A Philanthropist Looks at America’s Tomorrow


This post is part of a series presenting equity leaders’ reactions to “America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model” — a paper that challenges the nation to invest in our collective future. Click here to read other reflections . This post is written by Phillip Henderson, President, Surdna Foundation.

Over the past few years, as our national political discourse has become ever more discordant and dysfunctional, I have been trying to think through how we can talk productively about social solidarity, about caring for our neighbors and for our fellow community members.  Somehow in the most extreme language of the far right and far left we risk ending up nowhere.  The economic struggles of the country, which America’s Tomorrow points out, have been especially severe among Latinos and African Americans, and caused a deepening of cynicism and anger among a growing cross-section of the country.

At Surdna, we are interested in sustainable communities, and we have a strong sense that social justice and equity are critical to making our communities livable, prosperous, and ultimately sustainable.  Fundamentally, we don’t believe that this view of communities is at odds with notions of liberty, freedom, prosperity, and other notions that find their place in the discourse of conservative politics.

It’s been so pleasing to see the evolving thinking and sharpened focus emerging from PolicyLink and PERE (Program for Environmental and Regional Equity) that helps us think more clearly about how focusing on equity and fairness, in the context of our ever diversifying nation, is the path towards prosperity, not at odds with it. This is a more fundamental observation about how we need to embrace what our nation is becoming and turn what some would fear – a growing proportion of our communities becoming majority people of color – into a source of economic and social strength.

One of my favorite big city mayors, Minneapolis’ R.T. Rybak has a great riff on this. His city was historically one of the whitest and most homogeneous in the nation, but the past two decades have seen an amazing increase in the proportion of immigrants in vast swaths of the city.  Mayor Rybak talks endlessly and compellingly about the incredible opportunity increased diversity brings to the city and how language skills, cultural fluency, and international networks should be developed as a source of strength for generations to come.  Rather than place barriers or seeking to tamp down these emerging communities, the mayor is seeking ways to embrace and invest in this asset of the community.  I think he’s found his way to the same ideas as PolicyLink and PERE, that prosperity and diversity are linked, and will, in fact, depend on the other over the coming decades in American society.

To follow the lead of America’s Tomorrow is no small feat.  It requires more than just a few policy tweaks.  It requires a broad and deep attitudinal shift that’s not about the political left finally selling the rest of America on social justice.  It’s about helping all of us see a path forward.  A path that embraces what we’re becoming as a nation and, like Mayor Rybak suggests, figures out how to turn what seems to many like a scary set of changes into a source of strength for our future.


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