Seattle Foundation Blog

The Wisdom of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

Lead lecturer in new equity speaker series urges anti-racist reflection and action

March 14, 2018

By l ValdezúSa, Associate Advisor

I was one of the lucky attendees at a recent, sold-out talk by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, who shared empowering ideas, historical insights and a collective call to action to continuously challenge racist ideas and racist policies.

More than 400 educators, students, philanthropists and civic, corporate and community leaders turned out to absorb the wisdom of Dr. Kendi, an award-winning historian, New York Times best-selling author, professor and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. Kiran Ahuja, CEO of Philanthropy Northwest introduced Kendi as the first speaker in their new series on equity. “Our hope is to build capacity for transformative change in Seattle … where human compassion and equity is the norm, and not the exception,” she said.

In his remarks, Dr. Kendi urged attendees to apply themselves in anti-racism work that reduces racial inequality or eliminates it. The first step? To understand racist ideas and policies for what they truly are. He defines racist ideas as those that suggest that a racial group is superior or inferior to any other racial group. Racist policies are those that yield a racially unequal outcome. He added that people construct racist ideas and policies to protect their own wealth and power and to perpetuate the status quo. In Dr. Kendi’s view, there is no such thing as a race-neutral policy because all policies either increase, decrease or maintain inequality.

“Being racist … is not who you are [as a fixed category or identity], but what you say and do in that very moment. It’s someone expressing a racist idea or supporting a racist policy by an action or inaction,” Kendi said.

His words brought me back to my childhood in northeast Nebraska. While I valued my tranquil surroundings, I became cognizant at a very young age of the socioeconomic divide and systemic barriers in my small agricultural town of 2,400 people. Many students of color, like me, were not encouraged to pursue a college education. We were advised to start working in the fields or at the local meat-processing plant. As the Mexican American son of immigrant parents in a predominately white community, I knew that it would be difficult to advance and follow my dreams if I did not challenge the status quo. Thankfully, I had mentors and teachers in high school and college who helped me recognize the strength of my voice and my cultural background. As a result, I’ve dedicated my life to advancing racial justice and immigration justice in the nonprofit sector and now I’m doing the same in philanthropy.

I was also glad to attend the event with some of Seattle Foundation’s Youth Grantmaking Board members, who are all high school students, and I was surprised to know that many had had similar experiences when we discussed the lecture a few days later. As we began to review this year’s YGB grant applications focused on advocacy and organizing, the students shared how Dr. Kendi’s talk helped motivate them to think about how they can be change agents. Abigail, a high school sophomore, shared her reaction:


I feel inspired and guided by Dr. Kendi’s advice to begin in your sphere of influence and promote policies that yield racial equity. I want to seek policy change in transportation, the environment, education and much more. I have always felt naturally passionate about fighting against racism, but Dr. Kendi has sparked my hope for a future in which we are all in unison fighting against racist policies.

Many thanks to Philanthropy Northwest and all the event co-sponsors—Raikes Foundation, Casey Family Programs, Seattle University and Elliott Bay Book Company— for coordinating such a wonderful evening and sparking hope in us all. If you weren’t able to attend, I encourage you to read Philanthropy Northwest’s recap for more insights on the event, for which Seattle Foundation was a community sponsor.

If you want to learn more about how Seattle Foundation invests in our communities, visit our community investment portfolio and equity and opportunity page.




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