The Funders’ Network
Director of Equitable Initiatives and Leadership Development
Baltimore, Maryland
PLACES 2011 Cohort

Dion Cartwright found her calling to lead at an early age, inspired by her experiences at her family’s church — as well as on the basketball court.

“My grandfather was the Pastor,” said Cartwright, who grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia. “I had to pretty much go to church four days out of the week. Bible study, Friday night special services, choir rehearsal, youth night.”

Even at a young age, adults noticed she was exceedingly responsible, tapping her as a youth leader.

“And that pretty much carried with me all of my life,” said Cartwright. “Certain people just naturally become leaders and that happened to me in an organic way.”

On the basketball court, where she played forward and center, Cartwright also honed her skills as a team leader and eventually as a youth basketball coach. Working with young people gave Cartwright the opportunity to become a leader across generations. She was not only a leader to the young men and women on her teams, but she was also positioned to be a leader working with many of the parents to address major issues impacting their child.

“After college I started mentoring and volunteering in places like the Y because that’s something I realized I was passionate about — working with young people,” she said.

Even years later, Cartwright notes those skills she learned both on and off the court translated well to her work in the community, as well as her work in the philanthropic sector.

Cultivating leadership skills is one of the key elements of the PLACES Fellowship, and one that Cartwright can attest to with confidence.

She occupies a singular position in the PLACES alumni network: Formerly of the Baltimore Community Foundation, she joined TFN in 2016 as the network’s director of equitable initiative and leadership development — heading the PLACES fellowship program and leading the organization’s work to address equity, inclusion and structural racism. She also chaired the PLACES Advisory Board for four years before joining TFN.

“After all my years involved in this fellowship, I’ve realized that PLACES is a gift,” she said. “It’s the gift of time to reflect on our work and our impact, and the gift of connecting with others.”

Why did you get into philanthropy?

By accident, like most people do. When I moved to Baltimore I had a roommate who volunteered at a youth grant making program at the Baltimore Community Foundation. There was a job that opened up, a mostly administrative role, and I was very young and just really happy to have a job.

In taking that job, it introduced me to philanthropy — and it’s not a world I was familiar with. In my family we were givers, but I didn’t know giving equated to the word “philanthropy.” Many in the black community do their giving through their religious institutions. We aren’t traditional philanthropist, but we often give.

You were a PLACES fellow. What was that experience like and how has it impacted your work?

I was a PLACES fellow in 2010. I was part of the second class and now I actually run the program. It’s been an interesting full circle.

I went into the fellowship trying to better understand the issues around race and equity myself. What I didn’t realize was that the fellowship also dealt with you, the person. Your own thinking, your own biases and how you yourself are doing things to perpetuate certain systems and structures.

I don’t think I really understood all of the systemic racism stuff, and it’s weird to say that when I think about it now. Even though I grew up in the South, in a city that’s majority white, and I grew up in a low-income community literally across the street from the city jail, I didn’t feel like I grew up with many issues relating to race.

And that probably sounds weird for a black person growing up in the South. What I realized is it’s not that I didn’t experience racism, it’s just I didn’t know what to call it. Now, I know that it’s not cool that the city jail is across the street from where I grew up, and the impact that can have on a person’s psyche. In a lot of ways, I believe my engagement in activities in school, in church and on the basketball court protected me from what many others had experienced.

PLACES also gave me a more grassroots approach to my work in the community. You would find me in community leaders homes, in their living rooms and really being a thought partner. I wanted to be a resource beyond the grant dollar. That’s what you learn in PLACES: more equitable approaches to engaging community. And now running the program, I get to make sure other people have opportunities to shift their thinking and approach.

What is one the biggest challenges you’re facing right now in this work?

After the 2016 presidential election, we saw a major shift in how people showed up. You can feel the lack of trust that exists more between black, brown and white people. Before, people would come into the fellowship with a little anxiety, not knowing what to expect, and you could see them after a couple months building relationships and trust.

But in the current political climate, people are coming in with anger and heaviness. And as a facilitator, we had to recognize the heaviness and create the space to talk about it. People of color, family members of immigrants, needed a space to mourn and then realize, “This is the reality now, and how can I continue to help my community?”

You also saw white fragility show up more. More white folks would come into this space and they were dealing with some stuff internally. Often feeling ashamed or discovering that they may contribute to racial inequalities or uphold many of the racist structures in our society.

There was some real racial tension in this space. And we’ve had to shift our curriculum to really focus on some of those things. But at the same time, we’ve had a record number of applicants for the fellowship. That shows not only how much this program is needed, but also the sense of urgency in the field of philanthropy to address what we’re facing as a nation.

How are you building for equity?

We try to look at some of the inequitable things in our society and how we help shift some of those issues. How do you do it from your position?

If a fellow doesn’t have the power to change their organization as a whole, we look at what you can do from your position and develop that lens. The hope is that over time you’ll begin to see changes in the way your foundation is approaching their grant-making work.

My old job embraced this learning experience. I began to implement changes internally, but I realize not everyone will get that opportunity. Some foundations are cool with the word equity but don’t want to talk race. Talking about race begins the real work.

If you could write a very short letter —“Dear People In Philanthropy…” What would it say?

Dear People in Philanthropy,
Move out of the way. As a field, we do a really great job at upholding a lot of these racist structures that exist and which we’re supposedly trying to dismantle.

We just need to give the resources that have been given to us to support communities and let the work get done. We’re so quick to want to check boxes and look at data, we make things harder than they have to be.

There are people in need of basic resources, and we are creating more barriers that are inequitable and that do not serve low-income people and people of color. So, get out the way.

Is there an internal question you’re constantly asking yourself while doing this work? What is it and how do you answer it?

I feel extremely responsible, being in this new role of leading the fellowship. I feel responsible for helping to shift people’s thinking. So one question I have to constantly ask myself is, “Am I doing this work right?” and “Am I doing more harm than good?”

I don’t know that there’s an answer to that, but everything that I do I try to do in a very thoughtful way. If you don’t approach this work the right way you can really do more harm. I’m helping to shape leaders.

And back to my faith-based roots, it’s in a prayerful and mindful way. I’m not going to save the world, but if I can shift one person’s way of thinking I can make the world better.