Northern California Grantmakers, a regional association of foundations, corporate giving programs and donors, held its annual meeting today. The Green Room at San Francisco's War Memorial Building played host to the participants. With its soaring ceilings and balcony overlooking City Hall, this is a public space that roars with civic pride. Any gathering in the space takes on a certain solemnity.
Today in San Francisco, with the unspoken knowledge that what happened in Japan could just as easily happen here, was no different. NCG members are generally a jovial and diverse bunch with a common bond as stewards of philanthropic resources. They came together to hear from Dante Chinni, the author of Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth about The "Real" America.
Chinni's work is wonderful. Blending his skills as a journalist with those of a political geographer colleague, they set out in search of the nuance that underlies the oversimplified "red" and "blue" divides. The result is best told in this interactive map. Click on the dots up top to see those communities on the map.
The data assert that we're not a red/blue nation. The income divide that has been expanding since 1980 (among other factors) has driven us into more meaningful tribes, such as Tractor Country, Minority Central, and Immigration Nation. These community types are drawn from shared experiences and realities, not from oversimplified analyses of political behavior.
The NCG members are based in regions that Chinni's work says includes 6 of the 12 communities - tractor country, service worker centers, campus and careers, boom towns, immigration nation and monied burbs. We are not our own stereotypes, Chinni's maps show. What do we do with this information?
I have to admit, there's something comforting in thinking that we know our communities. There's a reason that the red/blue oversimplification has been so pervasive. We like dichotomies. We're comfortable with two choices. If we're trying to help communities create jobs, protect their environment, express themselves culturally and artistically, or get access to health care or better schools, it helps to think we know "who" we're working with. The level of complexity that Chinni presents is 600% greater than the red/blue divide AND we know it is not the full story. Communities are complex, dynamic, moving things that are shaped by economics, religion, culture, race, gender, age, job stability - a range of factors. Organized philanthropy needs to be able to see, hear, feel, reflect and make use of those attributes for the selfish reasons of achieving their own missions. It's even more true if the goal is to be useful in light of shifting public and private sector priorities and capacities.
In a warm, electrically-lit setting on one edge of the North American tectonic plate, keeping in mind the devastation on it's far other edge, these are important questions for us as philanthropists and neighbors. What holds our communities together? What do we share in common? What defines us a community? How do we help each other? That's plenty of food for thought.