Strike Watch: San Francisco Foundation's Jidan Terry-Koon on Finding our (Philanthropic) Front Lines
As part of our ongoing coverage and analysis of the many uprising for economic justice – from the Strikes for Black Lives to fights for basic protections in the age of COVID-19 – we wanted to get the perspectives from FJE members on how they are changing their practices to better support economic justice organizing in this dynamic moment. FJE was fortunate to sit (virtually) down with San Francisco Foundation’s Jidan Terry-Koon, MPA, Director of SFF’s People pathway. She oversees a unique portfolio that integrates criminal justice, worker organizing, and community wealth building towards economic inclusion with a movement building and intersectional lens. Terry-Koon is also our newest FJE Coordinating Committee member, and we’re excited for her contributions and leadership in our community. (For more on how to join broader FJE and our committees, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Tell us a little about your journey into philanthropy: What motivated you to take up this portfolio linking economic and transformative justice at San Francisco Foundation, and to join FJE’s coordinating committee?
I come from a movement family and grassroots organizing, particularly with young people. I had come up in unpaid organizing as a youth, got in trouble with the law, and was referred to the East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC) when I was a freshman in high school. That was my first formal experience with nonprofits in youth development and direct services for systems change. EBAYC was a formative experience for me and I spent years afterwards diving into different aspects of social change that I was exposed to there: direct services, grassroots policy change, leadership development, faith based organizing (via EBAYC’s long-time partner PICO affiliate), coalition building, and civic engagement. Among other things, I ran a multi-service youth center with a youth organizing group called Youth Together in the Bay. I consulted at the Movement Strategy Center (MSC) around alliance building and transformative organizing. Right prior to starting in philanthropy 3.5 years ago, I was doing integrated voter engagement with what used to be Mobilize the Immigrant Vote, California (now Power CA). At the time, I was the Deputy Director and once we hit 2016, I was clear that I needed to find work that was more sustainable for a mom with young kids.
I’m the fourth generation of my family that’s Chinese living here in the Bay Area, but I’m the first generation born and raised here because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. I have a really deep connection to the Bay Area. I could see the area changing all around me, and when I looked at the agenda that Fred Blackwell brought in when he took the helm at SFF, I thought, “I could get down with this.” It was about racial and economic equity explicitly – within the context of displacement specifically. SFF had 3 main teams on the grantmaking side – People, Power and Place. Just seeing there was a standalone Power team made me feel like, “Oh yeah, if there’s anywhere in philanthropy I can make a home, this is it.”
After I entered philanthropy, I’ve been trying to find places where my politics are aligned. It’s not enough to be an individual funder who “gets it” – I see institutions that have a number of people who “get it” in terms of what non-profit life is like and with firm understanding of racial justice and social change. However, that doesn’t mean that those individuals automatically lead to the institutions or philanthropy acting in ways that more partnered with and accountable to community. Just like in organizing, it’s important to be part of networks outside of one’s organization in order to take on collective work to shift institutions and the philanthropic sector. I’m looking for folks to be in community with – to learn from, to get support from, and to move together with - in philanthropy to advance a common narrative about why there is so much economic inequity (like racial capitalism) and to open up the endless possibilities derived from the work of folks on the ground to make a better, more inclusive economic system. Having a shared analysis about the problem helps to get us to common solutions. In philanthropy, people don’t always want to spend time to come together to build a common analysis. I love FJE because its a vehicle dedicated to just that.
From your position, how do you see workers taking the lead on the conversation challenging criminalization and working towards abolition? How has this changed/grown over the last few months, with the rise of worker and BLM organizing?
An obvious answer would be the Strike For Black Lives on July 20th where thousands of workers across the country stood up for Black lives. One of our grantees is Jobs with Justice San Francisco – they led an action in San Francisco calling out the police union, uniting many local labor groups to put pressure on the local police officers association to not block proposed police reforms. There’s also a video that Institute on Othering and Belonging did for the Strike for Black Lives. It’s such a ripe time to connect race (anti-Blackness in particular), workers, and economy – which FJE is doing through its racial capitalism programming. That’s the thing – if people want to address systemic racism, you have to address our economic order. Those two things go together. Racial capitalism is specific about what the problem is and will lead us to more root cause solutions - more transformative solutions. A funder affinity group that I look towards for thought partnership, called ReWork the Bay, is conducting a learning community on racial capitalism this Fall – I’m really excited about that too.
Jobs with Justice SF in front of San Francisco City Hall on the Strike for Black Lives on July 20th, 2020. (Photo Credit: JwJ San Francisco)
However, I think there is a more layered response to the question that you asked. It's hard to answer this question for me in some respects because I don’t see the issues of workers as different than the demands that are being advanced by BLM. Many of the people on the streets are Black workers. The “worker” piece of their identity may not be the “leading” identity that is activated so in our siloed sector of philanthropy, it can be easy to not see that interaction of workers and the Movement for Black Lives. In addition, the Movement for Black Lives’ call is to defend ALL Black lives, Black life in all its facets – Black trans folks, Black workers, Black mothers, etc. So the entry way of race and Blackness brings us into all the other identities – of which “worker” is a key one. And it is important to center the race part of the identity because police violence and so much more impacts all Black people, whether one is a “worker” or not.
Secondly, a nuance that helps us see the intersection of Black people and workers is how we define “worker”. When I joined the People Team, I sought out mentorship in the worker organizing sector – and I was lucky enough to have Steven Pitts, formerly of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, play that role with me. One of the many things he taught me was that the Bay Area Black Workers Center (currently on haitus) defined “worker” as people who were working or people who want to work – so it didn’t depend on one’s employment status. This was an important way to define Black workers and worker power expansively as well as to take into explicit account the disproportionately high unemployment rates in the Black community due to systematic exclusion of Black people from the formal economy. So, folks that are out in the streets or advocating in others ways around abolition are Black workers – employed, unemployed, looking for a job, or excluded from big swaths of the labor market due to contact with the criminal justice system and anti-Black racism.
Thirdly, the issues of criminal justice, abolition, and economic dislocation in Black communities (and other communities of color) are intimately connected. As more people come into awareness of the inception of policing as rooted in fugitive slave patrols, we can remember that the origins of many parts of our criminal justice system (like the convict leasing system) are rooted in the history of racism against Black people in this country. And as we remember that, we can also remember that the police, and criminal justice system in general, were the frontlines of the enforcement of an economic system that required cheap or no-cost labor. To this day, this continues to be the case – thus all of FJE’s work on racial capitalism! Another thought partner and leader, Danielle Mahones, shared that when the Bay Area Black Worker Center began its campaign work, it conducted a survey of 300+ Black workers on their aspirations, needs, barriers, and so forth. The number one issue that these workers identified as a barrier to their well-being was the criminal justice system.
The idea that criminal justice and/or abolition are separate from issues of economic justice or workers is a symptom of how little philanthropy has centered Black communities – including in our approach to work, workers, and economy. I am convinced that if more of philanthropy that is engaged in economic advancement surveyed Black communities like the Bay Area Black Workers Center did, that we would already know that criminal justice is a core barrier. That is why I am so proud of how SFF and our team has put together a portfolio that (although we have a lot to learn still!) is intentionally trying to de-silo these issues. One final note is that our community wealth strategy also emanates from the historic efforts of Black communities in the South to establish the first land trusts where civil rights leaders could live, free from harassment and exercise self-determination. Philanthropy has such a huge opportunity right now to step back to connect these dots and center the experience of Black communities in how we define both issues as well as the strategies to get to a more inclusive economy.
How do you see grassroots groups leading right now in the front lines in shaping the frameworks and analysis, and helping us connect the dots for transformative change?
One framework that does a great job how things are related and that began to emerge out of the grassroots is the Just Transition framework. This is just my humble understanding, but it basically front and centers the economic order that puts profit before people and planet as the organizing principle of the world we live in, in other words: racial capitalism. That system uses race and racism to understand whose labor and lives are valued – and all of our social norms, such as gender and racism, are put in place to hold the economic order together. Basically, the military and the law enforcement infrastructure is just that: the front lines of the enforcement of the economic and social order. So when you think about the current movement, it makes sense that policing is a flashpoint. AND, people see beyond the police, and are really angry about the economic and social order the police are there to protect. That larger economic and social order is part of what’s being called into question. Just Transition as a framework does a great job of explaining how those things interrelate.
We have another grantee in Richmond, California: Safe Return project led by Tamisha Walker. She has built an organizing shop for and by formerly incarcerated and systems-impacted people not just taking on criminal justice issues but also other social justice issues. She’s working with the Institute of Othering and Belonging to bring the divest/invest criminal justice frame and Just Transitions together. They are working on that framework and going to produce a video together. What I see in that and in other work is people are linking economy and race and the environment. People are starting to connect the dots between all those things, and that synergy is going to build an amazing, powerful mega-movement. We are already seeing the work in the street, but the ideology and worldview is developing – some people and organizations have held these views for a long time but not at this reach. A lot of organizers have been working a long time trying to bring these movements together. It’s very inspiring - and what is needed.
What has your work taught you about how funders can be genuine partners for worker/Black and brown-led organizing (including labor unions) in these areas of economic justice and abolition?
In most of philanthropy, there is real pressure to go towards counting how many policy wins or how many campaigns that impact how many people. But I believe the way to go to is to fund movement building. We don’t control the political situation, but any time you invest in movement building you are investing in the leadership and infrastructure to build the capacity of communities to both be proactive as well as to respond to the changing political conditions. I look at the movement now and I’m like, that is the product of so many years of leadership development – wins as well losses, relationship building, all the things that don’t get counted or get the same kind of shine in philanthropy. From a value-add perspective, this the work that is the hardest to fund – so if you can get your shop to fund it, that could be the highest and best use of that funding.
I think it’s also how we make the language, analysis, and funding approach in our economic inclusion portfolio – how do we have it mirror that of social movements? Our team consults deeply with our grantees to create strategy, guidelines, and framing. Then we are able to be amplifiers of the worldview being pushed by organizing groups and use our time to educate our donors and other funders about that worldview. An example is our third strategy towards economic inclusion: Community Wealth. This strategy entails supporting groups that are re-imagining an economy based on democratic ownership and governance. We fund cooperatively owned business, land, and housing – and this is the kind of transformative restructuring of economy towards a vision like the one laid out in the Just Transitions framework.
Lastly, when and if we bring together groups for learning or other kinds of convenings or cohorts, its most useful when the idea for the convening or cohort emerges from grantees and they get be part of identifying the goals and universe of people that are invited as well as are engaged deeply in the design of those spaces. For example, grantees asked the People Team for a regional worker rights learning cohort. Well, when grantees ask for that type of thing, I am so excited! We enlisted the Chinese Progressive Association, Jobs with Justice SF, and the UC Berkeley Labor Center to identify the groups within our regional eco-system of worker rights organizations. Then, we surveyed those organizations about who they wanted to be in community with, their goals, and the topics they would want to learn about. Based on the survey, the Chinese Progressive Association was the group that came up the most times as a group that worker rights organizations wanted to be in community with so we asked them to co-design the cohort with the UC Berkeley Labor Center and SFF. We offered stipends above and beyond their existing core operating grants to participate in the cohort – with the hopes that this would help with making it okay for organizations to opt out of the cohort if it was not useful to them. These are just some examples of ways to work in partnership and even out the power dynamics between philanthropy and grantees.
What keeps you showing up in your philanthropic work, and what are you looking to see accomplish going forward in philanthropy to support economic justice work?
A couple things excite me right now. The first is the opportunity for philanthropy to step back and connect the dots between issues of workers, abolition, economy, and the environment – through a lens that centralizes Black and Indigenous communities as well as other peoples of color. I want to learn with my team about how to deepen this practice, share with others, and expanding the reach of this approach. I want to learn a lot more about the landscape of Indigenous led and serving groups in the Bay Area.
"Find your front lines wherever it is – and really push. Part of the front line on the streets is the idea of risk, and for those of us in philanthropy, we are called to find those places where the risk is for us. That’s what I hope for out of FJE – finding my front lines with all of you, and finding ways to claim and hold the ground that movements have created for us."
The second thing that is calling me forward everyday is this idea of “find your frontline.” Right now in a movement moment, there is a loud call to honor the front lines – those folks on the street - as well as a recognition that everyone can make change from where-ever they are. In my professional life, I’m trying to find the front line in myself, within my own institution and with our partners in the field.
When I know that I’ve gotten to a front line within myself is when there is some amount of fear and unknown. When I feel anxious, my heart is beating fast, or I wrestle with something over a number of days – then I know I have found a front line. I’m trying to be more intentional and listening to my emotions and body so that I’m pushing harder and taking more risks. There is more space available now to push for more resources to grassroots organizations, to address white supremacy culture in philanthropy, to talk about racial capitalism, and so much more - I don’t want to leave anything on the table! I encourage other funders: Find your front lines wherever it is – and really push. Part of the front line on the streets is the idea of risk, and for those of us in philanthropy, we are called to find those places where the risk is for us. That’s what I hope for out of FJE – finding my front lines with all of you, and finding ways to claim and hold the ground that movements have created for us
The last thing that is inspiring me right now is the need to change philanthropic practices to maximize the leverage between formal 501(c)(3) organizing and “underground” movement building work. I’ve seen a lot of solidarity between people and groups in this movement moment – it’s inspiring to go out to a march and see literally everybody together. I want to really highlight the interplay between the formal 501(c)(3)s and the movement building that is happening. As philanthropy, we see 501(c)(3)s and fund those vehicles – but the transformative change like what we’ve witnessed over the last 2 – 3 months happens in movement and most of that should be unfunded. I say unfunded because that work needs to be unfunded to protect its integrity – we should not be able to say this direct action was taken by these people or attribute the work of so many every day people only to formal organizations and salaried positions. 501(c)(3)s are like plants in a garden – they show up as discreet entities above ground with certain kinds of flowers and fruits. However, underground is the movement space and if you looked there, you could see that the roots of the plants are all tangled up and there are unseen underground networks (like mushrooms) that knit things together. And everything over ground – all the fruit that you can count and eat – comes from the messiness and interconnectedness and undercover-ness of what happens under the soil. What happens under the soil needs to stay there: undisturbed and uncounted if the health of the plant and garden are to remain intact. If the 501(c)(3) work is organized in a certain way, it can be leveraged really well for movement building and not hinder it.
So, how do we, in philanthropy, help maximize the leverage between the 501(c)(3)s formal (overground) work and the movement building work (underground)? Some things we’ve done in our institution include, a week into the BLM uprisings, reaching out to our grantees to say: look, don’t worry about your grant outcomes, we understand those may be rapidly changing. If a year ago, they were thinking about reforming XYZ policy, we don’t want them to undershoot because so much more is possible right now. We ask that they do what they need to do; We understand that their staff is showing up in ways that go beyond the organization itself. Do the important work, the movement building work. We are still trying to navigate how we extend that beyond just this time, as we know that this is going to be a more protracted moment. That means that these temporary changes might actually help philanthropy change ongoing practices on how we determine outcomes, measurables, and things like that so we are supporting real, transformative change for the long-term.
Photo Credit: Jobs with Justice, San Francisco. From July 20, 2020 Strike for Black Lives in San Francisco.