Sadaf Rassoul Cameron’s Revolution of Imagination

Jun 05, 2014
My son graduated from Desert Academy International Baccalaureate high school yesterday. Nineteen years ago, around this time, I was fifteen and pregnant. I was living on the streets and had no idea where I was going to get my next meal…literally. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how our lives would unfold and how much hard work and grace would be required to arrive where I am today.

I have been blessed with guardian angels in my life. Those times, as a pregnant teenager living on the streets, were no exception. There was a woman who brought me a bag of groceries every couple of weeks on the corner, no questions asked. Week after week, her eyes brimmed with tears and she’d give me a solid hug. There was also our town police officer, Cecil. Once every few months he would bring me a garbage bag full of his son’s hand-me-downs and laugh as I picked through jumpers and toys. And finally, there was Juan Antonio, our city’s homeless drunk. He spent his days panhandling in his lucky jeans, talking to Jesus, and for whatever reason, he just adored me. At the end of each day, he would find me under a tree, worn with worry, but with a shit-eating grin on my face and give me his entire day’s earnings. I would beg him to keep it for himself and he would just look at me and say, “no, jita, it’s for you and the kid,” and walk away giggling.

While the majority of the world chalked me up to be just another statistical fuck up — against all odds, as the outcast black sheep, in light of great adversity — I experienced unparalleled kindness and compassion from the most unlikely places.

I’ve been reflecting on how graced my life has been over the last 18 years and simultaneously thinking about this topic that we are speaking to today — Innovation and Evolution in Philanthropy. It’s been an interesting process to have both happening rattling in my mind at the same time. What does innovation in philanthropy mean in light of Jose Antonio and his coin offerings and Cecil and his hand-me-down clothes?

What is philanthropy anyway? Philanthropy literally translates to “love of humanity.” If left for me to define, I would shift “love of humanity” to a “love of the wild”. Rather than the innate separation that a love of humanity creates with the natural world, a love of the wild would honor the visceral, inextricable symbiosis between humanity and nature. When we explore evolution and innovation in the field of philanthropy, I feel that that our evolution is rooted in a return to the rememberance of that symbiotic dance and how to bring humanity and humility to our relationships with life.

I’ve been personally challenged with the notion of “innovation” itself lately. Innovation is sexy because we are in desperate need of alternatives and creativity. However, innovation loses much of its sex appeal when it assumes that creativity and solutions rely solely on “newness.” Newness can be blind to where tradition and deep wisdom are not only legitimate, but an absolute necessity to moving our planet into the direction of vibrancy. For instance, the deep wisdom of the indigenous worldview and practice is an essential piece to moving towards becoming more humane to one another and to nature. Or, just good, wholesome kindness and generosity, like that of my town drunk. Never underestimate the power of kindness, the power of the creative, the power of simply being humane. Innovation must broaden its scope to include the gems of the past, our present, and future.

When I asked what points I should touch on today, our facilitator told me to speak about what I am most passionate about. I’m passionate about many things at the moment, but what I want to bring to this table is my passion for imagination.

I believe there is a war being waged on imagination. Systemic structures as they stand, in a post September 11th world, where a belligerent war on terror continues to be wielded in the name of security and grants permission for the government to surveil it’s citizens, has cultivated a deeply disturbing culture of fear which endangers even imagining that another world is possible. As it has been said: Transition is inevitable; Justice is not. I ask myself, how can justice be considered if we cannot even imagine what an equitable world looks like? How can we possibly thrive, if we can’t even imagine what thriving would feel like? We are in need of a revolution of imagination.

So how does this pertain to the field of philanthropy? Well, my answer is twofold. First off, I believe as grantmakers, we have a critical duty to foster imagination at any cost. We must be willing to “take a risk” (whatever that means) to support those that are fighting to keep imagination alive — at every front. Chilean Robin-Hood artist/activist, Francisco Tapia (Papas Fritas), just liberated $500 million worth of student loan debt by breaking into Universidad La Mar and setting blaze to actual loan contracts. Movement Generation, out of Oakland, cultivates the imagination of a healthy world through careful consideration and actual on-the-ground alternatives; offering us a window into what a truly marvellous world looks like.  I believe this is the radical innovation that our times call for and that we as philanthropists must foster and encourage.

Second, I believe that there is a crisis of imagination within the field of philanthropy. This may partially due to the fact that we are operating from a place of assumed security. No matter how you cut it, there is very little security in this very fragile structure. I believe that we are at the apex of the most daunting of human circumstances — relentless war, the institutionalizing of police and military states, the crushing of freedom of expression, and the ultimate crisis — climate chaos. We have tipped over the tipping point. Now is not the time to play it safe. We simply do not have the time. Bold, courageous action is imperative. It is time to think outside the box — move way outside our comfort zone.

Nabakov said: Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form. Now is the time to be valiantly curious!