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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June 26, 2020

Strike Watch: Workers refuse to relent for Black lives, as COVID-19 workplace dangers expand

If there is an image that encapsulates the continued expansion of worker-led direct action in the last few weeks, it is Angela Davis on Juneteenth. With her fist raised high and face mask tight, Dr. Davis stood strong out of a roof of a car moving through a massive strike linking dockworkers and community to shutter the Port of Oakland for 8-plus hours. Led by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shipping and transport workers, 29 ports were shut down as tens of thousands came together, and drew connections by featuring speakers such as fired Amazon warehouse worker Chris Smalls between the racial violence of police and that of powerful corporations.

Payday Report tracked more than 500 strikes from the first protest for George Floyd at the end of May to a nationwide day of action on Juneteenth. In Minneapolis in the days after the murder of George Floyd, workers showed solidarity in ways ranging from unionized bus drivers refusing to transport police to direct action by teachers to remove police from schools. Journalists also have confronted racism in their institutions, such as the 300-plus sickout at the New York Times to challenge Arkansas Tom Cotton’s op-ed calling for military action against protestors. Workers, small businesses and community collaborated on a Washington State-wide day of action where dozens of businesses shut down and employees skipped work to support of Black Lives Matter and confront white supremacy. 

Unions are also taking strong stances on the efforts to divest and defund from police (see our NFG resource for funders here) and invest in real community need and safety, including a wide ranging set of locals in the Bay Area supporting this call directly. Locals like UNITE HERE Local 11 in Los Angeles have confronted recent police killings such as the murder of 18-year old Andres Guardado (whose father is a union member) by the LA Sherriff Department (LASD) in Compton. The local joined street protests and signing on to BLM and abolitionist-led calls for a #PeoplesBudgetLA and a Care First budget defunding the LASD.

Using one’s workplace power to support anti-racism has also morphed among professional class workers “at home.” Dozens of scientific institutions, from journals to university departments, also #ShutDownSTEM to force reflection on entrenched racism in the US and support for Black lives.  #Sharethemic days where white women-identified influencers ceded space to Black women anti-racist leaders like #metoo founder Tarana Burke also offered new ways to consider not only walking out, but handing over resources, space and power.

Like the ongoing strikes responding to COVID-19, workers are exposing the hypocrisy of the endless barrage of corporate statements professing #BLM while taking actions that are quite literally killing their Black and brown workers. Under the cover of slick marketing, trillion-dollar companies like Amazon and Whole Foods are cutting back low-wage worker hazard pay and other protections (won by protests), even as COVID-19 cases spike in their worksites, and even seeing BLM masks banned on the job.

Global Essential Organizing in the Age of COVID-19

As COVID-19 cases (and unemployment claims) continue their ascent in the US, and other regions of the world see dangerous resurgences, mostly Black-, Latinx- and API- (including and especially migrant)-led worker organizing for basic protections has not let up either. The latest waves of strikes organized by Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) among dozens of apple picking and packing sites in Washington state’s Yakima Valley saw a significant victory with a signed collective agreement for safety and hazard pay among dozens of different apple picking workers earlier this month.

Mosty-migrant meatpacking workers globally – from Germany’s hinterlands to Hyrum, Utah – continue to demonstrate n the face of outbreaks in plants. Unionized nurses represented by National Nurses United and different SEIU affiliates are striking nationwide against the large US corporate hospital chain HCA Healthcare for still failing to provide Personal Protective Equipment (while cutting staff) starting Friday, June 26. Disney workers, meanwhile, attempt to stave off a disaster at their multi-billion dollar company seeks to re-open its theme parks in July.

Months of essential worker strikes are becoming entwined in an even broader sea of actions for Black lives and calling, in many cases, for police and prison abolition. Angela Davis reflected in an interview on the same day as the Juneteenth strike: “Activists who are truly committed to changing the world should recognize that the work that we often do that receives no public recognition can eventually matter.” The power reflected in ongoing strikes has been built at the grassroots through base building and other work for numerous years. Dr. Davis’ words are in many ways a call to action for philanthropy: how will funders fully recognize and support the immediate and long-term building necessary for worker-led organizing and power? And as major institutions like universities look inward, will foundations reflect on their own perpetuation of racism and corporate power - from external investments to internal practices?

FJE’s Strike Watch is a regular blog and media series dedicated to providing insight on the ways in which grassroots movements build worker power through direct action. Our ultimate goal: inform philanthropic action to support worker-led power building and organizing and help bridge conversations among funders, community and research partners. We are grateful and acknowledge the many journalists and organizations that produce the content we link to regularly, and to all our participants in first-hand interviews. Questions on the content or ideas for future content? Reach out to robert@nfg.org

Photo Credit: Yalonda M. James / The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Photo Credit: Yalonda M. James / The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

June 25, 2020

$50million for M4BL - See You There

Dear Donors, Funders, and Resource Mobilizers: 

The Movement for Black Lives mounted a significant SixNineteen Juneteenth weekend of actions in a matter of weeks. Virtually, over 185,000 people viewed M4BL-TV to celebrate, mourn, and learn. Over 650 in person and online actions took place in cities and communities across the nation, and globally. For context on the strategy behind this weekend of action we recommend the first episode of the People's Action Podcast The Next MoveMaking Meaning with Maurice Mitchell

We are deeply moved by Black Leadership and now we are getting closer to a world where defunding police and building new visions of community safety, infrastructure, and recovery are not just possible, but are inevitable.  This month alone, we’ve seen:

·  A veto-proof majority in the Minneapolis City Council pledged to take steps to eliminate the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with a community alternative.

·  The mayor of Los Angeles announced that the city’s police budget would be cut by $100-150 million to reinvest it in programs to create better conditions for Black residents,

·  The public perception of policing and racism has shifted dramatically, with 54 percent of Americans supporting the uprisings.

·  And dozens more victories listed here.

We asked you to meet the courage of M4BL’s Juneteenth action by moving resources with integrity and speed. We asked you all to resource our movements working to Defend Black Lives by breaking the rules: give more than 5% from your endowments, trust Black leadership, and remove habitual philanthropic red tape. We responded to M4BL’s call to philanthropy and stated that $50M is the floor, and it is more than possible if we are prepared to fund the Movement for Black Lives like we want them to win. Your commitments so far is the proof point - you were listening! We are grateful for the ways you have shown your solidarity so far. 

Our first goal was to raise half of it by the end of June - $25M. We need your support and solidarity over these next seven days and beyond.  

In 14 days we have raised $18M in commitments, pledges and cash on hand. We have $7M to raise in 7 days and a week to make our first goal.  Solidaire Network and Resource Generation have both pledged to organize their members, and we’ve had contributions come in from the $10,000 to $5M range. Some of you have even pledged for 10 years, demonstrating your commitment not just to the moment but to the long term movement that’s needed to win. 

As a reminder, here are the four ways we need you to show up for Black lives: 

  1. FIRST: COMMIT. If you haven’t done so yet, complete this survey with your own pledge today.
  2. SECOND: ORGANIZE. We need you to organize your institutions, boards, friends, family, funder affinity groups -- the communities you can and have organized to move resources.
  3. THIRD: GIVE. We ask that you make a generous one-time donation and a sustainable recurring donation to M4BL and its ecosystem here.
  4. FOURTH: FOLLOW THROUGH. Get ready to share with us what you are prepared to do, and what philanthropic “rules” you are prepared to break to Defend Black Lives today.

In struggle, 

Funders for Justice and our donor-organizing partners for the Movement for Black Lives 

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