In this period of continued racial reckoning in America, we are reflecting on the days after Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in 2014. The death of an 18-year-old Black boy and the lack of police accountability for the killing led to a wave of righteous protests across the country, along with pledges from philanthropy to invest more in Black-led movements for justice.
Following Michael Brown’s murder, some in philanthropy increased their giving on racial justice issues, and many stayed in the fight. But the majority of funders retreated to pre-Ferguson patterns of grantmaking, forcing Black organizers in Ferguson and other communities to continue to face the uphill battle for racial justice with little support.
Historically, philanthropy has responded to racial justice flashpoints with an uptick in temporary funding that is short-term, tactical or narrowly focused. This time—in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others—it has to be different. This time, philanthropy has a once-in-a-generation chance to help usher in transformative change. In response, foundations have once again stepped up with new investments in racial justice, but we can’t let the momentum fade. We must stay in it for the long haul, and this time, we have to dig deeper and do more.
Front-line Black leaders, organizers, networks and communities have long been doing the work to fight back against systemic racism. What they need are sustained financial support and resources. They need philanthropy, once and for all, to shift the historic underinvestment in Black-led organizing and power-building. It is something philanthropy can and should be supporting in every state across the country.
That’s why our three foundations are part of a five-year, $100 million initiative aimed at building the infrastructure of Black power-building in California. We believe increasing the capacity and effectiveness of Black-led organizations on the front lines will drive our state as a whole toward systemic transformation. Through the California Black Freedom Fund (CABlackFreedomFund.org), more than two dozen funder partners are aligning our resources to ensure that Black power-building and movement-based organizations in our home state have the sustained investments and resources they need to eradicate systemic and institutional racism.
As we and our funder partners in California embarked on the journey to launch this new initiative, we were intent on figuring out how philanthropy could have the biggest impact in sparking such a shift. Here are some of the things we’re doing that could provide models for other states and regions:
Co-create solutions with Black organizers. Anti-Black public policies, systems and practices have wreaked havoc on Black people across the nation. Black leaders at the grassroots know and understand how these problems play out in our communities. They already are hard at work on solutions, but with too few resources. The work of the California Black Freedom Fund is guided and inspired by movement and community leaders across our state. We believe that inviting Black leaders to the table as we make funding decisions isn’t enough; philanthropy needs to honor the leadership and wisdom of those closest to the ground and make co-creation and shared decision-making power central to how we work.
Be intentional about supporting Black-led power-building and organizing. Across California and the country, it has been inspiring to see new Black community activists emerge and how they’ve powerfully changed the conversation. To make racial justice and equity real, philanthropy needs to elevate its investments in Black organizers focused on advocacy, organizing, voting, and holding our institutions accountable—something that we call power-building. Black communities must attain decision-making power over the policies and systems that shape their lives. To get there, it will take a powerful, statewide movement of Black-led organizations working to improve Black lives through efforts such as budget processes, census counts, education funding, voter registration, access to housing and employment.
Provide the abundance of resources groups need. While police violence is the spark for recent protests, there is broad recognition that systemic racism exists across many systems: housing, employment, healthcare, finance and education. In California, these systemic injustices impact the 2.3 million Black people who live here. Addressing these issues will require significant, multiyear commitments of resources for organizing, voter education and outreach, advocacy, communications and narrative change, convening, research, and much more. It also will require unrestricted support along with technical assistance and capacity-building, convening and other activities. Having the impact we seek will require resources for the long term. All the more important, then, for funders to come together and pool resources, align investments and rally colleagues to the cause of Black freedom and justice.
Invest in networks as well as individual organizations. Individual Black-led groups across the country are doing heroic work in their communities. Their work is vastly stronger to the extent that they are connected to an ecosystem. By creating and accelerating a new state-wide ecosystem of Black-led organizations confronting racism and anti-Blackness, it is possible to effect the culture, policy and systems changes necessary to realize equality and justice. During our first grant round, the California Black Freedom Fund supported members of three established statewide networks of Black-led groups. This let us hit the ground running while we explored other avenues for supporting a greater number of Black organizations and strengthening the ecosystem of Black power-building in our home state. This month, we will be awarding nearly $9 million in general operating grants to 74 smaller organizations with budgets of under $1 million. Along with grant support, we are also intent on supporting convening and learning spaces for groups to develop cross-organizational and cross-regional strategies.
Build a diverse table of funders. The supporters of the California Black Freedom Fund are a diverse group of local, regional and statewide foundations.We are community foundations, private and family foundations, healthcare foundations, and more. No matter our geographic or issue focus, we all recognize that our mission and goals are grounded in the work of achieving a more equitable, more just California. And we’re reaching out to other funders to make the case for their active engagement in this work—because we recognize this is an all-hands-on-deck moment for our sector, our state and our country.
Over the last few years, leaders across philanthropy have issued a steady stream of praise for the tenacity and resilience of Black-led grassroots groups. Yet, these same organizations are underfunded. Let’s commit to working together to ensure the increase we’ve seen in philanthropic support for racial justice doesn’t fade away. Instead, it must become the first wave signaling a lasting philanthropic commitment to Black-led social change.
Lateefah Simon is president of the Akonadi Foundation. Cathy Cha is president and CEO of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. Nicole Taylor is president and CEO of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.