Reflections on Juneteenth, the Fearless Fund decision and the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

BY Dion Cartwright, TFN President & CEO

Anger and disgust.

That was my initial reaction to a recent federal appeals court decision to block the Fearless Fund and its grant program for Black female entrepreneurs.

The Fearless Fund, founded and operated by women of color, is a venture capital firm that exclusively invests in tech and consumer-goods companies owned by women of color. In 2022, women of color business founders received just 0.39% of the $288 billion that venture capital firms deployed – a sobering statistic that underscores the critical need for initiatives like the Fearless Fund. This ruling is the latest blow of a larger, concerted effort to undo decades of progress for racially marginalized communities.

It’s telling that the lawsuit claiming the Georgia-based Fearless Fund is “racially discriminatory” was spearheaded by the same legal strategist behind the Supreme Court case that dismantled affirmative action in college admissions.

The Fearless Fund decision jeopardizes similar initiatives aimed at leveling the playing field for businesses owned by Black women and other people of color.

Like last year’s Supreme Court ruling, this is a disappointing setback celebrated by those who seek to unravel — or cynically subvert — American laws and policies originally designed to combat historic racial discrimination, oppression and violence.

Another recent court decision that is sitting heavy on my heart today is one that also sends a chilling message to advocates for racial justice.

On June 12, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma dismissed a lawsuit by the last known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, rejecting requests for reparations for one of the most sickening incidents of racist violence against Black people in U.S. history.

This ruling will likely end the historic quest for justice by Lessie Benningfield Randle, 109, and Viola Ford Fletcher, 110, who were young children at the time. Fletcher’s younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, was also a plaintiff in the suit. He died last year at the age of 102 after spending decades fighting to get compensation for the massacre — not just for himself, but for his community.

The survivors were seeking community benefits that included a detailed account of the property and wealth destroyed or stolen during the massacre, the construction of a hospital and the creation of a victim’s compensation fund.  The Tulsa Historical Society and Museum provides an extensive resource collection of reports, archives, book recommendations, and I encourage you to explore these materials to gain a deeper understanding of this dark chapter in our history.

Reaffirming Our Commitments 

The Freedom Fund decision and the Oklahoma ruling are two very different cases, rooted in events that happened more than a century apart. But they both represent efforts to diminish or outright ignore the impacts of historic injustice that have plagued Black and brown people for generations.

I am so tired of the gaslighting. Aren’t you?

This Wednesday is Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the true end of slavery in the U.S. It’s a day to honor the ancestors who survived the horrors of enslavement, and those who fought for our basic civil liberties under the shadow of Jim Crow.

It’s a day to reflect on how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go before achieving true liberation.

This Juneteenth, I want to reaffirm my commitment to advocating and disrupting for racial justice alongside my team at The Funders Network and many of you.

We recognize the humanity and dignity of all marginalized peoples and are committed to amplifying the expertise and experiences of those communities who are least heard.

We’re committed to implementing the strategies laid out in TFN’s Racial Equity Framework and holding ourselves accountable to ourselves and our members.

That includes working with the philanthropic sector to truly understand the ways systemic racism and other forms of oppression continue to impact our world.

We’re committed to helping our members and allies acquire the tools and practices to apply that understanding to their own grantmaking and community engagement practices.

Reclaiming Our Past, Safeguarding Our Future 

TFN’s members are a diverse group of funders with a wide array of focus areas. But connecting us all is a desire to help create communities and regions that are sustainable, prosperous and just for all.

We need bold philanthropic leadership if we’re going to make that vision a reality.

As we face these ongoing assaults on the values of diversity, equity and inclusion — and find ourselves in yet another high-stakes election season — I encourage our members to flex their advocacy muscles. Talk about the issues communities are facing and amplify the voices of those least heard and ignored.

On Monday, I joined Bolder Advocacy’s program director, Natalie Roetzel Ossenfort, for a TFN webinar aimed at funders who may be hesitant to step into the political arena.

If you were unable to join us, please check out Natalie’s blog post which includes resources on election season advocacy for you and your foundations.

Philanthropic leaders must also be intentional in supporting the storytellers, truth-seekers and culture-keepers in our communities. They are a powerful weapon against ongoing injustice and a critical defense against efforts to erase our histories.

The Tulsa Race Massacre is a tragic example of how silence can be as sinister as violence.

The massacre began when a white mob descended on the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood, home to what was known then as “Black Wall Street.”  They shot Black people indiscriminately and burned more than 1,000 homes and hundreds of Black-owned businesses. Historians estimate as many as 300 Black people were killed, and archeologists are still examining unmarked graves to further identify victims and their descendants.

No one was ever arrested or charged in the massacre. And city and civic leaders in Tulsa deliberately ignored and covered up what had happened for decades.

The Oklahoma ruling discredits the pain of the past, just as the Fearless Fund decision threatens our future. I’m still angry and disgusted by these headlines. But I’m also inspired by these three Tulsa centenarians who refused to be silenced. I’m even more determined to step up and speak out.

I hope you’ll join me.