Those closest to a challenge are closest to the solution.
At the Walton Family Foundation, we know this because we see the evidence every day in our work. When we partner with communities, when we collaborate with local leaders and when we listen to real-world experts, problems get solved. Community-based solutions often produce the greatest impact.
In July, the foundation invited three distinguished leaders from each of our program areas – K-12 Education, Environment and Home Region – to share how they are overcoming hurdles that limit access to economic opportunity and social and environmental justice, particularly for People of Color.
I asked each of them how they engage their communities and how social and racial injustice affect their work. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.
How does social injustice impact the communities and the people you serve? How is your organization confronting social injustice and racism?
Tim Lampkin is co-founder and CEO of Higher Purpose Co. in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Higher Purpose Co. is an economic justice nonprofit based in Coahoma County whose mission is to build community wealth among Black residents. Tim is helping Black entrepreneurs by providing training and helping them gain access to capital.
Tim Lampkin: The work Higher Purpose Co. is doing is not necessarily new in the world of community economic development. What's new is that it's being led by people who are from Mississippi. HPC is being led by folks who truly care that this work addresses generational issues of social injustice.
I have deep roots in Clarksdale. My family has deep roots here. This organization is homegrown. That gives us a huge advantage to build and maintain relationships. We understand this work will allow us to unlock some doors. We work deeply with entrepreneurs in the education sector, food and agriculture, health and wellness, and arts and culture.
We are trying to close the racial wealth gap. We serve about 100 Black businesses across Mississippi. We provide training, education and access to capital. We serve as a connector to capital.
We live in a time when there are so many disparities in our country. We know that racism perpetuates those disparities. In Clarksdale and around the Mississippi Delta, this work is not for the weak. This work is going to take a long time. The people we're serving are coming to us with trauma, and we are dealing with our own trauma. We need to take a trauma-informed approach to understand that racism is a part of Black residents’ upbringing. We started Higher Purpose Co. by asking, ‘How do we first organize ourselves as an organization to co-create solutions with the folks that we want to serve?’ We want to disrupt the narrative and change how people perceive Black entrepreneurs, Black farmers, Black artists, so they are seen as assets to our communities and seen for the creativity and the contributions they add to our culture and way of life.
We want to create solutions within a system that we know was not built for Black and Brown people. We ask, ‘How do we come together and talk about creating solutions, even when it's not always well-accepted or well-received? How do we make sure our entrepreneurs are well-positioned to get capital from financial institutions?’ Our work around capital access is not about teaching Black entrepreneurs how to assimilate into a dominant narrative or dominant culture. It's about helping them understand the context they're working in. Part of our work addresses institutional racism and implicit bias by confronting the problem and working for change from within the system.
Mashea Ashton is the founder and CEO of Digital Pioneers Academy. DPA is a public charter school located in Southeast Washington D.C., where Mashea's husband's family has lived for six generations and where she began her career as a special education teacher. The academy is the first computer science-focused middle school in the nation's capital.
Mashea Ashton: We are a middle school in Southeast Washington, D.C., with this vision and mission of developing the next generation of innovators. Before opening, I interviewed 200 families in Southeast Washington, D.C., and 91% of them prioritized a computer science education for their children. Our families see the academic, character and economic potential of digital education, and we worked together to bring these opportunities to our scholars. It's about closing the gaps in digital education in our community. How we do it is by listening to our families, listening to the community. At Digital Pioneers Academy, we lean into our values. One of our values is optimism.
One side of optimism is acknowledging the brutal facts. We have to always acknowledge that there is social injustice, police brutality and systemic racism in our country.
About 90% of our kids are African American and live in some of the most under-resourced communities in Washington, D.C. When the murder of George Floyd happened, I'll be honest, our scholars were not as immediately impacted, because for them, it feels almost normal. We had to say to them, ‘This is not normal. This is not okay.’ We have to create a space where they can feel safe to have a relationship with a teacher, with an adult, where they can express themselves.
I will not pretend to have all of the answers. We all individually have to do our work. We all individually can learn and get better at being anti-racist and creating a sense of belonging. What I realize as a leader of an organization is that our adults need to create a safe place for our students to deal with the trauma and violence they and their families are experiencing. You cannot fight social injustice until your basic needs are met. At Digital Pioneers Academy, we are focused on closing the education gap so our families can have a better quality of life. Social justice for us starts with closing the education gap.
Charles Allen is community engagement director for the National Audubon Society on the Gulf Coast. Charles is working in communities like the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans to build a more diverse and inclusive environmental movement. He recently helped launch an Audubon student chapter at Xavier University in New Orleans.
Charles Allen: Audubon's long and storied work has focused on birds and how to enhance bird habitat. But it's also about people. We want to enhance the quality of life for people. For the last few years now, Audubon has focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. I'm a member of the internal team doing that work. We're developing a strategy to do a better job of reaching People of Color. As we do our best to be better stewards of the environment, we have to focus as much as possible on making certain that we also do right by people.
My work is all about enhancing Audubon's reach and involvement with Communities of Color and being more respectful when engaging Communities of Color on environmental issues.
The work we endeavor to do is all about establishing and cultivating relationships – forming comfortable, good, sound, respectful relationships. It is the only way the work can get started. It's the only way it can be maintained. Audubon is working hard and demonstrating courage internally to have difficult conversations around racism and injustice.
Recently I've worked to create an Audubon student chapter at Xavier University, which is my alma mater. It's one of many historically Black colleges and universities where Audubon is becoming more engaged. Audubon has allowed me to use my history and relationship with Xavier to work on diversity, equity and inclusion.
I can't emphasize enough the importance of reaching people in ordinary conversations. You might call them listening sessions, feedback sessions. You have to make time to get with people one on one, have conversations with them, document what you hear from them. And then you have got to go back and show folks what you've done differently. This work can be exhausting, and it's nothing you do very quickly. You've got to have patience and care.