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Recap: Upswell 2021 // Day 2

October 21, 2021

"It's important to know what time it is. Where you are. And what the possibilities are."

Angela Glover Blackwell, Founder in Residence at PolicyLink, shared that wisdom at 11:09 am ET on the Main Stage at the second day of the Upswell Summit, in front of a huge audience of ardent changemakers who see opportunity in every moment of challenge.

Her point, of course, was really about the bigger picture of the United States – the one painted with a deeply troubled history and, more importantly, a malleable vision of a future either freed from or crippled by its past.

And that future – one we envision as being defined by racial justice and health -- is what we set out to design today, with creativity, humanity, resilience, and humor.

This lengthy recap is the briefest version of what that looked like:

Main Stage

  • From the frontlines of movements across the decades, iconic activist Angela Davis has a unique vantage point for assessing whether the potential for change is real or whether the status quo will win out. So, what about our current moment of racial reckoning? Can it succeed?

    In no uncertain terms, she says, “I don't know whether I actually expected to experience this in my lifetime...this is what our ancestors, who fought slavery were fighting for, this very moment. We have to guarantee that we take advantage of the moment, that we actually seize this time.”
  • Angela Glover Blackwell expanded on that confidence by saying, “I believe that we are creating something that has never existed before, and that we are actively seeking outcomes that have never been the goals of the systems and institutions that have predominated in this country."
  • How do we achieve those outcomes? LaTosha Brown says, "[This] is a moment for us to radically reimagine every single system in this country.... We need to see ourselves as founders of a new America." What does that look like? "The end goal isn’t just democracy. The end goal is a system where we center love of humanity."
  • Speaking about the health of the nonprofit sector – and its sources of funding -- Ekundayo Bandele made the poignant observation that, “Black people have not had the long road to generational wealth creation. And most philanthropic contributions come from people with wealth. The wealth disparity isn’t a David and Goliath comparison, [because] we don’t even have a sling shot."
  • The number of individual donors rose during the pandemic, and America's middle class has been celebrated for showing up to support nonprofits during the crisis. But Elisha Rhodes asks a fundamental question: "Why is the burden on middle class America, when we have not defined what [the middle class] really looks like?"

    She went on to note that middle-class families are also often the ones receiving nonprofit services or living in constant worry about how to manage their lives.
  • We pay close attention to elections. But as 2021 American Express NGen Leadership Award recipient Maria Yuan astutely notes, a healthy democracy - one that truly represents people - demands that we pay attention to the public policies being shaped between elections. Even when your ballot is cast, "The importance of participation never goes away."
  • In a conversation with Nonoko Sato, Rep. Betty McCollum considered the very foundation of our society. "The federal government cannot function," she says, "without the nonprofit sector delivering essential services."


  • The future is small (dollar donors). The ActBlue team show how a few bucks per person add up incredibly fast when you make a compelling case. You can do that with this exponentially powerful (and simple) theory of change template - "Do X, so that Y, to achieve Z." Give it a try.
  • On bridging across divisions, Simone Washington (BSR) says, "Don't come with an agenda. Come in with how we can crack this together, with the goal of benefiting both of us."
  • One prescription for a healthy democracy: philanthropic investments in the Deep South - especially in nonprofits, led by people of color, that are fighting voter suppression. As Frank Fernandez (The Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta) says, "It isn’t about Democrats and Republicans. It’s about making sure everyone in our communities have access to voting."
  • Ar’Sheill Monsanto highlights how suspensions, expulsions, and police intervention – often for minor infractions – hurt both students of color and students with disabilities. This exclusionary discipline creates a school-to-prison pipeline. "When students are not in classrooms learning, they are losing."
  • What does it take for a racial equity plan to truly be effective at your organization? Total commitment. “It must be embedded in all of the work you do, from the head of the organization on down," affirms Bessie Alacantra (Alternatives).
  • “Leaders who model inclusion have three things in common: passion, proximity, and patience,” observes Melissa Rhodes Carter (
  • Sometimes sunsetting an organization is the healthiest thing to do – and can lead to more equitable outcomes. For example, when AchieveMission decided to wind down, they gave their remaining assets to two Black-women led nonprofits that were doing similar work.
  • You’ve heard of gaslighting. But what about racelighting? It’s “the political, social, economic, and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist.”
  • Something to digest: Devita Davison (FoodLab Detroit) issues the rallying cry that, "We are in a war right now. A war that’s a decades long battle to fight for imagination. The imagination to think of what it looks like to create food systems that create health, dignity, well-being and in our community. If we have food sovereignty, that’s power."
  • Calling parents’ love for their children an underutilized educational resource, Alejandro Gibes de Gac (Springboard Collaborative) encourages schools to team up more with Black and Brown parents, noting, “Parental involvement in their children’s education is the best indicator of success.”
  • On the subject of silver linings, Dr. Lauren Powell (The Equitist) thinks that a health equity evolution has grown out of the pandemic, giving rise to more discussion about how “all people [can] have the highest opportunity for health and wellness.”
  • In an Exchange session about the absolutely critical leadership of Black women, Ellice Patterson (Abilities Dance Boston) rightly points out that, while Black women and people of color have led the way, ableism is often alive and well in majority-BIPOC spaces. Another attendee noted the honest exchange between Ellice and the moderator was a perfect example of creating the space that is safe enough to have honest conversations. (As organizers of this event, we are grateful for this truth telling and commit to doing better in the future.)
  • Ange Hwang (Asian Media Access) calls out that we must pay attention to cultural differences in our work of designing the future - asking questions, sharing power, understanding a different perspective, and changing mindsets from "me" to "we."
  • Mariama Boney (Achieve More, LLC) on ensuring that we have avenues for progress to end the scourge of hate: “We sometimes forget that we have power, and we really need to own that power, and partner with others to remind them that they have power, as well.”
  • And, finally, a little Upswell history. In 2018, our first year, we took our wildly unusual and unproven concept to Los Angeles for a series of community listening sessions. Ryan Easterly (WITH Foundation) was the very first person to show up.

    Today, in an expansive conversation about disability justice - and with the perspective of a multi-marginalized foundation leader - he offered a thoroughly convincing insight about inclusion and effectiveness:

    "As a funder, if you design programs that center the needs of the most impacted – that's always the best starting point."

These highlights don’t begin to capture the sheer volume of power that was generated at the Upswell Summit today. And tomorrow, there’s even more work to be done, because the future is still calling loudly.

Before then, we return to Angela Davis’ point about guaranteeing that we seize this unique historical moment. She offered a piece of advice that we’ll leave you with:

"Don't be afraid to embrace new ideas."

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