Act.

Closer to home, Seattle Times writers have repeatedly reported plummeting Black homeownership, wealth, and concomitant community connectedness during the past 40 years. During this period, these cycles have been reinforced and obscured simultaneously by symbolism, pity, proclamations, internally contradictory policies, atomized programs, data conflation, and redundant studies. In 2020, Brightbeam reported that Black versus white K–12 achievement gaps are greatest in America’s most progressive cities.

The greatest challenges cannot be solved independently, nor without attention to the intangibles.

Outcomes incongruent with decades of private and public “reform,” “reckoning” proclamations, ribbon cuttings, and associated budgets demonstrate the tangible costs of dehumanization. Dehumanization undermines not only the nation’s economic well-being but social connectedness for all. It foments violence towards females, queer people, and immigrants and undermines public health, ecological, and many other systems for all Americans.

To achieve lasting well-being, investments must aim for longer-term horizons and add three strategies to proven approaches. Many funders and social service enterprises recognize targeted universalism as an effective approach to solving complex challenges and some, like the Annie E. Casey Foundation, have proven the benefits of two-generation and community-based investments. Organizations like Rainier Scholars have proven the value of funding with longer-term horizons and coupling science, tangible outcomes, and humanizing approaches. 

Multigenerational outcomes at scale will require that families and communities, not agencies, be the primary sources of well-being. The region must make three synergistic investments to achieve durable Indigenous, Black, and national well-being:

First, multigenerational trauma requires multigenerational healing. People need time, space, and community to heal, envision, plan, and build. Entrenched dehumanization will only dissolve when B/I peoples, not dominant-culture institutions, possess the power to define B/I peoples’ futures. Indigenous communities, for example, engage in healing that includes acknowledging (storytelling), understanding, releasing, and transforming historical trauma. When we invest in the whole person, individuals and communities can drive their own well-being and help heal the broader society. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Second, community-based resource brokers, documented in Mario Small’s research, strengthen social networks. This work has more than begun in Seattle. Each January, the “State of Africatown” event highlights community well-being advanced by Black Community Impact Alliance, Creative Justice, Choose180, Community Passageways, DADS, and a host of other community-centered organizations. These communities engage in integrated restorative practices. Their leaders possess unparalleled understandings of prevailing systems and collectively generate joy, innovation, and efficacy that has eluded standard “charitable” efforts of the past 50 years. Provided adequate resources, such organizations can further integrate healing and tangible outcomes, reduce individuals’ navigational burdens, and strengthen community power.

Finally, parents’ dreams for their grandchildren must be buttressed by what intuitions and science confirm. The University of Washington’s ILABS and Cultivate Learning programs have published a trove of research demonstrating the importance of healthy early learning environments that integrate social-emotional and cognitive development. Early literacy, even communication at 10 months, is predictive of many other lifetime markers. Currently, compounding multigenerational trauma, many Puget Sound Black families are navigating recent economic and social cohesion loss. Families with means understand, even demand, necessary investments when a single neuroatypical child experiences mental health challenges. Investing in the places where B/I children play and learn will ensure that children’s curiosity and creativity are ablaze when they begin kindergarten, on their way to fulfilling the needs of a humane enterprising society.

Evidence of progress will include shorter- and longer-term metrics among individuals, business, and society. Key mid-point measures include: healthy parent-child, family, intimate partner, and civic relationships; a high rate of B/I children beginning kindergarten and grade three emotionally and cognitively strong and strengthened; more connected B/I community assets.

Our souls and fates are connected. Before the passage of the 1960s Civil Rights Acts, for the sake of the common good local science, goodwill, and resources conspired to clean up what had become a terribly polluted Lake Washington. The targeted systems approach generated gains faster than anticipated. Building healthy communities and a durable democracy is more complex, but if our region courageously aims to see each person as fully human, it can model a moral order that will produce well-being and a more resilient democracy.

David Sarju is a consultant for Crew Leadership. He has written for the Puget Sound Business Journal and University of Washington Consulting Alliance and has presented at numerous industry conferences.

📸 Featured Image: A family at a 2020 Seattle Juneteenth march. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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