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.

 

January 22, 2020

NFG Member Spotlight: The Libra Foundation

Logo of The Libra FoundationThe Libra Foundation staff: Angie Chen (Senior Program Officer), Crystal Hayling (Executive Director), Ashley Clark (Knowledge & Grants Manager), Jennifer Agmi (Senior Program Officer)

(L-R): Angie Chen (Senior Program Officer), Crystal Hayling (Executive Director), Ashley Clark (Knowledge & Grants Manager), Jennifer Agmi (Senior Program Officer)

NFG's network is composed of 120+ members that work in every part of the nation, in both urban and rural settings, and includes private and public foundations, community foundations, family foundations, corporate foundations, faith-based funders, and other grantmaking institutions. 

We recently connected with Crystal Hayling and The Libra Foundation team about their growth and vision for 2020, which organizations are giving them inspiration in this moment, and why they continue to invest in NFG with their renewed and increased membership.

We love to connect with our members! Share your experiences as part of the NFG network by getting in touch with Lindsay Ryder, Senior Membership Manager, at lindsay@nfg.org.


 
  1. How do notions of people, power, and place fit in with Libra’s grantmaking approach?

The organizations Libra supports are building a world where low-income communities of color have the power to determine their own freedom, define safety, and thrive in healthy environments. Families that are separated by mass incarceration, communities whose voting rights are suppressed, and neighborhoods suffering from contamination are among the many ways people, power, and place are at the foundation of structural oppression, and, therefore, the heart of Libra’s grantmaking approach. We are centering organizations building power through grassroots community organizing, deep network and coalition building, and progressive advocacy for lasting solutions that work for all.
 

  1. Libra has gone through a bit of a transformation over the past few years, including a new ED and larger staff, a larger public profile, and a refined grantmaking strategy. How has being a part of NFG’s network informed or served Libra along the way?

Transformation is a daily practice - a collection of intentions and ideals - with no clear point of arrival. I knew when I joined Libra as Executive Director I wanted to help guide a team of passionate, heart-driven individuals who are committed to doing philanthropy differently and moving resources to frontline communities. We are so grateful to the NFG network for guiding and supporting the changes we continue to undergo. NFG’s community of funders and activists have a rigorous and thorough analysis that not only informs our community’s understanding and actions, but pushes us all to do better. The network brings together social movement leaders and funders that drive our field to be accountable and unified in our vision for justice.
 

  1. Libra recently renewed its membership with NFG, opting to increase its membership level for 2020. As we enter NFG’s 40th Anniversary year, what are your hopes and plans for engaging with the NFG network?

We are intentionally investing more in NFG because of our shared belief in organizing institutional funders to mobilize more resources for grassroots power building. Too often in philanthropy we are siloed by issue areas. Meanwhile, the same folks who are most impacted by criminal justice are disproportionately affected by gender and environmental justice as well. Although it’s vital to develop and focus on expertise in each of these areas, it’s critical that we as funders take an intersectional approach that recognizes these truths. NFG is leading in this regard, especially in its prioritization of people of color, and Libra aims to do the same.

Our team is planning to engage more in Funders for Justice this year. Lorraine Ramirez helped orient us to all the avenues for collaboration, and we’re excited to learn more from the field advisors and members. And we are really looking forward to this summer’s national convening! A lot has happened since the NFG community got together last in 2018 and we’re hoping that the entire Libra staff will be in attendance.
 

  1. Of NFG’s 125 member organizations, are there any funders you would like to give a shout out to for inspiring or partnering with Libra?

What an inspiring group! We are motivated and encouraged by so many of our peer members at NFG. We are fortunate to be in community with lots of NFG members and look forward to deepening relationships. 

To name a few that are a part of the Libra grantee community, Groundswell Fund is doing incredible work in the reproductive justice field protecting women, nonbinary, and trans folks of color across the country. Proteus Fund houses essential donor collaborative funds (like Rise Together Fund) and fiscally sponsors many of Libra’s grantees. And of course Common Counsel, which among many other philanthropic services houses Native Voices Rising, a fund that supports Native-led community driven projects across Turtle Island.

When we began refining our strategies here at Libra, we leaned on many of our friends in the NFG network. Specifically in environmental and climate justice, we are learning from close colleagues like Mertz Gilmore Foundation and Surdna Foundation that have shifted their strategies to uplift frontline leadership and people centered solutions to the climate crisis. And we continue to be inspired by colleagues that have led the charge to do philanthropy differently, like Marguerite Casey Foundation and Chorus Foundation (among many others!).

  1. And most importantly, are there any community leaders or organizations that you’ve been connected to through NFG’s network that Libra is supporting or that you are inspired by?

Specifically in 2019, members of our program team attended the Funders for a Just Economy Racial Capitalism convening. We were blown away by presentations from Trans United, which supports visionary trans leadership, and ACRE Institute, which organizes campaigns working at the intersection of racial justice and Wall Street accountability. Following that convening and based on recommendations from partners in the field, Libra funded both in our latest docket.

 

January 15, 2020

Racial Capitalism, Power & Resistance: Keynote Videos & Highlights for 2020

In October 2019, NFG's Funders for a Just Economy (FJE) held a breakthrough Racial Capitalism, Power and Resistance Convening, an unprecedented conversation with more than 70 funder participants on the racial and gendered inequality defining US and global capitalism — and the role of philanthropy within these structures. FJE is moving this conversation into action in 2020. Towards that goal, we are recapping the convening and providing video from the seminal keynote talks by Dr. Ananya Roy and Dr. Barbara Ransby that grounded our meeting.  

Nine speakers who were at the convening.

Top (L-R): Dr. Barbara Ransby, Mónica Ramírez, Dr. Ananya Roy
Middle (L-R): Cindy Weisner, Alicia Garza, Aaron Tanaka
Bottom (L-R): Dimple Abichandani, Farhad Ebrahimi, Pamela Shifman

FJE’s Racial Capitalism, Power and Resistance Convening was about asking hard questions and opening a conversation about the underlying history of the US economy and the origins of philanthropy as a way to ground us in how to support powerful resistance movements. Through this piece, we wanted to bring you some of the critical questions that stuck with us — and ways to move forward the themes and ideas generously offered by our activist-academic, movement, and philanthropic speakers and participants.

Who are we in alliance with? And how does that shape the real choices funders make?

Dr. Ananya Roy started off our conversation with a powerful question: Can we decolonize philanthropy in a real way? She also offered a proposition: We can’t do so without facing the way foundations are based in “twice-stolen wealth” — profit extracted via exploitative racialized capitalist means and through evading public taxation. [1]

Dr. Roy offered the example of her work with the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA, working to “turn the university inside out” through co-creation of knowledge alongside movement leaders; simplifying funding opportunities for community organizations; and paid, unfettered residency programs for activists. She pushed us to reflect on “what additional work we create for communities” through our grantmaking practices and the “difficult choices we must make on who we are in alliance with” — including standing up when foundations undermine community-led liberation movements.

You can hear Dr. Roy's keynote, Decolonizing Philanthropy? A View from The Public University, in the video below.

How do we define and confront the deep histories of racialized capitalism?

FJE presented a portion of the Action Center on Race & the Economy and Grassroots Collaborative’s popular education workshop on racial capitalism. The material examined how core institutions of US capitalism — like banking — built wealth directly off the slave economy and indigenous genocide. Grappling with the inextricable connection between racism, patriarchy, and capitalism raised the fact that Black women and other people of color also face these traumas every day in philanthropy. How can funders collectively support healing among philanthropic staff as they find ways to fund movements genuinely addressing the genocidal histories of greed?

“What happens when we put life [and sustaining it] at the center of our work?” — Cindy Wiesner

To bring us into how contemporary movements are confronting racial and gendered capitalism, Alicia Garza of the Black Futures Lab led a conversation with Mónica Ramírez of Justice for Migrant Women, Aaron Tanaka of the Center for Economic Democracy and Cindy Wiesner of Grassroots Global Justice. These leaders shared that grassroots, collaborative, feminist, and anti-capitalist social justice movements serve as “kryptonite” (in Cindy Wiesner’s words) to racial capitalism and neo-fascism. These movements range from organizing for a Green New Deal to local democratic investment structures, to migrant women-led sexual harassment activism. Speakers challenged funders to work alongside communities to resource experimentation and “freedom dreaming” — and to understand the solutions won’t come quickly or easily. They also asked foundations to use their own power — as investors and public figures — to take on racial capitalism.

What power do we have in our institutions? And how do we shift power with communities?

Pamela Shifman, formerly of Novo Foundation; Dimple Abichandani of General Service Foundation; and Farhad Ebrahimi of Chorus Foundation shared how as Executive Directors and alumni of NFG's Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change Fellowship, they recognized and acted on their power to shift their institutions and the sector. As Dimple Abichandani noted, “These rules and practices that we work in come out of racial capitalism and corporate compliance frameworks. We can decide to change those.”

The speakers raised the fact that while education programs are plenty, actively organizing foundations towards collective goals through leadership development — like Philanthropy Forward — is rarer but necessary. Foundation staff also rarely hold other funders publicly accountable – perhaps because feel that they cannot tell others what to do with their money. Yet recent campaigns to discourage the Gates Foundation in awarding the fascist, Hindu-nationalist aligned Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggest insurgent philanthropy is percolating.

What are the projects we fund to undo racial capitalism, and what logics are the projects based on?

On Day 2 of the Racial Capitalism, Power and Resistance Convening, Dr. Barbara Ransby offered three key elements to understand racial capitalism today: First, the irreconcilable relationship between capitalism's “infinite growth model on a finite planet;” second, financialization and the global “ponzi scheme;” and third, automation’s influence on worker's lives and consumption. She urged us to hold these contemporary capitalist crises with their roots in slavery and empire.

Dr. Ransby offered that dealing with this past and present means actively confronting white supremacy and nationalism; “building as we undo” through solidarity economies and other alternatives; and thoughtfully advancing abolition and reparations. Such ongoing processes require reckoning with anti-Blackness and asking: “How do you relinquish some of the power [that you have over organizations] and see yourself with a greater sense of humility?”

You can watch Dr. Ransby's keynote, Racial Capitalism, Power and Black Radical Tradition, in the video below.

“How do we show up, use our collective assets, and stand behind our grantees?” — Marjona Jones

Marjona Jones of the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, José García of the Ford Foundation, Emma Oppenhiem of Open Society Foundations, and Shona Chakravartty of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, in conversation with Anna Quinn of NoVo Foundation, brought the meeting home with a dialogue on how we could take tangible action, including through the Funders for a Just Economy.

Participants then honed in on key work areas to follow-up on after the event including: building accountability mechanisms in philanthropy; transforming partnerships with our grantees; healing and strategizing together as co-conspirators; remaking tax structures and philanthropic asset management.

Stay tuned for more from FJE as we work together to provide the space and tools for philanthropy to take these ideas into action into 2020 — and into a more just tomorrow.

 

[1] Roy was quoting Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2009). “In the Shadow of the Shadow State” in The Revolution Will Not be Funded (edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. Boston: South End Press, 2009). http://sfonline.barnard.edu/navigating-neoliberalism-in-the-academy-nonp...