A conversation with Deborah E. Bennett as she bids farewell to Polk Bros. Foundation
Last month, we announced that Polk Bros. Foundation Senior Program Officer Deborah E. Bennett — who designs and leads grantmaking in the Foundation’s Strong Communities program area — will retire at the end of December 2023 after almost four decades working toward equitable community development in Chicago. Deborah first joined the Foundation in 2002 and, since that time, has become a leading voice and respected grantmaker amongst foundation, government, nonprofit and community leaders throughout Chicago, across Illinois and beyond.
We sat down with Deborah this week to reflect together on her career, what she’s learned along the way and what keeps her hopeful.
As you think about your work over the years, what key moments stand out to you the most? What are you especially proud of?
I’m especially proud of advancing the conversation and action around racial equity and justice in philanthropy in Chicago. When I entered the field more than 20 years ago, very few foundations talked explicitly about race or the role of structural racism in creating the conditions that Black people experience in Chicago. We need an honest reckoning of why Chicago is a tale of two cities with a booming downtown and thriving upper- and middle-income communities, primarily on the north side, contrasted by communities with concentrated poverty and violence, primarily on the south and west sides. These differences are not the product of impartial market forces. They are the consequence of decades of discriminatory public and private policies and practices that simultaneously excluded low-income families, especially families of color, from neighborhoods of opportunity and starved poor neighborhoods of color of essential investments. I credit ABFE with giving me the analytical tools and language to do this work.
It’s critical to have these conversations, to dispel harmful myths about racial disparities that focus on individual behavior or cultural attributes rather than unjust systems that produce inequity. These conversations are even more critical now that we are experiencing significant backlash to the alleged racial reckoning that happened in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. I agree with the premise of historian Carol Anderson’s book, White Rage, which makes the case that whenever “African-Americans have made advances toward full participation in our democracy, White reaction has fueled a deliberate, relentless rollback of any gains.” This is illustrated by the assaults on voting rights, and teaching Black history, the criminalization of protest, and the roll-back of affirmative action. We need to talk about race, and we need to talk about how we got here as a country if we’re going to be able to dream of and work toward a racially-just future where everyone’s humanity is recognized and valued and everyone has the opportunity to thrive.
As I step away from this work, I am simultaneously hopeful and pessimistic. It has been promising to see philanthropy talking about racial equity and justice, and about how the sector and philanthropic approaches have to change to better address racial inequities as well as their root causes. I’m concerned, however, about the growing fatigue around racial equity in the sector and impending retrenchment due to the Supreme Court affirmative action decision.
I’m also proud of the work that Polk Bros. Foundation has supported to make our economy more inclusive and fair and to facilitate economic mobility. We’ve supported the preservation of affordable rental housing, promotion of homeownership, and protection against eviction and foreclosure, raising the minimum wage and strengthening worker rights, skills development in growing industries, small business development, ending cash bail, increasing police accountability and transparency, and new visions of community safety. We’ve also supported innovative approaches to individual and community economic stability and growth, including guaranteed income, anchor-based economic development, and community wealth building strategies.
What’s something you’ve learned over the course of your career that you’d like to pass along to others?
I’ve had an incredible career and I am really grateful for that. But I have often been the only Black woman or person of color in the room. Being the only one is exhausting and stressful. It took me a long time to find my voice and to be courageous.
I would advise others to value and to lean into their experience and their perspective. Be courageous.
What brings you the most hope for Chicago’s future, and what are your hopes for your own future?
What makes me hopeful is young people, young leaders. They are doing the organizing and advocacy needed to repair the broken systems that have caused harm and stand in the way of everyone achieving their aspirations. I am also hopeful about the new City administration’s recent acknowledgement of intentional, decades-long disinvestment as the root cause of the issues that Black, Latine, and Indigenous communities in Chicago are grappling with and its focus on addressing that disinvestment in education, economic development, health and housing.
In my own life, I plan to travel, cultivate my creativity — painting, writing, music maybe. I want to learn Spanish and learn to swim (I’m so embarrassed that I can’t swim!). And I will absolutely be staying engaged in the issues I’ve built my career around, and which I will always care so deeply about.