On Advancing Equity and Building Community Through Philanthropy: An Interview with Dr. Sherece West-Scantlebury

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Dr. Sherece West-Scantlebury, president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF), a private, independent foundation whose mission is to relentlessly pursue economic, educational, social, ethnic and racial equity for all Arkansans. Dr. West-Scantlebury is a 21st-century poverty eradicator who has been involved in philanthropy for 25 years.  She served as CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana.  She also serves on numerous nonprofit boards, including as chair of the board of Philander Smith College, an HBCU in Arkansas.

Jocelyn: Sherece, you lead a philanthropic foundation.  Not everyone knows what that means or what philanthropy is.  How do you define it?

Sherece: The word philanthropy comes from the Greek word philanthrōpia, which is broadly defined as loving people, love of mankind.  That’s one definition.  I work in organized philanthropy that seeks to eliminate societal problems, to affect the public good or increase the welfare of others which has a multiplier effect of benefiting all.

Jocelyn: Say more.

Sherece: Philanthropy is different from charity.  Charity focuses on eliminating the suffering caused by societal problems. Examples would be providing books for school children and beds for the homeless.  It is emotional and feels good and you can often see an immediate impact and that is gratifying.

Philanthropy asks why is there homelessness and why aren’t all children reading on grade level?  As a grantmaker, we are trying to promote the wellbeing of humankind by solving societal problems. We are trying to increase well being by addressing the structural issues that create better outcomes.

Jocelyn: That is so helpful.  I really like your distinction that philanthropy asks different questions. I read that you didn’t start out wanting to be a philanthropist.  You said philanthropy chose you!  How did you get into the field?

Sherece: I didn’t have any true career aspirations.  God directed my path to philanthropy.  My internship in graduate school in 1988 was in the field   When I was at the University of Michigan’s– Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, I secured a summer internship at the Ford Foundation. It was a great opportunity and I loved it.

That said, even after that experience, I didn’t plan to pursue a career in this field.  Philanthropy seemed exclusive.  It seemed to me that you weren’t encouraged to join the field unless you had all these credentials.

I wanted to pursue a career in housing policy and advocacy.  And I did that for several years.  I saw an ad in City Limits magazine for a job at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in their Rebuilding Communities Initiative.  I applied and got the job.

What drew me to that job and what has drawn me to all the philanthropic work I’ve led since isn’t a passion for giving out money. I’m passionate about community building and advancing equity.

Jocelyn: You mentioned that the field of philanthropy appeared exclusive to you.  Philanthropy is criticized for not being diverse or inclusive, especially at the board level.  Do diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in philanthropy even matter? 

Sherece:  It absolutely matters because the goal of philanthropy is to effect change in communities and that can best be achieved when those with lived experiences are represented on staffs and boards.

I want to be clear.  This is not an argument for racial essentialism.  Obviously, not all people of color are the same.  And it’s possible to have a diverse board or staff where people don’t speak up or use their power.

But if you are truly trying to use your philanthropic dollars to create systemic change, then your work must be informed by a diversity of experiences, backgrounds, and identities.

Jocelyn: Tell us a little about your goals at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.  What are you working on?

Sherece: We’re launching a new direction for the Foundation as we speak.  It’s called AREquity2025 (Arkansas Equity 2025).  Our goal is to relentlessly pursue economic, educational, social, and ethnic equity for all Arkansans.

Our board has determined that inequity a root cause of persistent poverty in our state.  Put simply, not all Arkansans have access to the opportunities they need to thrive and prosper.

We’re asking this question – What are the systems and structural barriers that prevent us from achieving equity?

Jocelyn: How exciting!

Sherece:  For example, in educational equity, we plan to partner with communities where families are striving to succeed and yet, grade level reading scores are at their worst, particularly for boys of color.

Another equity issue that our board wants to address is access to living wages.

Far too many Arkansans simply are not making enough money to support their families.  And we know anecdotally that Arkansas is marketed to industry as a low-wage state.

We want to catalyze change in this area.  When new industries come into our state, we want communities to be empowered with the data to incent and negotiate with those companies to pay a living wage.

Jocelyn: That makes so much sense!  At BlackHer, we talk all the time about the importance of wealth-building for Black women.  This starts with increasing our incomes.

Sherece:  We are using our foundation as a bully pulpit and champion to catalyze change.  We’ll start by making the business case.  There is a cost to not paying a living wage.  We can change that. There is a cost to not addressing gender pay equity where women who are heads of households are making significantly less than men for comparable jobs.

Jocelyn: I really like your focus on creating systemic change.  I know that many foundations don’t like to use public policy as a tool for creating systemic change.  How do you think about that? 

Sherece: We’ve been funding public policy since our founding.  For example, we funded nonprofit advocacy organizations that helped change the rules around payday lending in our state via policy change.  WRF is one of the few foundations in Arkansas that has supporting advocacy and organizing as its central strategy. We seek to support organizations that can influence public discourse and policy decisions to advance economic, educational, social, ethnic and racial equity.

Jocelyn: What else do you want BlackHer readers to know about the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation?

Sherece: That our direction is equity.  And, for us, change demands courage and commitment.  We are a small state with a population of about 2.8 million Arkansans. While it will not be easy, we can address equity in our great state. I have hope we will see and effect equitable change.

Jocelyn: Who are your BlackHer Sheroes?

Sherece: My mother, Sandra Aiken is my shero.  I also really admire women like Mary McLeod Bethune and Shirley Chisholm.  They are like Nubia, our Black Wonder Woman. They were courageous and brilliant.  Bethune and Chisholm were trying to get our country to do better when there was absolutely no love for Black women in the U.S.

My husband and I traveled to Ghana several years ago and visited the castles where the enslaved were held in dark rooms for months before they were shipped off to slavery.  I can’t really imagine what it is like to survive amidst that much oppression and suffering.  It’s almost as if our ancestors were superhuman to survive the atrocities of being taken from Africa to ports unknown, to enslavement, to freedom, to segregation and discrimination today.  They had a trait that is beyond resilience.  I truly admire all those who came before me.  They are my heroes.

Jocelyn: Let me ask you the miracle question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up and it’s March 2020 and the miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

Sherece: We can come to any given table to live and breathe in the fullness of our power, passion, and position.  Our authenticity and love for mankind are known, felt and appreciated.

Jocelyn: Amen.





To meet other amazing Black women to watch in philanthropy, read The Black Woman’s Guide to Philanthropy!



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