The Ally: July 2020 – Jed Oppenheim

Jed Oppenheim
Program Officer
W.K. Kellogg Foundation

The Path Forward

If you are from Mississippi, live in Mississippi, work for Mississippians, or have adopted Mississippi as home, as I have, you cannot deny the racial injustice that our Black neighbors have endured for centuries – and the impact it has still today. We live on stolen land from the Choctaw and others, and for centuries used stolen Black labor to maximize profit. Today, we see a vicious pandemic inequitably harming our communities, and we must, as philanthropists, nonprofits, and individuals, break this cycle. No more kicking the can down the road.

Growing up in West Los Angeles, the 1992 Uprising was a crucial moment in my childhood. I saw white police nearly beat to death Rodney King, a Black man, then get acquitted. I saw a popular uprising by mostly Black Angelinos – but the direct target was often the mostly Korean shop owners. So while white people were the perpetrators of both the physical and systemic crime, we faced no consequences. This narrative has played out again and again since 1992. Sometimes we hear the stories, like that recently of George Floyd, but most often we don’t.

I was an adolescent in 1992 and went to a diverse school (race, religion, national origin, class), but that did not matter in the aftermath of the uprising. What I learned then, and it’s still true today, is that there are systems that advantage me without me having to lift a finger. More importantly, if I do not actively work to dismantle or transform these systems, then I am part of the problem. While my path toward racial justice work has sharpened over the years – albeit with mistakes along the way – the uprising taught me accountability as a white man.

In philanthropy and nonprofit, often, the only accountability is to our funders or our boards. In reality, our responsibility should be to our communities. Mississippi recently removed the Confederate emblem from its state flag. Symbols like these are painful to our Black friends, and removing them is the first step toward healing as one Mississippi. But if we’re serious about doing racial justice work in Mississippi, we must hold ourselves and one another accountable and not shy away from uncomfortable conversations and decisions. Our work must be about building a more racially equitable Mississippi that has never existed, all day every day.