July 12, 2018

Choosing to be a Liberated Gatekeeper

In June 2018, Neighborhood Funders Group convened hundreds of local, regional, and national funders for the NFG 2018 National Convening, Raise Up: Moving Money for Justice. Here, Amoretta Morris, — Director of National Community Strategies at The Annie E. Casey Foundation, NFG Conference Co-Chair, and NFG Board Member — reflects on the theme of her opening plenary address.  


 

people-amorris-headshot_(1).jpgRecently, a trusted social justice leader called me a philanthropic gatekeeper. And hearing those words stung — a lot.

But once I got over my initial defensiveness, I realized it was true.

Gatekeepers, after all, control the flow of power, funds, information and resources, and they’re often in a position to speak for and translate for people without access to those things.

Sounds pretty similar to grantmaking at times, doesn’t it? 

As good progressives, we’re used to examining privilege and how that shapes the experiences of marginalized communities. But what about our own privilege as philanthropists? How often do we turn the mirror around?

If we did, we’d see that we are all gatekeepers. Whether I am a program officer deciding what to advance to my director and board, or a trustee approving an investment strategy — we are controlling the flow of resources that folks need, often with only their limited say.

Merely wanting this to be untrue because of our commitment to justice doesn’t change it. We have to acknowledge the inequity of philanthropy and our role in it in order to change the way these systems work.

Another blind spot, especially for people of color in philanthropy (regardless of our current income level), is our own unexamined history and feelings about money and wealth. Left unchecked, these things can stand in the way of us effectively moving money to our people.Screen_Shot_2018-07-11_at_1.53.17_PM.png

Access to information is yet another gate we’re keeping. As grantmakers, we often see that full inbox and stack of reports as a burden. Just another thing we must read and squeeze into our day. The reality is, a lot of folks on the ground would love to have those materials and the nuggets contained within them. We must be more intentional about sharing that information; otherwise, we’re unintentionally keeping that gate locked. And that’s not helpful or why we got into these roles in the first place.

It’s certainly not why I did.

Being back in St. Louis for the Neighborhood Funders Group conference felt great — and it’s what inspired me to reflect on my journey. Though I started organizing during high school in Houston, going to college in St. Louis during the late 90s is where I got politicized as an adult.

And what was true then is still true now. Not enough philanthropic resources are going to low-income communities or communities of color to build power and advance justice.

In addition to many structural factors, this continues because grantmakers experience internal and external barriers to moving resources aligned with their values. I feel them, too.

Here’s the good news, though: No matter what we have or haven’t done up until now, we can do more.

It starts by asking ourselves these questions: How can I stretch? And what skills and support do I need to do it?

I’m here to tell you that your fellow NFG members can help.

Before I was a funder, I was an organizer. Following that, I worked in local government. Though I’d served on the board of a small national feminist foundation, Third Wave Foundation (now the Third Wave Fund), I was new to grantmaking when I joined the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The learning curve was steep.

Screen_Shot_2018-07-11_at_1.53.02_PM.pngMy colleague introduced me to NFG’s place-based working group and I breathed a sigh of relief. NFG has been my political home in philanthropy since then. And, by taking advantage of NFG’s network calls, learning tours and the annual conference, I’m becoming what we want more of: a liberated gatekeeper.

When we deny the power we hold as grantmakers, we allow ourselves to be unaccountable to communities for that power. Rather than deny our positional privilege, let’s consciously use it to disrupt power and shift it to the people we’re aiming to serve. Let’s open the gates, keep them open and work daily to break these explicit and implicit gates down. Let’s strive to be liberated gatekeepers who are accountable to our communities.

There are three C’s that can get us there: Connect, Celebrate and Commit.

Connect and build your community within NFG. Get to a know a new person who you can call when in doubt or when you need to talk through a strategy.

Celebrate victories and the incredible work that is happening on the ground and inside our institutions, then help others replicate it. In NFG, we focus as much on how we do the work, as what work we should be doing. We want you to know that no matter what type of institution you are in, or where it falls on the political spectrum, there are tangible steps you can take to align your grantmaking with your values and advance justice.

Finally, we want you to commit to moving a specific amount of resources by this time next year. Set an intention for yourself about how you will get more money and resources to our people to advance justice.

No one program officer, director or board member can do it all. But collectively, we can shift more resources toward communities and give those on the frontlines more resources to win. We can create a world that works for all of us.


Connect with Amoretta on Twitter at @rettaworld.

Follow The Annie E. Casey Foundation at @AECFNews.

Find more posts about the NFG 2018 National Convening on the NFG blog.

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September 5, 2021

Reflections on Labor Day with Larry Williams, Jr. of UnionBase

This Labor Day, NFG’s Director of the Funders for a Just Economy program, Manisha Vaze, met with Larry Williams, Jr., Cofounder of UnionBase, and formerly a Labor and Just Transition Coordinator at the Sierra Club and President of the Progressive Workers Union. In this interview, Manisha and Larry talked about Larry’s work and his vision for the labor movement and for building worker power.  


 
Can you start off by sharing the story of why you started UnionBase? What is the central issue you are hoping to address with Unionbase?

UnionBase is a company and tech platform focused on improving the labor movement and accelerating it’s growth. We’ve been around since 2015 and started as a search engine for unions. Based on user feedback we pivoted to becoming a communication and education platform, building the tools workers need to build power in their workplace. As we started supporting workers we realized there is a serious need for educational content on how to organize and build power in the workplace. As a result we started a magazine that now serves union locals around the United States and Canada, as well as relationships with some of America’s largest unions. 

We see our mission as not only helping people join unions but also helping unions to become better partners to the communities where they work and their members live. We’re also trying to educate people about the history of work, the future of work, and our shared responsibility in directing that future. I want to share how we can make our community and our lives better by organizing our workplaces. 

It feels like there’s a resurgence of energy around worker organizing, collective bargaining, and the labor movement. What are some issues that come up as we garner more support for the labor movement?

I want to share how we can make our community and our lives better by organizing our workplaces. 

The organized labor movement can be hard to understand but is key to empowering communities, workers, and fighting climate change. For labor to continue to grow and evolve into a more diverse and powerful movement it needs to start looking outward and engaging young people. It is more likely now than anytime before that young people do not know about the history of the labor movement and its achievements. 

Though they may come from a working class family, young people may not relate to the traditional message of pride in being a worker or even identify as a “worker”.  As some employers are having trouble finding people to do in-person jobs because of COVID-19, young people are saying, “Why would I want to be a waitress or work in an office and risk my life to make a very low wage when I can work for myself?” 

Simultaneously, some young people are excited like never before to build power for themselves and their community starting in the workplace and we see that in the increasing number of organizing campaigns happening across the United States.

Can you talk more about the experience of organizing your own workplace? What did you learn and what were some challenges?

I had the blessing of experiencing first hand what can happen when workers build for a better future but forming a union. I was the first President of Progressive Workers Union (PWU), a decentralized, independent union that was started by workers employed at the Sierra Club. PWU’s organizing efforts captured the imagination of many nonprofits workers around the country when we won what has become the model for how to represent staff who work at nonprofits. 

There are many notable victories in the contract that make Sierra Club a better organization and allowed for a much better relationship between all staff and the organization’s leadership. The first contract includes many important improvements but a few worth naming are Compensatory Time, Family Sustaining Wages and improved Paid Family Leave.

Also, the entire organization now does a yearly pay review which allows the union to ensure that there is parity amongst staff across the organization and its affiliates. Every year, the union compares salary with the MIT wage scale. Through this analysis, pay inequality impacting women and people of color can be addressed. This was a unique solution we were able to negotiate through the union contract and was a victory for both the employer and employees.

What are the benefits for major organizations when they have a unionized workforce?

In all of the places where the organization was falling down the union was stepping up to support these workers.

There are several ways that unionized workers create more value for the organizations where they work. Most people think unions only care about wages. While fair pay is important, what people don’t realize is the respect that union workers have for the work that they do. Workers in a union are more secure in their jobs and produce better work. One thing that is core to why PWU works is that most workers come to nonprofit organizations as young people hoping to change the world. Nonprofits have an unintended habit of exploiting young workers until they burn out, then replacing them with another young person. In PWU all of the unit representatives, bargaining teams, and union leadership saw a vision for changing this paradigm, and believed that forming a union was the place to achieve a vision of changing this reality and we did it. For example, recently the Intercept wrote about how the Sierra Club’s Executive Director, Micheal Brune, was stepping down. All throughout that media’s reporting, and in the internal report, you can see how many ways the union took on sexual assault cases. In all of the places where the organization was falling down the union was stepping up to support these workers. 

Over the past several years and throughout this pandemic, workers have been in motion – striking and demanding better wages, health protections, working conditions and benefits in solidarity with the larger community. These campaigns have also been connecting worker justice to other social movements, like the movements to divest from policing and ICE, climate justice, and disaster recovery and relief. What do you think about these new unionization and collective bargaining efforts and what are the opportunities you see for the labor movement overall?

This is a make it or break it moment. While there is infinite opportunity for labor, success in the future is by no means guaranteed.

This moment has the potential to be a new golden age for labor and we’ve been preparing for it for the last ten years. Even prior to the pandemic, the working conditions of millions of Americans were revealed to be unbearable, and their income, which has stagnated in the face of skyrocketing living costs, is unsustainable. The pandemic has shined an even brighter light on this issue as many frontline workers lauded as heroes have been, in reality, treated as disposable. Without the protections and voice that comes with being in a union, frontline workers have been incapable of getting the hazard pay, protections, and living wages they have more than earned. Also, the labor movement has struggled to address issues of police brutality within its own membership. This is a make it or break it moment. While there is infinite opportunity for labor, success in the future is by no means guaranteed. The only answer is that people from underrepresented and impacted communities must be supported as legitimate leadership of unions. That means not just being in the room but making sure they are leading the decision making process. 

You mentioned that we’re in a make it or break it moment. What do you see as the best path forward? How might funders be supportive?

Funders should look for the people who are building relationships and doing organizing work, who have success doing it, and then figure out what is the quickest path to get the money to them with reasonable accountability but maintaining the least amount of control possible. Then they will see what their investment can do a lot better than if they request endless reports that may not reflect the value of the work being done. The people who are doing the work often have a difficult time connecting with funding opportunities despite their record of success.

I recognize the challenge for funders: they have a lot of rules and organizational things [to consider]. But, I think that there needs to be a more light weight process for making the connection between the people who need the money and the people who have the money.

Cover of Workplace Leader, a magazine for workers by UnionBase.

Also, funders should be setting an expectation that employers follow labor law and normalize unionization. Funders can take an active role in supporting workers by setting standards for their major funding recipients. For example, funders can use the MIT family sustaining wage calculator and other normative standards that help employers and workers find agreement. That way we're all on the same side and able to seek labor peace. It's about smarter decision making, engaging employers, the employees, and funders in productive conversations.

What’s next or upcoming for you and UnionBase?

UnionBase is scaling up to continue helping workers transform themselves for a new era of work. Meanwhile, we will continue to push the organized labor movement to expand outside of its comfort zone. Many workers are asking themselves, “How do you start and run a union with values centered around justice and equity?” UnionBase will be engaging in conversations with interested unions and funders to directly support the education of workers who want to organize traditional, independent and decentralized unions. 

Thank you so much, Larry! I'm really excited to see how UnionBase will continue to bloom.

 
More resources to learn about UnionBase:
August 24, 2021

What Philanthropy can Learn from Labor Organizing: NFG's August 2021 Newsletter

I am so excited to join NFG’s Amplify Fund team. Amplify, a funder collaborative, has organized local, regional, and national funders to distribute over $8 million in power building grants to Black, Indigenous, people of color and low-income organizations.

As the Fund’s inaugural Director of Learning and Communications, my skills with research, evaluation, and messaging are critical; however, I am particularly looking forward to bringing my experience in labor organizing to this role.

I have been a part of three unionized workplaces (as a public-school teacher, in city government, and at Open Society Foundations). I have also helped organize nonprofit workers. Participating in these institutions provided me with four guiding principles that are applicable (and truly essential) to philanthropic work focused on racial justice and power building.

  1. Develop clear messages and practice saying them out loud. Labor organizers spend a lot of time collecting stories, crafting talking points, and training workers to deliver consistent and clear messages. This ensures that workers are equipped to combat false narratives. It also “inoculates” workers against messaging tactics used to sway them against their own interests. Like Amplify’s grantees that deal with a slew of toxic narratives about individualism, white supremacy, and limited government responsibility, those of us who work in philanthropy deal with toxic narratives about wealth, scarcity, meritocracy, and accountability. To truly change the sector, we need to develop and practice messages that offer an alternative view and neutralize harmful narratives.
  2. Regularly track information and use it. Every labor organizer has experience developing a spreadsheet that lists out the workers in an organization, their issues, their stance on unionizing, and which actions (“structure tests”) the worker has participated in. This spreadsheet gives the organizers a sense of the current situation and helps them develop a strategic path forward. I use this concept with grantees to understand their work, and we can use this tool for funder organizing to identify activists and leaders who are challenging the status quo in the field of philanthropy.
  3. Find the actual leaders and fully support them. In labor organizing, a leader is someone respected by many. Someone who can move people. Not necessarily the person in charge or the person with the loudest voice. Some of us in philanthropy regularly challenge traditional ideas of leadership by asking ourselves: Who are the lesser-known leaders in places or issue areas that we fund? How can we find them? And how can we support them with leadership development training, capacity building support, and opportunities? However, it’s also worth asking who the leaders are within foundations, and how we can find and support them. We need them engaged if we are serious about changing philanthropy.
  4. Invest in relationships. Lastly, a theme that is common in organizing is the importance of relationship building. I have been spoiled in philanthropy. I have worked on portfolios — first at Open Society Foundations (with the Open Places Initiative) and now at Amplify Fund — that place full trust in local groups and commit to supporting these groups for a long time. This, in turn, allowed me to get to know people beyond working relationships. It is these relationships which are essential for change in local communities and in philanthropy.

I am thrilled to apply these lessons learned to Amplify Fund’s work. 

You can hear more about my story organizing in philanthropy for greater transparency and equity in NFG’s National Convening plenary panel on Accountability & Philanthropy's Role. In the meantime, I hope to build (or continue to build) relationships with all of you. To connect with me directly, email me at renata@nfg.org.

Always,
Renata Peralta
Director of Learning and Communications, Amplify Fund
 

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