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Minding our Qs and Ps: Questioning Power and Privilege in Philanthropy (version 1)

May 11, 2011

I was humbled last week to be honored as this year’s winner of the Thomas Yamashita Prize from the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California at Berkeley. The Yamashita Prize recognizes work that builds valuable bridges between academia and activism so my acceptance speech shared my experiences at this intersection. The audio recording of the speech (with additional links and comments) is available here and the notes from which I spoke are below it.  I’m still exploring these ideas so I’d love your feedback!  The introductory comments are by Colleen LaFontaine of the One World Children’s Fund and my speech starts at minute 6.15. Photos from the event are here

  • Academia taught me to think about power and privilege
  • There is an ecology of privilege that is systemic.  Slavoj Zizek talks about it being harder to have sympathy with thought than with suffering.  With philanthropy its easier to have a knee-jerk reaction than to sit at the uncomfortable place of contemplating suffering and the possibilities of human agency to alleviate suffering.
  • The space between activism (Akili Dada) and Academia has forced me to seriously consider the intersection of power, privilege and philanthropy.

About Power and Privilege:

  • Society has a very one dimentional conversation about privilege.
  • Looking at me from an American perspective, it would be easy to assume that I hold no privilege.
  • I’m Black, a woman, from the third world.  All these things are true and indeed if you were to base your evaluation of me on popular media images of Africans and particularly African women, I’m a miserable creature indeed.
  • However, if you take seriously Chimamanda Achidie’s call for a balance of stories you might take a different perspective of me.
  • As an educated, professor of Politics at an American university, I do wield considerable class, educational and other privileges relative to the rest of the world’s population.
  • You see, the problem is that society as a whole tends to have very narrow views of privilege.
  • This narrow view of privilege pervades philanthropy as well.
  • On one hand we look at poor people in poor communities and fail to see the ways in which they do wield particular assets.  Even the poor man in the slums of Kibera wields a form of gender privilege.
  • Our inability to see privilege as a systemic ecology has lead us to a type of philanthropy that produces disturbing imagery of African as miserable creatures in various stages of death and dying. The recipients of our philanthropy are cast as one dimensional passive victims.
  • We fail to allow for the human agency of the recipients of philanthropic aid.
  • The other impact of the unsophisticated view of privilege in philanthropy is that philanthropists often wield their own privilege without being aware of its implications.
  • Our narrow views grant authority to philanthropists without requiring accountability for the ways they wield their power and privilege.
  • The philanthropic ‘industry’ reflects the expansion of racial, gender, and imperial privilege that has largely remained unquestioned.
  • For example, women remain surprisingly underrepresented in the ongoing discourse on how to save the world’s women that is en vogue today.
  • These are the challenges that unquestioned power and privilege bring to philanthropy.


  • A more sophisticated view of philanthropy needs to recognize not only the shortcomings of how privilege functions within philanthropy, but its opportunities as well.
  • The philanthropic relationship is itself an example of using one’s privilege for good.  Funders leverage their financial privilege, and people like me leverage the privilege we wield based on our life experiences and location
  • I started Akili Dada as a way to use my own privilege for good.  I had benefited from scholarships for my high school, Undergraduate, Masters and Ph.D. education.  These scholarships and the education they made possible opened doors and allowed me access to power and privilege I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
  • I frequently found myself the only African or even Black woman in a room sometimes.  Akili Dada was my way to leverage the access that I now had to change the situation.  I wanted to ensure that even where I was the first in the room and at the decision making table, I didn’t stay the only one.  Akili Dada is about holding the doors of access open for other women so that they have a chance as well.
  • My question to you is: how are you using your privilege?  That is the hardest question of all.  It is easier to point fingers at how others are using their privilege badly, I certainly fall into that temptation more often than I should.
  • But I must always turn the question on myself.  The intersection of academia and activism forces me to ask myself that question
  • My answer is that Akili Dada makes possible for there to be a thousand other young African women coming down the pike
  • Our mentors leverage their privilege and access by nurturing the scholars
  • The scholars leverage their own privilege and access through their community service project
  • Our donors and volunteers, especially in the US leverage their gifts and privilege to shift the conversation about Africa and African women.
  • How are YOU leveraging YOUR privilege?
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jen I. permalink
    May 11, 2011 9:28 AM

    great speech! I also love that I can hear Adili in the background!

  2. May 12, 2011 5:43 AM

    Fantastic. Thanks for this.

  3. May 12, 2011 6:33 AM

    Wonderful post. Just wonderful.

  4. May 16, 2011 1:06 PM

    Great stuff! We all must continue reflecting on how we use our privilege.


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