February 19th, 2014
BLACK AND BOLD: Philanthropy in the African American Community
February 23rd, 2011
February 23rd, 2011
Cheryl A. Pemberton
I’m on a mission to inspire the African American community to be bold givers – not just with our time and talents, which we always give abundantly -- but with our money as well. What will it take, I wonder, for more of us to give to organizations outside the church... to give more strategically.... more ambitiously?
I look for clues in my own history as a giver. First there was my family’s influence. In the 70’s in New York City, it was “life as usual” for me to attend Angela Davis rallies with my mother and to see my father devote himself to the community, fighting for economic empowerment and civil rights. Social justice work and philanthropic giving were just an everyday part of life.
In college I aspired to be a lawyer. But my life changed direction in my senior year, when I interned with influential New York State Assembly member Arthur O. Eve. That tough fighter for the underdog took me under his wing, and I ended up earning a Masters in Public Administration so I could follow his footsteps.
Another turning point for me was when my sister passed away. My sister had devoted her life to social work and children. The outpouring of love after her death testified to her tremendous impact. My family set up a scholarship fund in her memory and asked people to donate to it. To set an example for others, our family gave $10,000 – way more than any of us had ever donated. This set a “new normal” for me.
From then on, I just kept giving more and more. I’m not wealthy -- I work as the volunteer manager for a large nonprofit – but I regularly give about 15% of my income and hope it can grow to be more. Taking the Linkages program (a United Way training for professionals on how to be Board members) was a key step for me, as there I learned to walk through the door of organizations I support with a check in my hand.
Another key step was connecting to a group called Women for Women International. My sorority, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., had already opened my eyes to the needs of women and girls of color in this country, but Women For Women International showed me the dire urgency that exists for women of color around the world – fighting illiteracy, ostracism, female circumcision and more.
I decided to start a foundation that could inspire other chapters in Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. to think bigger. Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., founded in 1920, has over 800 chapters world-wide and involves over 125,000 College-educated, dynamic, community service driven women of color. If we could strengthen this huge sorority’s giving, how powerful that could be!
So with five of my sorority sisters, we launched the Five Pearls Foundation. We named it after the five founders of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority,Inc.: “Women who believed that sorority elitism and socializing should not overshadow the real mission for progressive organizations; that is addressing societal mores, ills, prejudices, and poverty affecting humanity in general and the Black community in particular.” Our programs touch young people in the greater NYC area as well in 80 rural villages in West Africa – but our overarching goal is to encourage other sorority chapters to explore what’s possible: why raise $1,000 for one scholarship, when you could raise $50,000 and invest it to provide scholarships year after year?
I know not everyone can give as much time and money as I do. I’m single; I don’t have children to support. As a leader of a philanthropic organization (the Five Pearls Foundation), I know that even though my mission is to raise awareness about the value of giving, I need to accept new philanthropists where they are, not get impatient or judgmental. But sometimes I feel lonely, out on the far giving edge. I also try to remember that my philanthropic mission is only one part of my life: I need to make time to nurture the relationship with the man in my life and to restore myself. Creating greater balance is the only way I’ll be able to manage it all!
Maybe because my sister died young, I do think about my final legacy, and it motivates me. I imagine a girl in The Gambia who grows up to make a contribution that changes lives because she was taught to read using one of our books; or a young woman in Harlem who moves from despair to possibility because of my coaching and getting a scholarship. I picture changing individuals’ lives, not effecting vast structural change. This is the kind of legacy I want to leave.