Christmas photo of Rodney McKenzie and his grandmother

My Grandmother, ME, and my cousin, Keisha: Christmas, 2007

By Rodney McKenzie, Fetzer Institute Vice President of Ally Development

My grandmother cried when I told her that I was going to be a political organizer. I remember her smile, the one I counted on for affirmation and love in a world that often felt challenging, quickly disappear. I couldn’t imagine what I had said wrong; I was doing the very thing I thought she wanted me to do: transform the world. My grandmother, rocking back in forth on her porch, sitting on her favorite green metallic chair would speak deep into the heart of her twenty-something grandchildren, telling us that we were “called by God” to transform the world into a place that welcomed “the least of these.” For Earleen Polk, her black grandchildren, raised in South Dallas Streets, would be the very ones God used to alleviate the suffering that she knew wouldn’t end in her lifetime.

But my news didn’t seem to be an answer to her prayers; it broke her heart.

She looked me in the eyes and made me promise, “Don’t be like one of those people that come to our doorstep every four years, ask for our vote, make big promises and don’t come back till the next election cycle—with the same lies and the same broken promises. We remember.” I still see the determination and pain in her eyes—these interactions, these relationships, these moments mattered to her and so many who lived on streets like hers.

But how many of our organizational strategies are dependent on this way of operating? We engage with the “other”—folks we don’t know, but we need for a “win” of an election, for critical resources of a project, for a right-now need, making big promises and not returning till we need them, once again? But our transactional relationships, our transactional engagement in our world, won’t allow us to be the transformative agents required to transform our world! We harm people by our inability to be in relationship and to be accountable to them. We are choosing to ignore the rich tapestry of their humanity—the art of being with our larger community and seeing how our love is transformed by the knowing, in deep relationship, those who are fellow citizens of our world.

My grandmother in that moment changed my life because she taught me why Democracy matters. Democracy is about the people, about the whole citizen. Our work must start in the wrestling with the wholeness of people we interact with. By having an ethic of knowing each other and being willing to invest the time and energy in a relationship beyond our right-now needs, we create new pathways that destroy the false walls that we have created between each other. Because in Truth, we need each other to transform what we are seeing in our world today.

The Fetzer Institute is investing in an Ally Development team whose mantra is to transform our world through the intentional friendships we create in the field of philanthropy. Our team recognizes that the problems in our world require a new kind of approach. One in which we build out true partnerships, true alliances, based on us taking the time to know each other, to understand the why behind our presence on multiple Zoom calls, and to co-create work that sings to all of our hearts. None of us are dispensable here—no one should be used and then not spoken to until the next need arises. We are more than our jobs, our access to monies—we are the accumulation of stories that we must take time to know.

Imagine what happens if we are able to build alliances and relationships where we know our stories—where we know about our grandparents’ hopes and dreams not only for their children, but for this world. Imagine how disagreements can be transformed into opportunities to listen deeper because we are beyond a quick transaction—because we engage the core principles of a healthy Democracy to allow us the ability to see the wholeness of our humanity and the insight to know it’s not optional.

Our experiment will be to engage in philanthropy differently based upon an ethic of radical love, one defined by the quality of our relationships, one defined by our ability to see each other and to share our stories and be transformed not only by what we do, but by the sharing of our humanity with each other. May we be judged by the quality of our friendships—and our willingness to create from a place of deep knowing.

Rodney McKenzie, Jr. is VP of Ally Development at the Fetzer Institute. He’s a graduate of Union Theological Seminary and spends his free time obsessed with James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Essex Hemphill, and Audre Lorde.