A New Testament of Hope

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Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

Nearly a half century ago, during the final days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, he penned what he called a “testament of hope,” an epistle he could not have known would be among his last. “Whenever I am asked my opinion of the current state of the civil rights movement,” Dr. King began, “I am forced to pause; it is not easy to describe a crisis so profound that it has caused the most powerful nation in the world to stagger in confusion and bewilderment.”

During these past few weeks, as each of us has attempted to make sense of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s senseless killings, “confusion and bewilderment” abound. In private moments and public demonstrations, we have been overwhelmed with emotion. We have grappled with disbelief, frustration, shame, and anger.

Yet, confronted anew with a crisis as old as the country, it’s my conviction that we must give our own testament of hope.

There is hope, for example, in the fact that I can compose this essay from my desk at the Ford Foundation; that a black, gay man — born to a brave single mother in a Louisiana charity hospital, the product of Head Start, public schools, and Pell Grants — can rise to become president of a prominent global foundation.

There is hope in knowing that, from the trial of conscience so many Americans are now experiencing, we can emerge — and perhaps are emerging — a more unified, more equal, more just America.

Founding Contradiction

I draw this hope from the incredible demonstrations still unfolding across the country — demonstrations heartening not only for their message, but their make-up. People of all backgrounds, young people in particular, rallying for justice is a powerful, transformative sight. I hope we keep seeing it.

Goodness knows we need our eyes opened. Too often a majority of Americans seek comfort in the idea of American exceptionalism, the idea that no matter our flaws we are fundamentally righteous and just. So it bears repeating that the United States was in fact founded on a fundamental contradiction that, two centuries later, remains dauntingly unresolved: The founders pledged their sacred honor to the idea that “all men are created equal,” while in the same instant creating a nation in which they are patently not equal.

Among the many compromises that made possible our charters of freedom were choices to count my enslaved ancestors as three-fifths of a person; to protect the bondage and sale of children; to legitimize hierarchies of gender, class, and skin color.

Alexis de Tocqueville saw this dissonance in our national character quite clearly as he traveled across our early republic. On one hand, early America was distinctive in its communitarian and entrepreneurial equality, he noted. On the other, the issues of slavery and racial inequality were “the most formidable of all the ills which threaten the future existence of the Union.”

He was right on both counts, of course. We are the inheritors of both parts of this heritage: the sense of promise as well as the tendency toward persecution.

It is understandable, then, that more than two centuries later — after a civil war and a movement for civil rights — we should feel confused and bewildered when this contradiction emerges into our national consciousness yet again.

The Moment We’re In

The story of who we are, how far we have come, and how far we still have to go — all these parts of our past are prologue to the moment we are in. In moments like this, it is useful to recognize that our present is a product of the past, mixed with our hopes for the future. We can’t, therefore — and should not be tempted to — look only at the specifics of what Michael Brown or Eric Garner did or didn’t do. To understand what happened to them, and so many others like them, we have to look beyond the immediate. We have to grapple with the past and how it infects the present; how individual episodes are linked to larger social habits and forces.

As I joined tens of thousands of marchers in Manhattan last weekend, I was struck by the powerful juxtaposition of the countless New York City police officers who helped ensure a peaceable assembly during a protest centered on the police department itself, as well as the larger justice system. It’s essential to pay respect to these courageous individuals who, more often than not, put themselves in harm’s way for our communal well-being. When individuals decide to become police officers, they are not just choosing a career; they are answering a calling. I, for one, am grateful for the service they commit to.

But the justice system is more than the people who occupy it at any given time. It, too, is the product of the past, with rules, procedures, and mores that constitute a complex web of history, practice, and aspiration. So let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that our criminal justice system — no matter the best intentions of the people who comprise it — remains functionally, structurally, insistently unjust. This is why many people, especially in poor communities of color, perceive policing as a mechanism of social control. Far, far too many Michaels and Erics have lost their lives for these communities to see it any other way.

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander makes the case in her powerful book, The New Jim Crow. America’s unequal drug laws, mandatory prison sentences, and mass incarceration of black and brown men for nonviolent crimes are as onerous today as Jim Crow laws were in their day, and have set in motion a vicious cycle. Black men have their basic rights revoked, which traps families in poverty, which contributes to crime. As a result, she reports, more African Americans are part of the criminal justice system today than were enslaved on the eve of the Civil War.

My Life Experience

To me the injustice of our system is intensely personal. My childhood friends were cousins — boys with talents, and passions, and potential no different from my own. My mother moved my sister and me from a segregated small town in Louisiana to Texas in hopes of giving us a better life. My cousins, however, found themselves ensnared in the same cycle that has trapped so many young black men. By my count, five of them have spent significant time in prison, including one who died by hanging himself while incarcerated.

When I was in college at the University of Texas, I knew I would be held to a different standard than my white friends when it came to recreational drug use, which was prevalent, especially among the privileged students from Houston and Dallas. At a party in my dorm, when a friend passed me a joint, I knew to decline. When he was arrested later that year for possession of marijuana, his father had it taken care of. Whatever happened was expunged from his record; today he has a wonderful life and beautiful family in a prosperous Texas suburb. As a black kid — a young black man without means — I knew implicitly that if I were ever to be brought into the criminal justice system, my dreams would be snuffed out in an instant.

My point is: The distance between promise and peril, between justice and injustice, is frighteningly short — especially for people of color and low-income Americans.

No one wants this — particularly those who work in our justice system and law enforcement. This is not by our design. Rather, it’s a system rooted in that same complex web of historical inequality — racial, social, and economic — that predates any of us. A system that created the context for Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s killings, and for countless other stories just as heartbreaking and infuriating. This system is the reason we find ourselves watching videos of Eric Garner begging for mercy while receiving treatment not even befitting an animal.

This is not the America we want. This is not the America we are proud of.

Inequality Beyond Race

Indeed, this week new data showed that the income gap between black and white Americans is widening, not narrowing. We already know that overall inequality in the country is rising — meaning that the rich are getting richer while the middle class loses ground. So as the country overall becomes wealthier, people in general feel poorer. This leaves Americans of every creed and color feeling less secure and more vulnerable — not just economically, but socially and culturally, as well. And as a result, Americans — middle-class Americans, in particular — are too worried about their own problems to see a priority in the plight of others.

As the political scientist Robert Putnam has shown, within this era of economic and social distancing, we have become less motivated to solve big problems collectively. In this way, our “civic infrastructure” has deteriorated and our discourse has coarsened.

This might suggest that coming to terms with race in an era of growing inequality is harder than ever.

And yet, despite all of this — or, perhaps, in some strange way, because of it — I am hopeful. The people on the streets are making it possible.

To borrow a phrase from my youth, the whole world is watching. Up close. Just as our parents and grandparents were a half century ago — only this time on devices in our hands, not televisions in our living rooms.

This can be a tipping point, a time and place where we see the bending in the “arc of the moral universe.” While our history has been informed by a contradiction, it also has been defined by what James Baldwin called “the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”

Achieving the Impossible

So, how do we escape the quagmire? How do we “achieve the impossible” again? To start with, we need smarter investment in better policing.

We need investment in the human capabilities of our police officers — in their professional development, in their training, in their ability to relate to and understand the communities they serve. We need to redirect funding to community policing, which has fallen out of favor in the age of “stop-and-frisk” policies, “broken-widows” theory, and “three-strikes-you’re-out” theology.

What we do not need is more of the militarization we saw in Ferguson — nor more of the menacing weaponry that has been shipped from battlefields in Iraq to precincts across the United States. (And, by the way, maybe police would not have reason to be so afraid of young people with guns if guns were not so readily available virtually everywhere.) Instead, we, as a democracy, should give our police the best tools and techniques to match their best intentions and then hold them accountable.

At the same time, we need to engage with and empower communities. We need to ensure that the people affected by policy have a voice in creating it. We need to invest in our neighborhoods and cities, because while talent is everywhere, economic opportunity is not.

As I have traveled the United States — from New York to Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis — I hear the same things. People, especially young people, want jobs. They want to do well for their families, to do right by their neighbors, and to do good in their communities. Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin — another gunned-down, young black man — put it so well: “People are now realizing [our movement] is not just about African-American rights; it is about human rights.”

And this larger movement for human rights is inseparable from the necessary work of repairing our broken politics — the heavy lifting of owning up to the biases and injustices that are deeply embedded within our system.

All of this will require political courage. We need statesmen and stateswomen to bring us together, not politicians to degrade our discourse and drive us apart. We need people of purpose to transcend the politics of division — in spite of the fact that the rhetoric of exclusion is such a successful political tactic.

A New Testament of Hope

Ultimately, there is a larger force at work. There is something stirring us to action — demanding that we trade confusion and bewilderment for a fight for change that only hope and radical optimism can sustain. The memories of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and too many others — the legacies of all those who suffered and sacrificed before us — deserve no less.

In his testament of hope, Dr. King wrote that “man has the capacity to do right as well as wrong, and his history is a path upward, not downward….This is why I remain an optimist.”

So, too, must it be with us. Let us continue to seek right in the face of misdirected might. Let us continue to make our way upward.

For my part, I have deep, abiding, and absolute faith that America will. Through fits and starts, feats and defeats, fairness will triumph. The irrepressible current of justice will carry us forward, no matter the impediments ahead.

Why do I believe we shall overcome? Because, time and again, we have.

Read the original post on Medium.

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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