Evolution of a Vision

The Kellogg Foundation's Racial Equity Journey

Today, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) has emerged as a leader in the pursuit of racial equity in the United States, even as centuries of racial bias continue to impact families and communities. With initiatives ranging from a $75 million investment in ‘America Healing’ to supporting civil rights organizations for various ethnic groups, the foundation is widely recognized for its comprehensive work in helping communities to heal racial wounds and address structural racism that creates barriers for vulnerable children.

But what is less well known is the story behind the story, the decades of work that the foundation initiated and funded while seeking to provide broader opportunities and better life outcomes for disadvantaged children. The behind the scenes journey for the organization itself, as it faced challenges and struggles upholding the principles of founder, Will Keith Kellogg, is another key slice of the narrative.

The Kellogg Foundation’s journey in the space around racial equity has been transformational in our approach to philanthropy and on how we build partnerships in the field as we strive towards racial equity in our country and sustain it in our organization.

La June Montgomery Tabron

Without a doubt, WKKF’s work has transformed individuals, families and communities. In a society where frank discussions about race and racism are all too rare, the foundation openly advocates for putting racism behind us and acknowledging the damage it has caused in the past. This is enabling opportunities for healing and progress, bringing hope for future generations. What follows is a chronicle of how the foundation positioned itself to be a difference maker, to unabashedly take on the impediments created by racism that so many organizations, corporations, institutions and branches of government either can’t or won’t do.

“The foundation’s journey toward full diversity and inclusion has extended over decades,” says La June Montgomery Tabron, WKKF’s CEO and president. “This long timeframe is not something to apologize for but something to understand and honor. It’s been a complex journey, and we’ve stayed committed to it no matter how many bends and turns in the road. I’m proud that our engagement in racial equity, diversity and inclusion extends from our board to our staff to our partners, vendors and grantees. I’m proud of the alignment we’ve achieved between our beliefs and our work.”

Through the decades, courage and strong leadership helped distinguish the Kellogg Foundation. Eight years ago, came a defining moment in the foundation’s voyage, one that set the stage for the pioneering work on race and set future spending priorities.

Adults with High School Degrees

In 2007, talk of a “post-racial” society was spreading in the U.S., yet many communities were actually mired in strife related to racism. Six African American boys were sentenced to life in prison for an assault on a white student in Jena, LA, a sentence widely viewed as racially motivated. The U.S. Census had revealed stark educational disparities – 91 percent of white adults had high school degrees, compared to 83 percent of blacks and 60 percent of Hispanics. The FBI reported 7,624 hate crime incidents that year, with 52 percent of the victims targeted because of the color of their skin.

In considering this environment, as well as reports from grantees on the ground in communities, the Board of Trustees at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation saw troubled waters ahead, especially for vulnerable children. In this highly-charged racialized environment, how could the nation ensure opportunities for all children to thrive, when discrimination and injustices were so apparent? In fact, the time was approaching when the majority of children in the U.S. would be children of color, further underlining the need to address barriers to education, employment, health and housing created by structural racism.

The foundation’s Trustees took a bold step. In 1930, Will Keith Kellogg wrote the articles of association for his foundation defining the mission as “promotion of the health, education and welfare … principally of children and youth … without regard to sex, race, creed or nationality.” Now the board, some 77 years later, was reaffirming those principles.

In September 2007, the Board of Trustees declared the foundation would be “an effective antiracist organization that promotes racial equity.” The language unequivocally positioned the foundation as an advocate and facilitator of racial equity in communities across the country and within its own organization. With this very public statement, the foundation continued its founder’s path, establishing a framework for healing racial divides in communities and focusing on conscious and unconscious bias that limits opportunities for children, especially children of color.

More directly, the Trustees unleashed the foundation to develop comprehensive programmatic approaches to addressing racism, including trying to heal perceptions, beliefs and attitudes. Taking on challenges that have escaped resolution for centuries, the Trustees tasked foundation leaders with engaging communities in the difficult work countering the full scope of racism, the anxiety, fears and long-held mythologies and misbeliefs that have triggered racial violence and tension in American society.

“The Kellogg Foundation’s journey in the space around racial equity has been transformational in our approach to philanthropy and on how we build partnerships in the field as we strive towards racial equity in our country and sustain it in our organization,” says Tabron. “Our work in racial equity has become our DNA. So we’ve taken a concept, and we’ve actually been able to transform our entire organization around this concept.”

Dr. Gail C. Christopher, vice president for policy and senior advisor at the foundation, put the board’s statement in further perspective, saying the explicit language set the stage for pivotal actions by authorizing an environment where the pursuit of racial equity was transformed into a significant portion of the foundation’s funding strategy.  “The board’s commitment is powerful,” says Christopher. “It establishes a specific direction and it empowers all of us to engage in the struggle for racial equity.”

The impact was swift. In 2006-2007, 20 percent of the grantees funded by WKKF served minorities, but by 2010-2011 that percentage had jumped to 88 percent.

When La June Montgomery Tabron arrived at the Kellogg Foundation in 1987, she would walk the hallway with pictures of former Trustees. Along the walls, the portraits were predominantly white men – until the 1980s. “It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that people of color and women would appear frequently in the portraits,” she says. “Slowly we began a walk-the-talk mentality as the organization built up its own credibility and became even better partners for our grantees working in communities.”

Today, WKKF has a diverse leadership team, one that is a model not only in philanthropy but for any organization of its size that is not minority owned. Over the last ten years, leadership has changed dramatically. Currently, 53 percent of the executives are people of color, compared to just 18 percent ten years ago. The Trustees have gone from 44 percent people of color 10 years ago to 56 percent in 2015. Tabron, the CEO and president, is African American, and Ramón Murguía, a Hispanic, becomes board chairman in January.

The major transformation in staffing and program priorities came under the stewardship of Dr. Russell G. Mawby, who at various points served as served as chairman, CEO, and president of the foundation from May 1970 to July 1995.

In forming the foundation, Mr. Kellogg recognized that many factors affected whether children could thrive. His initial programs assisted poor, rural children, who were mostly white, and in dire need of better health services. The foundation funded the first Michigan Community Health Projects, which took a holistic approach, seeking to overall health through better nutrition, exercise, dental care and access to immunizations and eye exams. The program also sought to improve learning facilities and libraries, helping recruit better teachers.

As time went on, however, Mawby recognized an escalating number of poor children lived in urban settings, many were minorities and the foundation needed to make major adjustments in staffing and programming to meet their needs.

“Under his leadership, the foundation began expanding from rural programming to urban and contemporizing the concept of who was disadvantaged,” recalls Tabron. “It was Dr. Mawby who began to really think about where the equal playing field needed to be applied outside of rural areas. And that thinking has gotten stronger and stronger with every passing decade, as has our collective understanding of the urban environment. Our work certainly reflects our own journey as it relates to racial equity.”

A key hire for Dr. Mawby was Dr. Norman A. Brown, who was appointed president in 1988 and retired in 1994, as president and chief operating officer. Brown took on the task of diversifying the foundation’s staff, declaring that the organization needed to reflect the communities it served. As the story is told, Brown attended a racial healing meeting in Battle Creek and was transformed by the experience. “He came back to the foundation and realized that the foundation did not in any way reflect the people that it was trying to serve,” says Christopher, adding, “He said, ‘We have to change this.’ ”

Brown proceeded to hire a significant number of people of color, bringing in the best and brightest in the country. In 1991, the foundation established an internal diversity advisory committee and began forming external partnerships that infused the staff and programs with broader understanding of diversity and racism.

It was an abrupt change for the organization, one that sometimes led to friction between clashing cultures and backgrounds on the staff. Things didn’t always go smoothly. There were group talks among the staff on inclusion, while outside experts were brought in to discuss structural racism and how to address it – internally and in communities. There were also talks about how to capitalize on the new found diversity within the workplace.

“Our leaders had a willingness to exist with a level of discomfort,” says Tabron. “Everything did not work. But we have embraced the opportunity and the potential to the point where we’re willing to go through the struggle to have an empowered, diverse workplace. It continues to be a struggle. But is it worth it? The answer is a resounding, ‘Yes!’ You see the brilliance of what Drs. Brown and Mawby envisioned when the different perspectives and approaches and understandings put forward by people with diverse backgrounds lead to outstanding decisions and initiatives. We’ve done some great things!”

Former Trustee Joseph M. Stewart says that Brown did more than just hire people of color; he mentored them and put them in positions to succeed.

“So many people in this country have been expelled because they didn’t have mentors or couldn’t take the pressure from a system put in place that said, ‘This is who we are, this is how we do business in the United States,’ ‘’ says Stewart. “That was a bold thing that Brown did…he created a culture that protected people who needed protection from the people in denial. It allowed the foundation to evolve to the point where we could go public with our anti-racist declaration.”

The foundation fosters an environment where each employee is encouraged to be actively engaged. “This full participation and engagement results in a broader spectrum of ideas, knowledge, perspectives and experiences to draw upon as the organization makes decisions, creates solutions, formulates policies and practices and achieves its goals,” says Tabron.

Still, the foundation’s focus, which has been further defined under Tabron’s leadership, has always been on helping all children thrive. How did that equate with the substantial work on racial equity over the decades?

“The foundation came to realize that when seeking help for vulnerable children, those in greatest poverty, a disproportionate number are children of color, and one of the reasons for their being in poverty is racism,” Tabron says. “On this basis alone, deepening the foundation’s efforts on racial equity has made perfect sense.”

Thus, Tabron says racial equity is a point of emphasis and a driving force in all our areas of grantmaking at the foundation, from Education & Learning to Food, Health & Well-Being to Family Economic Security to Community Engagement to Leadership. Racial Equity is also a succinct program area in its own right, featuring the America Healing initiative, which is the largest single initiative investment in the foundation’s history.

“The board was bold enough to take that anti-racist statement and convert it to programmatic values and programmatic commitment,” says Stewart. “What you have now is an organization that is pushing the right envelope to try and help an entire nation. Racial equity is not something that just benefits blacks and Hispanics and people of color, racial equity is something that benefits our nation, no matter what color you are.”

For decades, the Kellogg Foundation has walked into the fire, not shied away.

Twenty-two years before the White House launched an initiative to address the obstacles faced by young men of color, the Kellogg Foundation had recognized the limited opportunities that they had for success. In 1992, the foundation launched a broad African-American Men and Boys Initiative, investing $15 million into 32 projects.

As part of the initiative, which included funding organizations that worked with youths on reducing crime, violence and drugs in their communities, the foundation funded a National Task Force on African-American Men and Boys chaired by former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young. Among its duties, the task force publically raised the alarm about the challenges that this demographic faced in our society. Moreover, the Task Force issued recommendations aimed at reviving families and communities that had long been neglected in urban areas of the country. Acclaimed Washington Post columnist, the late William Raspberry, wrote that the strategies were “the plan to save America.”

Dr. Bobby William Austin, who was the original program director for the initiative, tells how it began: His family moved to Battle Creek when he took a job at the foundation. After two weeks in school, his teenage son was accused by school officials of being in a gang. When an outraged Austin told his superiors at the foundation about it, their reaction was a mandate: Stop this from happening to black youths. “They said, ‘Bobby we think you can find ways to stop this from happening to other black children. Stop being angry; figure out how to do this.’ ” Austin recalls. “Kellogg is a good foundation. They are good people.”

The task force’s report entitled, “Repairing the Breach: Key Ways to Support Family Life, Reclaim Our Streets and Rebuild Civil Society in America’s Communities” has been a heralded blue print on how to provide opportunities to minority youths. “President Obama’s initiative comes directly out of the work of Kellogg,” Austin says. “There would not be a My Brothers’ Keeper initiative. Kellogg set the standard on how that work should be done.”

The foundation’s initiative was also significant because it altered how the organization engaged with its grantees. Previously, WKKF conferred grants largely on universities, medical centers and other mainstream institutions. But a new era was ushered in; the foundation empowered community and civic organizations, bringing resources much closer to the people and communities that needed their help. Suddenly, storefront non-profits, faith-based organizations and other non-traditional grantees were working together with established institutions on solving community problems. The unions stimulated and challenged the grantees, developing a new partnership model for impacting communities and children.

Brotherhood-Sister Sol ProgramSince the early 1990s, WKKF has funded ‘Rites of Passage’ programs at urban areas. The programs empower minority youth by exposing them to role models and through discovery and discussion of history, culture, and the political forces surrounding them. The locations establish partnerships with public secondary schools to develop gender-specific programs. One of the leading programs, which still operates today, is at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol in Harlem. In New York City almost half of all black men are unemployed, but 95 percent of Brotherhood/Sister Sol alumni—all African-American or Latino—are working full-time or are enrolled in college.

The Community Voices program leveraged lessons from earlier work and other programming to develop multi-faceted systemic models for addressing pressing issues related to the health of young men of color, especially the formerly incarcerated who struggled to adjust to family and community after spending time in prison. In the late 1990s, safety net programs in public health departments, hospitals, and community clinics were strained to provide care for the growing number of uninsured. Community Voices coalitions in 13 communities worked with residents to find solutions and implemented cutting-edge system adaptations to expand healthcare for those who needed it most.

To help enroll more Native Americans in colleges, WKKF launched the Native American Higher Education Initiative from 1995-2002, creating partnerships with 30 tribal colleges and more than 75 mainstream higher education institutions, national and community organizations. The shared goal was to provide higher education for Native Americans, while integrating tribal cultural values into rigorous academic curriculum.

Similarly, the foundation improved educational opportunities for Hispanics through its ENLACE (Engaging Latino Communities in Education) program, which launched in 1997. In seven states, the program partnered higher learning institutions with K-12 schools and community organizations formed support groups for Latino students.

WKKF participated in President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative in 2014 that formed a powerful coalition to create broader opportunities for young men and boys of color. By late summer, the foundation provided timely funding to organizations working to repair community relations with law enforcement and facilitate racial healing after the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. The foundation was a catalyst for the Executive Alliance, a group of more than 40 funders, issuing a powerful statement urging peaceful demonstrations after a grand jury in November decided not to indict the Ferguson police officer who shot Brown.

When Tabron took the letter to the board for approval, she says a board member said that he was “so proud” that WKKF was engaged on this, and that my name, their president, was the first signature. “It was refreshing for our leaders and staff that our board not only wasn’t being risk adverse, but were saying, “You Go,” and being fully supportive. That was very powerful for our organization.”

With both large and small investments, WKKF initiatives and programming have helped communities move forward towards race equity. In fact, the results of the work and investments over the decades, while often unheralded, has changed, and is continuing to help transform, the role that race plays in American society.

The opening scenes are chilling. A teenager, LeAlan Jones walks around his South Side Chicago neighborhood in 1996, passing along battered sidewalks, vacant lots, houses in disrepair. With the desolate Ida B. Wells housing project in the background, his young and innocent voice depicts the reality of what life is like in his community.

“I was brought up in a home where I didn’t know my father, my mother was going through some things. Things weren’t as bad as they are now. Now you have more people cutting each other’s throats and trying to become something they’re not. This neighborhood is interesting…it’s a good thing at times and it’s a bad thing at times. There really are no jobs around here. It’s really a bear…it’s just rugged terrain. You have a lot of scattered housing, lot of death at times. It’s always something to talk about really, whether it’s sports, what’s happening, who just got killed. Most of the fathers in the black community are locked up. That leaves a lot of weight on the mother’s shoulders. She might have to work two or three jobs just to provide a decent life for her young children, and that leaves them a lot of time alone to sort things out that no 13, 14, or 15-year-old young man or young woman should have to sort out. Growing up in this area, you have to keep it cool. Stay positive.”

The 30-minute video, Repairing the Breach, the Plight and Promise of African-American Men and Boys, goes on to further describe the barriers in communities of color. It discusses the programs funded by the Kellogg Foundation and others that sought to clear these obstacles and pave the way for better life outcomes in these communities. Narrated by actor James Earl Jones, WKKF produced and distributed the video.

In many ways, developing the video embodies the foundation’s racial equity work over the decades, raising attention to the challenges that vulnerable children and their families face and working with communities to overcome the obstacles. What makes this work more significant is that WKKF has carried it out, and at times even been publically criticized for doing it, when much of our society turned their backs on the problems of the poor.

The reward comes with watching young people succeed – against the odds. Even before the Kellogg video, LeAlan, 13, and his childhood friend, Lloyd Newman, 15, in 1993 had interviewed 100 friends, family and neighbors in their neighborhoods and with the assistance of National Public Radio produced an award-winning documentary called, “Ghetto Life 101.” The Kellogg video and the other projects helped establish to the teenagers, and others involved, that people cared about their lives, that they weren’t alone in the struggle to survive.

LeAlan graduated from Barat College in Lake Forest, Illinois in 2001, became engaged in politics and ran unsuccessfully as the Green Party nominee for US House and Senate seats, and is the legal guardian for his two nephews.

Over the years, the Kellogg Foundation had largely funded institutions and community organizations that addressed economic and social conditions limiting opportunities for vulnerable children to thrive. But left out of the equation was scrutiny of public policies implemented by local, state and federal governments. These policies impact men and boys of color in many ways, including health, criminal justice, housing and employment.

The foundation changed that formula when it sponsored the Dellums Commission. In 2006, the commission of influential scholars, public officials and civic leaders from around the country issued a comprehensive report on the public policies that negatively impacted young men and boys of color. It uncovered a series of policy decisions over decades that hampered their development in our society.

For instance, the commission noted that prison incarceration rates shot up in the 1980s after youth offenders were increasingly diverted to adult criminal systems and municipalities abandoned rehabilitation and treatment for drug users in favor of interdiction and criminal sanctions. Moreover, the commission said school dropout rates grew with the implementation of zero tolerance policies in schools and commissioners also found a decline for young men of color enrolled in post-secondary education.

Led by former Congressman Ron Dellums, the commission made a series of recommendations for changing the course and addressing the wayward policies. Almost immediately there were a series of direct actions spurred by the commission’s work, further demonstrating the impact of the WKKF investment:

  • Legislation was filed by members of the Congressional Black Caucus creating an Office of Men’s Health within the Department of Health and Human Services that would address the disproportionate diseases suffered by minority men.
  • The Black Administrators in Child Welfare led an effort to get states to implement recommendations designed to improve the way young men of color are handled in the Child Welfare Systems, and after they leave the systems.
  • The Links, Incorporated, an organization of more than 10,000 women of color, hosted a forum at the National Press Club to discuss issues related to re-authorization of the No Child Left Behind Act and the aspects of the law that contribute to pushing young men of color out of schools.
  • Fulton County, Georgia launched a major effort to implement recommendations from the Dellums Commission related to criminal justice. They sponsored a Drug Policy Strategic Planning Session to begin reforming drug laws in Fulton County – and ultimately in the State of Georgia.

“The Dellums Commission ignited a flurry of activity that has better positioned young men of color for success,” says Christopher. “Opportunities are being created that help them stay in school, keep out of jail and be trained for meaningful jobs in our society.”

In 2010, WKKF launched America Healing, an investment of $75 million over five years that is exposing structural inequities in communities, working to redress these issues, and then helping communities heal racial wounds so they can progress together. It’s a strategy for lifting up racial healing so communities can move closer toward racial equity, while dismantling the structures that limit opportunities for vulnerable children.

“The role of racial healing in America—why it’s so important—ties back to the fundamental flaw in the design of America,” says Christopher. “The fundamental flaw was that our country was built on the fallacy of a hierarchy of human value, which places whites at the top and people of color at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. And because the nation was built on this fallacy, the majority has clung to it, even though it sharply contradicts the equality that we are supposed to embrace as a nation.”

America Healing, together with communities and WKKF grantees, is countering that fallacy of racial hierarchy. We are disproving stereotypes, funding innovative research and helping to create opportunities that will allow children to enjoy a better future.

WKKF released a national survey of Latino adults that provided comprehensive information about the Latino experience in the U.S. Among the findings were that Latinos, ranging from new immigrants to long-time U.S. citizens, are keenly aware of discrimination and inequities, but remain optimistic about the future, particularly their economic conditions, personal health status, and the quality of public education for their children.

In Chicago, the Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy gives urban students a community-based arts and entrepreneurship option within traditional education. Harvard scholar David Williams has pioneered research on the effects of unconscious bias on people of color in their daily life. UCLA scholar Phillip Goff has conducted critical research on what motivates the behavior of police officers towards people of color. The Advancement Project worked with the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice to shape new guidelines for school discipline, a move to reduce the disproportionate number of black and Latino children suspended from public schools. Working with the Altarum Institute, WKKF released the “The Business Case for Racial Equity,” a study that quantifies the cost of racism in the U.S. and outlines the financial benefits of ending racial bias.

Another significant America Healing initiative was organizing and providing funds to the leaders of civil rights organizations representing various races and ethnicities. These “Anchor” organizations, which include the NAACP, La Raza, Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, National Urban League, Race Forward, National Congress of American Indians and others, meet quarterly and strategize on how they can unite to dismantle structural racism in America.

Some of the anchor organizations were seen as competitors, both for attention and fundraising. But they began working together more frequently. Christopher says a defining moment came after the August 5, 2012 attack on the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, where six people were killed and four others wounded. “The entire group stood up, and said, ‘If you bomb a Sikh temple, those are my people. We are in fact brothers and sisters,’ ’’says Christopher, noting that the anchors issued a joint statement condemning the attack.

Tabron strongly believes that so much more can be accomplished with collaborations that bring together the intellectual power and resources of foundations, communities, government, non-profits and corporations in efforts to dismantle racism. “We’re not trying to pulverize and blame,” she says, “but we’re painting a vision of a more holistic and inclusive future.”

The next journey for WKKF is with the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) Commission and process, which is led by Dr. Christopher. The TRHT will engage local communities in racial healing, while working to end inequities linked to historic and contemporary beliefs in racial hierarchy. Working with major corporations, as well as civic and community organizations, the process will bridge embedded divides and generate the will, capacities and resources required for achieving greater equity in our communities.

“The process will reveal truths related to the national racial hierarchy belief system and heritage of the U.S. fostering healing and producing actionable recommendations for policy and structural change,” says Christopher. “The truth and healing activities will be community based emphasizing the importance of local history and culture. Activities and conversations will be inclusive and designed to authentically capture stories and experiences reflecting multiple perspectives.”

Barbara Ferrer, the WKKF’s chief strategy officer, says the TRHT will bring forth “the very best” that we all have to offer towards building a just society.

“TRHT is creating a framework for the country to engage in processes around understanding our history and the legacy and the experiences, and for the truth telling part of this, and allowing that to happen at a national level with national partners and at a national discourse, but also in our local communities,” Ferrer says. “At the same time, understanding that for us, the process has meaning because it allows to come together, work together on behalf of all children.”

It’s another bold step for the Kellogg Foundation.