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.

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“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]

May 9, 2019

Building Power in the Sunshine State: Lessons from FJE’s Florida Learning Tour

In April 2019, NFG's Funders for a Just Economy and Florida Philanthropic Network brought together funders from across the country and community organizing leaders in Florida to explore how diverse communities in the state are building power and political infrastructure for workers’ rights, migrant justice, women’s rights, and more.

Sienna BaskinSienna Baskin, Director of the Anti-Trafficking Fund at NEO Philanthropy, shares her experience from the learning tour. You can follow Sienna at @SiennaBaskin and NEO at@NEOPhilanthropy

Would you be able to come from the frozen Northeast to a resort in Ft. Myers without relishing the feeling of your toes in sandals or the warm bay breezes? I know these were my first impressions as I landed for the Funders for a Just Economy Florida Funder Tour. But as we left the sunshine to enter a darkened conference room, our eyes adjusted to read the first slide: “Racial Capitalism and Resistance in the Sunshine State.” As funders, many of us tourists and outsiders, we were invited in to learn the real story of Florida.

During this introduction to the tour, we learned that the inequities Floridians are suffering were sown in the earliest days of European colonization, and the roots of revolt stretch just as far back. By the 1800’s, Native Seminole communities were a haven for escaped slaves, and some of the largest anti-slavery uprisings were launched from these enclaves. Post-reconstruction, this blossoming of freedom was repressed with an especially brutal reign of the KKK – Florida had the highest number of lynchings per capita of any southern state. Florida also passed the first “Right to Work” law in the nation, disenfranchising African American communities to maintain the status quo, and built the tourism sector with leased convict labor. Considering these challenges, Cuban, Spanish and Italian workers built strong unions and mounted many strikes at cigar-rolling factories. In 1968 it was out of a failed sanitation strike in St. Petersburg that one of the fastest growing multiracial unions in the south — SEIU Florida Public Service Union – was born. And just this week, Florida passed one of the harshest anti-immigrant bills in the country, banning sanctuary cities and requiring local government agencies to cooperate with ICE.

Learning tour participants sit at tables to listen to local community organizers in a colorful room surrounded by posters.

Photos by Arista Collective

This sense of a violent swing from liberation to repression and back again permeated our time in Florida. We met many of the brilliant leaders riding these waves. They had much to teach us. Like the country at large, Florida is almost perfectly balanced between progressive possibility and conservative ideology. Every election is won or lost by 1%, but a Republican stronghold has held onto power. This means organizers must find ways to engage conservatives around shared values, build an alternate narrative powerful enough to contest for governing power and move the apolitical (30% of voters are unaffiliated), or create new systems of accountability and power outside of government.

We heard examples of all of these strategies. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition recently won a ballot initiative to restore voting rights to people with criminal records by connecting with returning citizens, their families, and the wider community around a sense of justice, not by arguing politics. Alliance for Safety and Justice organizes crime victims around criminal justice reform by talking about failures in public safety. The Statewide Alignment Group, an alliance of 7 organizations including Florida Immigration Coalition, Central Florida Jobs with Justice, and Faith in Florida, are building a new electorate through leadership development, community-based popular education, and ballot initiatives, with Medicaid expansion, automatic voter registration and $15 minimum wage in their sights. The Miami Workers Center organizes victims of domestic violence and domestic workers to fight the feminization of poverty with a shared agenda. All aspire to a new definition of civic engagement, where working people are authors of the laws that affect them, an audacious goal in a state that has long repressed workers. This requires not being “prisoners of the moment” as Alphonso Mayfield of the SEIU called it, but seeing where even failure leads to future change, if there is deep collaboration and engagement over years.

Nelly Rodriguez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers speaks to learning tour participants sitting at a table with her.We also visited Immokalee, a town of migrant workers, small bodegas and vast tomato and citrus farms. Around bright oilcloth-covered tables we heard about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' famous human rights program, built to change the slavery-like conditions on industrial farms. By holding the brands at the top of the supply chain accountable for enforcing worker protections and threatening the loss of sales for farm owners if they did not sign up, workers were able to institute higher pay and standards than even the law requires. Surrounded by hand-painted signs from their marches against Wendy’s, Taco Bell and other corporate giants, we saw the potential of this program, born of necessity in one of the most oppressive regions and industries in the country for low-wage workers.

Unfortunately, philanthropy is not always walking with these activists. While Florida is perceived as a wealthy state, we learned that there are almost no social justice funders in Florida, especially for workers or immigrant rights. Many holders of wealth hail from outside of Florida, and think of the state as their vacation or retirement spot, not where they should be giving back. And national funders aren’t always investing in the most impactful ways. Money pours into Florida for disaster response or to swing the state during election years, focused on numbers, not depth or long-term engagement. These kinds of resources may lead to the problem of “burnt turf,” when voters don’t trust that organizers are really working in their best interest. For long term grassroots investment, Florida often falls through the cracks.

Two people on the learning tour sit in a bus looking out onto farm fields.

Photos by Arista Collective

The Contigo Fund showed us one example of how to do things differently. After the massacre of 49 LGBTQ Latinx young people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a combined effort through crowdfunding and traditional philanthropy raised 30 million for the families and survivors, and 3 million more was raised for longer term efforts. The Contigo Fund carried out an assessment to learn how the community identified the conditions they were facing, the gaps in resources, and their hopes and dreams for change. The resulting grants promoted 37 new LGBTQ leaders of color into positions of power, launched new programs for LGBTQ communities in existing organizations, and helped found 11 new organizations led by LGBTQ people of color in central Florida.

Tarell McCraney, writer of the Academy Award-winning “Moonlight,” called Miami “a beautiful nightmare.”  My sense, after soaking in Florida sunsets and hearing from these activists, is that this moniker could apply to the entire state. Florida has suffered many traumas: historical, environmental, collective and individual. It is top in the nation for poverty-wage jobs, has the highest rate of ICE arrests in the country, and was home to half of all US murders of trans people in 2018. But it also has enormous potential, potential Florida activists and organizers can feel. Some of the most brilliant organizing strategies in the country are emerging from this state, out of the urgency of the moment and the creativity of activists overcoming high barriers. These are the strategies we need to turn this whole country around. Marcia Olivo of the Miami Workers Center shared her belief that out of healing can come collective action, and without this action, healing is incomplete. Philanthropy has an opportunity to help move this, and all the other exciting ideas in Florida, to a place of flourishing.

More about the tour: Tour Agenda | Speaker Bios | Attendees List

We are so grateful to the organizations that worked with us on this tour: Alliance for Safety and Justice, Alianza for Progress, Central Florida Jobs with Justice, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Community Justice ProjectContigo Fund, Dream Defenders, Faith in Florida, Fair Food Standards Council, Family Action Network Movement, Farmworkers Association of Florida, Florida Immigrant Coalition, Florida New Majority, Florida Philanthropic Network, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Miami Workers Center, Organize Florida, QLatinx, SEIU Public Services Union of Florida, VIDA Legal Assistance, WeCount!

May 1, 2019

FFJ Advisor Discussion Series: Jenny Arwade

Photo of JennyJenny Arwade, Co-Executive Director of Communities United and FFJ Field Advisor, tells us about current Chicago happenings and the role of healing justice in “building the power necessary to change the conditions in our communities, dismantle structural racism, and address long term healing through transformative change”.

What are some key fights happening in Chicago that you think folks across the country should be watching?

In Chicago, we are coming off of a historic Mayoral run-off election, with voters electing the city’s first Black, Lesbian woman as Mayor. We now have Black women at the helm of our city, county, and occupying a key position in our state as Lieutenant Governor. All eyes are watching to see if this will help our city lead to progressive change, or if the status quo will merely be reinforced through new leadership. What we do know is that all three women have a stated an ongoing commitment to criminal justice and juvenile justice reform, and addressing the cycle of violence through positive investments in communities.

There are several key things to watch for: Under this new leadership, will we start seeing progress towards community justice reinvestment? — a paradigm shift in which public resources are invested in meeting the employment, housing, educational and health needs in communities of color that have been hardest hit by disinvestment, mass incarceration, and immigration enforcement, rather than perpetuating systems that reinforce trauma, violence, and the separation of families. Can we move from a place of winning critical policy changes, and losing others, to having truly transformational change to preserve Chicago as a city that continues to be home to the poor and working class, and where a holistic racial equity agenda is advanced by both communities and our elected leaders?

This may all sound aspirational – but that is the key challenge ahead of us. We need to not only believe it is possible, but recognize that it will only be possible with visionary demands, coming from communities most directly impacted. While having people that represent the identities of our communities is an important aspect of the paradigm shifts we are working towards, we know from history that it is not just who represents us, but the movement for change that is built from the ground up that will make the difference.

Why does Communities United use a Healing Justice Frame? How is Healing Justice central and vital to your work and the work of Communities United?

“We are the solution we need”

Communities United’s Healing Justice frame is centered around the need to decolonize health and wellness. While there is growing attention to the medical benefits of mindfulness, yoga, and other practices that are deeply rooted in the ancestry of people of color, they are also becoming billion dollar industries that in many cases continue to fuel corporate profit, and underscore elitism, cultural appropriation, and a lack of access for communities most directly impacted by trauma.

CU’s approach is grounded in the notion that we all have the capacity to be our own healers, and support the healing and wellness of those around us – that we ARE the solution we need. Breaking it down very simply, our approach to healing justice focuses on the sharing of our stories and our wounds, building a community of support, moving to collective action, and being conscious of our own movement and breath as we build together. We believe that every act of self-love and individual recovery is an act of heroic living. By building a critical mass of individuals who are redefining what investments in communities need to look like, we are building heroic communities. This leads to building the type of power needed to hold public systems accountable and advance change that is truly transformational.

What do you want funders to better understand about the healing justice frame?

We believe that a healing justice frame creates a pathway for systems change and community change that is transformational. Through our work with mental health professionals, we have broad agreement both that the scope and impact of trauma is so expansive that clinical supports will never be enough, and that there are often no systems available that reflect the cultural dynamics and histories of communities of color. We also have agreement that the critical role of community in supporting the healing process is not widely recognized or valued through traditional systems, even though it can have the most powerful impacts. Healing needs to be broadly accessible, and the reason community plays a vital role is that it is rooted in relationship – our relationship to ourselves, each other, and our understanding of the world around us. We all have the power to be our own healers, and to help each other on the healing process.

Partnerships are also critical in this work. CU partners with organizations that have values and approaches that are aligned with our healing justice frame, such as organizations focused on supporting individuals suffering from addiction along their path to recovery using approaches that include traditional healing practices, and more. These partnerships are critical to bringing the breadth of community wisdom and values-aligned health institutions together to advance our healing justice work.

We are currently working to build movement with our Healing and Justice Transformation framework across communities. Our hope is that the more we all share and make resources accessible, the more this work can grow and become part of the fabric of how communities and institutions are engaging in this work. As we work to decolonize health and wellness, we believe there is a crucial role for mental health professionals, especially those that come from our communities, but that healing and wellness is a movement approach.

How do you understand the political moment that we’re in? What do you think we need to do differently right now?

Healing justice is about building the power necessary to change the conditions in our communities, dismantle structural racism, and address long term healing through transformative change. If we believe that “we are the solution we need,” then we need to trust communities to define our own needs, what makes us well, and not try to fit anything into a box. In this political moment, as in all political moments, we have to look back to our roots. Healing justice is not a new shiny object, but an approach grounded in our ancestry and past movements, and propelled by the vision of our next generation of leaders.