Philanthropy on the Frontlines of Ferguson

The Deaconess Foundation seeks to shift public policy, mobilize community members, and strengthen advocacy efforts related to children and youth.

By Rev. Starsky D. Wilson

Standford Social Innovation Review - Spring 2016

Few moments in life are filled with the hope and promise of a high school graduation. Marked by celebration and anticipation of the future, commencement is one of the most important milestones in a young person’s life. For students in Normandy High School’s class of 2014, though, graduation was also a stark reminder of the deep inequities facing many of America’s young people. The district, in a suburb of St. Louis, had lost its accreditation in 2012, and in 2013 it found itself at the center of a school transfer debacle that at one point saw dozens of white parents from nearby suburbs yelling for Normandy’s predominantly black young people to leave the schools in their communities and “go home.” Shortly after graduation in 2014, the Missouri State Board of Education announced that the Normandy School District would close that same year.

Then Michael Brown Jr. was shot. Brown was one of the last students to fulfill the requirements for graduation in the Normandy School District. The events in Ferguson since his death have underscored the health impact and trauma of racism, from incidents experienced on the street to the implicit bias found in institutions. In brief, the summer of 2014 marked the very public diagnosis of an unhealthy community with suffering youth and racial inequity as the most prominent symptoms.

Brown’s death at the hands of former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson sparked a national dialogue about racial inequality. It brought home the point that, just as place and poverty are social determinants of health, racial equity is an important indicator of our communities’ health. This dialogue has been a critically important step toward addressing the complex challenges and deep fissures that exist in communities plagued by racial tension and economic instability. But we at Deaconess Foundation strongly believe that in order to overcome these challenges and heal the fissures, the dialogue must be followed by action on a systemic level.

Beyond Grantmaking 

At Deaconess, we came to the conclusion that a systemic approach to change was the best course of action—for us, and for other foundations seeking to effect lasting change—a few years ago. Deaconess is the successor of the Evangelical Deaconess Society of St. Louis; it began its grantmaking in 1998 with proceeds from the sale of the Deaconess Incarnate Word Health System.

In the spirit of its United Church of Christ faith heritage, our mission is to improve the health of the St. Louis metropolitan community and its residents. The foundation envisions a community that values the health and well-being of all children and gives priority attention to the most vulnerable. The first of our five core values is justice, as we believe that “a just society is essential for the full achievement of individual and community health.”

In November 2013, Deaconess decided to build on a decade of knowledge and deep relationships with child-serving agencies and congregational partners to expand impact through a community capacitybuilding plan. The plan aims to shift public policy, mobilize community members, and strengthen advocacy efforts related to children and young people. The plan also seeks to expand the role of the foundation by providing the community with resources in addition to funding—specifically, by investing reputational and relational capital as an influencer, convener, and broker.

Those efforts set the stage for our response after the shooting. Ten days into the uprising and widespread civil unrest in Ferguson, Deaconess made a flexible funding commitment of $100,000 to support youth organizing. In 2015, Deaconess followed up by establishing the Ferguson Youth Organizing Fund, which allows other donors to invest through Deaconess. We also launched a new grant opportunity that provides dedicated annual funding for youth organizing. Deaconess’s response to the uprising attracted the interest of funders outside the region. To date, outside funding partners have been as diverse as the Public Welfare Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the NBA Players’ Association Foundation, Casey Family Programs, and Anheuser Busch InBev.

To advance racial and socioeconomic equity post-Ferguson, the foundation’s ability to build and sustain relationships at both grasstops and grassroots levels is even more important than the dollars invested. From nonviolent direct actions (including being arrested with clergy leaders attempting to enter the US Attorney’s office on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death) to closed-door strategy meetings, Deaconess staff members have engaged directly, taking on coordinating roles with community organizers, elected officials, law enforcement, local clergy, civil rights activists, and national funders.

The Ferguson Commission

The various roles Deaconess played in the wake of the unrest led to an invitation from Missouri Governor Jeremiah Nixon for me to co-chair the Ferguson Commission. Created by executive order in November 2014, the Ferguson Commission has been called an experiment in inclusive democracy. It has engaged more than 2,200 citizens and 100 subject matter experts in more than 60 public meetings, and it has marshalled nearly 20,000 volunteer hours to explore issues such as citizen-law enforcement relations, municipal courts and governance, racial and ethnic relations, regional disparities in health, education, housing, transportation, child care, and family and community stability.

The commission’s nearly $1 million budget was funded primarily by the State of Missouri through economic development, community service, and community development block grant dollars. Funding was also provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Missouri Foundation for Health, and Deaconess Foundation. The United Way of Greater St. Louis served as the commission’s fiscal agent.

The Ferguson Commission report, Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity, was released on September 14, 2015. It includes 189 calls to action for regional and statewide policymakers. Priority recommendations are organized into four categories: racial equity, justice for all, youth at the center, and opportunities to thrive. The life expectancy gap among citizens in this region differs by almost 40 years depending on ZIP code, with residents of majority white municipalities outliving majority black ones by decades.1 The state of Missouri ranked 50th in the racial discipline gap among primary- school-aged children and 47th among secondary school students.2 According to the University of Missouri-St. Louis Public Policy Research Center, the 2012 gross domestic product for the St. Louis region would have been $13.56 billion greater (at $151.3 billion) if there had been no racial income gap.3

The commission’s findings and recommendations were telling, but the report’s frame is vital. The report is about race, regionalism, and responsiveness to community outcries. The very first page states, “We know that talking about race makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But make no mistake: this is about race.” With the numerous studies and increased attention focused on the area—from US Department of Justice reports to President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing—it was important that the Ferguson Commission produced a “People’s Report,” informed and owned by citizens rather than elected officials or policy wonks.

Leading the commission gave Deaconess the opportunity to influence the prioritizing of policy recommendations, and we emphasized the need to advance racial and health equity, as well as to create policies that are supported by research and that will have generational impact. As the commission moved toward implementation and evaluation, the foundation’s experience supporting collective impact further informed the discussion. Since the recommendations became public, Deaconess has convened a group of community organizing and advocacy organizations to coordinate campaigns and public actions to assure accountability for civic leaders. In November 2015, we worked with activists to host two public accountability meetings where civic leaders—including the attorney general, the city mayor, legislators, the Chamber of Commerce president, and school superintendents—pledged support for Ferguson Commission calls to action.

In many ways, the Ferguson Commission gave Deaconess an opportunity to learn and explore its emerging approach to social change in real time. Public testimony from people directly affected assured robust community engagement in policy development. Foundation leaders advocated with partner organizations within work groups and with elected officials. Foundation funding undergirded each element of the process. This experiment in inclusive democracy has accelerated staff learning and validated relatively new governance platforms, including a policy and community advisory board that includes youth voices and elected officials informing our long-term program.

Looking Ahead

Michael Brown Jr.’s death was singular in its impact on raising national awareness about racial inequities, but his experience in the St. Louis region was not uncommon. His classmates effectively started their adult lives through the haze of tear gas. They still face barriers that limit their quality of life and life expectancy. The disparities are vast and the need is pressing. If philanthropy wants to continue to be venture capital for social change, health foundations and others must recognize the root causes of the problems they are trying to solve. They must invest in our most vulnerable young people’s future by supporting systemic change.

Notes
1 St. Louis County, Comprehensive Planning Division, “Aging Successfully in St. Louis County,” 2014.
2 Daniel Losen, Cheri Hodson, Michael A. Keith II, et al., “Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?” The Center for Civil Rights Remedies, February 2015.
3 Public Policy Research Center, “An Equity Assessment of the St. Louis Region,” University of Missouri-St. Louis, 2015.
The Reverend Starsky D. Wilson is a pastor, philanthropist, and activist pursuing God’s vision of community marked by justice, peace, and love. He is president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation, pastor of Saint John’s Church (The Beloved Community), and co-chair of the Ferguson Commission.

Read the original post in the Standford Social Innovation Review.

 

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