Years ago, while a faculty member at the University of Michigan, a student in one of my history and African American studies courses remarked, “If only I had lived then, when the purpose was clear, the cause noble, and the outcome morally justified, I would have been on the frontlines of change.”
I have thought about that young person and their claim a great deal lately. At the time, I told the student that the path forward was not as clear and certain as it appears in retrospect. As is true today, most men and women watched from the sidelines, worried about the day-to-day challenge of living and surviving. In that sense, today’s and yesterday’s generations are not so different.
Years later, while living in Atlanta, where I served as provost of Emory University, I came to play a small role in the city’s creation of the Center for Civil and Human Rights. That work introduced me to the veteran civil rights leader Bernard Lafayette, who noted how few historians truly appreciated the planning, organizing, and intellectual work that went into ending Jim Crow. After all, the stakes were considerable, the brutality was formidable, the fear was palpable, yet the determination was unshakeable. That generation of men and women lit the torch of hope—the hope that we could perfect the union by ending segregation and being more inclusive.
The work continues.
A mass shooting in an Orlando nightclub, followed by the shootings of citizens by police and police by citizens has fed an undeniable sense of unease. This is another moment when we need to dig deep into our reservoir and surface a new era of purposeful hope.
In response to recent tragic events, dozens of foundation presidents and CEOs held a call to find a way to go beyond our individual grantmaking efforts and showcase our country’s progress, despite these terrible setbacks. We decided to produce ads that remind the nation of the powerful work undertaken by our grantees to design a brighter future.
In a time of gloom and despair for so many, we are seeking to shine a realistic light on hopeful actions. No one on the call considered the gesture a panacea, but all recognized the important role philanthropy can play—and has played—in establishing a tone and a framework for creative solutions.
“The recent killings of people and police officers in communities across the country have stirred feelings of discord and despair,” the ad reads. “Today, our nation needs more bridges of dialogue and fewer barriers of division.”
At Mellon, we believe that the universities, scholarly institutions, museums, performing arts organizations, and other nonprofits we support are critical to answering the grand challenges facing our country.
Our grantees are a reason for hope. They actively demonstrate the important role the humanities and arts play in our society. From PBS NewsHour’s “Race Matters” to WNYC's The Year of Talking Honestly to the upcoming University of Virginia public summit on “Memory, Mourning, Mobilization: Legacies of Slavery and Freedom in America,” we are reminded that historical reasoning is important. From Emory University’s ongoing efforts to foster engagement between the campus and larger community around modern civil rights to the Divided City Initiative at Washington University in Saint Louis—which places humanities scholars in a productive interdisciplinary dialogue about solving the persistence of segregation in American cities with architects, urban designers, sociologists, and communities—we are reminded that scholarship can inform our world and help us map alternatives.
Our grantees are working day after day to address our country’s most persistent challenges, and making a significant, positive impact as they continue to develop their work.
But we have been told that it is not sufficient for the grantees alone to do all of the lifting. So in September, in partnership with Princeton University Press, Mellon will publish Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society, the inaugural edition of a years-long series offering a cross-disciplinary investigation of opportunity and disparity in a swiftly diversifying America.
For without intelligent research and critical debate, decision makers and policymakers may retreat to old beliefs, and our present and future generations will be divided and deprived of the opportunities and shared prosperity waiting in our midst.
I have no idea what became of that student I taught long ago at the University of Michigan. I can only hope the student remembers the lessons gleaned from that class. I hope they are anchored in a community and have built lasting lines of collaboration with their neighbors. I hope they remember that through informed action they can become the artful architects of the world they seek to inhabit and pass on. I hope they are as committed to making a difference as they implied as teenagers. And I hope that they know they can make a difference.