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.

 

October 24, 2019

Reflections from Philanthropy Forward's First Cohort

Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change is a CEO fellowship program created by Neighborhood Funders Group and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. The program's first cohort started in October 2018 in furtherance of building and advancing a shared vision for the future of philanthropy.

Hear perspectives from members of the first cohort as they reflect in this video on their work together as strategic thought partners, addressing philanthropy's most challenging issues and aligning to build a financial engine for social change.

2018 - 2019 Philanthropy Forward Cohort

A grid with individual photos of each of the 20 members of Philanthropy Forward's 2018-2918 cohort..

Click here for participant bios

  • Dimple Abichandani, General Service Foundation
  • Sharon Alpert, Nathan Cummings Foundation
  • Elizabeth Barajas-Roman, Solidago Foundation
  • Ned Calonge, The Colorado Trust
  • Irene Cooper-Basch, Victoria Foundation
  • Farhad A. Ebrahimi, The Chorus Foundation
  • Nicky Goren, Meyer Foundation
  • Justin Maxson, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation
  • Joan Minieri, Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock
  • Maria Mottola, New York Foundation
  • Mike Pratt, Scherman Foundation
  • Jocelyn Sargent, Hyams Foundation
  • Pamela Shifman, NoVo Foundation
  • Starsky D. Wilson, Deaconess Foundation
  • Steve Patrick, Aspen Institute Forum for Community solutions
  • Dennis Quirin, Raikes Foundation
September 10, 2019

For Love of Humankind: A Call to Action for Southern Philanthropy

Justin Maxson, Executive Director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, calls on fellow funding organizations based in the South to respond to the federal government's anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies with three concrete actions. This post was originally published here on the foundation's website.

Justin was part of the first Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change Fellowship cohort, a joint initiative of Neighborhood Funders Group and The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, which strives to help people and places move out of poverty and achieve greater social and economic justice, is a member of NFG.


 

Justin MaxsonWe are issuing a clarion call to Southern philanthropic organizations to respond to the manic drumbeat of anti-immigrant rhetoric and cruelty coming from the White House. This month began with a mass shooting targeting the Latinx community. Days later, massive raids tore apart hundreds of families and destabilized Mississippi communities but levied no consequences for the corporate leadership that lures vulnerable people to work in grueling, dangerous conditions. It is astounding that since those events, with the resulting fear and trauma still reverberating through immigrant communities across America, the administration has: 

  • repeated its intention to end birthright citizenship, a 14th Amendment guarantee that babies born on American soil are citizens. 
  • attempted to terminate the Flores Agreement, which sets standards for the care of children in custody. This would allow the administration to detain migrant families indefinitely in facilities where children are dying of influenza, yet flu shots are not administrated, where children are sexually assaulted, where soap, toothbrushes, human contact and play are not standard, and where breastfeeding babies are taken from their mothers. Child separation is known to cause permanent psychological trauma and brain damage.
  • announced changes to the so-called “public charge rule” to make it harder for legal immigrants to secure citizenship if they use public assistance. As our partners at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argue, this change would cause many to “forgo assistance altogether, resulting in more economic insecurity and hardship, with long-term negative consequences, particularly for children.” Further, the decision “rests on the erroneous assumption that immigrants currently of modest means are harmful to our nation and our economy, devaluing their work and contributions and discounting the upward mobility immigrant families demonstrate.”

There was also a recent effort to effectively end asylum altogether at the southern border. And despite the Supreme Court ruling blocking the citizenship question from the 2020 census, advocates believe the debate will depress response rates. As we wrote earlier this month, this administration’s animus against immigrants and increasingly aggressive ICE actions are compounding the devastating effects on communities across the country. 

Why Southern philanthropy? 

An analysis of recent grantmaking by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy found our region has deportation rates five times higher than the rest of the country, yet Southern pro-immigrant organizations receive paltry philanthropic funding. Barely one percent of all money granted by the 1,000 largest foundations benefits immigrants and refugees, and even that money doesn’t go to state and local groups that are accountable to grassroots and immigrant communities. Organizations in Southern states receive less than half of the state and local funding of California, New York and Illinois. 

Where to begin? 

Speak up. As Desmund Tutu taught us, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Use your institutional voice to influence decisionmakers.

Examine your foundation’s policies. Find out if your endowment is invested in private detention centers. Consider how supporting organizing, power building and policy advocacy could advance your mission. NCRP has more recommendations in its report.

Give generously. Our partners at Hispanics in Philanthropy have curated a list of organizations helping the families affected by the raids across Mississippi. Our partners at Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees have compiled a list of ways to help, from rapid response grants to long-term strategies. 

Many of the Babcock Foundation’s grantee partners are doing more and more immediate protection work, stretching themselves thin and often putting themselves at risk. They are keeping families intact in the short term while building power for the long term, so history will stop repeating: 

If you know of more resources, please share them. If you’d like to learn more about the organizations on the ground across the South – or think about ways we can do more together – contact us. We are always looking to learn and act in alignment with our fellow funders toward a shared vision of a strong, safe, welcoming and equitable region. 

Activist Jane Addams said, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us.” Regardless of a foundation’s mission, abject cruelty surely undermines it. It also undermines the most basic tenet of philanthropy, which literally means “love for humankind.” We see no love in this administration. It’s up to all of us to spread it.