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.

Read the original article in Nonprofit Quarterly.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

September 4, 2020

Strike Watch, Labor Day: Vonda McDaniel on Workers Redefining “Nash-Vegas” and Taking on Power in Tennessee

Earlier this summer, we had the fortune to sit down with Central Labor Council (CLC) of Nashville & Middle Tennessee President Vonda McDaniel. McDaniel gave us key insights – shared in this Strike Watch interview -  into the critical organizing led by food processing workers hard-hit in unsafe meatpacking plants in the region and throughout the US as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened.  But meatpacking is not the only place workers are rising up in the Nashville area – where organizations are redefining Black and migrant-led labor organizing in new and important ways.

As we honor the many essential workers on the front lines of our economy this Labor Day, FJE presents our continued conversation with Council President McDaniel. She shares below about important new organizing across retail, urban development, healthcare and more to ensure the growing “Nash-Vegas” actually works for local communities, especailly as Tennessee sped to re-opening. In partnership with NFG’s Amplify Fund, we will be dialoguing more deeply about groundbreaking work in Nashville in our upcoming Virtual Learning to Nashville September 21-23, 2020. We encourage funders to register here and join us as we meet with Stand Up Nashville and The Equity Alliance, and of course, McDaniel and the CLC – and engage with film, music, and more to get a sense of the critical work in this changing Southern economic hub and its implications for worker power across the US.

There’s been a lot of attention to the South in regards to re-opening and the effects of COVID-19. We’ve talked a bit about the important crisis in meatpacking in central Tennessee. How have workers been responding and organizing in Nashville more broadly?

Nashville has become an East Coast entertainment hub - they call it “Nash-vegas” right?  And so hospitality is really the growth industry in the city, alongside health care.  The hospitality workers, mostly in restaurants and some in hotels, have been organizing. In fact some have started to reached out to Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) and have started a Nashville (Music City) chapter.  As we were reopening the economy, the press wanted to know what restaurant workers were feeling about it. What the workers saw were the dangers, and we've been working with them. [ROC Music City – a Stand Up Nashville partner - has also recently brought to light individual businesses that were hiding COVID-19 exposure, and won protections for workers in these small businesses.] It's really exciting to see the growth opportunity there in terms of organizing.

In health care, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center they didn't have enough staff when COVID hit so the company brought in temporary workers. The workers – the nurses - demanded that they get hazard pay because they saw that the temps were getting paid more. So we've seen collective action there.

In the dollar stores - both Family Dollar and Dollar General - because they cram so much cheap merchandise in the stores, there’s not a lot of room for social distancing. In many cases they're not providing the Personal Protective Equipment. When they bring their own mask we had reports that workers are told not to wear them – even when they're the homemade mask that they bring. Those workers have created a Facebook group and are really beginning to organize here and in other places. They have even reached out to those workers that have unionized In New Orleans to talk about what the differences in are in those stores and what they need to do to get a union in here, in Tennessee. [Dollar General staff in conversation with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655 and speaking out about hazard pay were also targeted for firing by the company.]

One of the big issues in the South (and the Midwest) is the way conservative state governments have sought to stop everything from minimum wages to abortion through their power of pre-emption. How is this playing out in Nashville in this time?

Especially in this moment COVID-19 has presented a lot of challenges for our local government. Because of that there are things that they cannot do like paid sick leave, like property tax freezes. We're in a moment where our economy was based on sales tax which has gone to nothing, and so the revenue streams are just not what they need to be. In order to keep essential services running they have to raise property taxes, but all of the tools that local governments have to try to help in this moment have been stripped by state preemption. We've been preempted over and over again. We tried to pass living wage ordinance. We passed it; it was preempted. We passed on a ballot measure - local hire - so that we could hire local workers on public projects. That was passed by the voters of the county; it was preempted.

Those in state power have been using preemption to prevent cities from being able to do the things that they consider important to help their citizens. So we have a coalition across the state that has come together, that has been trying to run a campaign to put pressure on the governor to use his emergency powers to take action and make sure that at least in this moment that preemption is not an issue. The campaign gives us an opportunity to talk about what preemption is and how it's impacted our ability to help the residents of Nashville. I know it will continue beyond this pandemic and will only become more important to confront.

How do workers fit in the bigger picture of a changing Nashville, and the unprecedented development the city has been experiencing?

Every time you turn on the TV, they say Nashville is a city on the rise. But those in charge have been building it on the cheap. [In a telling incident this June, a 16 year old Latinx worker died falling off a scaffolding, building a new development in Nashville, with no safety harness and questionable safety practices by the company.]

"Every time you turn on the TV, they say Nashville is a city on the rise. But those in charge have been building it on the cheap. "

We have been able to work with our building trades affiliates to create an apprenticeship readiness program to recruit folks out of what they call the “promise zones” and give them the skills necessary to be successful in the federally registered apprenticeship programs and the union apprenticeship programs.  Our Central Labor Council has been a partner with that, and it's been interesting because in building that work, we've created a table that has faith partners working with us. The ecosystem is really coming together, and most of the recruits for our last class came from our faith partners. We've been able to develop relationships with the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship which is the African-American ministers fellowship at Vanderbilt Divinity School. They recruited them out of the churches: the ministers knew they had returning citizens in their congregation that really needed a path to a different life. In reaching the immigrant community we had the Catholic Labor Network which was also really instrumental in helping us to really build a very diverse class also in our Multi-Craft Core Curriculum (MC3) program.

Stand Up Nashville, with the CLC is part of, along with a few of our unions and Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH), have been able to really move on the policy side to increase their presence and power for working families.

How have you resourced this significant growth in labor and community organizing?

You know, it's constant.  We are really trying to organize and build, and we really feel like that in Nashville we have set the table for growth for workers. We're excited about it - we have been trying to build infrastructure here for at least the last six to eight years.

But we find ourselves trying to having to chase funding in order to continue to do the work. The folks that oppose us, they don't have those barriers.  They have sustained funding for long periods of time - it really doesn't even matter whether they're successful and accomplish the benchmarks. We really have not had that kind of investment on our side, so we have to spend a great deal of your capacity right now on that.  Our CLC is in fundraising cycle; the reason is we have staffed up a level. We went from an all-volunteer organization to one with three staff. I mean, that's not a lot, but in order to be able to do and work with the community partners, keep up with what's happening in our local government, cultivate partnerships and organize you know that takes resources – the kind that it is very difficult to find funding for. We continue to look for ways to get investment in the work because we feel like that that, over time, there is definitely a return on that investment. You can see the growth in terms of all of the varied projects that people are working on that are part of our network, particularly in this moment.

Why is it important for those interested in economic justice to pay attention to Nashville at this moment?

You know there's a saying that however the South goes so goes the nation. Whatever is really bad in the South - if we cannot improve it here then eventually, it's going to trickle to the rest of the country. History has shown us that. Folks really should understand that what we do in the South, in terms of organizing, in terms of politics, in terms of all the things that we need to change in the economy - if we can't make change on the issues that matter in the South, then how will me make national change? This is a test ground for what happens across the country. But we are movinig to make that change.

*Photo Credit: Nashville CLC.

FJE’s Strike Watch is a regular blog and media series dedicated to providing insight on the ways in which grassroots movements build worker power through direct action. Our ultimate goal: inform philanthropic action to support worker-led power building and organizing and help bridge conversations among funders, community and research partners. We are grateful and acknowledge the many journalists and organizations that produce the content we link to regularly, and to all our participants in first-hand interviews. Questions on the content or ideas for future content? Reach out to robert@nfg.org

August 4, 2020

A Letter from IRSG Members in Honor of Isabel Arrollo

Dear Friends,

Isabel smiling and reaching up to a fruit tree in an orchard.On May 16, 2020, we lost a fierce, beloved leader in California’s Central Valley, Isabel Arrollo. Isabel was the Executive Director of El Quinto Sol de America, an organization founded by her mother, Irma Medellin, based in Lindsay, California. Isabel’s passion and strong strategic lens helped grow El Quinto Sol into a driving force for change in the Central Valley. From her early teenage years, Isabel worked at her mother’s side, lifting up community voices in local and state decision-making, and supporting residents across Tulare County’s unincorporated communities by connecting youth to arts and cultural work, and uplifting the tools to build civic participation and political power in the community. In recent years, her passion and vision to create an Agroecology Center in the Central Valley has lit a flame — one that we need to keep aglow.

In addition to the collective deep grief and sadness at this time, we are also angry and frustrated by the accumulated conditions of environmental, economic, and racial injustices that facilitated the process of her passing. We understand that extractive systems like industrial agriculture, subsidies that perpetuate land tenureship rooted in the forced migration of peoples and Beings, the exploitation of workers, and the polluting of the water she bathed in and the air she gasped onto holding onto the hope of survival and thriving of her people and their knowledge, are responsible for her illness of Valley fever, her death, and for the displacement of life of her future lineages. This racially targeting phenomenon is a form of prolonged violence, and as allies and co-conspirators in the struggle for justice, we need to show up to defend our neighbors and human relations.

We honor the life labor Isabel held as an organizer and community member, which went far beyond her role as Director at El Quinto Sol. She supported her community every day, and also invited folks outside of the community to witness and learn about the issues that are often invisibilized via the dust of pesticides and toxins, and the shadows of the fields. This included hosting funder tours for our philanthropic community during which she generously extended her energy to educate visitors and allies on the intersection of issue areas, and with great skill found multiple ways to illuminate the work for a wider audience, and moved us toward a tangible transition of wealth and power. She did this even while her health was failing; she did it for the livelihood and wellness of her people and her community.

Losing Isabel is heartbreaking, and our hearts are with her family, her co-workers at EQS, her wide and diverse network of friends and co-conspirators, and the many folks she mentored and stood beside every day, including youth and mixed documentation status farmworker communities. She dedicated her life to protecting the health of our air, water, soil, and peoples. Isabel was a brilliant visionary who helped lead the Community Alliance for Agroecology, and held such beautiful, powerful dreams for transforming the Central Valley’s food and farming systems from the ground up. Isabel will be forever remembered as a fierce advocate and as our caring and thoughtful friend who always made time to listen and offer words of encouragement, joy, and laughter. In this global moment of so much pain, loss and fear, we are called to action to uplift the voice and vision of leaders like Isabel, and carry them forward.

We ask that you seriously and thoughtfully consider these two requests:

  1. Isabel speaking to a group in front of a neighborhood bus stop.Make a contribution at this moment, at whatever level, to the environmental health and justice — and agroecological — organization, El Quinto Sol. The contact there is Olga Marquez, olga@elquintosoldeamerica.org.
  2. Become a funder accomplice in achieving Isabel’s and others’ dreams in the San Joaquin Valley — join us in support of the creation of an Agroecology Training Center, by and for a collective of Latinx and Indigenous farmworking families, Indigenous people from the region, and other family farmers. El Quinto Sol, as well as other groups like the Community Alliance for Agroecology, Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN), Foodlink Tulare County, Quaker Oaks Farm, and Central Valley Partnership are moving forward in their visioning and planning, and seek collaboration with funding partners, especially in this moment.

If you would like to learn more about El Quinto Sol and the Agroecology Training Center, or if you are interested in collaborating with us as we move forward, please reach out to one of us (contacts below).

In the meantime, read inspiring coverage of the work of El Quinto Sol here: https://civileats.com/2019/08/12/this-mother-daughter-team-is-building-new-leaders-in-californias-farm-country/
 

Thank you, and be well,

Paola Diaz (paola@11thhourproject.org)

Marni Rosen (marni@colibrigiving.com)

Sarah Bell (sarah@11thhourproject.org)

Kat Gilje (gilje@cerestrust.org)

Kassandra Hishida (kassandrahishida@allianceforagroecology.org)