Seven Ways Funders Can Support Racial Justice

Written by Julie Quiroz

June 27, 2014

A few months ago I spoke to Eva Paterson, president of the Equal Justice Society, who described “disturbing trends in some national foundations; a pulling away from race where they seem to be adopting the notion of post-racial America.”

“What,” asked Patterson, “is going on?”

How far have we come from 1993 when — a year after the LA uprising — “diversity and inclusion” were considered cutting edge ideas in philanthropy?

That’s what I wrote about in a recent article that appeared in Moving Forward on Racial Justice Philanthropy, a new report from the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity.

“Racial justice has been strengthened when individuals in foundations took a chance on movement building,” answered Gihan Perera, executive director of Florida New Majority (FNM) and former executive director of Miami Workers Center. “Right now people are impressed with FNM as a multi-issue, multi-ethnic statewide power that wins campaigns,” he continues. “But none of this would be happening without the decades of experience we spent building racial justice unity on the ground.”

“While Black/Brown unity is now accepted as an important approach in organizing,” says Perera, “10 or 15 years ago we couldn’t talk to funders about it. We couldn’t talk to funders about the real work – the political education, the leadership development, the relationship building – that multiracial unity involves.”

Just this past week Jee Kim of the Ford Foundation took the bold step of publicly putting out a movement building theory of change – and asking everyone what they thought of it. Kim is asking philanthropy to recognize the power of social movements, to honestly and thoughtfully examine how and why they succeed or fail, and to strategically and proactively engage in supporting them. That feels to me like momentum other funders can build upon.

What else can funders do?

Drawing on conversations with other racial justice organizers and activists, here’s how I summarized steps that funders can and should take.

1 Fund Organizing as Core to Racial Justice

I can’t believe we still need to say this but we do: To effectively support racial justice, foundations must prioritize the day-to-day work of community organizing as part of a larger theory of change. But that’s far from a no-brainer in the funding world.

“There’s a lack of an effective change model,” says Makani Themba, executive director of The Praxis Project. “Funders lack a clear understanding of where base-building fits in.” Scot Nakagawa of ChangeLab, agrees. “Funders are concentrating on ‘funding to scale,’ on larger organizations and less on smaller groups,” he says. “But policy is the end of the discussion and not the beginning. The beginning is the work of smaller community-based groups who deal with the most directly impacted.” Maria Poblet, director of Causa Justa/Just Cause, “No one wants to fund the infrastructure of organizing. That’s one of the core ways that racial inequity plays out in the world.”

The recent launch of the collaborative LGBTQ Racial Justice Fund is a powerful step in this direction. This effort – which seeks to engage LGBTQ funders and other progressive funders — is central for LGBTQ communities and for building a stronger progressive movement.

2 Make A Long Term Commitment

Again, hard to believe it needs to be said, but does it ever. According to Kalpana Krishnamurthy, policy director at Forward Together, “A variety of different sectors within philanthropy have tried to move more resources to organizations of color, in particular to reproductive justice. But the funding pattern is short. How do you get to structural change if you are only getting a few years of funding?”

3 Stop Perpetuating Structural Racism

The way foundations design and conduct grant-making often reinforces racial inequities, and favors organizations that have benefited from White privilege through a history of White leadership. My co-worker Taj James breaks it down: “As a country, the less White we get, the more decision-makers distrust democracy. This plays out in philanthropy where we can now hear conversations like ‘Is democracy good or bad in Detroit?’ Like the country as a whole, philanthropy is turning away from democracy and toward a ‘technocratic’ approach that reflects and reproduces structural racism.”

4 Tell True Stories of Racial Justice

It’s important to do good work, but also to build a “bigger we” of people who understand the work in the context of the change model, feel connected to it, and speak and stand up for it. “We need to tell our stories of the strengths of the racial justice movement,” says Judith Browne Dianis, director of the national multiracial civil right organization Advancement Project. “We are sometimes too busy doing the work to tell the story.” Themba makes a similar point. “The dominant theme is that explicit work on racial justice is hard to do and can be divisive. But we are winning, talking about race and racial justice,” she says.

“The framing and story about the work shapes whether there are resources or not,” concludes Taj. “Valuable and successful work can be going on but not getting resources. The same work can have a new story and frame, and the resources come back.”

5 Make the Connection Between Racial Justice and Everything Else

“Success is happening where an intersectional approach is being supported alongside a racial justice movement,” says Cathi Tactaquin, executive director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Themba notes there has been progress on this front. “A small but growing group of funders are working to integrate support for explicit racial justice work into their issue-based portfolios,” says Themba, who nonetheless cautions that “We need a ‘both/and’ approach that doesn’t marginalize racial justice” such as the Edward W. Hazen Foundation’s “both/and” work on education justice.

Monami Maulik of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) described a shift away from racial justice. “Except for growing race/class framing in policing and youth criminalization funding, I’m hearing the same message now that I heard in the post 9/11 era: that we should not be about race. It pretty explicitly happened in immigration funding.”

6 Support Multi-Racial Connections

Perera gives credit to the handful of funders who saw the value in naming the tensions and potential between Black and Latino communities, invested resources in this work, and provided thoughtful leadership that legitimized multiracial organizing to other funders.

Perera observes that small foundations like the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock and medium-sized foundations like the Public Welfare Foundation “seeded cutting edge work and invested appropriately for their institutions.” He also believes large foundations such as Ford made a difference by supporting organizing infrastructure and signaling the value of the work to other foundations. But Perera believes the key lesson for funders – that creating space for multiracial constituencies (between and within strong organizations) to come together toward a common agenda – has gone largely unlearned. “The breakthrough in understanding has not resulted in real shifts in funding,” asserts Perera.

7 Organize racial justice leaders in philanthropy.

“A core cadre has emerged of individual program officers and donors committed to racial justice,” observes Taj. “They have the potential to have broader influence on the field of philanthropy overall.” Malkia Cyril, director of the Center for Media Justice, comments on the importance of alignment among organizers and advocates in shaping philanthropy. “We need more peer-to-peer conversations on how money moves; what outcomes we want.”

Work such as that of the Bay Area Justice Funders Network and their Harmony Institute may hold the seeds of a philanthropic shift toward more honest conversation (Check out BAJF’s powerful recent piece from Cathy Lerza). This candid dialogue can lead philanthropy away from an obsession with what Taj James calls things “small enough to measure but not big enough to matter” and toward a commitment to solutions that remake systems that truly work for all.

At a time when race continues to shape every aspect of our lives — from access to healthy food, treatment within schools, safety from violence, to our very recognition as human beings — all of us, including philanthropy, have a responsibility to step boldly forward.

Feature photo: Justin Baeder

Julie Quiroz

Julie Quiroz lives in Michigan and leads New Moon Collaborations, a fiscally sponsored project of Movement Strategy Center.

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