Philanthropy Roundtable president and CEO, Elise Westhoff, gives remarks at The Heritage Foundation’s Resource Bank in Austin, Texas, on how citizens, philanthropists, and legislators can work together to develop solutions to some of our nation’s toughest challenges.
Remarks as prepared for delivery in June 2021:
Thank you. My name is Elise Westhoff and I’m the president of the Philanthropy Roundtable. We’re a network of donors who work to advance liberty, opportunity and personal responsibility. It’s my privilege to be here today.
I’m going to stop on the word privilege. I’d like to own that I have it. But not in the way that might you think.
I didn’t have an easy childhood. My biological father suffered from severe mental illness and became abusive. From the age of 4 onward, I couldn’t see him. My stepfather who raised me grew up in rural Indiana and our family there lacked education and was plagued by poverty, teenage pregnancy and prison sentences.
I know that doesn’t sound like privilege. We weren’t wealthy and my skin color didn’t solve my family’s problems.
My privilege came from something much deeper.
I was lucky to be raised by parents who believed in a set of values that led them through dark times. Personal responsibility. Integrity. Respect. Faith.
They shared them with me and I embraced them. And I live in a country where we are free to pursue the life we want to lead. That is my privilege.
It’s the privilege of America’s promise. A promise we haven’t always lived up to. But I believe that today – this is a place where, with hard work and persistence, anyone from any background with any set of challenges can rise.
It’s the privilege of living in a land that continuously strives for liberty, equality and opportunity for all.
I have the privilege to be an American. Now, I have the privilege to fight for the values we hold dear for future generations. We all do.
As we gather here, a radical agenda is being forced on our country. It wants to tear down the very system that has allowed so many to thrive. It threatens the principles at our country’s core. If it isn’t stopped, then the ideals that define America will slip away.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that everyone in this room can be part of the fight. Today I will share three lessons that can help us win.
The first lesson is simple. We can’t just be against bad things. We have to cast a positive vision and shine a light on our solutions.
This is a big one. I admit, it’s easy to focus on the problem. Critical race theory really is dangerous. The rise of socialism really is disastrous. But there are people in this country who are struggling and many who want to help. We have to show them a vision of a better future … and the road to get there.
Every American deserves to share in this country’s promise and the privileges we enjoy.
Clearly, I don’t mean privilege the way progressives use it. They don’t own the word. They think privilege is a zero sum game. That it needs to be dismantled and taken away. Its not. American values give us the framework to realize our potential. Privilege should be cherished and shared with all. But it’s a two-way street. Where there are barriers and obstacles to privilege, we should eliminate them. Where we see racism, anti- Semitism and hate, we should fight it. We can give each person pathways to opportunity. But it is up to them write their own story.
Take school choice, which is one of my passions. I’ve been supporting a school for foster kids in Philadelphia for years and I mentor one of their students. After her mom died and her dad went to prison, she missed 100 days of school in a single year. Her failing public school failed her. But thanks to her new and non-traditional high school, she is graduating with the highest GPA in her class and will study to become a nurse. I believe in her. She has had challenges, but she also has the tools to succeed.
Her situation is unique, but then so is every student. Each child and family deserves access to options that work best for them. That’s especially true after the pandemic and the challenges of the past year. Parents are looking for a better way… and we can show it to them.
It’s a similar story on every other issue. Lets cast our vision and give people something to believe in.
The second lesson is this: Those of us who believe in America have to collaborate.
Everyone in this room knows how special our country is. We know how privileged we are. We know that our founding principles offer everyone the best chance at the best life. We also know that while those principles are self-evident, they are not self-defending.
But a strong defense requires better coordination.
When the going gets tough, progressives come together. We often go our separate ways.
This makes sense, given our different worldviews. Progressives are collectivist. They pool their resources, share their talent and constantly communicate and strategize.
We’re independent. We like to compete.
There’s real strength in that, but a weakness, too. If we don’t support each other in times of crisis, we’ll never come through.
Look around the room. Whether you are a donor, an entrepreneur, an elected official, a nonprofit leader, these are your partners. And there are others outside this room that we should invite in. Let’s not get stuck on our different views or tactics. We are in this together – fighting for America’s core values. It’s time to look for common ground and then stand our ground.
I’m confident we can do it.
The final lesson is this: Don’t walk away from the table.
We’re all fighting an uphill battle. Some of you are trying to save higher ed. Some of you are fighting falsehoods in K-12 classrooms. Some of you are striving to protect free speech.
None of this is easy work. I get it.
Frankly, philanthropy is getting more progressive by the day. I worry that it is failing the people it’s supposed to help. Some days, I feel like giving up.
Then I remember: If I walk away, I lose. If I’m still at the table, I have a chance to change minds and win hearts. I’m not going to throw that chance away.
Neither should you. I said before that we have the privilege to fight for America. That’s not a privilege we can turn our backs on. If we toss in the towel, we’ll lose the ideals of liberty, justice and equality that define our great country.
For me, it all comes back to my kids. I’m a mom of three. I owe it to them to fight for the values that make this country exceptional. Where everyone has the chance to achieve the American dream. Where we judge people by the content of their character, not their skin color, gender or religion. Where we fight to treat every human being with dignity and respect. I’m committed to stay at the table and hope you will too.
As I shared, I started life in a difficult place. But I had privilege. I embraced the values that led me to a meaningful life and I live in a country that enables every person to thrive. There is nothing I want more than to share my privilege. That is what led me to philanthropy.
You’re here because you believe in this great country.
The land of the free has given us so much. Now it’s time to prove ourselves worthy of the privilege.