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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May 9, 2019

Building Power in the Sunshine State: Lessons from FJE’s Florida Learning Tour

In April 2019, NFG's Funders for a Just Economy and Florida Philanthropic Network brought together funders from across the country and community organizing leaders in Florida to explore how diverse communities in the state are building power and political infrastructure for workers’ rights, migrant justice, women’s rights, and more.

Sienna BaskinSienna Baskin, Director of the Anti-Trafficking Fund at NEO Philanthropy, shares her experience from the learning tour. You can follow Sienna at @SiennaBaskin and NEO at@NEOPhilanthropy

Would you be able to come from the frozen Northeast to a resort in Ft. Myers without relishing the feeling of your toes in sandals or the warm bay breezes? I know these were my first impressions as I landed for the Funders for a Just Economy Florida Funder Tour. But as we left the sunshine to enter a darkened conference room, our eyes adjusted to read the first slide: “Racial Capitalism and Resistance in the Sunshine State.” As funders, many of us tourists and outsiders, we were invited in to learn the real story of Florida.

During this introduction to the tour, we learned that the inequities Floridians are suffering were sown in the earliest days of European colonization, and the roots of revolt stretch just as far back. By the 1800’s, Native Seminole communities were a haven for escaped slaves, and some of the largest anti-slavery uprisings were launched from these enclaves. Post-reconstruction, this blossoming of freedom was repressed with an especially brutal reign of the KKK – Florida had the highest number of lynchings per capita of any southern state. Florida also passed the first “Right to Work” law in the nation, disenfranchising African American communities to maintain the status quo, and built the tourism sector with leased convict labor. Considering these challenges, Cuban, Spanish and Italian workers built strong unions and mounted many strikes at cigar-rolling factories. In 1968 it was out of a failed sanitation strike in St. Petersburg that one of the fastest growing multiracial unions in the south — SEIU Florida Public Service Union – was born. And just this week, Florida passed one of the harshest anti-immigrant bills in the country, banning sanctuary cities and requiring local government agencies to cooperate with ICE.

Learning tour participants sit at tables to listen to local community organizers in a colorful room surrounded by posters.

Photos by Arista Collective

This sense of a violent swing from liberation to repression and back again permeated our time in Florida. We met many of the brilliant leaders riding these waves. They had much to teach us. Like the country at large, Florida is almost perfectly balanced between progressive possibility and conservative ideology. Every election is won or lost by 1%, but a Republican stronghold has held onto power. This means organizers must find ways to engage conservatives around shared values, build an alternate narrative powerful enough to contest for governing power and move the apolitical (30% of voters are unaffiliated), or create new systems of accountability and power outside of government.

We heard examples of all of these strategies. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition recently won a ballot initiative to restore voting rights to people with criminal records by connecting with returning citizens, their families, and the wider community around a sense of justice, not by arguing politics. Alliance for Safety and Justice organizes crime victims around criminal justice reform by talking about failures in public safety. The Statewide Alignment Group, an alliance of 7 organizations including Florida Immigration Coalition, Central Florida Jobs with Justice, and Faith in Florida, are building a new electorate through leadership development, community-based popular education, and ballot initiatives, with Medicaid expansion, automatic voter registration and $15 minimum wage in their sights. The Miami Workers Center organizes victims of domestic violence and domestic workers to fight the feminization of poverty with a shared agenda. All aspire to a new definition of civic engagement, where working people are authors of the laws that affect them, an audacious goal in a state that has long repressed workers. This requires not being “prisoners of the moment” as Alphonso Mayfield of the SEIU called it, but seeing where even failure leads to future change, if there is deep collaboration and engagement over years.

Nelly Rodriguez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers speaks to learning tour participants sitting at a table with her.We also visited Immokalee, a town of migrant workers, small bodegas and vast tomato and citrus farms. Around bright oilcloth-covered tables we heard about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' famous human rights program, built to change the slavery-like conditions on industrial farms. By holding the brands at the top of the supply chain accountable for enforcing worker protections and threatening the loss of sales for farm owners if they did not sign up, workers were able to institute higher pay and standards than even the law requires. Surrounded by hand-painted signs from their marches against Wendy’s, Taco Bell and other corporate giants, we saw the potential of this program, born of necessity in one of the most oppressive regions and industries in the country for low-wage workers.

Unfortunately, philanthropy is not always walking with these activists. While Florida is perceived as a wealthy state, we learned that there are almost no social justice funders in Florida, especially for workers or immigrant rights. Many holders of wealth hail from outside of Florida, and think of the state as their vacation or retirement spot, not where they should be giving back. And national funders aren’t always investing in the most impactful ways. Money pours into Florida for disaster response or to swing the state during election years, focused on numbers, not depth or long-term engagement. These kinds of resources may lead to the problem of “burnt turf,” when voters don’t trust that organizers are really working in their best interest. For long term grassroots investment, Florida often falls through the cracks.

Two people on the learning tour sit in a bus looking out onto farm fields.

Photos by Arista Collective

The Contigo Fund showed us one example of how to do things differently. After the massacre of 49 LGBTQ Latinx young people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a combined effort through crowdfunding and traditional philanthropy raised 30 million for the families and survivors, and 3 million more was raised for longer term efforts. The Contigo Fund carried out an assessment to learn how the community identified the conditions they were facing, the gaps in resources, and their hopes and dreams for change. The resulting grants promoted 37 new LGBTQ leaders of color into positions of power, launched new programs for LGBTQ communities in existing organizations, and helped found 11 new organizations led by LGBTQ people of color in central Florida.

Tarell McCraney, writer of the Academy Award-winning “Moonlight,” called Miami “a beautiful nightmare.”  My sense, after soaking in Florida sunsets and hearing from these activists, is that this moniker could apply to the entire state. Florida has suffered many traumas: historical, environmental, collective and individual. It is top in the nation for poverty-wage jobs, has the highest rate of ICE arrests in the country, and was home to half of all US murders of trans people in 2018. But it also has enormous potential, potential Florida activists and organizers can feel. Some of the most brilliant organizing strategies in the country are emerging from this state, out of the urgency of the moment and the creativity of activists overcoming high barriers. These are the strategies we need to turn this whole country around. Marcia Olivo of the Miami Workers Center shared her belief that out of healing can come collective action, and without this action, healing is incomplete. Philanthropy has an opportunity to help move this, and all the other exciting ideas in Florida, to a place of flourishing.

More about the tour: Tour Agenda | Speaker Bios | Attendees List

We are so grateful to the organizations that worked with us on this tour: Alliance for Safety and Justice, Alianza for Progress, Central Florida Jobs with Justice, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Community Justice ProjectContigo Fund, Dream Defenders, Faith in Florida, Fair Food Standards Council, Family Action Network Movement, Farmworkers Association of Florida, Florida Immigrant Coalition, Florida New Majority, Florida Philanthropic Network, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Miami Workers Center, Organize Florida, QLatinx, SEIU Public Services Union of Florida, VIDA Legal Assistance, WeCount!

May 1, 2019

FFJ Advisor Discussion Series: Jenny Arwade

Photo of JennyJenny Arwade, Co-Executive Director of Communities United and FFJ Field Advisor, tells us about current Chicago happenings and the role of healing justice in “building the power necessary to change the conditions in our communities, dismantle structural racism, and address long term healing through transformative change”.

What are some key fights happening in Chicago that you think folks across the country should be watching?

In Chicago, we are coming off of a historic Mayoral run-off election, with voters electing the city’s first Black, Lesbian woman as Mayor. We now have Black women at the helm of our city, county, and occupying a key position in our state as Lieutenant Governor. All eyes are watching to see if this will help our city lead to progressive change, or if the status quo will merely be reinforced through new leadership. What we do know is that all three women have a stated an ongoing commitment to criminal justice and juvenile justice reform, and addressing the cycle of violence through positive investments in communities.

There are several key things to watch for: Under this new leadership, will we start seeing progress towards community justice reinvestment? — a paradigm shift in which public resources are invested in meeting the employment, housing, educational and health needs in communities of color that have been hardest hit by disinvestment, mass incarceration, and immigration enforcement, rather than perpetuating systems that reinforce trauma, violence, and the separation of families. Can we move from a place of winning critical policy changes, and losing others, to having truly transformational change to preserve Chicago as a city that continues to be home to the poor and working class, and where a holistic racial equity agenda is advanced by both communities and our elected leaders?

This may all sound aspirational – but that is the key challenge ahead of us. We need to not only believe it is possible, but recognize that it will only be possible with visionary demands, coming from communities most directly impacted. While having people that represent the identities of our communities is an important aspect of the paradigm shifts we are working towards, we know from history that it is not just who represents us, but the movement for change that is built from the ground up that will make the difference.

Why does Communities United use a Healing Justice Frame? How is Healing Justice central and vital to your work and the work of Communities United?

“We are the solution we need”

Communities United’s Healing Justice frame is centered around the need to decolonize health and wellness. While there is growing attention to the medical benefits of mindfulness, yoga, and other practices that are deeply rooted in the ancestry of people of color, they are also becoming billion dollar industries that in many cases continue to fuel corporate profit, and underscore elitism, cultural appropriation, and a lack of access for communities most directly impacted by trauma.

CU’s approach is grounded in the notion that we all have the capacity to be our own healers, and support the healing and wellness of those around us – that we ARE the solution we need. Breaking it down very simply, our approach to healing justice focuses on the sharing of our stories and our wounds, building a community of support, moving to collective action, and being conscious of our own movement and breath as we build together. We believe that every act of self-love and individual recovery is an act of heroic living. By building a critical mass of individuals who are redefining what investments in communities need to look like, we are building heroic communities. This leads to building the type of power needed to hold public systems accountable and advance change that is truly transformational.

What do you want funders to better understand about the healing justice frame?

We believe that a healing justice frame creates a pathway for systems change and community change that is transformational. Through our work with mental health professionals, we have broad agreement both that the scope and impact of trauma is so expansive that clinical supports will never be enough, and that there are often no systems available that reflect the cultural dynamics and histories of communities of color. We also have agreement that the critical role of community in supporting the healing process is not widely recognized or valued through traditional systems, even though it can have the most powerful impacts. Healing needs to be broadly accessible, and the reason community plays a vital role is that it is rooted in relationship – our relationship to ourselves, each other, and our understanding of the world around us. We all have the power to be our own healers, and to help each other on the healing process.

Partnerships are also critical in this work. CU partners with organizations that have values and approaches that are aligned with our healing justice frame, such as organizations focused on supporting individuals suffering from addiction along their path to recovery using approaches that include traditional healing practices, and more. These partnerships are critical to bringing the breadth of community wisdom and values-aligned health institutions together to advance our healing justice work.

We are currently working to build movement with our Healing and Justice Transformation framework across communities. Our hope is that the more we all share and make resources accessible, the more this work can grow and become part of the fabric of how communities and institutions are engaging in this work. As we work to decolonize health and wellness, we believe there is a crucial role for mental health professionals, especially those that come from our communities, but that healing and wellness is a movement approach.

How do you understand the political moment that we’re in? What do you think we need to do differently right now?

Healing justice is about building the power necessary to change the conditions in our communities, dismantle structural racism, and address long term healing through transformative change. If we believe that “we are the solution we need,” then we need to trust communities to define our own needs, what makes us well, and not try to fit anything into a box. In this political moment, as in all political moments, we have to look back to our roots. Healing justice is not a new shiny object, but an approach grounded in our ancestry and past movements, and propelled by the vision of our next generation of leaders.