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Philanthropy Thought Leadership

Book Report: The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee

By Barrett Krise, senior philanthropic officer, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

You don’t have to look very far right now to see the division that exists between us. There is a literal division: meetings and gatherings via Zoom and FaceTime rather than in person or in community. There is ideological division between political parties and cultural or faith traditions. What struck me so forcefully about Heather McGhee’s book, The Sum of Us, was her ability to show how naturally dependent and intertwined we are as a society and how attempts to segment and separate us have led to a society that is fragmented and deeply unequal. In each of the examples that McGhee uses to show how our pursuit of the “zero sum game” and the impact of systemic racism has devastated us, she also shares how our coming together, across our differences, can lead to prosperity for us all.

I think this has become all the clearer as we weather the storm that is the pandemic. These past several months have made us all recognize how much we depend on and need each other. How important and how necessary our community is and how stark and devastating our inequality is for so many people. The pandemic has helped to show us that we may be in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat. How we can see the issues and challenges that divide and devastate us and that we need to do something to change that. That the sum of us is more powerful than the individual.

This is so beautifully illustrated in the story of Janice Tomlin, one of the Black homeowners who was impacted by the subprime mortgage crisis. When Janice was asked what guided her to swear an oath on behalf of more than a thousand people, she did not know who were devastated by subprime mortgage crisis, she shared her experience teaching her second graders the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught them that “when you give allegiance to something, you say that ‘I honor this’ and that ‘I have faith in it.’ And I knew that if I taught that to my children, I best be living by it myself.” It’s a lovely way to express why standing up for what’s right is the right thing to do, but what struck me, so much that I stopped to write it down, was something her father used to say, “drop a little good in the hole before you go.” This, to me, is the soul of what philanthropy could and should be.

We must work with each other and tear down the barriers we put in place so long ago, that are still up to this day. If we do this, we all benefit. We can “have nice things.” If we recognize the power in the sum of us we can all have thriving schools, strong families and prosperous communities. We just all need to drop a little good in the hole before we go.


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