04/02/2012 12:46 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

Scars: The Complicated Making of Historic Moments and Progressive Philanthropy

I was just asked to participate in an event at the Ford Foundation. It is a fascinating collaboration with The BRITDOC Foundation and The Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program called the Good Pitch. I will be engaging film director Yoruba Richen on her documentary, The New Black. The documentary uncovers the complicated and often combative histories of the African American and LGBT civil rights movements.

I always welcome this opportunity -- I have the distinction of having been the highest appointed black at the largest LGBT human rights organization, and the highest appointed gay at the nation's largest, primarily black, civil rights organization. No mean feat to do both.

I have been able achieve two key moments in the intersection of African American and LGBT history: Introducing then Chairman of the NAACP Julian Bond as keynote speaker at the 2009 National Marriage Equality March on Washington, and engineering the participation of key anchors of the LGBT rights movement at the Centennial Convention of the NAACP. The event was the Centennial Spingarn Dinner -- the central event for the Centennial celebration of the NAACP -- where the NAACP's highest award is given and where newly elected President Barack Obama spoke. It was also where Julian Bond received that highest award -- previously awardees included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey, and General Colin Powell.

What everyone should know is that seated at Julian Bond's table, a first in American history, were Tim Gill, Jon Stryker, Ambassador Jim Hormel, and Henry Van Ameringen. Each brought his partner. The event also included the heads of the Arcus Foundation, Gill Foundation, Small Change Foundation, David Bohnett Foundation, and the Elie Wiesel Foundation among others. When President Obama spoke he was looking down at the future broadening of the civil rights movement -- and its chronicler, the Pulitizer Prize-winning Taylor Branch also at that table.

Into the heart of the NAACP -- the premier African American civil rights organization -- at the dawn of its new century were the leaders and key financiers of the LGBT civil rights movement.
I was also there, of course, with my sister, my friends Friedrike Merck, Yale's George Chauncey (the historian who testified in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the Proposition 8 case), Elizabeth (Betty) Taylor and Jane Mathews.

To make and record history is a privilege. We learn so much from it. Now that I am teaching Philanthropy in Action at Yale University, I feel compelled to see these huge moments also in a philanthropic context.

The Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford foundations this year celebrate 100, 99, and 75 years of service, respectively. They have helped change the world in so many ways and their problematic stories, like our social justice movements, show just how far we've come.

Since I will be going to the Ford Foundation, here is a story of its own transformation. The birth of the Ford Foundation was one of the biggest tax dodges in American History. The New Deal proposed an inheritance tax to include a tax on the entire estate as well as a graduate tax on heirs' individual shares. This proposal failed but the New Deal Congress raised the estate tax to 70 percent for fortunes over $50 million. To avoid paying the tax, Henry Ford willed most of his stock not to his son but to the foundation; his son Edsel did the same. The formation of the Ford Foundation in 1936 allowed them to simultaneously avoid the huge inheritance tax and to pass the company on to the next generation of Fords. By the 1950s, Ford's $3.6 billion endowment was double Harvard's, and Olivier Zunz notes in Philanthropy in America that it "was the equivalent of 67% of the estimated total endowment of all American college and universities."

While a big investor in the war on poverty, the Ford Foundation in the early 1950s was timid, if not opposed to reform, when it came to ending segregation. It proposed a universal program with "no distinction of race, religion, class or nationality -- but held back in education, advocating for local autonomy for schools, code for assuring segregation. We know this from letters to archconservative Howard Pew. Indeed, the choice of the 1950s presidents of the Ford Foundation, Paul G. Hoffman, H. Rowan Gaither, and Henry T. Heald became more conservative -- Heald himself actually disliking reform even considering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a "propagandist politician." The Ford Foundation did not come out in favor of racial integration until the 1960s!

Now, of course, the Ford Foundation has a Latino as its head -- Luis A. Ubiñas -- with a progressive racial justice program. And at the end of 2011 the Ford Foundation announced "a groundbreaking new effort, the Foundation's first-ever LGBT Rights initiative seeks to ensure equality under the law for LGBT people in the United States and around the world."

Change is possible -- and so I go to the Ford Foundation to participate in discussions on a documentary film on the intersection of the combative histories of the African American and LGBT civil rights movements. How far we've all come; how far we still have to go.