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Black Philanthropy Month: Interview with author Valaida Fullwood, Part I

Join Brooklyn Community Foundation this August for Black Philanthropy Month (BPM), as we highlight stories of those who are committed to informing, inspiring, and investing in Black communities. Through a series of interviews, we will explore the various ways leaders are celebrating and emphasizing the importance of investing in Black leadership from within the Black community in Brooklyn and beyond. 

We had the pleasure of speaking with Valaida Fullwood, an architect of Black Philanthropy Month and award-winning author of Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists, a 400-page hardcover book profiling stories of philanthropy among African Americans. Developed with photographer Charles Thomas, Giving Back was named one of the 10 Best Black Books of 2011 and received the prestigious 2012 McAdam Book Award, which recognizes “the most inspirational and useful new book for the nonprofit sector.”

In this first half of our interview with Valaida, we discuss some defining aspects and trends of philanthropy in the Black community, as well as themes explored in her work Giving Back.


How do you define philanthropy?

“How I choose to define philanthropy is, ‘love of what it means to be human.’ Taking the Greek translation, ‘love of humanity’ or ‘love of humankind,’ then deconstructing the whole humanity, humankind element further—for me it boils down to love of what it means to be human.  All of our flaws, foibles and vulnerabilities as well as all of our impulses to give, support, improve and change. Acknowledging the good, bad, and the ugly of being human and then demonstrating love for each in light of that, that is philanthropy to me. I like this definition because breaking it down that way allows it be as inclusive as possible, and in that sense everybody has the potential to become a philanthropist.”

What does Black Philanthropy Month mean to you?

“Black Philanthropy Month is the opportunity to celebrate traditions of Black giving globally, and to celebrate giving in all its forms. Which I would say also goes back to how I define philanthropy around love of what it means to be human.”

There is a recurring aspect that shows up in different tributes in your book, Giving Back: often the people being recognized as examples of philanthropists didn’t self-identify as philanthropists. Why do you think that is?

“I think that the core concept of ‘philanthropist,’ that root meaning, was in many ways hijacked at the turn of the 20th century—the images and the ideas that were presented were around great wealth and oftentimes whiteness, and as a result it excluded a large segment of the American people. That’s been the prevailing imagery and storytelling of philanthropy, around Carnegie, and Rockefeller, and Ford, and while that’s part of the story and no doubt a significant part in framing American philanthropy, it is not the only story or framing element of American philanthropy.

I think during the course of the 20th century people bought into that idea—and those false notions about who is a philanthropist and what philanthropy is persist and still influence how people see themselves in the mix.  Part of the work of Giving Back was to dispel those ideas and to reclaim the root meaning of philanthropy by telling stories from the African American experience with philanthropy.”

What are some of the different ways of giving you witnessed through the stories highlighted in your book?

“A central theme of the stories in Giving Back, whether people articulated it or not, is social justice. That is a defining aspect of African American philanthropy because of our history and legacy of oppression in America.  People often give to change systems and to create access to opportunities for others. Oftentimes people give in ways that address needs and provide opportunities that they themselves were denied at points in their lifetime.

Particularly in the 19th century in stories of formerly enslaved people, they often invested their time, talent, and treasure to provide others the things they never had a chance to have. For example with education and literacy, it was often illiterate people who were leading efforts and pooling resources to ensure education for the next generation.”

What are some of the trends that define and set apart philanthropy and giving in the Black community?

“I would say recognition of the time, talent, treasure, and truth traditions. That giving for us, or philanthropy for us, isn’t only giving money or writing checks, but it’s also frequently bringing to bear our full selves along with other things of value and non-monetary assets that we have.”

Could you give some examples of the time, talent, treasure tradition?

“Certainly. Giving time is committing your precious hours to do something for others, whether it’s driving an elder to a doctor’s appointment or mentoring a child. 

Treasure, of course, is giving money, writing the check and financing causes and movements—often people lead with that when they think of philanthropy, and kind of lean on that exclusively.  But as you know, our time is often more precious and expensive than writing a check.

And then there’s our talents—bringing in our know-how, our expertise, to advance a cause. So whether it’s writing the press release for a local nonprofit, or a group of activists in your community, or serving as the bookkeeper for a startup nonprofit or fledgling group.

Those are just some examples of time, talent, and treasure. People often add on additional ‘T’s: testimony—that is, sharing our story, and linked to that is also truth, telling our truth and what we know about issues and communities.”

Black Philanthropy Month, celebrated in August, was created in August 2011 by Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland and the Pan-African Women's Philanthropy Network (PAWPNet) as an annual, global celebration of African-descent giving.

Jameela Syed

Communications Manager (She/Her/Hers)
Supporting each other and demonstrating love, that is philanthropy to me. I like that definition because breaking it down that way allows it be as inclusive as possible, and in that sense everybody can see themselves as a philanthropist, potentially.