Liberal Education

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation's Deepening Commitment to Racial Equity

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) is a leader in the pursuit of racial equity in the United States, even as centuries of racial bias continue to affect families and communities. The foundation is widely recognized for its comprehensive work in helping communities heal racial wounds and address the structural racism that creates barriers for vulnerable children. In a society where frank discussions about race and racism are all too rare, the foundation openly advocates for putting racism behind us and acknowledging the damage it has caused. This advocacy enables opportunities for healing and progress, bringing hope for future generations.

What follows is a chronicle of how, over several decades, the foundation positioned itself to make a difference by unabashedly taking on the impediments created by racism.

An increasing emphasis on racial equity

In forming the foundation, Will Keith Kellogg recognized that many factors affected whether children could thrive. His initial programs assisted poor, rural, mostly white children who were in dire need of better health services. The foundation first funded the Michigan Community Health Projects, which took a holistic approach to improving health through better nutrition, exercise, dental care, and access to immunizations and eye exams. They also sought to improve learning facilities and libraries and to help recruit better teachers.

As time went on, however, Kellogg Foundation leaders recognized that an escalating number of poor children lived in urban settings, that many were minorities, and that the foundation needed to make major adjustments in staffing and programming in order to meet their needs. As a result, the foundation began expanding its programming to include a focus on both rural and urban settings and began contemporizing the concept of who was disadvantaged.

Still, the foundation’s focus has always been on helping all children thrive. How has that equated with the substantial work on racial equity over the decades?

In seeking to help vulnerable children—those in the greatest poverty, a disproportionate number of whom were children of color—the foundation came to recognize racism as one of the chief reasons these children were in poverty. On this basis alone, deepening the foundation’s efforts on racial equity made perfect sense. Today, racial equity is a key point of emphasis and a driving force in all areas of grantmaking at the foundation.

Key initiatives

Twenty-two years before the White House launched the My Brother’s Keeper initiative to address obstacles faced by young men of color, the Kellogg Foundation recognized their limited opportunities for success. In 1992, the foundation launched its broad African American Men and Boys Initiative, investing $15 million in thirty-two projects. As part of the initiative, which included funding for organizations that worked with youths on reducing crime, violence, and drugs in their communities, the foundation funded the National Task Force on African American Men and Boys. The task force publicly raised the alarm about the challenges faced by this demographic and issued recommendations aimed at reviving families and communities that had long been neglected in urban areas of the country. The task force’s report has been heralded as a blueprint for how to provide opportunities to minority youths.1

The initiative was also significant because it altered how the foundation engaged with its grantees. Whereas, previously, grants were conferred largely on universities, medical centers, and other mainstream institutions, the African American Men and Boys Initiative ushered in a new era in which the foundation empowers community and civic organizations, bringing resources much closer to the people and communities in need of help. Suddenly, storefront nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and other nontraditional grantees were working together with established institutions to solve community problems. These unions stimulated and challenged the grantees, and they led to the development of a new partnership model for having an impact on communities and children.

Since the early 1990s, the Kellogg Foundation has also funded Rites of Passage programs in urban areas. These programs empower minority youths by exposing them to role models and through the discovery and discussion of history, culture, and the political forces surrounding them. The program sites establish partnerships with public secondary schools to develop gender-specific programs. One of the leading programs is led by Brotherhood/Sister Sol, a Harlem-based nonprofit organization. In New York City, almost half of all black men are unemployed; yet, 95 percent of Brotherhood/Sister Sol alumni—all of whom are African American or Latino—are either working full time or enrolled in college.

Through the Community Voices program, the foundation leveraged lessons from earlier work and other programming in order to develop multifaceted systemic models for addressing pressing issues related to the health of young men of color, especially the formerly incarcerated who struggle to adjust to family and community after spending time in prison. In the late 1990s, safety-net programs in public health departments, hospitals, and community clinics strained to provide care for the growing number of uninsured. Community Voices coalitions in thirteen communities worked with residents to find solutions and implemented cutting-edge system adaptations to expand healthcare for those who needed it most.

In 1995, to help enroll more Native Americans in college, the foundation launched the Native American Higher Education Initiative, creating partnerships with thirty tribal colleges and more than seventy-five mainstream higher education institutions as well as national and community organizations. The goal was to provide greater access to higher education for Native Americans, while also integrating tribal cultural values into rigorous academic curricula. Similarly, the foundation improved educational opportunities for Hispanics through its ENLACE (Engaging Latino Communities in Education) program, which was launched in 1997. Through the program, higher learning institutions in seven states partnered with K-12 schools and community organizations to form support groups for Latino students.

Over the years, the foundation had largely funded institutions and community organizations that address economic and social conditions that limit opportunities for vulnerable children to thrive. But left out of the equation was scrutiny of the impact of public policy in such areas as health, criminal justice, housing, and employment. The foundation changed that formula when, in 2005, it funded the work of the Dellums Commission. Led by former Congressman Ron Dellums, this commission of influential scholars, public officials, and civic leaders from around the country issued a comprehensive report on public policies that were having a negative impact on young men and boys of color.2

The commission noted, for instance, that prison incarceration rates shot up in the 1980s, when youth offenders were increasingly diverted to adult criminal systems and municipalities abandoned rehabilitation and treatment for drug users in favor of interdiction and criminal sanctions. The commission also noted that school dropout rates grew with the implementation of “zero tolerance” policies in schools, and the commissioners found a decline in the number of young men of color enrolled in postsecondary education. The commission’s recommendations for changing course led almost immediately to a series of direct actions that addressed the wayward policies.

A defining moment

Nine years ago came a defining moment for the Kellogg Foundation. In 2007, talk of a “post-racial” society was spreading in the United States, yet many communities were actually mired in strife related to racism. Six African American boys were sentenced to life in prison for an assault on a white student in Jena, Louisiana—a sentence widely viewed as racially motivated. Moreover, the US census had revealed stark educational disparities: 91 percent of white adults had high school degrees, as compared to 83 percent of blacks and 60 percent of Hispanics. The FBI reported 7,624 hate crime incidents that year; 52 percent of the victims were targeted because of the color of their skin.

In considering this environment, as well as reports from grantees on the ground in communities across the country, the foundation’s board of trustees saw troubled waters ahead, especially for vulnerable children. In this highly charged and racialized environment, and at a time when discrimination and injustice were so apparent, how could the nation ensure opportunities for all children to thrive? In fact, the time was approaching when the majority of children in the United States would be children of color, further underlining the need to address the barriers to education, employment, health, and housing created by structural racism.

The board of trustees took a bold step.

In 1930, Will Keith Kellogg wrote the articles of association for his foundation, defining the mission as “promotion of the health, education, and welfare . . . principally of children and youth . . . without regard to sex, race, creed, or nationality.” Some seventy-seven years later, the board reaffirmed those principles, declaring in September 2007 that the foundation would be “an effective antiracist organization that promotes racial equity.” This language unequivocally positioned the foundation as an advocate and facilitator of racial equity in communities across the country. With this very public statement, the foundation continued its founder’s path, establishing a framework for healing racial divides in local communities and focusing on the conscious and unconscious bias that limits opportunities for children, especially children of color.

More directly, the trustees unleashed the foundation to develop comprehensive programmatic approaches to addressing racism, including trying to heal perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes. Taking on challenges that have escaped resolution for centuries, the trustees tasked foundation leaders with engaging communities in the difficult work of countering the full scope of racism—the anxieties, fears, and long-held mythologies and misbeliefs that have triggered racial violence and tension in American society.

The impact was swift in coming. By 2011, the percentage of WKKF grantees that served minorities had jumped from 20 percent to 88 percent. In addition, the foundation developed a walk-the-talk mentality, building up its own credibility and becoming an even better partner for its community-based grantees. Over the past decade, the foundation’s leadership has changed dramatically. Currently, 53 percent of the executives are people of color, as compared to just 18 percent ten years ago. The trustees have gone from 44 percent people of color ten years ago to 56 percent in 2015. Today, the foundation’s chief executive officer and president is African American, and the board chair is Hispanic.

Racial healing

In 2010, the foundation launched America Healing, a five-year initiative designed to expose structural inequities in communities, redress them, and then help communities heal racial wounds. The strategy was to lift up racial healing so communities could move toward racial equity, while also dismantling the structures that limit opportunities for vulnerable children.

The ongoing importance of racial healing is rooted in a recognition of America’s fundamental flaw, namely, the foundational belief in a hierarchy of human value that places whites at the top and people of color at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. Our nation was built on this fallacy, and the majority has clung to it, even though it sharply contradicts the notion of equality that we are supposed to embrace. The foundation continues the work of countering this fallacy of racial hierarchy by funding innovative research and by working with communities and grantees to disprove stereotypes and create opportunities that will allow children to enjoy a better future.

Through the America Healing initiative, the foundation supported the Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy, which gives urban students in Chicago a community-based arts and entrepreneurship option within traditional education. It also sponsored pioneering research on the effects unconscious bias has on people of color as well as research on what motivates the behavior of police officers toward people of color.3 The initiative provided support for the Advancement Project’s work with the US Departments of Education and Justice to shape new guidelines for school discipline in order to reduce the disproportionate number of black and Latino children suspended from public schools. In 2013, together with the Altarum Institute, the foundation released The Business Case for Racial Equity, a study that quantifies the cost of racism in the United States and outlines the financial benefits of ending racial bias.4

In 2014, the America Healing initiative released the results of a national survey focused on the Latino experience in the United States.5 The survey found that Latinos, ranging from new immigrants to longtime US citizens, are keenly aware of discrimination and inequities, but they remain optimistic about their future—particularly with respect to such factors as economic conditions, personal health status, and the quality of public education for their children.

Further, the America Healing initiative organized and provided funds to the leaders of civil rights organizations representing various races and ethnicities. Representatives of these “anchor” organizations—including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Council of La Raza, the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, the National Urban League, Race Forward, and the National Congress of American Indians—met quarterly to strategize about how to dismantle structural racism in America. While some of the anchor organizations had been seen as competitors, both for attention and fundraising, they began working together more frequently. A defining moment came when the anchors issued a joint statement condemning a 2012 attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that killed six people and wounded four others.

In 2014, the Kellogg Foundation participated in President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which formed a powerful coalition to create broader opportunities for young men and boys of color. That summer, the foundation provided timely funding to organizations working to repair community relations with law enforcement and to facilitate racial healing after the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The foundation was one of the initial partners in the Executive Alliance, a group of more than forty funders, issuing a powerful statement that urged peaceful demonstrations after a grand jury decided not to indict the Ferguson police officer who had shot Brown.

So much more can be accomplished through collaborations that bring together the intellectual power and resources of foundations, communities, government, nonprofits, and corporations in efforts to dismantle racism. The Kellogg Foundation does not seek to pulverize or to blame, but rather to envision a more holistic and inclusive future.

The next journey for the foundation is the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) enterprise. Through TRHT, the foundation will engage local communities in racial healing and seek to end inequities linked to historical and contemporary beliefs in racial hierarchy. Working with major corporations, as well as civic and community organizations, TRHT will bridge embedded divides and generate the will, capacities, and resources required to achieve greater equity in our communities.

With both large and small investments, the Kellogg Foundation has helped communities move forward toward racial equity. Indeed, the results of the work over the decades, while often unheralded, have changed, and are continuing to help transform the role that race plays in American society, and ensure a future where all children thrive.


1. National Task Force on African-American Men and Boys, Repairing the Breach: Key Ways to Support Family Life, Reclaim Our Streets, and Rebuild Civil Society in America’s Communities (Dillon, CO: Alpine Guild, 1996).

2. Dellums Commission, A Way Out: Creating Partners for Our Nation’s Prosperity by Expanding Life Paths of Young Men of Color (Washington, DC: Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 2006).

3. See, for example, the work of Phillip Goff and others of the Center for Policing Equity at the University of California–Los Angeles and the work of Sharon Davies and others of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University.

4. Ani Turner, The Business Case for Racial Equity (Battle Creek, MI: W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 2013).

5. See “State of the Latino Family Survey,” W.K. Kellogg Foundation,

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La June Montgomery Tabron is president and chief executive officer of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. This article is adapted from the foundation’s 2015 annual report.

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