Nurturing the Seed of Systemic Change

By Laura LivotiPosted under What is a Justice Funder?

Flashback: The Year is 1995



Living room of a housing development in Florida, near Orlando. An avocado tree is visible through the living room door.


Throughout the 90’s, I was blessed to spend a week of my vacation each year with my beloved grandparents, who had retired to Florida, where a lower cost of living helped them stretch their retirement savings from a lifetime of work in the public sector and running a small business in NY. Plus, it didn’t hurt that the year round warm weather was good for their old bones, and was favorable for the avocado tree they watched over with delight, growing it from a pit they carried home after a California visit. I like to think that they watched over me and my development with the same delight.


Most of the time our love for one another was expressed simply by choosing to be present in the same room with one another. We didn’t often engage in substantive conversation or debate. However, there was a moment on a fine Florida day with the blazing blue sky visible through the sliding glass living room door reflecting the color of the matching velour recliners that swaddled the forms of my grandparents, when they questioned why I was motivated to spend my volunteer time on environmental and social justice activities. The opener led to a refreshingly authentic communication. I took the chance to share my vision for the need to shift from a fossil fuel based economy that was (and is) destroying the health of the ecosystem upon which our lives depend, to one that is more constructive and conserving of both environmental and human health. After I climbed off my soapbox, my grandparents were unusually quiet. Then my grandfather pronounced the definitive impossibility of my proposition, because as he put it, it would require a total restructuring of our economy.


Fast Forward: Present Day, 2014


Standard office space. Visible on the walls: framed posters with messages declaring messages on immigrant rights, labor and housing rights.


My grandfather was correct about the structural nature of the question. I hope history will prove him wrong on whether the systemic change required is possible. That remains to be seen. While he isn’t here to witness my development, I think my grandfather would appreciate my trajectory from that day in his living room talking about energy policy as an unpaid aspiration to thinking deeply every day about how to address structural injustices from the vantage point of a justice funder.


A justice funder might find that there are many problems in our society that are systemic and require the kind of structural change my grandfather identified. For instance, living in certain zip codes results in higher levels of illness and death (those zip codes correspond to income and race), being born female in the U.S. leads to lower average pay for equal work, living in higher income neighborhoods is likely to mean being schooled in an environment that has a higher level of funding, being black in the U.S. leads to a higher likelihood of being fatally shot by the police, incarceration rates are disproportionate according to race, sentencing and treatment of criminals based on types of crime that correspond to income and race are also disproportionate. All of these, and many more, are the kinds of issues that concern the justice funder.


Confronting the problems that cause disparities of lived experience by different communities means supporting systemic or structural solutions. To that end, the justice funder is one who deploys resources to advance fairness, equity, equal access and equal treatment under the law. A justice funder seeks to create freedom from any oppression. These considerations lead the justice funder to frame a grantmaking strategy that is sufficient to the nature and scale of the problem. Some elements of an approach worthy of consideration might include:


Long-Term Support: to solve big problems takes time. The justice funder sticks with grantees and provides reliable support over time.


General Operating Support: to allow an organization to act nimbly and shift strategies appropriately in response to changing external conditions and to support a group’s internal operations which are key to its programmatic effectiveness.


Support for groups with a membership base to create greater access, fairness or equity for groups that don’t have much voice in the current system or are disadvantaged by it means confronting entrenched and powerful constituencies. Historically, structural change has been won when the power of those entrenched constituencies is countered by the collective action of organized people with shared values and ideas.


Support for groups with a political education program and leadership development plan to develop members with the skill to speak to elected and appointed leaders who create the rules that govern our lives. To create the knowledge base regarding how to interact with civic processes that can result in better public policy. To ensure members have a shared understanding of the problem and its solution, as well as shared values.


Support for groups with voter education, registration and get out the vote strategies to build the political clout and leverage for groups with community–defined solutions to have a voice and a seat at the decision-making table.


Support for collaboration and movement building between groups to create the scale required to create big change.


Support for organizational efficacy to build internal strength and capacity of community-based organizations that will enable them to achieve their goals and objectives.


Support for allies that work in deep and respectful partnership to add capacity and tools to the work of grassroots member-led groups. For example, supporting allies that provide participatory research, engage in litigation, or provide communications and policy expertise.


A justice funder that supports systemic change recognizes that changing the rules of the game through public policy is necessary. Therefore, s/he understands the rules related to grantmaking for lobbying and voter engagement, and encourages grantees to engage in these activities to the extent allowed by the law.


My grandparents believed in democracy. And, although they aren’t here today, I bet they would smile to hear the public debate about energy and economic policy, much like they were surprised when that avocado pit they carried home grew to a 6 foot tree producing an abundance of delicious green orbs.  



Laura Livoti is the CEO of the Common Counsel Foundation, which advances equity and environmental health through a combination of direct grant making and strategic philanthropic advising for client member funds and manages projects focused on organizational development, leadership training and sustainability and donor education.