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Black Philanthropy Month: Interview with Esmeralda Simmons

To close out this year's Black Philanthropy Month, we held a celebration featuring a panel conversation that covered trends in Black giving, resource gaps faced by Black led organizations, and the future of Black philanthropy. The panel was moderated by our Manager of Donor Services Damaris Dias and included the founder of the Black Art Futures Fund DéLana Dameron, Incubator Project member Jennifer Allen of BlackSpace, and the founder and executive director of 2018 Spark Prize winner Center for Law and Social Justice Esmeralda Simmons.
We had the pleasure of speaking one-on-one with Esmeralda about her work and the importance of celebrating philanthropy in the Black community in the interview below.

How do you define philanthropy?

Philanthropy is when an individual or group gives to a cause, whether it be an individual, or a group, or a nonprofit, or a charity in order to support the work they’re doing for the public good. It usually is monetary, but it doesn’t have to be monetary—it could be in-kind services.

As someone who devotes their time to empowering the Black community, what does Black Philanthropy Month mean to you?

I think it’s an excellent concept and it’s very timely.  And I say that because in the midst of all the needs, some of the needs of Black people in the country are often forgotten, even by philanthropists. Having a Black Philanthropy Month, just like Black History Month, is to bring focus on the needs of Black people, in this country and around the world.

Why is it important that we celebrate philanthropy in the Black community?

It is almost in our core that we should be giving to other folks that are in need, giving to causes, and participating in any way that we can.  And that goes back to the reason as to why there needs to be a Black Philanthropy Month, the needs are great, and in the Black community we do not have a level of wealth that other communities enjoy. The Black community is missing an upper echelon of wealthy people that is proportionate to the population.

Do you feel philanthropy can fit into the world of social justice, and how?

I think philanthropy can support several different types of good work, like direct services— I’m happy to say there is a growing of philanthropy for social justice needs. For a while that was not in vogue (and I’m talking about only 20 years ago). It was difficult to convince people that ‘social justice’ was viable. The name of my center is The Center for Law and Social Justice—I would get challenged on why the institution was called that instead of ‘social welfare,’ or ‘social need.’  Now of course, everyone is adopting the term social justice. That’s not to say that major philanthropists haven’t been doing social justice giving for decades if not for even over a century. Of course, the latest champion leading the charge in New York City is Brooklyn Community Foundation!

I am focused on the racial justice aspect of social justice but there are many, many aspects of social justice and they’re all absolutely worthy. I have to be very frank, philanthropy does tend to go after the flavor of the month. I’m glad social justice is in vogue now but whether it’s in vogue or not, that’s the work that we’re going to be doing. I think anything that is civil society working toward systemic change or policy change should be supported by philanthropy. 

Through your work with the CLSJ Census Justice Project, we see there is a hesitancy to report census data within the Black community—where do you think that comes from?

Within the Black community there is a hesitancy to engage in information giving to any government force because of the hundreds of years of negative interactions with the government. So now, in 2019 and 2020 it’s not going to be a big surprise that people don’t want to open their doors or that people don’t want to fill out forms.  There’s already a digital divide and part of that digital divide is intentional because people don’t trust the internet.  People think that if they don’t fill out the census that they won’t be known to the government, which is ludicrous of course.

People do not differentiate between the federal, state, city, and county government, as far as they’re all concerned they’re the government. And some people don’t even consider them the government, they consider all of them the police. That’s how they view them, they are the enforcers, they are the same people that want to arrest you, they’re the same people that want to stand by and let lynch mobs get you, the same people that would throw you in jail if you were a runaway enslaved person; it’s a long, long history of avid distrust for government figures. And that also goes to “do-gooder” government figures and charitable figures. Those impressions last a very, very long time.

There’s usually very little reward for doing any civic service outside of voting, and a lot of people don’t even want to register to vote because they have to give their name, and give information about themselves. All of those things exist until today.  The historical references of how government has been intrusive and negative goes on and on and on and telling the truth has rarely served Black folks in terms of getting what they needed.

It is a long history and that’s something we have to overcome and we’re doing our best to overcome that by letting people know that by not participating in the census, they’re cutting off their nose to spite their face. Complying with the census actually benefits Black people as a whole and it definitely benefits our communities as a whole to get the type of government services that we really are in fact paying for but not getting.

What would you say to someone to address their concerns and fears in filling out the census —especially within the Black community, how would you communicate the benefits of filling out the census, while addressing that very valid, historically-based concern?

I’d tell them not filling out the census is not going to hide them.  The census data is not supposed to be used against them.

Then I’d go into the benefits of filling out the census for our community, and no, I cannot guarantee that you will see your street paved if you fill out the census but it’s certainly a lot more likely to happen than if you don’t fill out the census, and if other people on the block don’t fill out the census.

The other thing that I tell people about is that everyone is so concerned about gentrification, but I want to point out that the population figures we have right now are all based around census data with a tremendous undercount of Black folks.  So if you’re concerned about gentrification and the fact that the Black neighborhood isn’t Black anymore, the numbers that are being recorded may not be true—because if the new neighbors all fill out the census and the old neighbors don’t fil out the census, guess who’s gonna be counted?

And the fourth thing I point out to them is “I hope you don’t want to be the invisible man” because what we have here is a whole almost 2/3 of the community being completely invisible by choice. What we actually do to ourselves by not filling out the census is a creating a “2/5 Clause” governance situation for ourselves here in Brooklyn. We cause ourselves to be counted as 40% of our population, 2/5 of a person (of the time), as opposed to a 100% of our population for political representation and government funding. (of the time.) And, we’re doing this to ourselves. This is not being imposed upon us by other forces.

We have an obligation to our community to fill out the census to number one, say we are here, we are being counted, and two, that we want the services we are entitled to. Three, we want the full political representation for our community that we are entitled to, so we can elect candidates of our choice, and, four, we absolutely want all the federal dollars to flow right back to our community that has been giving much more money than it has been getting back for the past 50 years.

What advice would you give to Black people who want to support their community?

What I would encourage people to do is to go with their passion. There’s social justice work and racial justice work to be done along every area you can think of: voting rights, police misconduct, climate justice and environmental justice, educational equity in the public schools, redlining, employment discrimination, lack of equal opportunities, lack of financial literacy, etc.

All you need to do is determine what it is that gets your juices flowing, and find an organization that’s addressing that. Then, give what you can in time or money. Give what you can give, but don’t go to the point where you’re hurting yourself or your family.

How can people get involved with your work at the Center for Law and Social Justice?

We need an army of volunteers when the 2020 U.S. Census comes out next spring and we need volunteers this fall. People can go to our website,, and fill out a volunteer form. You will be contacted, you can volunteer time, and you can donate if that’s what you prefer.

But, we need physical people–human beings—and we need money to do this enormous job of achieving a (task-force) complete count for Census 2020 in the Black community of BROOKLYN and in all of New York City. If you have time and if you have expertise, in whatever area, please be in touch with us and we will certainly try to make sure your skills go towards racial justice.

Jameela Syed

Communications Manager (She/Her/Hers)
Having a Black Philanthropy Month, just like Black History Month, is to bring focus on the needs of Black people, in this country and around the world.