December 4, 2018

How NFG is Disrupting Funder-Grantee Dynamics

Helen Chin has just led the Surdna Foundation’s Sustainable Environments Program through a strategy refinement process. “Now,” she says, with satisfaction, “We are able to connect more robustly with what’s bubbling from the ground up in the field, as well as center racial equity in our work!”  The outcome of this effort was a commitment to actively partner directly with the communities most vulnerable and impacted by climate change in order to build their capacity and power to self-determine the ownership, control and stewardship of land and infrastructure. This refinement distills the Program’s previous five lines of work into two integrated grantmaking and investment strategies: Environmental and Climate Justice, and Land Use through Community Power.

As the Program Director, and as someone who comes from a background in urban planning and environmental justice organizing, Helen is delighted by this opportunity to build community resilience and power in partnership with grantees working at the frontlines in communities of color — communities hardest hit by climate change, disinvestment and racist planning practices:

Communities isolated along the lines of race and class have been made vulnerable and are under threat from decades of disinvestment. And while, everyone is under threat from climate change and its impact, some communities are less resilient than others. Here in New York, communities of color and low-wealth communities who are hardest hit by environmental injustice, house all the City’s waste, and are cut off from the infrastructure that would support resiliency. They don’t have access to transit or quality, affordable housing, and are not able to withstand the stresses of environmental conditions that already exist. Add climate change and storms, and the community can be decimated — left without a home to go to nor a means to move around or away from harm. This coupled with living paycheck to paycheck in the best-case scenario or even worse, living financially underwater, creates further challenges. These are the conditions real people are living with that challenge their resilience and ability to prosper. It‘s not just the one-off incident, it’s the culmination of all the things that life is throwing at people.

We need a sustained bottom up approach. How can we help position folks to affect what is happening to them, instead of having solutions rained down on them from external architects that don’t address the complexities of experiences that stem from a tapestry of inequitable policies and practices? How can we support communities as the world around them is evolving, using infrastructure and the development of infrastructure in a way that simultaneously builds economic justice, designs for racial equity and solves environmental problems? We want to put forward an alternative vision, one that positions those communities to be able to take a proactive stand and say, ‘How do I create something that builds resiliency for me?’ We are able now to bring forward a strong lens around how we build power in communities that have been invisible and devalued.

The Surdna Foundation is a long-standing member and collaborator of Neighborhood Funders Group; last year, to mark its centennial with a signature expression of its values, Surdna partnered with NFG, Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Moriah Fund, and The JPB Foundation to seed NFG’s Amplify Fund, a new, multimillion-dollar pooled fund focused on investing in equitable, community-led development. Helen sits on the Advisory Committee that forms criteria and provides oversight for the Fund. Of NFG, she says, “Because racial equity is so squarely centered at NFG, we knew we would have a great partner and home for this work, one that would help us advance the expression of our own values and the legacy of our work in the development and planning arena.”

Sharing her perspective on how Neighborhood Funders Group makes a difference in philanthropy, Helen cites NFG’s role in shifting culture and practice. She lifts up the ways that NFG disrupts traditional funder-grantee dynamics:

NFG is causing funders to re-evaluate what it means to partner. The funder relationship is usually very paternalistic — ‘I have money, I give you money. Because I have money, I have power to set the agenda, and you don’t.’ Funders usually position themselves as experts and foster relationships where the field reacts to funder ideas rather than partnering and co-producing with those touching and experiencing the work.  NFG is changing that dynamic by questioning who is expert in the room, and who has voice and power. The new framing is — community is expert. How do we support a space where community is co-creating with philanthropy for impact? Funder to funder, within the sector, the way that NFG works is causing funders to re-evaluate how they think about being partners.

Helen values how NFG supports her to reach beyond her specific issue area and build broadly with other funders — specifically the ways that NFG connects the dots and creates a vessel to carry cross-cutting racial and economic justice work:

One thing NFG has helped me think about is, ‘How do you authentically create space to co-create with a community of people that is not necessarily from your sector or your genre?’ As an environmental funder, I am surrounded by others that are myopically focused on the environment and climate. NFG fosters a learning culture for a lot of people working on a diversity of issues to think holistically and work on solutions that intentionality lift up people and strive for racial justice outcomes.

We are creating something much greater, in support of the health and vitality of neighborhoods and communities, creating an ecosystem that threads the needle for funders who might not be able to see that. This is valuable, because I am in other spaces where there may be five working groups and one doesn’t know what is going on in the other four. There is a false assumption that they are different issues. NFG has more fluidity between working groups. They holistically organize and hold funders accountable to being in service of communities of color and low-wealth communities.

NFG convenings, she says, do the legwork for her, helping to build relationships and alliances with other funders to move racial and economic justice work in the field.

I already connect with NFG in terms of values, but NFG has helped me in the sense of being able to strategize and co-create. Their frame is not new for me, but they have given me the space. They create the relationships. I used to have to build and broker the relationships myself, but they create the space to do that. It’s easier to do that through their convenings, their learning forums, and the Amplify Fund.

In closing, Helen warmly validates NFG staff, as strategic thought partners and allies in her work:

I get to connect to them all the time and they know how much I admire them for how they work. NFG’s superpower: they are truly strategic partners. They organize around strategy and a sense of purpose — actualizing justice. They are strategic thinkers. One of the few philanthropic groups that are not just about learning and convening, NFG is about strategizing with philanthropy to have meaningful impact.

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.