A Call to Courage: Understanding Dreams, Democracy & Equity in the American South

By Robert Dortch

For more than 400 years, America has been designed and driven by dreams and dreamers. If we rewind America’s story, one of the dreams was born in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, on March 23, 1775, at the historic St. Johns Church, when Patrick Henry said, “give me liberty or give me death.” That dream would transform America from being a British colony to being an independent nation. Yet Patrick Henry’s declaration was incomplete for many.

One hundred and eighty years after Patrick Henry demanded liberty, on August 28, 1963, a 34-year-old Baptist minister from Atlanta named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital and reminded America that she had written a bad check by deviating from her promise of liberty and justice for all. He proposed a dream that advocated for freedom to ring throughout the American South and invited America to be an America for all Americans. This dream touched the pulse of the 250,000+ gathered and the millions who watched from afar.

Personally, it gave hope to my maternal grandfather, Henry Towns, who was a 58-year-old factory worker in 1963 and raising his family in a still-segregated Richmond. Through long walks, visits to places where historic events occurred and rides through parts of the American South, my grandfather showed me, during my childhood, that our history is a rich and complex tapestry of painfully tragic injustices as well as significant moments of resilience, resolve and determination. He would remind me that while we can’t change the past, we each have a unique responsibility to learn valuable lessons and contribute to building and writing new chapters that offer hope and opportunity for a better future for all.

We find ourselves at another significant time in the life of our nation because these aspirations are still a work in progress. Therefore, as Philanthropy Southeast commits to writing a new chapter, what lessons can we learn from historic declarations that will serve as a guide to actualizing our full potential?

The Courage to Dream & Declare A Better Future

Every significant historic moment or movement elevates an aspirational vision that transcends current circumstances and realities by calling those who hear it to imagine new possibilities. Like previous proclamations and declarations, Philanthropy Southeast’s Equity Framework serves as a dream that invites all of us who serve in philanthropy, within the American South and beyond, to imagine new opportunities while striving to create a more inclusive and equitable future for every resident who calls the South home. 

While I acknowledge that progress has been made, we must also acknowledge how our history continues to impact us. Data and current events show us that a disproportionate number of our citizens are experiencing economic, health and educational disparities that are primarily driven by race, zip code, and geography, which are preventing us from maximizing our collective social, cultural and economic capital and fully actualizing the aspirations of our country.

Today, many of our Southern neighbors continue to be window shoppers to the American promise. They can see it, hear about it, desire it and are willing to toil for it because they want to know what it feels like to wear the clothes of freedom, justice and equal opportunity for themselves, their children and their families, but they remain on the outside looking in because there are systemic barriers and prohibitive costs that limit access and participation and, therefore, leave generations of good people perpetually locked out, falling further and further behind. 

As a philanthropy-serving organization with more than 320 members, Philanthropy Southeast collectively has the opportunity, the resources, the power and the influence to help change these conditions and circumstances and move us toward an inclusive and equitable region that gives everyone a reasonable chance to actualize their full potential. The question is do we have the will and the fortitude to pursue this path?

Courage to Cross the Lines & Create New Paths 

For us to achieve a better American South that is inclusive of our fellow citizens, equity has to be more than a trend or buzzword diluted by overuse and underutilization in application. It is a guiding principle and practice that connects us to the democratic values that still makes us a dream destination, one that others want to call home. We must be willing to go a step further and embrace equity as a value that benefits all citizens. For this to be possible, it requires the courage to acknowledge our fears, to be willing to cross well established lines of tradition, delete hard-wired stereotypes and to check our biases and prejudices in a manner that will stretch us to be vulnerable enough to reach out to each other and find some common ground on which we can build something meaningful together.

Courage to Come Together to Learn from Each Other

The Equity Framework invites those who may have traditionally on opposing sides of history and lived separate and segregated lives to see each other differently, to share space, to break bread and to spend the time together that’s necessary for us to begin coming together, authentically and transparently, in our pursuit to reimagine new paths. This will involve challenging conversations that are a necessary part of our discovery process in our efforts to learn about and from each other and to form new partnerships and bonds needed to help build a better American South.

The Courage to Continue

The Equity Framework can serve as a roadmap to help us to transform and grow the American South. While we recognize we are a work in progress, let’s continue this noble pursuit that contributes to our collective efforts to fulfill an evolving aspiration. The nation and the world are watching the American South. We have the challenging privilege to be practitioners and proponents who author a chapter that champions equity and builds a model that shows others how to activate equity-driven democracy. This moment is an opportunity to work together to build on the dreams and declarations of our fore parents and to bring about the changes necessary for us to create a better American South worthy of our children and future generations.

Robert Dortch is the chair of the Philanthropy Southeast Board of Trustees and co-founder of the Ujima Legacy Fund, a giving circle based in Richmond, Virginia.


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Mission: Philanthropy Southeast strengthens Southern philanthropy, welcoming our members to listen, learn and collaborate on ideas and actions to help build an equitable, prosperous South.