An open letter on racism in philanthropy and the trials of a Black founder
OPINION: Aaron Walker, founder and CEO of Camelback Ventures, highlights the barriers faced by entrepreneurs of color
In 2018, feeling frustrated about racism in philanthropy, I wrote a version of this letter to a philanthropist and decided not to send it. I did some revisions and decided to share it because I want my testimony on the record. I want founders of color to know they are not alone. If funders find points of reflection in this, then that is a good thing too.
For all that I learned from The Huxtables, the 1980s sitcom family, what I never saw was how this Black family dealt with pain. I know that they didn’t arrive without struggle. Nor did they live absent of pain. I also wonder if they, in part, were the example of Black excellence because they didn’t talk about their pain.
“If you’re silent about your pain, they will kill you and say that you enjoyed it.” — Zora Neale Hurston
This thought leads to self-reflection. Am I leading Camelback Ventures because like my baseball hero, Jackie Robinson, I may not be the best, but I am good enough, and able to endure the pain of turning the other cheek? If the answer is yes, then I need to take my seat at the table on different terms.
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Silence cannot be a condition of my participation. I cannot make you do anything, but this is an invitation for us to build something different, and perhaps better, than what we have now.
You may be wondering: what pain? You receive a six-figure salary; you have a $3 million budget; you’ve been written about in the NYT, and are asked to speak at conferences worldwide. All true. And yet, …
I work to impress, and also impress upon you, why I am deserving and why Black lives are so important. We meet. And then meet again. It can go on like this for years. I highlight my strengths with data and stories. I turn my weaknesses into lessons learned.
I frame the work so you understand. And then (re)frame again when you do not. I blame myself because I haven’t figured out your language.
Then the wait begins. And waiting is the worse part. I feel unsure of myself. My mind fills in the space.
Do I need to be more like the white people you fund? I don’t believe you would never admit this because what kind of DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) warrior would you be if it were true.
I tell myself this story that if I was someone else you would not be equivocating. But I don’t believe that either. In those moments when I “think big,” you’ve told me enough to my face, that I can imagine you say it more behind my back, that I need to scale down my ambitions.
While I wait, I fight my instincts. My favorite sport is baseball. It is the place where I cultivated my quiet confidence. All those times on the pitcher’s mound when I struck a motherf*cker out and then just turned my back on him while he walked back to the dugout.
But this is not baseball, I cannot just turn my back. So, I send an email update with our accomplishments. I forward you a newsletter with Instagram-worthy photos hoping that the joy in Black faces inspires you.
The process is like waiting for the bus that never comes. I cannot stand the thought of walking away, even if that is the rational choice. Maybe what I am trying to avoid is the regret of feeling that you don’t believe in me (or your stated anti-racism).
As the wait continues, I dream of a moment like that in Tara Westover’s memoir, “Educated.” Tara, a student at BYU, needs more money than her job provides. When she receives financial aid she, “began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think about things besides money.”
I crave that feeling. To have thoughts make sense. To look at our fellows and staff and be present.
“Sometimes I think pain is just a lack of understanding.” — J. Cole
This whole process leaves me feeling powerless. I wonder if I feel powerless, do you feel powerful? And if you do, does it feel good? It doesn’t feel like a partnership at all. Maybe it does to you. Maybe I don’t understand what is really going on here.
Oscar Wilde once said everything in life is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power. I might also add that food and alcohol can be about power too. It sounds silly to say that I feel power over a sandwich or a drink, but it feels safer to riot over my own body, than to riot in the public. Here there is no one to police my behaviors.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” — FDR
The idea of you reading this is scary. I believe that as long as I don’t lose (or win) the way you want me to, I will be punished. But I also know that “from the right angle a Black boy pulling himself up looks like suicide.” I’ve killed parts of myself to get here. That is punishment enough.
This is not intended as an act of defiance or self-immolation. It is about rescuing parts of myself. It is a pronouncement that while there is some fear of what I will find on this self-rescue mission, the thing I value more is me. Not whether you recognize or like that person or approve of my choices.
For a while, my favorite album was Solange’s A Seat at The Table. There’s an interlude which says “If you don’t understand my record, you don’t understand me. So, this is not for you.” Exactly. I’m at peace with that now.
What BIPOC entrepreneurs have essentially been saying is “let me breathe!” The oxygen in this world is money. Philanthropy has its knee on many of our organization’s necks — and the question is will you wait “nine minutes” until we’re dead or get up.
Aaron Walker is Founder and CEO of Camelback Ventures, an accelerator that identifies, develops, and promotes early-stage underrepresented entrepreneurs with the aim to increase individual and community education, and generational wealth. Aaron is on a journey to live in the spirit of his baseball hero, Jackie Robinson, who said “a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” With this ethos, Aaron taught ninth grade English in West Philadelphia, put together deals for companies large and small as a lawyer, and supported new ideas to improve education as a portfolio director for the NYC Fund for Public Schools. Aaron is humbled to say that he graduated from the University of Virginia and Penn Law School. He also knows that this doesn’t entitle him to anything and is ready to earn his keep.