What It's Going to Take to Change Philanthropy

In October 2017, Funders for Justice (FFJ), a program of Neighborhood Funders Group, hosted a funder briefing on the Freedom Cities Movement at the NoVo Foundation office in New York City. FFJ got the chance to sit down and talk with NoVo's Ramatu Bangura, Program Officer for Advancing Adolescent Girls’ Rights, and Jesenia Santana, Program Officer for the Initiative to End Violence Against Girls and Women, about the foundation's vision and funding of the movement.


Ramatu Bangura

FFJ: The last year or couple years have been really the challenging ones in many parts of the country with police accountability and gender and racial justice. As you've tried to grapple with everything that's going on, what have you learned about the role of philanthropy in this work? 

Ramatu: Jesenia and I came into our roles as Program Officers coming from working as advocates and activists.  While we’ve had an opportunity to help shape NoVo’s response to this current moment, NoVo has since its inception been a funder that both invests in and is in invested in movement building. Therefore, I don’t see a drastic change or uptick in that commitment. Instead, our work has been trying to figure out how to respond to this very particular moment—figuring out what our role should be in dialogue and community with both our existing partners and new and emerging work. Our role is not to take up space better suited to activists, but to figure out ideologically and logistically how we get the resources to folks, how we remain open to dialogue and conversation, how we respond rapidly, and how we influence our sector to do better.

Jesenia Santana

Jesenia: A couple of things—our partners have always told us that the way that change that can happen is for philanthropy to support people on the ground to do base-building and organizing work, provide long-term and flexible support, make sure that groups have what they need to build and sustain their capacity to respond to these kinds of moments and acts of resistance.

R: As a sector, we must continue to question ourselves in terms of how we silo work. By necessity, the power of movements in the current moment is that the work is both intersectional and inter-related. We hope to challenge ourselves to reflect that back to our partners by continuously examining how we do our work.

FFJ: It sounds you have to move, in some ways, out of your comfort zone, and building on what you'd done, but maybe moving a little bit faster and getting out there and asking a little bit more.

J: It’s actually not been a huge leap. An intersectional analysis, flexible and long-term funding is our comfort zone. Our question is more about how we can all work together to influence philanthropy as a whole to think more holistically about how it funds across movements. We continue to engage with the philanthropic sector to act on that question. 

FFJ: What do you see as the place to begin? Where does the community have the leverage to begin to change all the things that need to be changed? Is there a logical place to start?

J: We believe the place to begin is with women and girls. Women and girls are already leading movements for change both visibly and invisibly, even as the gendered way that they experience violence may go unaddressed. However, when movements are able to recognize violence against women and girls-- you get insights into the way in which patriarchy, hierarchy, imperialism works. Without addressing all the levels at which people experience violence—both structural and interpersonal—you miss opportunities to address the roots causes that lead to this violence at a systems level as well as within families and communities...

Centering the most impacted is the way in which we can support community working toward systemic change. Obviously we don’t create movements, but we can support the vision for a social change and create conditions that support the activists leading this work. Again, our challenge is how do we best support and move resources to the base that’s already mobilizing? Our approach is to support movement-building and capacity-building, so that they can strategize with each other and share resources with each other. How we can use philanthropic resources to deliberately create spaces to reflect, imagine new realities, collaborate and build solidarity across movements. 

FFJ: Why did you join Funders for Justice and what is the benefit to you, being part of this group?

R: I came to FFJ through the calls, it was a really great space to hear what was going on right away, to connect with other funders who are really interested in learning if we’re really trying to understand how we should respond.  It was a really great place for us to connect to movement leaders to understand what’s needed. As an institution, we have an eye towards the field and community-based work, and also an eye towards the funding world, and in particular towards supporting women and girls.  We are also interested in learning how other funders are showing up in the work. Being able to see where there might have been gaps, we could really raise issues within the funding community in terms of women and girls. Where there were places we could plug into and lend our particular perspective, and I think that was crucial in determining our work.

FFJ: As you have those national conversations, is there a consensus forming around the philanthropic response to police accountability as it relates to gender and racial justice?

J: We see growing attention to addressing the rights of incarcerated women and girls within the philanthropic sector but there is still a huge gap in centering gender justice within the overall criminal legal system reform and anti-mass incarceration conversations that this sector is having. Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and girls are pushing us all to ensure that when we are working to address police accountability, that we are not forgetting the specific and particular ways in which arrest and incarceration impacts women and girls—and its because of their activism that I am hopeful that the philanthropic sector will incorporate a gender justice framework to this issue. 

FFJ: Let's talk about divest-invest/community control of the police. In particular, your support of general community self-determination efforts that are rooted in gender justice and transformation of systems.

R: NoVo supports Freedom, Inc. as part of our Adolescent Girls Rights portfolio. We came to learn about Freedom, Inc. because they were generous enough to share their perspective on the field for girls and young women of color in the U.S. as we build our strategy for that work. As we continued that conversation with M and Kabzuag, we were excited by how Freedom, Inc.’s analysis beautifully weaves together a gender, racial and youth justice lens, with a focus on the intersections of state and interpersonal violence. Their work challenges patriarchy, imperialism, xenophobia, racism, sexism, and hetero-normativity while being intentional about providing substantive opportunities for girls and young women to participate in, learn from, and lead campaigns to structurally address the injustices they experience. 

Freedom, Inc. is not only doing the work, they are theorizing and creating knowledge about the movement from within the movement and that is powerful. From our conversations, we learned about the thoughtful way that M and Kabzuag both support Black and Hmong communities to build strong work in their own communities but how they continue to do the introspective and risky hard work of building solidarity across racial and ethnic difference in Black and Hmong communities.

J: I came in right as the Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families report [co-authored by the Ella Baker Center and Forward Together] came out. It highlights the ways in which women and girls have a specific and different experience both around having been incarcerated and around being in communities where people have been incarcerated. The particular burdens and challenges that they face as someone who’s home and caring for the family’s needs when someone’s been incarcerated.  We need to talk more about who pays when the women are home and are care-taking, are trying to make visits happen, are trying to hold provide emotional support for their incarcerated loved ones as well as the family waiting for them to come home.. When we think through who is paying for the cost of incarcerating millions of people in the United States, the answer is society pays—and women and children hold the largest cost. We’re paying upwards of $80 billion a year to incarcerate people. Is that really the best use of taxpayer dollars? Lets have a country that invests in education, housing and communities. How do we stop criminalizing poverty? The report did so much to amplify these conversations.

FFJ: What is it going to take to change philanthropy? Philanthropy has a pretty strong culture and, as you said, doesn’t always fund the intersectional, movement-oriented, or nimble work. 

J: First, philanthropy needs to trust more that the people on the ground doing the work know what they’re doing and know how to use the resources. Second, it needs to be in relationship with partners, where we can all vision together towards the world we want. We need to be willing to ask: What does it mean for us to also be transformational? How can we push ourselves to look towards a larger vision; not just to how things may be different in the next two years? I think a large part of this is about letting go of power—transformational work simply won’t happen without that. Philanthropy will also have to be open to experimentation and risk; in order to support transformational work, we have to embrace experimentation.