Emcee Mike Watson introduced Valaida Fullwood and Charles Thomas by saying, “They are both just gifts to our community.”
“Reframing Portraits of Philanthropy — that was my big idea six years ago,” began Valaida.
The book, published in October 2011, shares the stories and profiles of 200 black philanthropists. As Valaida explained, “For some time, I’ve been unsettled by prevailing stories of philanthropy and who’s qualified to be a philanthropist. The conventional frame is narrowly set.”
The literal translation of philanthropy from the Greek is “love of humankind” or “love of humanity.” And Valaida said, “When love enters the picture, everything changes. And that shift occurred for me.”
The shift she described was toward “a more inclusive and colorful frame” for philanthropy, of people who give “not to elevate themselves but to lift up others.”
African-Americans give approximately 9% of their disposable income to charitable causes. One of those extraordinary people is Valaida’s Aunt Dora, pastor of a church in Asheville, who, in preparation for her retirement, took time out for a silent retreat to ask, “What next?” The answer for her was “feed the hungry.” She went on to find the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, which, 20 years later, is still in operation. Aunt Dora still puts her monthly Social Security check into its operation, and, at 92 years old, she continues to cook and serve and provide leadership to the non-profit. With that example before her, Valaida said, “I knew the true meaning of philanthropy.”
The idea for the book was to share more stories like that of Aunt Dora, stories of “every day givers.” Valaida says the idea for the book “landed on me” one day, but little did she know that it would take four and a half years to bring the idea to fruition. Or, as Valaida shared, 1,621 days. “I think of it in days because from the moment I had the idea … every 24 hours I woke up with ideas raging in my head!”
Charles Thomas, who now serves as Executive Director of Queen City Forward, told his story of growing up as a statistic – poor, uneducated, the child of a single mom. “I knew I’d have to break frames in order to be with you here today. … But my mom said that I could be anything that I wanted, and I believed her.”
The experience of receiving free and reduced lunch at school made Charles feel “special,” that was, until he was exposed to images of African children and told he too was “poor,” not “special.” He struggled with that identity in middle school, high school, and into college. “I sounded ‘white.’ I was the only black kid at an honors history class when we were talking about slavery.”
More than that, he described being named for his absentee father, “I hated him, and I hated my name.” But in college, he embraced photography, and he was given the assignment of creating a self-portrait of him and his father. “I had to reframe my relationship with my dad. I discovered the meaning of my name – Charles, strong man; William, protector; Thomas, the quest for truth.”
Charles set off on a mission to reframe images of black men and challenge the conventional notions of what it means to be black in America. He did this through his photography business, Sankofa Photography. But then he described reaching a crossroad, where he thought he might have to give up photography. That’s when Valaida Fullwood approached him to collaborate on Reframing Portraits of Philanthropy.
Valaida said, “When you reframe something, you must first deconstruct what was first there. … And that can be excruciating when that thing is you.”
Although Valaida had every detail laid out of how to execute the book project, she said she still struggled with her identity as a writer. “I was still uncomfortable with the label ‘writer.’ … That was someone with an English degree or a journalism major. Not me.”
She jumped into the project, but she said, “About halfway through, the doubts began to swarm.”
Could she convince 200 black donors to share their stories with her and sit for photos with Charles?
“There were days that brought me to my knees and to the brink of existential crisis,” Valaida confessed, with a quiver in her voice. “It was only through Charles’ generosity and collaborative spirit and through a circle of family and friends who had more confidence in me than I had in myself, I was able to see the project through.”
She continued (to loud applause), “The picture is very clear today: I am a writer.”
Charles added, “For me, the project was a steady journey of partnership and collaboration. But there were a few surprises. One was the stories that were not told. So many people struggled with the idea of embracing that they were philanthropists.”
“It’s our stories that society needs,” Charles continued. When we don’t share our stories, Charles said, “It leaves a hole in the fabric of inspiration.”
Valaida concluded by saying, “We’ve painted pictures of things that nearly never existed.” A writer who was almost not a writer. A photographer who was almost not a writer. A book that was almost not a book.
Charles closed by asking the audience, “What story are you not sharing? What part of you not embracing? What frame are you locked into?”
Valaida Fullwood and Charles Thomas
Described an “idea whisperer,” Valaida Fullwood brings unbridled imagination and a gift for harnessing wild ideas to her work as a writer, creative consultant and project strategist. Valaida is the award-winning author of Giving Back, a 400-page hardcover book profiling of stories of philanthropy among African Americans that was developed with photographer Charles Thomas. Giving Back, her first book, was named one of the 10 Best Black Books of 2011 and received the prestigious 2012 McAdam Book Award, which recognizes “the most inspirational and useful new book for the nonprofit sector.” Discover new ways to give back to your community by connecting with Valaida and Charles online. Like the Giving Back Project on Facebook to find out more about the project.
Live blog post by Steve Knight