Why Do We Call Ourselves ‘Young Black Philanthropists’ Anyway?

by Ebonie Johnson Cooper

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When I penned my latest article for EBONY.com I wasn’t exactly sure how I wanted to convey what had been on my mind. The truth is and was, I often have to reassure myself that I’m doing the right thing by encouraging our Friends of Ebonie community to identify with being young black philanthropists. We don’t all give money, which is traditionally linked with being a philanthropist. Some of us give more time than money and others give equally. Either way, who’s really to say who we are based on the volume of giving we embark upon? Take a peek at a what I discovered through my latest EBONY.com piece: ‘Young Back Philanthropist’ Is Not An Oxymoron.

Originally posted on EBONY.com on April 22, 2013

Why do you call yourselves philanthropists? That’s like calling an average student a scholar,” a woman said to me once when she learned the label I had adopted for myself. She is a member of one of the wealthiest Black families in America. How could I dispute her claim when obviously she knew about a world — and a level of giving back — that I was far from? Nevertheless, I did the best I could to defend the use of the word “philanthropist” to describe myself and the cohort of young, Black community leaders I have come to know through my work with Friends of Ebonie.  Yet, nothing I could say could convince her that I wasn’t abusing the label. Her words took the wind out of my sails.

The fact that most givers in our communities don’t see themselves–or each other–as philanthropists isn’t odd. For a very long time the term has only been applied to the extremely wealthy, who also happen to be White. That’s why, despite serving as a vice president on the junior board of a large non-profit, being a member of two giving circles and a young patrons circle, taking on at least six volunteer projects a year, and making significant year-round donations–including my tithes–using the word “philanthropist” to describe myself hadn’t entered my mind. I was a do-gooder, an agent of change, or just a really busy young professional outside of my day job. A philanthropist? Nah.

Until about a year and a half ago. That’s when I met an organization full of young Black professionals doing the same type of work I do who called themselves “young philanthropists.” They described philanthropy as an action of donating time and money. That sounded just like me! And I have called myself one ever since.

The word’s Latin and Greek roots mean the “love of humanity,” which can be translated as selflessly giving to others in need. Nowhere in this definition does it say, “only those who write really big checks.” In fact, it implies just the opposite: anyone who gives of himself or herself to another human being in need is a philanthropist. According to the W.K. Kellogg Cultures of Giving Report, “philanthropy is being expressed in communities of color in a multitude of ways that are not always recognized, counted or valued as philanthropy.”  But as times change, passions increase and the realization that philanthropy means generosity in donating time, money and know-how, communities of color–and particularly African Americans are, “re-framing philanthropy,” as Valaida Fullwood, Black philanthropy thought leader says.  And in this new frame also exists millennials: Black millennials.

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