A Message from Penny George, Board Chair of the George Family Foundation

Bill and I were among the protesters Sunday on the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. Masked against the virus, earnest and peaceful, these mostly young people and some whole families were expressing their justified outrage and demand for urgent action following yet another death of a black man — George Floyd — at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

This is a city we love. We moved here 50 years ago, and it has been good to us. We have shopped in stores that were heavily looted or burned to the ground, and we’ve eaten in the many locally owned restaurants in the areas of Minneapolis that sustained the most devastation. We have worked hard over the years, volunteering at the United Way and with other civic organizations, to build upon what is good about the Twin Cities and address what is wrong. Our hope has been to be able to see, at the end of our lives, that we have left the world — and specifically our local community — better than we found it.

It is hard today to feel hopeful about that. The city that has been good to us has been increasingly not good to many others, especially people of color and those who live in the most under-resourced neighborhoods. As we have prospered, they have not. Wages are so low people must work multiple jobs to make ends meet; the gig economy does not help people with health care, and being laid off in a pandemic means that food and housing insecurity increases and hope for real change and a brighter future for all people diminishes.

As things gradually calm down and are brought under control by an influx of State Patrol and National Guard, we are beginning to discuss what can be done to resolve the systemic, longstanding (some as old as the city itself) and complex issues of racism. Police reform is again front and center, although it is already clear how difficult that will be with a union chief who is the main obstacle to change in the past as well as the present. For myself, I will begin to have hope when women, people of color and Native Americans hold more of all leadership positions, not only in the Minneapolis Police Department, but in our largest corporations and nonprofits, in city and state governments and finally, in the White House.

Bill and I were living in Washington, D.C. (though we didn’t know each other then) in 1968 when the riots took place there following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Martial law was invoked to quell the riots, and I can still vividly recall a soldier with a bayonet telling me I had 10 minutes to get back to my house. You never forget the threat of physical violence from an authority figure you don’t even know.

We did not know how to make things better then — we were in our 20s and each working for the federal government back when people expected the government to fix problems — but it deepened our empathy for people impacted by systemic racism, and the idealism of that era has stayed with us.

As the Chair of the George Family Foundation, our board and staff have been assessing our own progress over the past 10 years. While we’re modest in size and have minimal staff, we have taken steps to be more transparent, give more to the communities in which we live, simplify our internal grantmaking systems and to seek out and support organizations that are led by women and people of color. Alongside other giving priorities, we are investing more in faith-based social justice and policy change and advocacy organizations.

We’re far from perfect, but we’re also not standing silently by hoping that things will get better on their own. The actions and unrest of the past week, along with the devastating effect that the COVID-19 pandemic has particularly had on people of color, Native Americans and minority-led business and non-profits, push us to do more than we think we can, now and into the future.

The Twin Cities and our state are still a long way from seeing social justice and equity in education, health care access and economic opportunity. We will do our part to be part of the necessary change so that Minnesota is the great community we know it has the capacity to be.

As Gandhi challenged the world in his time, we now heed his words in our own era of injustice: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”