FFJ Advisor Discussion Series: Jenny Arwade, Interviewed by Manuela Arciniegas

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FFJ Advisor Discussion Series: Jenny Arwade, Interviewed by Manuela Arciniegas

[caption id=""attachment_70911"" align=""alignleft"" width=""260""] Left to Right: Jenny Arwade, Co-Executive Director at Communities United; Manuela Arciniegas, Associate Program Officer at the Andrus Family Fund.[/caption]

Next up in our discussion series with FFJs Field Advisors, Manuela Arciniegas (Associate Program Officer at the Andrus Family Fund) interviews Jenny Arwade (FFJ Field Advisor and Co-Executive Director of Communities United). Read the interview below to learn more on how Communities United changing the narrative of reinvestment, leading the charge on invest/divest strategies and campaigns, and developing sustainable leadership at the helm of the social justice movement.

What are some of the ways Communities United is providing national leadership in social justice movements?

We’re best known for our work to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, but Communities United (CU) is leading the way on a number of fronts. All of our efforts bend toward holistic racial justice—we recognize that nobody is faced with a single-issue struggle.

CU convenes Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) through which youth of color worked for and won the nation’s most comprehensive statewide school discipline reform, SB100. This new law ends zero tolerance at all publicly-funded schools in Illinois, places stronger standards on the use of exclusionary discipline, and paves the way for restorative practices to take hold. Young people are currently organizing to ensure effective implementation in Black and Brown communities across the state. We’ve also secured ground-breaking policy change to prevent the displacement of renters from foreclosed buildings and preserve those buildings as long-term affordable housing. On healthcare, we’re working to expand access to care for the uninsured and underinsured in Cook County, including young adults, undocumented people, LGBTQ individuals, and the formerly incarcerated.

Several years ago we launched a statewide effort, Reimagine Justice Illinois, through which young people, survivors, and formerly incarcerated individuals have been organizing to advance community-led justice reinvestment efforts. We think it’s deep community investment that leads to transformation.

Can you talk about the recent report you co-authored and how the narrative of reinvestment is taking hold in the social justice movement?

We got a lot of traction with this national report I co-authored with Jim Freeman from the Grassroots Action Support Team, and allies from Padres Y Jovenes Unidos and Make the Road New York. It’s titled “The $3.4 Trillion Mistake: The Cost of Mass Incarceration and Criminalization and How Justice Reinvestment Can Bring a Better Future for All.” It’s been a powerful and motivating tool in communities with policymakers, allies, and all sorts of stakeholders.

Over the past 30 years there was $3.4 trillion in surplus justice spending across police, corrections, judicial/legal, and immigration enforcement. We wrote about what could be done with just one year of surplus justice spending, or $206 billion.

For example, it could have created over 1 million new living-wage jobs; provided 1 million new social workers, psychologists, conflict mediators, mental health drug counselors, and drug treatment counselors to address public health and safety issues; and created a universal pre- school system for all 3- and 4-year olds in the country that would be free for low-income families and affordable for middle class families.

Whether we’ve been talking with young people, faith leaders, or formerly incarcerated individuals, the idea of invest/divest has brought people to tears. The dominant narrative has focused on how communities have suffered chronic disinvestment which is devastating enough. Then to hear how many trillions of dollars have been invested in these same communities to incarcerate, deport, and tear apart families -- it’s even more devastating in a way. But it’s also a game-changer in that it allows people to fight the age-old adage that there isn’t enough money to rejuvenate our communities. People can tangibly feel that the resources are there to fund all the things they want to see in their communities. It adds new energy and resolve to their movements to unlock and reinvest those resources.

The report has also allowed organizers to step back from their work and to hold a broader vision for transformative change, and to see new opportunities for movements to intersect to create the type of power that is needed to effect deep and lasting change.

To build on the release of the report, we have formed the Grassroots Alliance on Justice Reinvestment with our co-authors and with additional groups in Florida including Dream Defenders, Power U Center for Social Change and Community Justice Project. By convening and sharing strategies and narratives across states, we believe we will be able to move the needle on community-led justice reinvestment efforts.

Can you talk about how Communities United’s work on the invest/divest strategy and the recent campaign wins and lessons learned?

Our invest/divest strategies range from pushing for re-allocation of funds from school police into student supports to addressing gun violence in Chicago through a reinvestment lens. One example of recent success is that just a few months ago, young people from Communities United and our VOYCE alliance (Voices of Youth in Chicago Education) came just one vote shy of passing through the Illinois legislature what would have been a nationally groundbreaking policy change. The policy promoted divestment from school police and investment in restorative justice programs and other trauma-informed supports for young people, especially in schools and communities most heavily impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline. This would have been done through the creation of state-level financial incentives and a matching grant program to support schools in making this transition—for example, if schools decided to shift funds away from one school-based police officer, they would get double the funding that was devoted to that position to go toward school psychologists, counselors, or other trauma-informed programming. This would not only stem the school-to-prison pipeline, but would give schools and districts the resources to more effectively address student misbehavior and create positive school climates.

Right as young people were in the middle of bringing this back to Springfield and organizing to win, and the same day that their bill passed through the Illinois House Education Committee, the Parkland tragedy hit. As with other mass school shootings, we knew the collateral consequences could be devastating for communities of color which have been hit with more school police, as well as recent proposals to arm teachers… all in the name of “school safety.” Rather than addressing the root causes of violence, these approaches added rocket fuel to the school-to-prison pipeline.

But tragedies sometimes spark movements, and youth of color are refusing to allow the Parkland tragedy to have the same outcomes. Young people in our communities have been uniting and building movement with young people from Parkland and across the country. They are determined to continue forward movement on shifting resources from approaches that criminalize into approaches that restore and support young people.

Recently CU youth interacted with Parkland youth. Can you talk about what supports and knowledge CU youth were able to provide that you find is integral to changing the national conversation on youth and gun violence?

After the Parkland tragedy, young people from Communities United had the opportunity to travel to Parkland and meet with survivors from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and share their common yet unique struggles with gun violence. They felt an instant connection because of the tragedies they have faced with gun violence and the loved ones lost.

In the words of youth leader Alex King, ""When I saw what happened, it automatically hurt me as well as it hurt the Parkland students, because no one should be lost, especially in a place, an environment where you think that you should be the safest—in school.""

In the midst of the launch of March 4 Our Lives, CU youth joined with youth from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. to launch the Good Kids Mad City (#Goodkidsmadcity) movement to demand investments in youth employment, mental health resources, and trauma-informed schools to address root causes of gun violence and a youth vision for school safety in solidarity with the demands for gun control emerging from Parkland. These demands were not new, building off years of past organizing by young people around these issues, but the current moment provided a critical opportunity to elevate this platform and bring more people into the movement.

One of our youth leaders, Alex King, went on to be one of the speakers at the March 4 Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., speaking to over a million people present about the need to come together as family as the movement continues. ""Our pain makes us family. Us hurting together brings us closer together to fight for something better."" Sharing his experience losing his nephew to gun violence, and the trauma young people of color face on a daily basis in cities like Chicago, he shared the need to act with urgency to address gun violence as it impacts youth of color in cities across the country.

At the Chicago rally, CU leader Amina Henderson-Redwan was the closing speaker of the day, sharing her experience organizing fellow students to bring about reinvestment and resources to end gun violence. She shared the story of losing her father when she was nine years old, and again losing a loved one in February of this year. She reminded the crowd of over 80,000 people that youth in Chicago’s neighborhoods “have lost so many people that we can’t even count them anymore.” With 22 young people having been shot per month between September 2011 to April 2018, she demanded that solutions to gun violence in Chicago must go beyond gun control, but be rooted in strategies that invest in people rather than continuing the cycle of incarceration that has failed to create safer communities.

Recently, Alex King authored an Op-Ed featured in Teen Vogue, in response to the calls to “harden” schools. In his Op-ed, Alex brings to light how zero-tolerance policies have not resulted in safer schools or communities, and emphasizes the need for investment in education, employment, mental health as solutions to violence.

Can you share your insights on what it takes to develop sustainable, powerful leadership at the helm of the social justice movement? Are there any reflections that are particular to your leadership development among youth of color? Among women? Around your own leadership? How can funders support?

Providing long-term general operating support is by far the most powerful way to develop sustainable powerful leadership at the helm of social justice movements, and this is true especially when we are talking about women, youth of color, and I’ve seen the impact in my own development. When foundations have given large grants over long periods of time with minimal reporting requirements it is a game changer. It allows us to really focus on building the types of movement and power that are necessary to change conditions in our communities. It allows us to take a leap of faith to organize toward a vision that we are often told is unachievable.

The times that I felt most supported as a woman of color in this work have been when I’ve gotten calls out of the blue by funders I am in partnership with who have believed in our work and organizing so much that they have made deep investments that we didn’t even ask for. When a funder is in such true partnership with us that they so intimately understand our vision and what we are fighting for, and what the resources are that are needed to get there—that is powerful. That is transformational.

As women of color, our commitment is to collective leadership. It’s about having vision, but it’s about getting the job done—whether it’s in our day-to-day lives, as mothers, or in the movement. Allies in philanthropy play a critical role in supporting our leadership in the field, but also in being a part of that collective of people that at the end of the day helps to magnify and be a part of the demand for change to the point that we see real changes in conditions in our lives, in our schools, and in our communities.

What should funders be doing in this moment to support social movements and lasting change?”

There’s no better way to support social movements and lasting change than to make sure resources get directly to the ground to those most directly impacted who are leading change in their communities. Grassroots-led efforts are critical to not only creating the initial demand for change, but building the power necessary to ensure long-term sustainable shifts in resources from systems that cause harm to systems that restore and support our communities. A great example of current movements under way is the work of the Grassroots Alliance for Justice Reinvestment and Good Kids Mad City. Through these intergenerational efforts, youth of color, formerly incarcerated individuals, and survivors of violence have been coming together to win tangible concrete reinvestment in schools and communities that moves the needle forward and paves the way for longer-term change.


Jenny Arwade is Co-Executive Director of Chicago-based Communities United (CU), a racial justice organization which brings together young people and adult allies to advance social change and systems transformation. CU’s approach is centered on the creation of intentional healing and justice spaces, transformative civic engagement and leadership development approaches, and the development of broad-based alliances. Jenny has 17 years of organizing experience during which time she has supported young people and adult allies in creating the nation’s most comprehensive statewide school discipline reform, advancing strategies through an invest/divest framework to shift resources from police in schools and incarceration into school and community supports, and more. Jenny is a graduate of Princeton University, serves as Vice Chair of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, and is a field representative on the Board of Advisors for the Funders' Collaborative on Youth Organizing

Manuela Arciniegas is the Associate Program Officer for the Andrus Family Fund, where she manages the capacity building initiative and a national community organizing portfolio serving youth impacted by juvenile justice, foster care, immigration detention, and other disruptive systems.

Manuela brings over 15 years of experience in social justice, community organizing, youth development, and cultural arts education. She is actively engaged in moving philanthropic resources with an eye towards improving leadership pipelines, civic engagement, systems’ wide reforms led by directly impacted youth through her membership on a number of funder advisory tables including the New York City Youth Funders, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy NYC Steering Committee, Funder’s Collaborative on Youth Organizing and the Youth Engagement Fund.  She is currently conducting dissertation research for her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center focusing on how Afro-Caribbean religious music creates power and cultural change. When not working at AFF Manuela directs The Legacy Women, a drum ensemble for women ages 23-55 that teaches and performs folk Afro-Caribbean music of resistance.

Manuela graduated cum laude with a Bachelors in Government from Harvard University.



In the spring of 2017, Funders for Justice (FFJ) launched its inaugural cohort of Advisors – nine field leaders recognized for their leadership in community power-building, racial and gender justice, police accountability campaigns, and anti-criminalization movements. We asked them to share their insights on the current political climate, how we can build a vision for the world we want, and what funders can do in this moment. 

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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.