Is Democracy Funding Undemocratic? Funding Civic Engagement in an Era of Protest

By Austin Belali Nonprofit Quarterly - March 22, 2016 This piece is part of our ongoing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Project created to spotlight millennials’ voices and thoughts on diversity and justice. We urge you to read how this project came together in collaboration between NPQ and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network and about the ideology behind this series. We intend to publish another 20 pieces in the upcoming months. Readers will be able to subscribe to an RSS feed to follow articles as they are published, approximately every two weeks. NPQ and YNPN will be using the hashtag #EDISeries, so post about the series along with us. To stay informed of the project, we also encourage readers to sign up for our daily newsletter, on the right side of this page. If you have any questions or would like more information about the EDI Project, please e-mail shafaq@npqmag.org
“What we are trying to do is build a democracy,” said Baltimore organizer Tre Murphy to television news crews moments after a sit-in protest at Baltimore’s City Hall. Murphy and fifteen others were arrested at City Hall protesting the death of twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray, allegedly at the hands of Baltimore police.1 The deaths of Freddie Gray and other unarmed black youth sparked a national yet localized movement that has recruited scores of previously unmobilized young people from underrepresented communities into the policy-making process for the first time. Social justice organizers across the country are activating underrepresented citizens who are the hardest to reach by political campaigns or formal institutions. Using trusted messages and messengers from the communities in which they live, these organizers use traditional civic engagement tactics like voter registration, mobilization, and democracy reform. The United States is on the verge of an upsurge in democratic participation in cities and communities across the country, but will traditional civic engagement funders take notice? Young and emerging movement organizers like Tre Murphy and so many others are absent from the grantee lists of major democracy and civic engagement funders, despite their embodiment of the ideals and practices of democracy in their quest for change. The generation of leaders emerging in this still-young century has yet to become the new face of the mainstream civic engagement community. While the leaders of what could be described as a twenty-first-century movement for inclusive democracy are largely women and people of color, civic engagement philanthropy and the organizational leadership it supports is stubbornly the opposite. If our grantmaking had proven particularly effective at rescuing U.S. democracy from restrictions on voting rights, assaults on campaign finance laws, and partisan redistricting in recent years, then perhaps the lack of inclusion of young and diverse movement leaders would seem less unacceptable, but most of us recognize that the movement leaders and social justice organizations they represent may very well be the missing ingredient essential for bringing America’s democratic practices closer to our stated ideals. Despite the obvious strategic value in harnessing the energy of social justice movements, there are reasons why funders have been slow to support them. Several prominent civic engagement funders share an unspoken worldview that younger Americans and underrepresented communities participate in civic life at lower rates than others because of personal apathy rather than structural barriers deterring their participation. The foundational belief among some funders that nonvoters do not participate simply because they lack a sense of civic responsibility or are ignorant of the process is akin to the framing in economic policy debates that poor people should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” On the other hand, social justice organizations like the Advancement Project have rightly acknowledged how the efforts of extremists to undermine the right to vote, coupled with the outsized voice of moneyed interests and the lack of accountability by governing institutions, have largely contributed to current levels of low participation.2 There is quantitative—if limited—evidence for both explanations (individual and structural) of civic inequality in America to justify these deeply held beliefs about nonparticipation. This worldview governing institutional and individual donors’ conclusions about why marginalized communities are participating less than other groups has very real consequences with respect to how decisions are made about which groups and what strategies get funded. Many civic engagement and pro-democracy funders also have an incomplete interpretation of American history that understates the importance of social justice in achieving democratic outcomes. The United States was, paradoxically, founded on both democratic ideals and the racist institution of slavery. While formal democratic processes in American history have been about checks and balances, the separation of powers, and protecting civil liberties, democracy has also been the terrain of struggle for social progress and inclusion by those at the margins of our society. Social justice, therefore, is a precondition for achieving full participation and healthy democratic practice in the United States. There is perhaps no greater example of this than the African-American struggle for democracy and inclusion and the demand for an end to racially motivated disenfranchisement. Too many civic engagement funders have ignored the complicated racial history of the United States and the role that racial hierarchies continue to play in creating current patterns of political inequality among underrepresented communities. The funding community that supports a movement for strengthened democracy and the funding community that supports the movement for racial and social justice exist separately from one another, despite the fact that, as Manning Marable points out in his article “Structural Racism and American Democracy,” in assisting “the development of community-based initiatives that have the capacity to educate and mobilize those who suffer from racial oppression…we may make an important contribution toward the reconfiguration of American democracy itself .”3 The issue of race and racism in American is polarizing, so it is likely that the conflict aversion of some civic engagement funders and their boards makes it difficult to support social justice as a core strategy toward strengthened democratic ideals, institutions, and practices. But an evidence-based approach to grantmaking would acknowledge that social justice issues like criminal justice reform or gender justice can be key motivators for civic and political engagement. For example, we know that among young voters, issues are stronger motivators of participation than candidates, which speaks to one possible reason why social justice organizations are so effective at mobilizing young people to participate.4 While the private sector is beginning to innovate with forms of patient capital, where investors are willing to sacrifice short-term returns for a bigger payoff down the road, civic engagement funding—even of the nonpartisan sort—maps closely to boom-and-bust electoral cycles. Funders often feel pressured to report immediate success over a twelve-month or eighteen-month grant period. This makes it difficult to measure returns on funding aimed at building the core civic engagement capacities of social justice organizations. As Alice Walker once said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Capacity building in underrepresented communities, including African Americans, immigrants, LGBTQ, and low-income whites in rural areas, requires year-round funding support that stretches beyond the boom-and-bust cycle of elections. Rather than funding the capacity of trusted, local community-based organizations, a disproportionate amount of grantmaking dollars flows to short-term voter registration and mobilization efforts. In North Carolina, the Southern Vision Alliance, an exciting collaboration of youth and student organizations with a track record of success, struggles to secure general operating support, even in a swing state. Voting is a form of binding, empowered decision-making that can have the effect of increasing confidence among underrepresented communities that their participation can make a difference. Creating a culture of voting and democratic participation in underrepresented communities requires investments in year-round advocacy and organizing capacity of groups, like the Southern Vision Alliance, whose primary issues may not be democracy reform or voting rights. The kinds of organizations that engage marginalized communities on a year-round basis are often groups with a larger social-justice-related mission in which voter registration, mobilization, and democracy reform are only strategies for reaching larger goals; direct action may be another among them. For example, United We Dream, an undocumented immigrant youth organization, is using civic engagement as a tactic even though the members themselves cannot vote. The organization is also known for using more disruptive tactics, such as sit-ins and civic disobedience, toward the same aim. A fundamental shift in the amount of people who feel their civic or political participation will make a difference requires flexible grantmaking from funders that allows room for multiple tactics and strategies to exist at the same time. The shift also requires resource commitments to support leadership development and, dare I say, community organizing beyond the boom-and-bust cycle of elections. This reinforces the importance of civic engagement and democracy funding for states like Arizona or Georgia that do not benefit from the influx of resources into battleground states. The structures of exclusion and inequality that weaken the strength of U.S. democracy were built over long periods of time, and it will take patient, place-based funding that includes social justice organizations to overturn them. Recently, a wave of new funders from Silicon Valley, like those at Open Philanthropy, have tiptoed into the world of philanthropic giving for the first time, supporting community-based organizations that have a social justice frame to catalyze the impact of their giving. Despite valid concerns about their growing influence, these younger funders have shown a willingness to invest their resources in groups that are multi-issue, employ multiple tactics to reach their goals, and have leadership that reflects the diversity of the current movement moment. Civic engagement and democracy funders must likewise recognize that our grantmaking can have a larger impact by being nimble, collaborative, and more patient about our investments in systemic change. Rather than risk backlash from influential donors or appear too committed to one side of a debate, funders may be tempted to steer clear of supporting organizations that appear to take positions on controversial issues like police accountability or fair wages for immigrant farmworkers. There are even some institutional civic engagement donors who may be afraid to be caught at the same meetings as key movement leaders for fear of jeopardizing their nonpartisan status. But this risk-averse approach, unlike that taken by Open Philanthropy and others, is unlikely to yield big results over time. By not supporting the most vibrant social justice organizations in the country, which can bring new insight and perspectives to our grantmaking, civic engagement funders may be quietly working against their own goals. Of course, this is not the first time that funders concerned with the strength of U.S. democracy have had to choose sides and take risks. When volunteers worked in Mississippi to register black voters for the first time, they faced economic reprisals from the Southern power structure.5 Many community leaders lost their jobs and their land. But foundations provided critical funding to scale up voter mobilization campaigns in the Deep South, like those that supported the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. Civic engagement funding does not have to be partisan to support organizations that take a public stance on what may be politically charged issues. By funding the intersections between social justice and democracy, a growing number of forward-thinking civic engagement and democracy funders are addressing the root causes of the civic empowerment gap in underrepresented communities that have been ignored for far too long. At the October 2015 Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP), which focused on harnessing the power of social movements for democratic revival in the United States, Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance, said, “I believe I was so wrong to erect a wall, in our funding at Open Society some years ago, between criminal justice and democracy work. I don’t think that distinction, however misguided it may have been in the past, can be maintained any longer in the wake of Ferguson and similar events, where we have seen the close interplay of political exclusion—the kind of American apartheid in which majority Black communities are governed and policed by whites, financing the mechanisms of their own oppression through fees and fines—and violence.”6 The reasons underrepresented communities do not vote and disproportionately face barriers to equal voice in this society are directly tied to mindsets, structures, and behaviors that disadvantage them in all other facets of life (economic exclusion, discrimination, et cetera).7 The institutional silos that prevent grantmakers from seeing the interconnectedness between forms of social injustice and democratic participation only make us less effective in the long run. The Youth Engagement Fund (YEF) is supporting research on a variety of topics that can be studied experimentally, which could aid in introducing more funders to the work of social justice organizations improving civic and political participation over time. Other civic engagement funders associated with the FCCP are beginning to explore best practices on more integrated approaches to voter engagement, to include issue-based education and registration.8 These integrated approaches that lead with social justice issues require more research but are likely to inspire greater participation among younger Americans and move them to action. Ultimately, no amount of research can replace an honest accounting of our nation’s history, an ability to see the structural barriers to participation among underrepresented groups, and a willingness to fund real change patiently over time for larger impact. Democracy in America was not given to us from on high but was born of struggles of ordinary people staking their claim on the promise of liberty and justice for all. In the face of rising political inequality, voter suppression, and the outsized influence of money in our political system, philanthropy must choose a side. A truly democratic society is a just one. Notes
  1. Message from the #CityBloc #CityHallShutDown,” YouTube video, October 14, 2015.
  2. A Universal Right to Vote,” The Opinion Pages, New York Times, March 11, 2013.
  3. Manning Marable, Structural Racism and American Democracy: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), “Racism and Public Policy” conference paper, September 3–5, 2001.
  4. CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement), Tufts University, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, “2014 Youth Turnout and Youth Registration Rates Lowest Ever Recorded; Changes Essential in 2016.”
  5. Wesley C. Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
  6. Gara LaMarche, “Control, Disruption and Democracy: Philanthropy’s Role in Inclusive Civic Engagement.” (Adapted from unpublished October 6, 2015 keynote speech at the Funders Committee for Civic Participation [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][FCCP] conference in Washington, D.C. Note: the quoted text does not appear in the adapted version.)
  7. Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady, The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).
  8. Integrated Voter Engagement: A Proven Model to Increase Civic Engagement,” Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP), 2009.
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January 13, 2021

Discount Foundation Legacy Award

The nominations are now open for the 2021 Discount Foundation Legacy Award!

The Discount Legacy Award annually identifies, supports and celebrates an individual who has demonstrated outstanding leadership and contributed significantly to workers’ rights movements in the United States and/or globally. Through public recognition and a $20,000 stipend, we hope to recognize and amplify the work of individuals at the intersections leading the way toward justice for low-wage workers of color. This is a one of a kind opportunity to recognize the often unheard voices of worker movements - that includes volunteers, members, workplace leaders, and more who are transforming the lives and rights of their fellow low-wage workers of color. 

To be eligible for the Award, a nominee must be active in worker justice, including but not limited to organizing and advocacy-related work. Additionally, nominees do not have to be employed at an organization or institution whose mission is to advance worker justice – they can be volunteers, members or other leaders at an organization or workplace organizing effort. We will not be asking questions regarding immigration or other legal status, and nominees do not have to reside in the US.

Nominees need to be nominated by someone other than themselves, through a simple, quick and accessible application process found here. The Award is meant only for individuals. Organizations, groups of individuals or institutions are not eligible for consideration. If you know anyone who you think should be recognized for their significant commitment to worker justice at any level - from a workplace to the neighborhood to the nation -  this is your chance to provide them a powerful boost and real resources they can use in whatever way they choose! 

In addition to being publicly recognized for their remarkable contributions to the movement, the 2021 Discount Foundation Legacy Award winner will receive a $20,000 stipend to provide them with the flexibility to expand upon their professional activities and achievements They will not be asked for any reporting requirements, and the funding has no specific strings attached or other specific obligations. The winner of the 2021 Discount Foundation Legacy Award will be invited to be honored at a virtual event in 2021. To learn more about the eligibility requirements and nomination process, please see our FAQs here — and please spread the word about this opportunity to your networks, colleagues and friends!

All nominations must be received by 11:59pm ET on March 11th, 2021 through the online nomination form. We’re happy to help answer questions about the award, or support with any trouble you have with the application — please reach out to emily@jwj.org.

Created in partnership with Jobs With Justice Education Fund and the Neighborhood Funders Group’s Funders for a Just Economy, the Discount Foundation Legacy Award was launched in 2015 to commemorate and carry on the legacy of the Foundation’s decades-long history of supporting leading edge organizing in the worker justice arena beyond its spend down as a foundation in 2014.
 



 

Convocatoria de nominaciones para el premio Discount Foundation Legacy 2021 

¡Ya están abiertas las nominaciones para el Premio Discount Foundation Legacy 2021!

 

El Premio Discount Legacy identifica, apoya y celebra anualmente a una persona que ha demostrado un liderazgo sobresaliente y ha contribuido significativamente a los movimientos por los derechos de los trabajadores en los Estados Unidos o en todo el mundo. A través del reconocimiento público y un estipendio de $20,000, esperamos reconocer y ampliar el trabajo de las personas en las intersecciones que lideran el camino hacia la justicia para los trabajadores de color con salarios bajos. Esta es una oportunidad única para reconocer las voces a menudo inauditas de los movimientos de trabajadores, que incluyen voluntarios, miembros, líderes en el lugar de trabajo y más que están transformando las vidas y los derechos de sus compañeros trabajadores de color con salarios bajos. 

 

Para ser elegible para el premio, un nominado debe ser activo en la justicia laboral, lo que incluye, pero no se limita, a la organización y el trabajo relacionado con la defensa. Además, los nominados no tienen que estar empleados en una organización o institución cuya misión sea promover la justicia laboral; pueden ser voluntarios, miembros u otros líderes en una organización o esfuerzo de organización en el lugar de trabajo.  No haremos preguntas sobre inmigración u otro estado legal, y los nominados no tienen que residir en los EE. UU.

 

Los nominados deben ser nominados por alguien que no sea ellos mismos, a través de un proceso de solicitud simple, rápido y accesible que se encuentra aquí. El premio está destinado únicamente a individuos. No se tomará en cuenta a las organizaciones, los grupos de personas o las instituciones. Si conoce a alguien que crea que debería ser reconocido por su importante compromiso con la justicia laboral en cualquier nivel, desde el lugar de trabajo hasta el vecindario y la nación, esta es su oportunidad de brindarle un impulso poderoso y recursos reales que puede usar de la manera que elija. 

 

Además del reconocimiento público por sus notables contribuciones al movimiento, el ganador del Premio Discount Foundation Legacy 2021 recibirá un estipendio de $20,000 para brindar la flexibilidad de expandir sus actividades y logros profesionales. No se le pedirá ningún requisito de presentación de informes y la financiación no tiene condiciones ni obligaciones específicas. Se invitará al ganador del Premio Discount Foundation Legacy 2021 a un homenaje en un evento virtual en 2021. Para obtener más información sobre los requisitos de elegibilidad y el proceso de nominación, consulte nuestras preguntas frecuentes aquí y haga correr la voz sobre esta oportunidad en sus redes y entre compañeros y amigos. 

 

Todas las nominaciones deben recibirse antes de las 11:59 p. m. ET del 11 de marzo de 2021 a través del formulario de nominación en línea. Nos complace ayudar a responder preguntas sobre el premio o brindar asistencia con cualquier problema que tenga con la solicitud, envíe un correo electrónico a emily@jwj.org.

 

Creado en asociación con Jobs With Justice Education Fund y los Funders for a Just Economy del Neighborhood Funders Group, el Premio Discount Foundation Legacy se lanzó en 2015 para celebrar y continuar el legado de décadas de historia de la Fundación de apoyar la organización de vanguardia en el campo de la justicia laboral más allá del exceso de gastos como fundación en 2014. 

 

 



 

2020 Awardee:

Andrea Dehlendorf

Co-Executive Director of United for Respect

Andrea DehlendorfAndrea Dehlendorf is Co-Executive Director of United for Respect, a national organization building power for people working in low wage jobs by centering their voices, experiences and solutions in the national movement fighting for the future of work, our economy and corporate regulation. With Andrea’s fierce leadership, United for Respect organizes people employed at the country’s largest employers to amplify their demands on corporate leaders in the service economy and policymakers to provide family-sustaining jobs. United for Respect leverages technology — social media and a new digital platform, WorkIt — to support people working in retail by bringing them into communities of support and action with one another. Through online peer networks and on-the-ground base-building strategies, United for Respect scaffolds the leadership and stories of working people to advocate for solutions to the pressing needs of the country’s massive low-wage workforce.

Andrea’s roots in the movement go deep, and include seminal experiences winning major victories with people working in the most unstable and precarious low wage service jobs, from janitors to hotel workers. Prior to United for Respect, Andrea worked on some the labor movements most innovating campaigns including Justice for Janitors, Airport Workers United and hotel worker organizing in Las Vegas. She lives in Oakland, CA with her twelve year old son.

Learn about United for Respect.


 

2019 Awardee:

Odessa Kelly

Co-Chair of Stand Up Nashville

Odessa KellyA native of Nashville, Odessa Kelly works diligently to bring positive and equitable change to the Nashville community by serving as co-chair for Stand Up Nashville, a coalition of community-based organizations and labor unions that represent the working people of Nashville who have seen our city transformed by development, but have not shared in the benefits of that growth. She also serves as Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH), Economic Equity & Jobs task force chair. Her work with NOAH has included building one of the largest and most powerful social justice movements in Nashville. She has advocated for the working class and underserved communities in Nashville, issues ranging from affordable housing to establishing the first ever Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) in the state of Tennessee. She believes that Nashville has the potential to achieve a progressive paradigm shift -- a cultural shift in how a traditional southern city becomes a leader in the progressive movement across the country.

Learn about Stand Up Nashville.


 

2018 Awardee:

Enrique Balcazar

Community Organizer and Leader at Migrant Justice

Enrique "Kike" Balcazar immigrated to the United States from Tabasco, Mexico when he was 17 years old. He joined his parents on a dairy farm in rural Vermont and worked for years on farms across the state. Enrique joined Migrant Justice and became a leader in the successful campaign to expand access to driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants in Vermont. He became part of the organization's Farmworker Coordinating Committee and is now an organizer and spokesperson. Enrique is one of the principal architects of Milk with Dignity, a worker-led program securing human rights and economic justice in dairy supply chains. In 2017, during a national campaign calling on Ben & Jerry's to join the program, Enrique and fellow organizer Zully Palacios were arrested by ICE agents while leaving the Migrant Justice office. A wave of protests won their release from detention, though Enrique remains in deportation proceedings. Despite the government's persecution, Enrique continued to lead the Milk with Dignity campaign to victory, signing a historic contract with Ben & Jerry's in October, 2017. 

Learn about Migrant Justice.


 

2017 Awardee:

Luna Ranjit

Co-founder of Adhikaar and the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition

Luna Ranjit’s work is rooted in the community. For more than a decade, Luna guided Adhikaar's programs, research, policy advocacy, and partnerships, building visibility and power for the emerging Nepali-speaking immigrant community. As a co-founder of the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition, she helped lead the way for the sweeping changes to improve working conditions in the nail salon industry. She also served on the advisory board of the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salons Alliance. Luna has been quoted and featured in print and broadcast media on the issues related to workers’ rights, immigrant rights, language justice, and civic engagement. Her groundbreaking work has been recognized by many community organizations and elected officials. In 2016, she received the Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize created to support and inspire innovative social change makers throughout the world.

Learn more about Adhikaar.


 

2016 Awardee:

Alfred Marshall

Organizer with the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice

As an organizer in New Orleans, Alfred works to win back power for structurally unemployed and underemployed Black men and women through campaigns to achieve higher wages and better standards in his community. Through Alfred’s tremendous organizing campaigns, he has helped win local hiring on post-Katrina public construction and development projects, a “Ban the Box” rule, and a living wage and paid sick leave ordinance for individuals employed under city contracts. “By sitting down and talking with other workers at the New Orleans Worker Center, I realized that we’re in this together,” Alfred said. “New Orleans won’t stop. I won’t stop. This award is bigger than I am. It’s all about doing the work on the ground. We’re shaking this world up."

Learn more about the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice.

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December 17, 2020

Strike Watch 2020 Review: Defund the Police to Build Worker Power

By Manisha Vaze, Director, NFG Funders for a Just Economy

As we close this year, it’s probably safe to assume that you, like me, are emotionally and physically exhausted. The never-ending tragedy of this year’s global pandemic, the job loss, the deep inequality of the economic and health systems, and the new exposure for many Americans to systemic racial injustice, racial terror, and state violence overlayed our own personal losses and struggles. For me, while my partner and I were lucky enough to keep our jobs, it included family and friends who had COVID-19, a family member killed by the police, and much time away from our loved ones. I’m really ready for a winter break.

Prior to joining NFG, I organized alongside immigrant families facing deportation in New York City and with chronically un- and underemployed people in South Los Angeles. My political education is rooted in the organizing I was involved in as a student in the early 2000s, and movement responses to 9/11 shaped my experiences of centering Black and Indigenous communities in our fight against surveillance and violence against Arab, South Asian, and Muslim communities. We organized to address the continued consolidation of corporate power, surveillance technology and data control, as well as new austerity policies, unimaginable (at the time) job loss. We confronted radically accelerated separation of families, detention, and deportation of migrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and hand-in-hand with police. I learned to listen to people, dream big, demand what we actually need (not just what is winnable), and build towards that interlocking vision of economic and social justice through strategic and incremental wins and constantly evolving tactics.

Today, as the new US federal administration begins to take shape, some may be content with a collective sigh of relief. However, the organizer in me is asking you to stay vigilant and move resources to where movements are directing us: to organizing, power building, and movements calling to defund the police as a pathway to community and worker justice. We have an enormous opportunity in philanthropy to truly support, through solidarity and resources, the visionary movements that are building power for systemic change. Movement organizers have made significant gains in 2020. The cultural shifts we’ve experienced as a result have unprecedented numbers of people calling for abolition of the police and ICE, supporting unions in new industries, and shifting and expanding public budgets. Organizations have built and formed stronger coalitions, multi-racial, multi-gender, and multi-sectoral movements. And, importantly for our sector, the highly-visible organizing power of community members and workers has moved foundations to understand how philanthropy has supported extreme wealth accumulation and is entrenched in the perpetuation of racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy. Collectively, this has resulted in foundations increasing their investment in organizing and advocacy efforts toward economic and racial justice.

 

To some vocal pundits and media, defunding the police sounds like a new concept born out of the George Floyd uprisings, but it is a decades-old call to action, voiced by Black feminist leaders and those most impacted by police violence. Visionary movements that have been calling for defunding the police see how this strategy releases revenue that can be invested into infrastructure, social protections, housing, worker protections, and other community needs. Upending the power of police unions, not just “reforming” them, will allow more opportunities for strategic campaigns that realign public budgets and real community safety to meet the community’s needs and the goals of philanthropy’s investments in economic justice and equity.

Furthermore, defunding the police, ICE and violent surveillance forces offers an opportunity to align with workers expanding the labor movement. Police unions have since their inception had contentious relationships to workers calling for better working conditions, safety nets, and social protections. The expansion of policing in the late 19th century was precisely to bust labor organizing during work stoppages and strikes. In the last decades, we have seen countless examples of employers using immigration (now ICE) raids to threaten workers who attempt to organize. The labor movement has long recognized the antagonistic role police played on the picket line, and chose not to build with their unions. And the reality is that while some police unions are part of these institutional labor structures, most police associations are not – maintaining a business association 501(c)(6) status instead of a tradition labor union status or 501(c)(5).

If we’re serious about worker power and contesting for governing power in the US it’s important to recognize how the police and carceral systems hamstring the movement’s ability to make strategic and progressive policy gains. Their outsized power influences public budgets, dictates narratives about community safety, and render them immune to scrutiny and accountability. All of this leaves community members and workers who organize to increase funding for public schools, transportation, job quality, healthcare and other needs, fighting for scraps. The good news is, the decision to prioritize criminalization over community care and economic development is a relatively new one, borne of decades interlocking efforts to shift public narrative, policy and power. This orientation is by no means inevitable, and can be countered by a concerted, long-term power-building effort that includes partnership from philanthropy.

At NFG’s Funders for a Just Economy, I am privileged to work with funders who inspire me to think differently about philanthropic work and grant making, and have led efforts in our network to understand power, how to shift it to transform communities, and learn how racial capitalism undergirds our economic system and impacts our work in philanthropy. Most recently, FJE interviewed Jidan Terry-Koon, FJE Coordinating Committee member and Director of People pathways at the San Francisco Foundation who shared that if funders truly centered the most marginalized, especially Black and Indigenous workers in their economic justice grantmaking, they would understand the connection between building the power of all workers and shifting funds away from the police and carceral systems. FJE members have also formed deeper partnerships with Funders for Justice (FFJ), now an independent organization, to support movements to divest from the police and the carceral system and invest in community safety, housing, and other public investments.

We need to open ourselves up to a longer arc of change. The leadership of worker movements and coalitions inspires me to envision where we could be in the next twenty years. Learning from FJE’s programming, I know we can move more money for justice. Movement leaders have called for these changes in philanthropy before, and I’m recommending them again. Philanthropy must mobilize to:

  • Make multi-year, general support investments and grants in base building and organizing.
  • Collaborate with other funders to ensure that we’re building community power and supporting local and regional ecosystems.
  • Influence funders to deeply fund organizing efforts that build community and worker power, and especially worker organizations that build power to make impact (in addition to and) beyond their workplaces to support the common good.
  • Fund groups that are building a new transformative economy through alternative wealth building including cooperative models and other small business development.
  • Advocate to increase your yearly grantmaking, and your institutions assets, resources, and influence to support power building and organizing.
  • Learn about your institution’s finances and make adjustments to divest from the criminal and carceral systems and invest in non-extractive industries.
  • Utilize your relationships with allies in organized labor to fund collaborative efforts that build power locally and shift state and federal policy.
  • Continue your own education and build consciousness amongst your colleagues about the history of the mass accumulation of  wealth in philanthropy rom centuries of corporations extracting wealth from enslaved people, people who are incarcerated, workers who are not paid living wages and without any job security or social protections, and a rigged tax system benefiting the wealthy.

We must support the movement’s call to defund the police and abolishing ICE as a pathway to building worker power. This year showed us that, if forced to, funders can move money quickly – let’s not wait until we’re forced to again. As funders of the worker justice movement, we can no longer stay out of this fight. As I count the days until the end of the year, I will be taking time to rest, heal, and get ready. We have much more work to do.

To learn more about how philanthropy can move resources to movement groups calling to defund the police and reimagine community safety, make sure to read and share Funders for Justice’s Divest/Invest online toolkit for funders. To continue to support and build community and worker power and racial, gender, economic and climate justice, stay connected to Rob and me to help advance NFG’s Funders for a Just Economy program.

Photos by Manisha Vaze from Black Lives Matter/Defund the Police protests in Los Angeles, California in Summer 2020.