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.

 

January 22, 2020

NFG Member Spotlight: The Libra Foundation

Logo of The Libra FoundationThe Libra Foundation staff: Angie Chen (Senior Program Officer), Crystal Hayling (Executive Director), Ashley Clark (Knowledge & Grants Manager), Jennifer Agmi (Senior Program Officer)

(L-R): Angie Chen (Senior Program Officer), Crystal Hayling (Executive Director), Ashley Clark (Knowledge & Grants Manager), Jennifer Agmi (Senior Program Officer)

NFG's network is composed of 120+ members that work in every part of the nation, in both urban and rural settings, and includes private and public foundations, community foundations, family foundations, corporate foundations, faith-based funders, and other grantmaking institutions. 

We recently connected with Crystal Hayling and The Libra Foundation team about their growth and vision for 2020, which organizations are giving them inspiration in this moment, and why they continue to invest in NFG with their renewed and increased membership.

We love to connect with our members! Share your experiences as part of the NFG network by getting in touch with Lindsay Ryder, Senior Membership Manager, at lindsay@nfg.org.


 
  1. How do notions of people, power, and place fit in with Libra’s grantmaking approach?

The organizations Libra supports are building a world where low-income communities of color have the power to determine their own freedom, define safety, and thrive in healthy environments. Families that are separated by mass incarceration, communities whose voting rights are suppressed, and neighborhoods suffering from contamination are among the many ways people, power, and place are at the foundation of structural oppression, and, therefore, the heart of Libra’s grantmaking approach. We are centering organizations building power through grassroots community organizing, deep network and coalition building, and progressive advocacy for lasting solutions that work for all.
 

  1. Libra has gone through a bit of a transformation over the past few years, including a new ED and larger staff, a larger public profile, and a refined grantmaking strategy. How has being a part of NFG’s network informed or served Libra along the way?

Transformation is a daily practice - a collection of intentions and ideals - with no clear point of arrival. I knew when I joined Libra as Executive Director I wanted to help guide a team of passionate, heart-driven individuals who are committed to doing philanthropy differently and moving resources to frontline communities. We are so grateful to the NFG network for guiding and supporting the changes we continue to undergo. NFG’s community of funders and activists have a rigorous and thorough analysis that not only informs our community’s understanding and actions, but pushes us all to do better. The network brings together social movement leaders and funders that drive our field to be accountable and unified in our vision for justice.
 

  1. Libra recently renewed its membership with NFG, opting to increase its membership level for 2020. As we enter NFG’s 40th Anniversary year, what are your hopes and plans for engaging with the NFG network?

We are intentionally investing more in NFG because of our shared belief in organizing institutional funders to mobilize more resources for grassroots power building. Too often in philanthropy we are siloed by issue areas. Meanwhile, the same folks who are most impacted by criminal justice are disproportionately affected by gender and environmental justice as well. Although it’s vital to develop and focus on expertise in each of these areas, it’s critical that we as funders take an intersectional approach that recognizes these truths. NFG is leading in this regard, especially in its prioritization of people of color, and Libra aims to do the same.

Our team is planning to engage more in Funders for Justice this year. Lorraine Ramirez helped orient us to all the avenues for collaboration, and we’re excited to learn more from the field advisors and members. And we are really looking forward to this summer’s national convening! A lot has happened since the NFG community got together last in 2018 and we’re hoping that the entire Libra staff will be in attendance.
 

  1. Of NFG’s 125 member organizations, are there any funders you would like to give a shout out to for inspiring or partnering with Libra?

What an inspiring group! We are motivated and encouraged by so many of our peer members at NFG. We are fortunate to be in community with lots of NFG members and look forward to deepening relationships. 

To name a few that are a part of the Libra grantee community, Groundswell Fund is doing incredible work in the reproductive justice field protecting women, nonbinary, and trans folks of color across the country. Proteus Fund houses essential donor collaborative funds (like Rise Together Fund) and fiscally sponsors many of Libra’s grantees. And of course Common Counsel, which among many other philanthropic services houses Native Voices Rising, a fund that supports Native-led community driven projects across Turtle Island.

When we began refining our strategies here at Libra, we leaned on many of our friends in the NFG network. Specifically in environmental and climate justice, we are learning from close colleagues like Mertz Gilmore Foundation and Surdna Foundation that have shifted their strategies to uplift frontline leadership and people centered solutions to the climate crisis. And we continue to be inspired by colleagues that have led the charge to do philanthropy differently, like Marguerite Casey Foundation and Chorus Foundation (among many others!).

  1. And most importantly, are there any community leaders or organizations that you’ve been connected to through NFG’s network that Libra is supporting or that you are inspired by?

Specifically in 2019, members of our program team attended the Funders for a Just Economy Racial Capitalism convening. We were blown away by presentations from Trans United, which supports visionary trans leadership, and ACRE Institute, which organizes campaigns working at the intersection of racial justice and Wall Street accountability. Following that convening and based on recommendations from partners in the field, Libra funded both in our latest docket.

 

January 15, 2020

Racial Capitalism, Power & Resistance: Keynote Videos & Highlights for 2020

In October 2019, NFG's Funders for a Just Economy (FJE) held a breakthrough Racial Capitalism, Power and Resistance Convening, an unprecedented conversation with more than 70 funder participants on the racial and gendered inequality defining US and global capitalism — and the role of philanthropy within these structures. FJE is moving this conversation into action in 2020. Towards that goal, we are recapping the convening and providing video from the seminal keynote talks by Dr. Ananya Roy and Dr. Barbara Ransby that grounded our meeting.  

Nine speakers who were at the convening.

Top (L-R): Dr. Barbara Ransby, Mónica Ramírez, Dr. Ananya Roy
Middle (L-R): Cindy Weisner, Alicia Garza, Aaron Tanaka
Bottom (L-R): Dimple Abichandani, Farhad Ebrahimi, Pamela Shifman

FJE’s Racial Capitalism, Power and Resistance Convening was about asking hard questions and opening a conversation about the underlying history of the US economy and the origins of philanthropy as a way to ground us in how to support powerful resistance movements. Through this piece, we wanted to bring you some of the critical questions that stuck with us — and ways to move forward the themes and ideas generously offered by our activist-academic, movement, and philanthropic speakers and participants.

Who are we in alliance with? And how does that shape the real choices funders make?

Dr. Ananya Roy started off our conversation with a powerful question: Can we decolonize philanthropy in a real way? She also offered a proposition: We can’t do so without facing the way foundations are based in “twice-stolen wealth” — profit extracted via exploitative racialized capitalist means and through evading public taxation. [1]

Dr. Roy offered the example of her work with the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA, working to “turn the university inside out” through co-creation of knowledge alongside movement leaders; simplifying funding opportunities for community organizations; and paid, unfettered residency programs for activists. She pushed us to reflect on “what additional work we create for communities” through our grantmaking practices and the “difficult choices we must make on who we are in alliance with” — including standing up when foundations undermine community-led liberation movements.

You can hear Dr. Roy's keynote, Decolonizing Philanthropy? A View from The Public University, in the video below.

How do we define and confront the deep histories of racialized capitalism?

FJE presented a portion of the Action Center on Race & the Economy and Grassroots Collaborative’s popular education workshop on racial capitalism. The material examined how core institutions of US capitalism — like banking — built wealth directly off the slave economy and indigenous genocide. Grappling with the inextricable connection between racism, patriarchy, and capitalism raised the fact that Black women and other people of color also face these traumas every day in philanthropy. How can funders collectively support healing among philanthropic staff as they find ways to fund movements genuinely addressing the genocidal histories of greed?

“What happens when we put life [and sustaining it] at the center of our work?” — Cindy Wiesner

To bring us into how contemporary movements are confronting racial and gendered capitalism, Alicia Garza of the Black Futures Lab led a conversation with Mónica Ramírez of Justice for Migrant Women, Aaron Tanaka of the Center for Economic Democracy and Cindy Wiesner of Grassroots Global Justice. These leaders shared that grassroots, collaborative, feminist, and anti-capitalist social justice movements serve as “kryptonite” (in Cindy Wiesner’s words) to racial capitalism and neo-fascism. These movements range from organizing for a Green New Deal to local democratic investment structures, to migrant women-led sexual harassment activism. Speakers challenged funders to work alongside communities to resource experimentation and “freedom dreaming” — and to understand the solutions won’t come quickly or easily. They also asked foundations to use their own power — as investors and public figures — to take on racial capitalism.

What power do we have in our institutions? And how do we shift power with communities?

Pamela Shifman, formerly of Novo Foundation; Dimple Abichandani of General Service Foundation; and Farhad Ebrahimi of Chorus Foundation shared how as Executive Directors and alumni of NFG's Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change Fellowship, they recognized and acted on their power to shift their institutions and the sector. As Dimple Abichandani noted, “These rules and practices that we work in come out of racial capitalism and corporate compliance frameworks. We can decide to change those.”

The speakers raised the fact that while education programs are plenty, actively organizing foundations towards collective goals through leadership development — like Philanthropy Forward — is rarer but necessary. Foundation staff also rarely hold other funders publicly accountable – perhaps because feel that they cannot tell others what to do with their money. Yet recent campaigns to discourage the Gates Foundation in awarding the fascist, Hindu-nationalist aligned Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggest insurgent philanthropy is percolating.

What are the projects we fund to undo racial capitalism, and what logics are the projects based on?

On Day 2 of the Racial Capitalism, Power and Resistance Convening, Dr. Barbara Ransby offered three key elements to understand racial capitalism today: First, the irreconcilable relationship between capitalism's “infinite growth model on a finite planet;” second, financialization and the global “ponzi scheme;” and third, automation’s influence on worker's lives and consumption. She urged us to hold these contemporary capitalist crises with their roots in slavery and empire.

Dr. Ransby offered that dealing with this past and present means actively confronting white supremacy and nationalism; “building as we undo” through solidarity economies and other alternatives; and thoughtfully advancing abolition and reparations. Such ongoing processes require reckoning with anti-Blackness and asking: “How do you relinquish some of the power [that you have over organizations] and see yourself with a greater sense of humility?”

You can watch Dr. Ransby's keynote, Racial Capitalism, Power and Black Radical Tradition, in the video below.

“How do we show up, use our collective assets, and stand behind our grantees?” — Marjona Jones

Marjona Jones of the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, José García of the Ford Foundation, Emma Oppenhiem of Open Society Foundations, and Shona Chakravartty of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, in conversation with Anna Quinn of NoVo Foundation, brought the meeting home with a dialogue on how we could take tangible action, including through the Funders for a Just Economy.

Participants then honed in on key work areas to follow-up on after the event including: building accountability mechanisms in philanthropy; transforming partnerships with our grantees; healing and strategizing together as co-conspirators; remaking tax structures and philanthropic asset management.

Stay tuned for more from FJE as we work together to provide the space and tools for philanthropy to take these ideas into action into 2020 — and into a more just tomorrow.

 

[1] Roy was quoting Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2009). “In the Shadow of the Shadow State” in The Revolution Will Not be Funded (edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. Boston: South End Press, 2009). http://sfonline.barnard.edu/navigating-neoliberalism-in-the-academy-nonp...