More is required of us

by Vanessa Daniel, Groundswell Fund

August 5, 2016 - Health & Environmental Funders Network

“I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option. And I’m sure that many who refused to ride segregated buses in Montgomery after Rosa Parks stood her ground wished they could’ve taken the bus, rather than walk miles in protest, day after day, for a whole year. But they knew they had to walk. And so do we.” – Michelle Alexander

What more is required of those of us working in philanthropy at this moment in history?

Over the past two years the streets have swelled with unprecedented levels of protest proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” across the U.S. and around the globe. Jesse Williams stood before us, as Alice Walker pens, with “a soul made of everything,” speaking clear throated truth – a truth about the lethal poison of American racism now being voiced by a growing chorus of celebrities and athletes and everyday people at their dinner tables and on social media.

Perhaps it is because of the herculean quality of this effort, powered by the thousands of people who have found the courage to stand up and say “enough!”, that the executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, by the police, sank our spirits so low. The atmosphere feels thick with the question: why hasn’t any of it been enough?

Last week, my four-year-old daughter happened to open an old photo album to a picture of a rally that my friends and I organized as college students. The rally was in response to the murder of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant who was shot 41 times in a hail of bullets by plainclothes police officers in the vestibule of his New York apartment. One of our classmates had grown up in the same building and her family still lived there. We went to her building and stood in that vestibule, in that narrow space with walls riddled with bullet holes, and grieved the loss of Diallo’s life. That was nearly 20 years ago. I’ve lost count of the number of rallies and protests against police brutality that I’ve attended in the 20 years since. Looking at that photo, I felt profound grief. I asked myself, over the past 20 years, what has changed? In the past 50 years, what has changed?

My wife and I spent an evening last week frantically looking through the mail for updated registration stickers for her car because she knows that for her, as a Black woman, a simple traffic stop for outdated tags could end in murder by the police – even when you follow orders, even when you have a four- year- old child in the backseat. Our hearts sink into our stomachs when we look into the bright and open face of our ten-year-old nephew. We know, like his grandmother and great-grandmother knew about the generations of black children before him, that until we win major societal change, there is nothing within our power that can be done to protect him from the police.

What has changed?

It is a difficult question. Difficult for those who would bury their heads in the sand of a “post-racial America” that doesn’t exist. Difficult for those of us who have worked for justice all of our lives and want to believe that the sweat and blood of so many freedom fighters has gotten us further along than we actually are. But it is a question we must ask. And, we must answer truthfully, that, in fact, not nearly enough has changed for racial justice in America. As the push for change intensifies, white supremacy roils and pushes back. Things are actually getting worse for Black people. When things get worse for Black people they get worse for a lot of other people by extension: people of color, women, queer folks and even poor white people.

We can’t stop at the question ‘What has changed?’ There is a more important question that all of us must ask ourselves: what more is required of us? What more can we do to stand up for Black lives and to dismantle the larger systems of racism that underpin not only the murder of Black people by the police, but also the taking of Black lives in less visible ways: through lack of jobs, inadequate schooling and healthcare, lack of access to reproductive justice, unsafe housing – the list goes on.

There are different answers being offered to this question from different groups. Celebrities and high profile athletes are now risking their careers and fame to speak out publicly. Black Communities are mobilizing in larger numbers to do more. More white people are trying to change hearts and minds within their own families by having tough conversations about race, that they used to avoid, at the dinner table.

Today, I raise the question for philanthropy, particularly for white and non-black people of color donors and foundation staff: what more is required of us to advance racial justice? It is a question I have been grappling with as a biracial Sri Lankan/white American working in philanthropy.

I have been fortunate to have worked shoulder to shoulder with white colleagues who have fought for racial justice in the philanthropic sector. I have seen multiracial efforts work to mobilize money for Black Lives Matter, and for women of color-led work; and to diversify foundation staff and boards. In a field like philanthropy, which is statistically whiter than corporate America and in which white people still hold the vast majority of economic and political power, the movement toward racial justice will be glacial without significant numbers of white colleagues taking concerted action to advance the effort. The hard reality is that although some white colleagues have taken action, not enough have made a commitment to work for racial justice. How do we know this? The state of giving in our field reveals it. The current overall share of philanthropic giving to Black-led organizations makes bank lending to Black families at the height of redlining look generous in comparison.

What more is required of us?

For white colleagues in particular but also non-Black colleagues of color, I challenge all of us to ask ourselves a few questions:

  •  When was the last time I spoke up to call out racial bias and racial disparities in funding during a meeting, instead of waiting for Black colleagues to do it? Do I value Black lives enough to start doing this, even when I feel afraid?
  • Have I taken the time to read, attend workshops, watch films and educate myself on what I never learned in school about what Black people experience in this country and how I can be an ally and co-conspirator in advancing racial justice?
  • Have I pushed my institution, and the funder/donor affinity groups I am a part of, to collect data on racial demographics of the leadership of our grantees? Or have I sat silently while the lack of data in philanthropy covers up persistent divestment from people of color-led work?
  • Have I set aside my own discomfort and my own fear of saying the wrong thing or making a mistake to work hard for racial justice because I know that Black lives are more important than white comfort?
  • Have I initiated conversations with white colleagues about racial justice and encouraged/supported them to advance racial justice in their work? Or have I avoided the topic because I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable?
  •  Have I mounted a sustained challenge to grantmaking practices in my institution that have historically resulted in people of color-led organizations receiving the least amount of funding? Have I advocated for more grant funding for Black-led work, even if it means reducing grant dollars to white-led work to make this move towards equity possible?
  • Have I spoken up to demand diversity in hiring practices and board/trustee recruitment to attract and retain Black candidates into decision making positions within my institution?
  • Do I enable my white-led grantees to ignore racial injustice or do I require them to describe their work, or lack thereof, to advance racial justice in their proposals and then prioritize funding to those who demonstrate real solidarity with people of color?”
  • Have I risked anything that matters to me in order to use my proximity to the levers of money and power to stand up for Black lives and move more funding to Black-led work?

On one point I want to be clear: I am not saying white colleagues should match their colleagues of color in the intensity of the work to fight for racial justice in our field. I am saying they should exceed us. If you cannot honestly answer yes to these questions, if you have been sitting on your hands while Black people are dying, then no matter how good your intentions are, you are part of the problem. If you have been on the sidelines, break time is over. It’s your turn to be part of the solution. You are up to bat.

This may not come as welcome news to many people in our field. Philanthropy coddles and constrains those of us working within it with a culture that is famous for valuing comfort above justice, and the capitulation to the status quo over the backbone to speak up. Many people in our ranks may wish it didn’t feel so hard to stand up and do the right thing, but as Michelle Alexander so eloquently notes, “And I’m sure that many who refused to ride segregated buses in Montgomery after Rosa Parks stood her ground wished they could’ve taken the bus, rather than walk miles in protest, day after day, for a whole year. But they knew they had to walk. And so do we.”

And so do we.

Vanessa Daniel is the Executive Director of Groundswell Fund, which supports a stronger, more effective U.S. movement for reproductive justice by mobilizing new funding and capacity-building resources to grassroots organizing efforts led by low-income women, women of color and transgender people. Vanessa has 18 years of experience working in social justice movements as a union and community organizer, researcher, freelance journalist, and social justice grantmaker. She serves on the Steering Committees of the Bay Area Justice Funders Network and the Health and Environmental Funders Network.

View blog post on the Health and Environmental Funders Network site, and at it's original posting on MomsRising.org.

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December 10, 2018

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December 4, 2018

From Sector Newcomer to Board Member

Marjona Jones joined the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock four years ago after working in the field as an organizer for 14 years. She came to Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG) through an existing relationship between Veatch and NFG: Molly Schultz Hafid, former assistant director at Veatch, also served as an NFG board member and co-chair for the Funders for a Just Economy (FJE) working group. “She was outgoing co-chair when I was hired at Veatch — the relationships she had built through that working group were important to me as well because I also worked around economic equity,” says Marjona. Initially, NFG was a space of learning for Marjona as a newcomer to the sector:

I joined [FJE’s] program committee, and then was invited to join the coordinating committee. It was an education! It was really about supporting the working group in order to create opportunities for funders to come together, hear about grantees, and think about how to create more space within philanthropy for this. That takes building relationships within philanthropy. That takes creating more breadth for funders to leverage what we have, and more, for our grantees. We’ve got to do that by educating one another within philanthropy.

NFG was also a space of affirmation and sustenance for Marjona, whose organizing background and perspective from the field anchors her work as a grantmaker and informs her relationships with grantees. At NFG, she found a commitment to racial and economic justice that matched her own. She has gone on to become centrally involved in NFG, joining Funders for Justice (FFJ), participating in Project Phoenix, and now serving on NFG’s board. 

An Intersectional Framework

NFG centers people in its work, helping funders understand the meaning of an intersectional analysis and apply it to their grantmaking. Marjona lifts up FJE’s Working at the Intersections program as an example:

Something I really want to share is a report that Working at the Intersections put out [titled Journey Towards Intersectional Grant-making] about best practices for how we want and need to support work at the intersections of identity. “Intersectional” is often just a buzzword, and so we thought it would be good to offer understanding around how that perspective plays out, and how it plays out within philanthropy too.

To me, it was a beautiful convening that we did [with Working at the Intersections]. It really opened up folks to talk about what it is we deal with as women of color within philanthropy. We need to be mindful about how that impacts the field of philanthropy, and how we move our work. There are layers that we have to be very intentional about if we really care about justice liberation and how all those things intersect. If we aren’t mindful of this, we can be really shortsighted then in funding program work because we are so siloed in philanthropy — ‘This week she will show up as a worker, next week she will show up as a woman, the following week as a person of color…’

Because of [Veatch’s’ general support grants], our funding isn’t requiring people to carve up their identities, which I think is a disservice. Requiring people to show up in this way sometimes impacts and distracts from the work.

In speaking about how NFG promotes an intersectional approach in the philanthropic sector, Marjona also highlights her participation in NFG’s Project Phoenix: Connecting Democracy, Economy, and Sustainability, a year-long cohort collective learning program for funders. For Project Phoenix, the term “new economy” means intersectional activities with an intention to support a democracy that works for all, an economy that provides good jobs and promotes local economic prosperity, the growth of ecologically sustainable and non-extractive sectors, and a re-prioritization of the role of capital in society to better serve these goals. Marjona shares how participating in Project Phoenix expanded her understanding about environmental grantmaking:

Project Phoenix really helped me understand my work a great deal, because it was focused on democracy and the environment. It was hard for me as a general support funder to see our role in moving that work because we have an environmental portfolio, but we didn’t have a way of supporting those intersections [of racial and economic justice].

Project Phoenix was helpful for me to understand all the different ways the work that we fund had a place [in the environmental landscape]. It was important for me to understand where we fit in the larger field of philanthropy. And it was also really helpful to understand our current socio-economic moment — capitalism, it extracts not just resources from the ground but it extracts resources from working-class, poor communities; it extracts people, it extracts lives, it extracts health. Prisoners are used as free labor to make goods and then those goods are sold back to us. It extracts our wealth — from the way the banking system works to the way it suppresses wages.  

So it helped me understand when you are talking about climate change and environmental protections, you need to be talking about worker protections, and housing, and health, and education. All of these things are connected. You can’t talk about these things in a vacuum. Those organizations that are focused on the environment without thinking about people need to be focused on people as well.

Amplifying Resources and Awareness in Critical Times 

Marjona shares an example of how NFG plays a powerful and responsive role in amplifying resources for racial justice through the network of funders with whom the organization has built a shared values framework and provided concrete, immediate avenues for funders to take action. With the organizers in 2014 who were taking a stand on the ground to protest the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, Marjona understood the importance of supporting them with navigating the same criminal justice system that was being used to target and intimidate them. She worked closely with NFG’s Funders for Justice program staff to convene a conference call to mobilize resources and support the organizers’ legal costs: 

There were protests happening in St. Louis, and they needed emergency funds for bail support and organizers to work on legal aspects such as defending people, going with them to court, and helping them through the process. I felt that was critical because it is something that gets left out of grant proposals. People are going to put their freedom on the line — what happens to them once they are arrested, charged, and have to go to court? This is a concern especially in St. Louis, where folks are often new or first time offenders.

I remember emailing Lorraine [Ramirez, Senior Program Manager] at Funders for Justice, asking, ‘Can you send this out to the listserv?’ And she said, ‘Why don’t we do a call?’ I helped get folks on the phone, and they ended up getting support. It wasn’t a large call; it was just a handful of funders. But, I feel like if there had not been FFJ, I would have had to do that legwork myself, and to be honest, I don’t know if I would have been able to call funders individually to get that support while I had the work of my docket. I could not have brought people to the table so quickly on the strength of my own relationships.  

Because NFG has been organizing within philanthropy over the years with convenings and webinars, they have built up integrity in the field. People know to go to NFG if they have questions about black organizing and police brutality. So when NFG puts a call out asking if we can move resources for something, people will join and pony up.

Supporting Members to Engage Actively 

The ways that NFG supports its members to go deeper and develop a broader understanding of their role and potential for impact is important to Marjona in her work:

I think folks [at NFG] understand that we need to organize. They understand that philanthropy has to be as organized as we expect our grantees to be. NFG’s convenings and information sharing help create conditions so that can happen. A lot of [the staff at NFG] are former organizers... I said it before, and I will say it again, I don’t know if I would still be in philanthropy if it had not been for NFG.

Veatch has always had a commitment to racial justice, but we have increased our giving to over a million dollars to racial justice organizing — and part of that was from our work with NFG. We said to ourselves, ‘Yes, we are doing this, but we can do more. So let’s figure out how to be creative, and how to support our colleagues in being creative as well.’

After what happened with the Ferguson uprising, there was so much handwringing on the left. Helping to break through that to take action was important — because this isn’t just about Missouri, and this goes beyond Michael Brown. This is about the nation. It helped people do something, get in the game, and be public about how they were going to support that work. Was it perfect? Hell no! Especially when you have got money and power in the mix. But it did move funders in the right direction, and that’s what we need. Because it’s really easy to sit in our offices and say, ‘I [only] have this much money, and I have to get this docket out the door.’ But we have a greater responsibility. NFG helps you understand that greater responsibility, as well as how you can take that responsibility, hone it, and bring it into the program work