justice at the council on foundations

wow…i love good surprises!

i just left the council on foundations annual conference in denver, co, where i got to speak about movement building as part of the social justice track.

the fact that such a track exists in that space is apparently a victorious thing in and of itself…to have several sessions focused on a nuanced exploration of improving the impact of philanthropy on large scale justice-oriented goals is not to be taken for granted in this historically conservative space. i was allowed to go for a day, and met several participants and speakers who do really noteworthy investments in deep movement building.

i was there because i got invited to participate in a fishbowl conversation moderated by tim sweeney of the gill foundation, who was just delightful. a few weeks ago we had a conversation to prepare for this one, and i already had a clear sense that there was openness to truly new thinking on what the relationship between philanthropy and social justice movement building could look like. the track organzers, suzanne siskel, anna pond and jessica bearman, were really thoughtful in pulling us together, and deeply curious about the new ideas we were bringing…even down to little things. i suggested they use wordle to quickly show what our panel worked on, and they ended up creating wordle spreads for all the sessions.

the other panelists [whose full names and bios are below] were carlos, ryan, katherine, chet and erica. i think i managed to grab noteworthy quotes from all of them, and the conversation was pretty juicy for a panel at a philanthropy conference. from the audience, stephen bradbury, kavitha ramdas and akwasi aidoo — were also key to shaping the lessons we were sharing.

one particularly thrilling unexpected piece was on the power of nonviolent direct action as a strategy. kavitha asked how we realistically build movements when the communities we are supporting are in deeply violent circumstances where their actions, particularly in self-defense, gets highlighted while the circumstances surrounding their actions aren’t mentioned. this led to a deep conversation on how important it is to have groups like ruckus which focus on strategic and creative nonviolent direct action tactics. its not fair to tell a community which is being erased off the planet to choose nonviolence if its not working – and yet we have more and more cases that show that nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience is a crucial component of successful movement building, and usually much more strategic for an oppressed community than violence. the strategic argument carries much more weight than the morality of it – i cannot speak to morality in war torn zones, when my whole family has been killed or separated from me…and i mean zones from detroit to dakar. so we went there, and i was really impressed with the depth and complexity of people’s responses.

i hope this leads to some solid resources – not just for ruckus, but for groups who engage in action!

now i wanted to just offer some of the quotes from the session which i think speak for themselves:

How much pressure does it take to transform you? — slam nuba, the opening performer [the metaphor was diamonds]

One element of social movements is a common narrative – a new story. — Ryan Friedrichs

To me a social movement feels local no matter how big it gets. A social movement is visionary, but also creates tangible changes in people’s lives. A strong social movement is adaptive and decentralized, growing in many directions from a point of shared vision. — Me

I don’t know if we have movements in the U.S. – issues yes, networks yes, but can we stop Arizona’s racist policy? Will we really boycott Arizona in a meaningful way? — Me

I think a major question we are asking here is: Are we in it to win it? Social movements are messy. One thing is for sure – when you write out the most impacted communities, we all lose. – Katherine Acey, Astrea Foundation

If we don’t work together at a large scale, globalise our movement work, then we just migrate problems from one region to another. — Chet, Global Greengrants

Social movements are self-organized, complex, adaptive systems – and must be resilient. — Chet, Global Greengrants [this quote THRILLED me!!]

You have to have the long view, which is not something philanthropy has done much of yet. Civil rights was a long arc, starting with slaves trying to break free, not just with the bus boycott. — Erica Hunt, 21st Century Foundation

I look at the Zapatistas, who built movement by building relationships, slowly, in people’s living rooms, building a shared dream and a longing for community. I also think of sustainability – investing in embedded leadership so that communities don’t depend on organizations or funders, but on themselves. — Me

Culture and arts are not a side piece, but a critical piece of our movements. It tells the story. – Katherine Acey, Astrea

Fund movements such that they can fund themselves..have a strategy to move small dollars, be cooperative. – Ryan Friedrichs

As a funder how do you buy space for groups to make mistakes, do long arc work and eventually connect to policy change? – Erica Hunt, 21st Century

We have to make sure folks understand and are invested in reforms so that our policies aren’t empty. — Stephen Bradberry, Gulf Coast Fund

Strong national work is only possible when built upon strong local work – whether its policies or practices. — Me

We have to keep our eyes on the prize: we seek collective behavior change, not policy change. — Chet T, Global Greengrants

Philanthropy needs to think like communities, which are not sectioned off into issues, and are not short-term. Intersectionality, long-term thinking…whole communities are like whole people. — Me

Don’t restrict funds. Do return phone calls. Don’t increase tension among allies by asking us for dirt on each other. Do fund people to do their work in the field, not something you decide outside of their experience is right for them. Do invest in growing organizers’ capacity to evaluate their work and adapt. Do practice w/us, don’t just visit – do some work and get to know the people. — Me, on tangible things philanthropists can do as movement builders

Roots don’t do very well when they are unearthed…how do we make sure we don’t do more harm than good {when we bring community leaders our of their community to work with philanthropy, when we try to dig to the root of a problem}? — Akwasi, Trust Fund Africa

I want to talk about violence. Chet said movements are nonviolent – but what about places where violence is the setting? Palestinians are supposed to be like Gandhi no matter what circumstances they are up against. I want to ask how far we will go in supporting social movements, and how we honestly address the violence. — Kavitha Ramdas, Global Fund for Women

I look to groups like The Ruckus Society for creative ways to be nonviolent, because violence will never work, strategically. – Erica Hunt, 21st Century

We really work hard not to make a moral judgment call on nonviolence when we are not in those situations of having our families killed, having no options. We make it a strategic call, a tactic that works when up against overwhelming odds – to commit to nonviolence and be disciplined, and be creative. — Me

We act like nonviolence is easy. We have to teach what it means and doesn’t mean! – Carlos Saavedra

From my own experience I must say, violence will never work – it simply puts more barriers between people But we need the courage to fund creative tactics, including nonviolent direct action. – Avila, Community Foundation of Northern Ireland

One point to emphasize – strategic plans are vulnerable to changing landscapes. Strategic minds are fed by changing landscapes. We need to fund in ways that grow the strategic capacity of communities in ways that are not stopped cold by economic crisis or new policy, but can adapt and use change as a strength. — Me

Groups we sited as doing good work: Resource Generation (developing new donors with a justice analysis), Smartmeme (changing the foundational stories upon which we build our movement strategies), Movement Generation (reorienting communities from an oppositional/victim frame to a resistance/resilience eco-justice frame) and GIFT (training communities in grassroots fundraising tactics).

Here’s the full description of our session:

Movement Building for Social Justice

How can philanthropy best contribute toward the core social justice strategy of movement building? This session will explore ways foundations support movement building in a variety of social justice issue areas —from same-sex marriage, to immigrant rights, human rights, and campaign finance reform. Presenters will discuss strategies that have and have not worked—from attempts to connect the dots between policy and organizing, to incorporating technology to support activism or using the arts to challenge perceptions. Workshop participants will distill these into lessons for foundations working in and around social justice.

Moderator: Tim Sweeney, president and CEO, Gill Foundation
Presenters: Ryan Friedrichs, executive director, State Voices; Carlos Saavedra, executive director, United We Dream; Adrienne Maree Brown, executive director, the Ruckus Society; Katherine Acey, executive director, Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice; Chet Tchozewski, president, Global Greengrants Fund; Erica Hunt, president, Twenty-First Century Foundation
Session Designers: Suzanne Siskel, director, Social Justice Philanthropy, Ford Foundation; Henry Izumizaki, CEO, One Nation, Learning Director, The Russell Family Foundation; Karen Zelermyer, executive director, Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues

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