In June 2018, Neighborhood Funders Group convened hundreds of local, regional, and national funders for the NFG 2018 National Convening, Raise Up: Moving Money for Justice. Here, Andrea Dobson, NFG Board Member and Chief Operating & Financial Officer of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, reflects on the realities of philanthropy's role in building community change.
“Soul trauma: when who you thought you were runs smack into the realities of your life.” I’ve experienced plenty of soul trauma as I’ve watched communities disintegrate and people polarize, as poverty has become less a symptom of limited wealth and more a criminal offense in people’s minds. How can that be? Why is the society I am a part of increasingly choosing violence over peace, oppression over inclusion, and greed over generosity. More importantly, what can I do about it?
I sit in a privileged place: a senior executive at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF), a highly respected philanthropic institution that has social justice in its DNA. In the opening plenary for Neighborhood Funders Group’s (NFG) biennial convening last month in St. Louis, Reverend Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation, introduced me to “soul trauma” as something he had been facing. When the Ferguson crisis exploded onto the national scene, he experienced soul trauma. This weighed heavily on my mind during the the three days in St. Louis. Through engaging conversations, plenary sessions, learning tours, and side bar conversations, I grappled with a few disturbing realities – a soul trauma of my own, if you will.
My foundation is undergoing strategic planning, and we are about to direct all of our time and energy to advance equity in Arkansas. Sounds great, until I dig into the reality of what we are about to embark upon. Are we – the funding community and WRF in particular – actually putting our money where are mouths are? Are we funding social justice organizations like we expect them to win? Or am I more concerned with preserving corpus and not disrupting the power structure? Which one is my reality? There it is, my soul trauma.
As an accountant by trade and longtime philanthropic practitioner, I have industry standards that help ensure any money WRF sends to a nonprofit is wisely spent. Things like an audit, for example, and nonprofit status. But, if my aim is to increase equity, am I intentionally applying criteria that red-line small, community-led changemakers? Forcing small groups to get an audit is costly. Asking all grant recipients to be 501(c)3 organizations makes my due diligence simpler, but is it really serving the communities I say I’m interested in serving? Soul trauma.
At NFG’s conference, I was challenged to dig deeper into corpus, to rethink the capitalistic model, and to actually believe we can change the world. Artist, activist, and community-change strategist Jayeesha Dutta challenged me: “What if you believe there is enough? If you believe there is abundance, we can shift how it appears in our lives. We can and will build a new and different economy.” Can my foundation be a part of this shift? I hope so.
Aaron Tanaka, Director of the Center for Economic Democracy and Echoing Green Fellow, introduced economic democracy into the conversation. Our economic system has brought tremendous wealth to a few, but it hasn’t worked well for everyone and has left far too many Arkansans behind. It has also left our public servants beholden to small groups of wealthy donors instead of community members. Shifting to municipal participatory budgeting processes and community control over police departments would enhance accountability. Redefining the role of a politician as the implementer of community decisions produced by thorough resident engagement gives voice to those most impacted by policy change. Restorative justice in lieu of our current punitive system is a participatory way to bring safety to our communities and address the harms we inflict on residents. Cooperative ownership structures and worker co-op creation, community land trusts, and local finance organizing offer hope for our communities to become safer and more prosperous places.
All of this is food for thought – deep thought – as I sit in my office pondering how best to deploy an endowment to relentlessly pursue equity for all Arkansans.
I was sobered and inspired by stories from Santa Ana, California, a place where the local officials have taken steps to be inclusive and welcoming in the face of anti-immigrant politics at the state and county levels. They’ve worked thoughtfully and carefully to address the systemic intersections of law enforcement, immigrant rights, and poverty in ways that enhance their community. Organizers and advocates have supported each other to help the police department stop criminalizing poverty and end divisive rhetoric.
Asmaa Ahmed, Council on American-Islamic Relations policy manager, encouraged me to move away from fragmented thinking and to embrace holistic approaches to building communities. Immigrant-rights issues, she said, are related to criminalization issues and community violence: there is no vacuum. We are not alone. The “othering” is happening to every marginalized community. While sitting in this session, my friend Mary Sobecki, Needmor Fund executive director, was watching an immigration raid play out in her community. Fifty children were being separated from their families in Ohio while we discussed sanctuary in St. Louis. Soul trauma.
Reverend Starsky Wilson is not alone, and he’s also not a pessimist. He truly believes change can happen. He gave us a clarion call: “What if philanthropic advocacy actually turned political piety into people’s power. Do we actually believe it can happen?” I do. And I’ve figured out what I can do: I can recover from soul trauma and help others do the same. Just as recovery from physical trauma changes us, often for the better, I can feel my spirit growing stronger, and I won’t be alone. Our collective recovery from soul trauma will bring us closer together – our recovery is what will give us the strength to build stronger communities and finally unlock all communities’ full potential.
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Find more posts about the NFG 2018 National Convening on our Member Blog.