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The Atlantic Philanthropies Establishes New Fellowship Program at Columbia University to Dismantle Anti-Black Racism in the U.S. and South Africa

Resource type: News

The Atlantic Philanthropies |

Program will empower and connect dynamic individuals committed to working together across disciplines and borders to advance fairer, healthier, more inclusive societies.

Photo: Getty Images
“At a time when issues of race and identity are at the forefront of intense debates in South Africa, the U.S. and around the globe, supporting multi-racial and multi-ethnic leadership to lead us forward could not be more urgent or essential.” – Kavitha Mediratta, Atlantic Philanthropies chief strategy advisor and founding executive director of the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity program. Photo: Getty Images

NEW YORK, October 25, 2016 — The Atlantic Philanthropies and Columbia University today announced the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, a 10-year, $60 million program for courageous and creative leaders dedicated to dismantling anti-black racism in the United States and South Africa, two nations with deep and enduring legacies of racial exclusion and violence. The program – conceived, designed and led in partnership with renowned champions of racial equity – will enable visionary activists, authors and artists, among others, to enhance their understanding of anti-black racism and strengthen their strategic capacity, individual skills and professional networks to lead successful movements for racial equity in their communities, countries and around the world.

Significant and growing movements around the world are dedicated to confronting longstanding patterns of racial bias and discrimination. Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity will provide advanced leadership training and resources to support young and emerging changemakers in these movements, as well as their more experienced counterparts, to elevate public consciousness of these disparities and to construct more powerful interventions for justice and social change.

The program is the latest in an interconnected set of fellowship programs – the Atlantic Fellows – designed to empower and connect dynamic individuals who are committed to working together across disciplines and borders to address some of the world’s most critical challenges and advance fairer, healthier and more inclusive societies.

“We continue to see around us deep and often dangerous disparities that most directly affect the lives of black people, but that ultimately harm all of us and our desire to live in fair and inclusive communities,” said Christopher G. Oechsli, president and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies.  “We have a responsibility to change the discourse of division and exclusion, eliminate racial discrimination and violence in our criminal justice systems, and create a fundamental sense of equality and belonging that transcends the deeply harmful legacies and behaviors of our past.  To do this, we are privileged to make one of our final big bets on dedicated emerging leaders who are determined to achieve these aspirations and right the course of history.”

“Universities have an essential role to play in addressing the enduring challenges of race and racism in our society,” said Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger. “We have made the commitment to building a diverse, inclusive and just society a core value at Columbia. So we are especially proud to join with The Atlantic Philanthropies and an impressive group of partner organizations in this innovative effort to train a generation of future leaders for a new and necessary civil rights movement.”

Founding partners of the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity program include Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD), Center for Community Change, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Nelson Mandela Foundation, and Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at University of California, Berkeley.

The interconnected Atlantic Fellows programs will bring thousands of dedicated and courageous people together to advance fairer, healthier and more inclusive societies.

In the United States, the legacy of slavery and segregation looms large; and racial discrimination, even if unlawful, is systemic and omnipresent. Black men and women remain disproportionate victims of excessive police force and draconian criminal penalties, and are more likely to attend under-resourced schools and to lack access to adequate basic services, including health care. In South Africa, despite two decades of post-apartheid programs to redistribute land, improve employment equity and stimulate development in black communities, black South Africans face continuing hardship and inequality; and levels of poverty, inadequate education and health disparities are crushingly high.

The non-residential program, hosted by Columbia University, will support 350 fellows over its 10-year lifespan, annually supporting up to 35 fellows from the United States and South Africa, and bringing together grassroots and civil rights advocates and scholars working in diverse disciplines, as well as individuals working within government, the media, arts and elsewhere to promote learning and collaboration across fields, sectors and geographies.

“At a time when issues of race and identity are at the forefront of intense debates in South Africa, the U.S. and around the globe, supporting multi-racial and multi-ethnic leadership to lead us forward could not be more urgent or essential,” said Kavitha Mediratta, founding executive director of the program. “I am humbled by this opportunity to help shape Atlantic’s final investment to advance racial equity alongside such a distinguished and committed group of partners.” Ms. Mediratta will step down from her position as chief strategy advisor at The Atlantic Philanthropies on December 31 to assume her new role.

Substantial resources will directly support the Atlantic Fellows and their institutions. In addition, the grant also will support undergraduate fellows programs at Columbia and UC-Berkeley, a program of multi-disciplinary research at UC-Berkeley, and an annual fellow-faculty symposium and board of faculty advisors at Columbia.

“This initiative is dedicated not only to understanding our past, but to illuminating the problems of the present, and imagining a better future for all,” said Alondra Nelson, Columbia’s dean of social science and professor of sociology, who will serve as faculty lead to the Atlantic Fellows program. “Columbia will bring its deep commitment to research, teaching and civic engagement to this partnership and is excited to engage Atlantic Fellows with faculty, students, and the broader community in the urgent work of envisioning and cultivating more just societies.”

The first cohort of Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity will be announced in 2017. Sign up at for application information and updates.

Partner Statements

BOLD“This is an exciting opportunity to expand the possibilities for deeper and broader racial justice interventions, while addressing the need to restore black leadership to the forefront of the movement,” said Denise Perry, co-founder and executive director of Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD). “This program will provide leaders the chance to think beyond our American context and connect across geographies and disciplines.”

Center for Community Change“The history and ongoing reality of structural racism is the great challenge facing our country,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change. “We’re proud and excited to be part of this bold effort to build a better, more inclusive future and invest in leaders who can imagine and create that future.”

Nelson Mandela Foundation“The legacies of colonialism and apartheid continue to burden South Africa,” said Sello Hatang, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. “Race remains a fundamental fault line threatening realization of Nelson Mandela’s dream of a truly free society.  In this context we are honored to partner with U.S.-based organizations in a program premised on the need to challenge anti-black racism in all its forms both locally and globally.” Read statement >

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational FundSherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said, “This moment in our country demonstrates the need for an intentional investment in the leadership of young activists, leaders and visionaries who are committed to the hard work of tackling racism. I could not be more encouraged than I am by the decision of The Atlantic Philanthropies to undertake this bold initiative and to seed into our collective future by supporting the development of a dedicated corps of racial justice leaders who will be equipped to confront the complex and global dimensions of racism.” Read statement >

Haas Institute“The entire world is going through profound shifts, much of it centered around identity, around who belongs,” said john a. powell, director of the Haas Institute. “Within the U.S., our transformation and development as a society cannot be understood without understanding racism, and specifically anti-black racism, which affects all people in our society, albeit in different and unequal ways. In effort to address race and racialized outcomes in this country and abroad, strong leadership will be essential. The Haas Institute is incredibly honored to help launch the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity and to bring to bear our established history and diversity of research and scholarship to this effort.” Read statement >

The Atlantic PhilanthropiesThe Atlantic Philanthropies are dedicated to advancing opportunity, equity and human dignity. Established in 1982, when Chuck Feeney quietly committed virtually all of his family’s assets to the foundation, Atlantic has since made grants approaching $8 billion. In keeping with Mr. Feeney’s “Giving While Living,” big bet philosophy, Atlantic invests in systemic change to accelerate improvements in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people. The foundation, which has operated in Australia, Bermuda, Cuba, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, South Africa, the United States and Viet Nam, will complete all grantmaking in 2016 and conclude operations shortly afterward.

Columbia UniversityAmong the world’s leading research universities, Columbia University in the City of New York continuously seeks to advance the frontiers of scholarship and foster a campus community deeply engaged in the complex issues of our time through teaching, research, patient care and public service. The university is comprised of 16 undergraduate, graduate and professional schools, four affiliated colleges and seminaries in Manhattan, and a wide array of research institutes and global centers around the world. More than 40,000 students, award-winning faculty and professional staff define the university’s underlying values and commitment to pursuing new knowledge and educating informed, engaged citizens. Founded in 1754 as King’s College, Columbia is the fifth oldest institution of higher education in the United States. Read statement >

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