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Race still matters, nonprofit leader says

W.K. Kellogg Foundation National Vice President Dr. Gail Christopher, one of the most powerful women in the national nonprofit sector, who will make the keynote speech at the annual fundraiser of North Lawndale Employment Network at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Race still colors everything, according to one of the most powerful women in the nation’s nonprofits.

From disproportionate numbers of minorities incarcerated, to their high rates of unemployment, infant mortality and chronic diseases, America’s deep-rooted racism is to blame, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s vice president for program strategy, Dr. Gail Christopher, declared in a keynote address at the Ritz-Carlton Tuesday night.

“I know a lot of people don’t like to talk about race. They begin to squirm. ‘We’re living in a post-racial America,’ they say. Well, we’re not,” said the outspoken Christopher, with a reputation for blunt views on race.

“This country has embodied a fallacy, a belief in racial hierarchy for longer than it has been a country. The majority of children being born today are children of color, most of those children growing up in impoverished conditions. If we’re going to actualize the promise of Democracy, we have to stand up for our children.

“And it’s clear to me that if we are going to help the children of America, we have to talk about race.”

Christopher, as decision-maker over grants at Kellogg – among the world’s 10 largest foundations with over $7 billion in assets – sits in rarified air among the few African-Americans in officerships at America’s largest foundations. A nationally recognized leader in health policy, she is architect of Kellogg’s five-year, $75 million, America Healing program launched in 2010 and believed the most significant private grant effort ever to address the impact of racial inequities and promote racial healing.

“The ridiculous idea that physical characteristics can embody the worth of a human being is the legacy of centuries of this belief that has been imbued into our unconscious,” she said. “It is not the blatant racism that hurts our children – though it’s there. Rather, it’s the stereotypes. It’s the ocean we swim in this country. Our economic divides are expanding everyday, and the subtext of the political debates are all racial.”

Christopher, who began her career in Chicago, was recruited by Kellogg in 2007. Author of three books, she spoke before some 250 attending the annual fund-raiser of the North Lawndale Employment Network, one of seven Illinois groups among 119 funded by America Healing nationally. NLEN provides job training to the formerly incarcerated.

“Our foundation has been going through what we call a reset,” Christopher said of Kellogg, founded in 1930 by cereal king Will Keith Kellogg. “We are determined to have a movement in this country that says, ‘America, we’re not finished yet.’ We have only begun to chip away at the hate. The story of America is not just one of victimization. The fact that there’s a family of color in the White House is a story of success. But we have to tell all the stories. The unresolved, unconscious bias allowed to run rampant in our country is dangerous.”