Five Questions with Casey: Sophie Dagenais on the Baltimore Unrest and the Way Forward

October 27, 2015, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

As director of the Baltimore Civic Site team, Sophie Dagenais oversees Casey’s community-based investment strategies and grant-making activities in Baltimore. She also advises the Foundation on investing in the East Baltimore Revitalization Initiative, a major community and economic development project aimed at transforming an 88-acre East Baltimore neighborhood.

Prior to joining Casey, Dagenais served as chief of staff for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. A member of the New York and Maryland Bar Associations, she previously worked as a partner at Ballard Spahr LLP and as general counsel and chief administrative officer at a real estate investment-banking firm in New York City. Dagenais graduated from McGill University Faculty of Law in 1988.

In this Five Questions edition, Dagenais discusses the importance of bringing all Baltimoreans to the table — particularly those with limited access to opportunity — to achieve lasting, positive change.

Q1. What role can foundations play after civic unrest or during times of community stress?
Foundations can help provide support and a safe space to bring people together for healing. We should also look at ourselves, and philanthropy more broadly, to see how our own processes and procedures may undermine fairness, access and opportunity. As long as children like Freddie Gray and their families are disconnected from decision-making processes, and as long as systems and communities are not aligned and informed by each other, it will not be possible to achieve large-scale social change.

Q2. The Casey Foundation has invested in Baltimore’s struggling neighborhoods for decades. How did the unrest change your team’s approach to its work in the city?
Although Casey is a national foundation, Baltimore is our hometown. We have a long history of supporting pivotal civic organizations and an ambitious agenda to improve conditions for children and families in East Baltimore. In response to the events following Freddie Gray’s death, however, we are amplifying our work throughout Baltimore.

For instance: We have accelerated planning efforts for a national project — set to launch in Baltimore — that will aid older youth and young adults from low-income families. This summer, we also bolstered enrichment opportunities and jobs for city children and youth and increased our support for community organizing and engagement, in addition to building young people’s capacity to advocate for themselves and their communities.

Q3. What community needs are you hearing about now — five months after the events of the spring?
The needs haven’t changed, but the way we hear them and seek to better understand them may well be changing. We know that we can’t address the root causes of injustice by leaving any part of the community out. Yet structural racism and a persistent disconnect between systems and the people they serve have undermined the community for decades — if not for our city’s entire history. Most recently, we’ve expanded our conversations with youth, residents and civic leaders. At the same time, we’ve been working internally and with our partners to ensure these vital community voices are informing our decisions and policy agendas.

Q4. What is the Foundation’s strategy for responding to the unrest earlier this year?
As a Foundation, we have been working to address inequality and promote inclusion through such efforts as Race Matters and Race for Results. And we know that bringing successful approaches to scale requires evidence and a relentless pursuit of equality. The unrest in Baltimore and similar events around the nation tell us that it’s critical to focus even more intently on this work.

Q5. If the unrest presented an opportunity moment for Baltimore, what should be different five years from now to show that real change occurred?
Here’s where we are now: Recent data suggest that 34% of Baltimore City’s kids live in poverty, and this poverty rate jumps to nearly 50% for kids in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. We also know that the unemployment rate is high — 35% — for black youth ages 16–24. For their white and Hispanic peers, this rate is much lower — 11% and 12%, respectively.

Here’s a potential path forward: We must support policies and strategies that connect families and youth to economic opportunities, which can help substantially reduce these disparities in the next five years. Another must-have is persistent engagement so that, five years from now, people feel that their voices have been heard and that they are a part of the solution. That’s the call to action.

Read this blog on The Annie E. Casey Foundation's website.

 

September 3, 2019

Capitalism and Racism: Conjoined Twins

By Marjona Jones, Co-Chair of Funders for a Just Economy and Senior Program Officer at Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock

Marjona Jones speaking at a podium.

A few weeks ago, Democracy Now! aired a segment with Ibram X. Kendi, author and founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University, where he discussed white supremacy, anti-racism, and the increase in mass shootings. What struck me about the segment was his illuminating statement about the origins of capitalism. Kendi views capitalism and racism as "conjoined twins" and that “…the origins of racism cannot be separated from the origins of capitalism… the life of capitalism cannot be separated from the life of racism.”

Kendi continued by discussing how the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade allowed for the massive accumulation of wealth in Europe and the Americas. Centuries of wage theft, trading in human bondage, insurance claims on "lost" cargo, and reparations for slave owners after emancipation entrenched this capitalist system with inequities based on race built into it. Slave owners protected their concentrated wealth by shaping our socio-economic and legal systems to benefit themselves and the industry of slavery, as well as limit democracy.

As I celebrate the worker movement’s victories on Labor Day this year, this segment and past conversations with grantees has triggered an important question for me: What does the notion that capitalism and racism are inextricably linked mean for our work as funders of racial and economic justice? Our grantee partners tell us how workers are implicated in the entangled web of these “conjoined twins” of racism and capitalism. Many worker-based organizations state that the best vehicle this country has in pursuit of economic justice is through organizing workers, but traditional labor hasn’t always been the best vehicle for racial justice. As Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin discuss in Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice, while many unions integrated in the 1920s, some unionists decided to resist integration to ensure wins and job quality for white workers. These traditionalists understood the idea of “conjoined twins.”

Racial and economic justice movements have exposed exploitative and extractive practices within capitalism, making it less secure to accumulate wealth through those means. However, as Michelle Alexander points out in her book, The New Jim Crow, exposing capitalism for what it is forces it to transform and evolve. For example, following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, agriculture was still the main economic engine, and free exploited labor was needed for this industry to survive. Capitalism evolved while maintaining its racist and exploitative roots through policymakers passing the Black Codes of 1865 and 1866, making it easier to imprison recently freed slaves to continue that supply of free labor.

We are catching up to the fact that capitalism was never meant to work for everyone. What will the next evolution in capitalism bring as our movements fight even harder for racial and economic justice in the face of harm to workers and marginalized communities?

Funders for a Just Economy (FJE) has created an intentional space to begin discussing what these questions mean for our work and the grantees we support. Capitalism’s origin story is a critical part of analyzing how this system operates. By acknowledging the “conjoined twins,” we acknowledge the role of race and the legacy of slavery. FJE believes that there is a renewed opportunity to support a working-class movement that builds the power of all workers, especially Black, Trans and LGBQ workers, women, and immigrants—and lift their role as the main strategists to change the system. If we believe another world is possible, then so is another system that bakes in justice, equity, and respect.


  

Join FJE for these conversations and more at the upcoming Racial Capitalism, Power and Resistance event on October 17 & 18 in Brooklyn, NY. More information and registration link here.

Stay tuned for an upcoming Power Building Study Group for Neighborhood Funders Group members, and the Disrupt the System: How Labor and Philanthropy can Build Worker Power in a New Era event co-convened by the AFL-CIO, the LIFT Fund, and FJE on December 11 in Washington, DC. More information coming soon!

 
August 15, 2019

Beyond Outrage: A Clarity of Purpose

Dimple Abichandani, Executive Director of the General Service Foundation, urges grantmakers and the philanthropic sector to take concrete actions to defend democracy and speak out against racist attacks on people of color. This post was originally published here on the foundation's website.

Dimple was part of the first Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change Fellowship cohort, a joint initiative of Neighborhood Funders Group and The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. General Service Foundation, which partners with grassroots organizations to bring about a more just and sustainable world, is a member of NFG.


  

Dimple AbichandaniWe live in dangerous times, and every passing news cycle contains another outrage, another violation of norms, another threat to our democracy, another threat to our planet.  

In the face of escalating racial attacks, (be it imprisonment of kids on the border or the racist rhetoric being tweeted from the white house) many have noted, rightly, that philanthropy as a sector has been too cautious and too quiet.  The Communications Network, in it’s recent piece, Silence Speaks Volumes, calls on foundations to use their voices in this moment.

Yes, it’s meaningful for people from all sectors of our society to condemn the Administration’s attacks on people of color.  And, for those of us working in the philanthropic sector, these times call on us to use all of our tools in defense of our inclusive, multi-racial democracy.  We are more than commentators or observers– as funders, our role is to resource a more just and equitable future. What we do in this moment will be far more important than what we say.  

As painful as this moment is, it is also a time in which the work to be done has become more clear. The vulnerability of our democracy has become more clear.  Racial anxiety and social divisions are being stoked in order to prop up a reckless system that benefits only the wealthiest. As we condemn the most recent of a long list of outrages, can we also use this moment to deepen our own clarity of purpose, and ensure that our funding will bring about a more just future? 

As funders, we can not only speak out but also take action to bolster our inclusive democracy.

  1. Support those most directly impacted by injustice. Instead of wielding of our own voice and power as a foundation, we can support those most directly impacted by injustice to build their voice, power, and leadership. They must lead the way to a more just world; it is our job to uplift and resource their visions and voices. National organizations such as Color of Change, New American Leaders, and National Domestic Workers Alliance, regional and state-based organizations such as Western States Center, Black Voters Matter and Workers Defense Project and so many others are seeding a future in which racial, gender and economic justice will be the norm.
  2. Invest in the creation and dissemination of narratives that reshape cultural attitudes around belonging in our country.  The recent escalation in the use of racist and sexist rhetoric is not happening in a vacuum– rather it builds on broader public narratives shaped by white supremacy and male dominance.  We need to normalize new narratives that humanize all of us, that value all of us. Organizations such as the Pop Culture CollaborativeReFrame, and the Culture Change Fund, for example, build capacity for narrative equity and culture shift.
  3. Question the default funding habits and practices that limit us from making a bigger impact in this moment. As funders, we sometimes have a blind spot for how our internal practices create unnecessary burdens and barriers for organizations that do the important work we support. This moment calls on us to question our practices, shift to ways of working that account for the gravity of the problems we face, and center the people who are leading the social change efforts we support. Could your foundation increase its payout, provide more general operating support, increase the length of grants, and minimize busywork for grantees? Could you shift your grant strategy to more boldly meet the moment or more directly address the imbalances of power in our society? The Trust Based Philanthropy Network has tools and stories of inspiration from foundations who have increased their impact by changing their practices.

So many of us in philanthropy are eager to do something meaningful in this tumultuous time.  Let’s challenge ourselves to use this moment to put our institutional values into practice. Let’s walk the walk as boldly as we talk the talk.