A Conversation With: Michael McAfee

In your essay, “Winning on Equity,” you mention “the unfinished work of the equality movement in the current equity moment.” What do you mean by that?

The unfinished work goes all the way back to our nation’s founding documents, which expressed radical imagination in some of the ideas that are still powerful for governing—but also radical imagination in ways that also allowed some people to be excluded and oppressed and killed. The unfinished business is to get to all that is embodied in those founding documents.

The business of designing this nation is not complete, and it won’t be until we have changed the legal and regulatory framework so that it actually works for everyone. This nation has always been an experiment, and the experiment will never be over because, even if we were to achieve the ideals, they must be defended. That is the work for our generation—to finally realize the ideals of what was absent in those founding documents, and in doing so make this democracy and economy stronger.

What are the implications for equity in light of the societal changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and by the renewed movement for racial justice?

For me, COVID-19 means nothing new. Because I was born into this world as a person of color, so I’m well aware of what the hell [adversity] is. We knew it during Hurricane Katrina, we knew it [during the economic crash of] 2008. What is new is the toxicity of it to White America. And what is frustrating is their inability to understand that they have designed a world that their asses can’t live in either. That is the challenge that, maybe, we now have a chance to break through. “Winning on equity” is born out of the fact that our leaders and our institutions have not listened to the people for years.

COVID has revealed not only the structural weaknesses in the nation but in the equity movement’s ability to seize a moment and advance our agenda. And that’s tragic, because right now we have in the house a coalition of folks that are quite innovative in terms of policy solutions. I’m excited that folks are supporting them, rallying around them, and pushing harder. But we have yet to amass the power to land what we really want.

We already see this with [stimulus payments]. The prevailing narrative is, ‘You just gave these folks $1,400 dollars, they’ll become lazy and not want to work anymore. We cannot let this become a new federal program’—when the reality is, most people who are struggling are working two jobs already. So we’ve already lost the narrative battle.

Our work now is to demand that our leaders do something different. They found 2 trillion dollars in a pathological way, to address a crisis. What if they did it in a liberating way? To me, that would be winning on equity: to say, ‘There isn’t a crisis right now, it’s a beautiful day outside, and I’m still going to help my people in this nation.’ To continue to only find money in a crisis is sick as hell, and it’s going to continue—because what’s really going to happen is these trillions of dollars are going to flood the market but they’re going to miss Black and Brown folks. You already saw this happen with small business loans. Imagine what happens when you see the tranches of money [to states and cities] for more housing, more safety net supports. As the dollars hit the market, the structural design of our nation makes it impossible to access. Look at what happened in Florida: They intentionally designed their safety net system so it would crash, so low-income folks couldn’t use it. Years ago, when we were talking about all this system change work that had to be done, we should have been fighting with Florida to fix their system. But that isn’t sexy work, so it doesn’t get funded. And now it’s needed.

The equity movement and its institutional leaders and institutions should hold steady right now. We should continue to accelerate our evolution so we can step through the window of opportunity to meet the need the next time there is a crisis. That is the muscle we’re learning to build now.

You have spoken about the need for “liberating actions” to build an economy that respects and includes all, especially people of color who are low income. What kind of actions are needed, and do you see them taking shape?

Tragically, I don’t feel much is going to change. Maybe more people will be more aware of the disproportionate plight of Black and Brown folks, but if you look around this country, what you see is an acceleration of acts of charity. I get the importance of momentary respite, but it’s not really helping folks. Ok, it’s great for an individual for a moment if you give them a box lunch, but you know what? They still are going back into a work environment where they’re not being protected and where, if they get sick, they can’t afford the premiums on their health insurance. This is a moment when we’re out of balance, with charity dominating the culture of the nation.

We’re better than this. We have to get to a place where charity is less needed because we’ve designed a nation that can support its people. That’s the shift we have to make—but we’re not capitalized to do so. At the very time we ought to be accelerating, you can’t get [funding] if you’re talking about restructuring the nation. Because either [funders] are shell shocked, thinking about what to do, or they only want to do charity. The biggest structural impediment right now is that the capital flow is stifling the work we need to do.

So, winning on equity is partly about asking the question of how we should be structured so we have a new way to capitalize the work. Do we have the narratives and messages ready that could possibly bring the nation together, and do we have 10 to 20 organizations whose communications shops would use that stuff? No, not in this moment.

That sounds pretty bleak.

Actually, I’m not really offering a critique as much as a frustration that we’re not fully able to accelerate in this moment. I’m still inspired, because there is a critical mass of leaders who are tired of the same-old-same-old and not having the impact we want, and who know what needs to be done. That is what winning on equity has been born out of, and that is why, if we’re going to do anything different, winning on equity has to be at the forefront of work by PolicyLink and others. While we may miss the opportunity for change in this crisis, the good news and the bad news is that there will be other crises and other opportunities. Winning on equity is a 20-plus year journey, so I don’t feel the urgency to lose my mind in this moment. What I’ve learned to appreciate in my own growth, in this field and professionally, is that everything that came before was needed to be able to get to this moment where we can build what’s needed now.

What is needed now in the fields of policy advocacy, philanthropy, and civic leadership to achieve the changes you call for in your essay?

If you were to ask, ‘How would we design a nation that would actually work for the 100 million [Americans living in poverty]?’ it is reasonable to conclude we might have to reorganize civil society to do that. Because civil society is not designed to deliver on the things we’re talking about when we talk about winning on equity. Civil society is designed primarily to deliver charity. There’s nothing wrong with that, but focusing on alleviating immediate human need doesn’t give us the types of structures that the political right has built—the ones described in Democracy in Chains[i] and Dark Money,[ii] for example—that can actually change the legal and regulatory frames of society. We’ve never really stopped to ask ourselves whether we are structured to achieve the results we want. Instead, we tiptoe around words like scale and impact and return on investment. We nibble around the edges. We let 1,000 flowers bloom and then get frustrated when they don’t deliver.

But as soon as you start talking about changing the legal and regulatory framework, the majority of funders say, ‘Oh, we don’t fund advocacy.’ Well, then we’re right back to civil society doing charity or just programmatic work. Talking about society-wide impact should force us to reimagine everything, including how a sector is structured to be of service. Imagine if we weren’t structured to be oppressive!

Is it possible to get people to see themselves as part of a unified movement for structural change? As you say, the political right and their dark money have certainly managed to be very cohesive.

That’s the work we’re undertaking right now. I am excited that there are leaders out there right now who are talking and developing a plan. Folks are organizing now in different ways. For example, at PolicyLink we’re talking about no longer doing summits by ourselves but joining with others to create something bigger. I’m talking with other institutional leaders about what it might mean for us to have institutional capacities that weren’t just siloed at one shop but existed across the movement. We’re beginning to ask of ourselves, if we care about the 100 million, how would we be structured? I’m seeing leaders who are focused on society-wide impact, and their hearts are caring about that. If your consciousness is there and your heart’s there, you do the work that is necessary to bring it about.

Now our work is to build it. Much like how Angela [Glover Blackwell] and Milly [Hawk Daniel] gave us a frame of equity 20 years ago that we could all see ourselves in, the “winning on equity” frame is putting the marker down for what we need to do as generational leaders. We’re going to miss the moment to do that on COVID-19, but in future years we won’t miss it. We’ll get there. There’s a groundswell of leaders and institutions that are going to stand in an aligned, transformative way together, and we’re going to finish the unfinished business of making this nation work for everyone. That’s what makes me able to rest easy.


1 MacLean, N. (2017). “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.” Viking Press.
2 Mayer, J. (2016). “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.” Doubleday.