Addressing systemic racism through philanthropic engagement

Aug 30, 2021

Now in its tenth year, Black Philanthropy Month is celebrated each August to “inform, involve, inspire and invest in Black philanthropy to strengthen Black communities everywhere.” To discuss the importance of this month and his own legacy of giving back to the community, we sat down with Preston Tisdale, attorney at Koskoff, Koskoff & Beider and Fairfield County’s Community Foundation Board Member.

Q: How did you become an advocate for philanthropy in Fairfield County?

A: My background is shaped by my parents, who came from a family tradition of giving back to the community and were very active in the Civil Rights Movement. They gave their time, energy, creativity, intelligence and effort to the cause of making America a more just society. As time has gone on, I’ve followed in that tradition of helping America live up to that promise.

Q: Why do you believe it is important to recognize the impact Black philanthropy has on the community?

A: Historically, Blacks have faced extraordinary economic challenges. Each time they have made strides to develop intergenerational wealth, it’s been wiped out. Recently we’ve heard about Tulsa, but that wasn’t an isolated situation. On every level there were disadvantages systemically in place that denied the Black community the ability to accumulate wealth. 

This country’s unfortunate history of racism and racial disparities did not escape the philanthropic community, so very often Blacks were left out of those conversations. It’s critical that Blacks engage in Black philanthropy because we still have so many of those hurdles to overcome.

Q: How does your unique perspective help inform the Community Foundation’s mission, and guide its Community Impact Committee’s work to address inequity in Fairfield County?

A: In the post-war era, America recognized it had a problem with educational gaps. My generation benefited from those concerns tremendously as the focus on education and youth services brought opportunities to young people in cities like Bridgeport. But as industry left, so have those opportunities. 

As this diminution of opportunity manifests itself in the urban environment, we know that it also will begin to manifest itself in suburban communities and become a greater problem. But it’s a problem that doesn’t need to exist because it is a time of tremendous wealth in this country. That wealth needs to be strategically allocated so that we don’t have these educational gaps, economic gaps, and disparities in housing. 

The Foundation is in a unique position because we have such wealth in this community, yet we have some of the poorest communities in the country. If we can get it right here, then we’ve set an example for addressing it throughout the country

“Systemic racism and systemic racial inequity are at the core of the economic, educational and opportunity gaps in our country. To solve these issues, we need to get to the root cause so that we can make long-standing differences.”

Q: Where do you hope your philanthropic contributions have had the biggest impact?

A: I hope that my contributions have had an impact at the grassroots and individual level, but also at the larger policy level. I don’t believe that one needs to be done at the exclusion of the other. 

Systemic racism and systemic racial inequity are at the core of the economic, educational and opportunity gaps in our country. To solve these issues, we need to get to the root cause so that we can make long-standing differences. I like to think that the work that I have done throughout the years and continue to do has addressed those issues on both the individual and policy level. 

Q: What areas do you believe most crucially need our focus for systemic racism and inequity to be effectively addressed?

A: So much of it is opening the eyes of people of good will. I like to think that most people are people of good will. But our country shied away from addressing the root cause of these issues. 

When I talk about systemic racism, we’ve totally dropped the ball. We have tried to operate under the uninformed sense that if we ignore it, it will go away. But the problem is so deeply ingrained. 

I think that what many people learned from George Floyd is that these circumstances exist on a regular basis. And when people of good will saw it happening, that conventional wisdom melted away. They said, “This is not what our country is supposed to be, and we need to do something about it.” That awareness has led to people of good will wanting to see that these types of circumstances don’t exist again. 

Q: Where should someone who wants to get involved start?

A: The Foundation is a great place to start, because it has a handle on the widest array of philanthropic entities and programs that deliver critical services to the community. It can help guide persons who want to engage philanthropically to share their skills, help those in need and improve society. 

Philanthropy is necessary to help the country become aligned, and it also sets a model from which movement can take place governmentally and society as a whole can be uplifted.

Preston Tisdale joined the Board of Community Foundation in 2017 and serves as Chair of the Community Impact Committee. He is an attorney at the law firm of Koskoff, Koskoff & Beider in Bridgeport. Previously, he spent 28 years practicing criminal defense law, directing the Fairfield Judicial District Public Defender’s Office and serving as the first director of special public defenders for the State of Connecticut. A 1973 Brown graduate and Brown parent, Tisdale concentrated in public policy and was a member of the Afro-American Society, Rites & Reasons Theatre, and the Pre-Law Society. He holds a J.D. from New York University School of Law. Tisdale is the past president of the Brown Alumni Association and Brown’s Inman Page Black Alumni Council. He served on the University’s advisory councils on admission and diversity, the President’s Leadership Council, the Brown Club of Fairfield County and the Association of Class Leaders. He is a Trustee Emeritus of the Brown University Corporation.

Tisdale received the first Joseph M. Fernandez ‘85 Award for bringing diverse alumni together to make a positive contribution to the University community. Beyond Brown, Tisdale is a member of the Public Justice Foundation board of directors. He serves on the Connecticut Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparity in the Criminal Justice System, and as chair of the Regional Youth/Adult Social Action Partnership. He has also served as Corporate Secretary of the Greater Bridgeport Symphony Board, and he is the recipient of the NAACP Distinguished Service Award.