The Reads That Rocked Our World

In an effort to close out this hellish year on a high note, we put our heads together (virtually, of course) to create a list of the six books that sparked the most insights for us. Not all of these wonderful works came out in 2020; in some cases, we were embarrassingly late to the party. But we full-heartedly recommend them all for holiday reading or gifting.

We’ll start with two books that sit in our Venn overlap zone—that is, the books both of us read and loved.

  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehesi Coates. It’s rare to find a nonfiction book that’s as stunningly well written as it is piercingly insightful. This one is both! You can’t read this book (or listen to the author read it, as both of us did), without coming away with your head spinning with admiration for Coates’s talents as a writer and public intellectual. His explanation of the construct of race is one of the most compelling (and heartbreaking) we’ve read. And his personal stories, especially about the death of his Howard classmate and friend Prince Jones, will stay with you forever. The new HBO version of the book is well worth your time as well, but not even great actors and visuals can improve upon Coates’s prose.
  • Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, by Eli Saslow. This book tells the remarkable story of Derek Black—not just any former white nationalist but one who was on a trajectory to become one of the most powerful in the world. (His godfather, David Duke, was grooming Black to be his successor.) With the help of several college friends, Black had the intellectual courage to examine his hateful views with an open mind and then summoned even more bravery to leave the movement and help steer others away from it (incurring death threats, as you might imagine). Lowell has since befriended Derek Black and discovered he’s every bit as impressive as Saslow depicts him.

Here are two additional reads from Mario’s list:

  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson. Mario admits that he started reading the book with resistance to its premise. While he believed we were a nation of informal social hierarchies, he resisted the idea that America has a caste system akin to the one in India and other rigidly hierarchical societies. Did he quickly eat that view! Wilkerson’s brilliant analysis and human stories convinced him we do have a caste system in America, and it’s been one of the most powerful forces shaping our society. On every page there’s another shock, such as the fact that Nazi Germany took its cues from America when formulating its Final Solution and the details of how immigrants (like his dad) were able to escape the evils of caste by having the opportunity to assimilate into the white way of life. He now fully understands why The New York Times called Caste “the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far.”
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. After falling hard for Wilkerson and Caste, Mario felt compelled to read her previous book as well. In this one, Wilkerson allows us to accompany the six million African-Americans who migrated north between 1915 and 1970 and understand how this fundamental demographic shift changed both North and South. She concludes that the “migrant advantage—more schooling, higher employment, and more stable families” helped Americans of all colors. Through frequent references to caste, she plants the seeds perfectly for her subsequent book.

And here are two of Lowell’s:

  • Breath from Salt: A Deadly Genetic Disease, a New Era in Science, and the Patients and Families Who Changed Medicine Forever, by Bijal Trivedi. This book, too, is both relevant and surprisingly uplifting. The genetic disease it covers is cystic fibrosis (CF), an inherited lung disease that devastates children and their families. Or it used to. Thanks to the medical marvels Trivedi documents, CF is now as manageable as HIV. Trivedi gives tremendous credit not only to brilliant scientists but also to the stop-at-nothing nonprofit advocates who made these advances possible.
  • The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson. Winston Churchill has come under fire in recent years for racism and other sins, and we don’t condone any of that. But Larson’s intimate portrait of Churchill is the ultimate profile in courage. It’s also relevant and uplifting—relevant because we’re now living through another frightening period of crisis and uplifting because of the way the British persevered through a year of indiscriminate Nazi bombing raids.

To close out our recommendations, we’ll offer what Louisianans call a lagniappe—a little bonus. No matter your age or your jam, we encourage you to try boundary-crossing artist Gregory Porter’s new album All Rise, recently nominated for a Grammy. Every time Lowell lays the stylus on one of the album’s three vinyl records, Porter’s stunning baritone voice lifts him out of the here and now and into a more spiritual place.

With warm wishes for a kinder, healthier New Year,

Signatures: Mario and Lowell
Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap Ambassadors Community.

Updates From Around the Leap Community

Next month, Lowell and the Leap Ambassadors Community—in partnership with the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Tipping Point Communities, Bridgespan, and FMA—will publish Funding Performance: How Great Donors Invest in Grantee Success. This monograph, featuring essays by speak-truth-to-power leaders such as Ford’s Hilary Pennington and Tipping Point’s Sam Cobbs, will help nonprofits make a compelling case to their own funders for the kind of flexible support they need to navigate crisis and achieve greater impact for those they serve. We’ll share much more on Funding Performance—and a link, of course—in our next Leap Update.

We loved this new video from Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler as well as Pat Lawler and Richard Shaw of Youth Villages, a super-effective nonprofit literally saving the lives of foster youth suffering from abuse and neglect. With humor, passion, and that unmistakable voice, Tyler speaks openly about his own personal struggles—and so do young women who’ve made tremendous strides with the help of Youth Villages. The video is a great example of how to engage stakeholders virtually in this age of COVID.

With financial support and inspiration from Hilary Pennington and her colleagues at the Ford Foundation, the Center for Effective Philanthropy has just released the second of three planned reports on how foundations are supporting communities hardest hit by the COVID pandemic. In Foundations Respond to Crisis: Toward Equity?, CEP shares the good news that almost all survey respondents “reported placing new, or more, focus on supporting Black, Latino, and lower-income communities.” But—and of course there’s a but—most respondents acknowledged that they have a lot more work to do on “increasing staff [and board] diversity; doing more to integrate equity into their strategy and grantmaking approaches; reducing barriers to funding; [and] conducting more and better outreach and relationship building in the community.”

Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman just announced that the world’s largest foundation is digging even deeper—an additional $250M on top of $750M in previous gifts—to ensure that effective vaccines benefit poor countries. To help build the case for other donors to step up their contributions as well, he shared a new analysis showing that the economic benefits of distributing the vaccine equitably may reach $466B for the U.S. and nine other rich countries—to say nothing of the health and economic benefits to poor countries!

Sorry to end on a low note, but this is important: We’re starting to see discouraging data on the impact of online schooling on attendance and academic achievement. In The Markup’s “Kids Are ‘Failing’ Online Learning,” you’ll see that “it’s become clear how devastating the switch to remote learning has been for many students,” especially those who were already struggling in school as a result of disadvantages. We encourage all educators to switch to an ethos of “grace over grades” during this extraordinary time.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Jan 20–Online
Top Fundraising Trends to Capitalize on in 2021” webinar; Candid

Jan 27–Online
Taking Stock: Philanthropy Role in Supporting Racial Equity” virtual learning sessions; Center for Effective Philanthropy

Jan 12-Mar 10–Online
Journeys to Equity: Becoming a Better Ally” series; Exponent Philanthropy

Feb 17-18–Online
Democracy, Civil Society, and Digital Technology” virtual conference; SSIR