For me, being a “justice funder” means that the money and other resources I help move into world supports long-term efforts, rooted in communities and lived experience, to transform economic, social and political systems so that they advance the right of all people to live healthy, happy, secure, dignified, respected lives. It means constantly asking: Who wins? Who loses? Who decides?
There’s also a personal element to this. Like everyone, my experience of reality is shaped by personal identity. My journey as a funder, an activist, and a human being is a struggle to understand how being a white-woman-baby boomer-middle class-heterosexual shapes how I am perceived and how I perceive. (There’s more to me than that, but those facts are especially important here.) That’s meant several decades of learning to question my every assumption about everything — and being hit upside the head sometimes.
When I started my social justice career four decades ago, I thought change started with a few dedicated people working really hard to point out what’s wrong and to put forth solutions. I thought changed = federal legislation. That’s why when I graduated from UC Berkeley, I headed to DC to work for the US EPA as an intern. I ended up staying in DC for more than a decade, working in the burgeoning public interest nonprofit world there.
I got hit upside the head big time in the mid-1970s when I was working with the National Family Farm Coalition (a predecessor to, but not the same organization as, today’s NFFC). A bunch of DC- based activists, me included, had crafted a vast federal omnibus bill aimed at saving the family farm from both agribusiness and a USDA whose motto had become “get big or get out.” Our family farm bill addressed farm subsidies, credit, organic agriculture, land use and conservation, direct marketing, ad infinitum — all aimed at keeping small family farmers on the land and encouraging new farmers.
Then I met Joe Brooks (yes, that Joe Brooks), at the time the executive director of the Emergency Land Fund in Atlanta GA. ELF fought to keep African American farmers on their farms. I learned that Black farmers were losing their farms at rates four to five greater than white farmers –and that African Americans made up only a tiny fraction of the farm population in the first place, far smaller than their numbers of the overall population and almost entirely in the South.
So if white farmers were getting a bad deal, Black farmers had always gotten a bad deal, which was getting worse. (It’s kind of like when civic participation funders talk about “restoring democracy,” and a colleague, usually someone of color, notes that the task is to actually create democracy for the first time. But I digress.) The bill we had created, sitting in our poorly funded DC organizations talking earnestly to one another, was aimed at fixing the system, but would never actually work because we didn’t really understand the system we sought to fix, in large degree because we had not acknowledged or understood the structural racism that created it. And we hadn’t talked to anyone but ourselves.*
There’s a lot more story here that I don’t have room for, so I’ll will cut to the chase: That experience taught me a lesson about assumptions and the need for me, as a white middle class social justice activist, to question ALL my perceptions of reality. To listen to people. To question underlying assumptions. To disaggregate data. To find out what data are missing. To find out who is at the table, and who is not. To not sit at tables that leave people out. I learned that “who decides” is the most important question of all.
I took these lessons with me into philanthropy, but to be honest, 25+ years ago, when I got my first job in this field, if asked what social justice philanthropy is, my answer might have been the same as it is today, but it would have been framed in terms of policy outcomes and agendas – policies and agendas created by the communities they were aimed at “helping,” but still agendas and policies. Like many funders, I was more concerned about smart solutions than transforming power relationships and supporting determinative political power building.
Over these two plus decades, thanks to some remarkable funder colleagues and activist/advocacy organization leaders, I’ve come to believe that how you get there is as important as where you get to. We can’t achieve a democratic, progressive, just, equitable, fair society with only some of us at the table because that’s not democratic, progressive, just, equitable or fair. And besides, we can’t know what the problems are, what the solutions are, or build the determinative power that makes transformation possible. I know from my own missteps and those of others that you can’t skip any steps or cut any corners.
While I hope I do a lot less corner cutting and flawed assuming than I used to, the world of philanthropy is still full of both. Too often, those flawed assumptions guide the distribution of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. I believe that the most important things I can do as a justice funder are to challenge assumptions, be open to information that blows assumptions away, and support colleagues in philanthropy and outside to do the same.
A real life example: just last week, at a lunch sponsored by the See Forward Fund, during a fantastic panel on power building in California put together by Ludovic Blain of the Progressive Era Project, Dr. Lisa Garcia Bedolla of UC Berkeley presented some mind-altering data about “the gender gap.” Nationally, 56 percent of women (who made up about 42 percent of the electorate) voted for President Obama in 2012 as compared to 45 percent of men. Big gender gap, right? But dig deeper: 40 percent of white women voted for President Obama as compared to 79 percent of women of color. Here in California, about 50 percent of white women voted for the President, but 95 percent of Black women, 76 percent of Latinas, and 72 percent of API and others voted for him. The gender gap suddenly becomes a race and gender gap. So why, if building long-term determinative political power is the goal, aren’t women of color the focus of most progressive integrated voter engagement (IVE) programs? Why do progressive funders continue to support IVE programs that make “women” the focus, and women of color an underfunded afterthought?
If I want to call myself a justice funder, it’s time for me to start posing those questions to funder colleagues and donor clients, and to leaders of organizations in the IVE field.
* ELF did pioneering work documenting more than 100 years of discriminatory policies — and outright theft in many cases defined by banks and private lenders and several decades of discrimination by the USDA’s farm credit and other agencies. It merged with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in the early 1980’s. Through FSC and the Black Land Loss Project in NC, this work continues.
Catherine Lerza has spent more than four decades in the social change movement as a grantmaker, writer, advocate, and researcher, working with many progressive nonprofits and foundations on environmental justice, economic policy, civic engagement, food and agriculture, and women’s rights and reproductive justice. She was the executive director of the Shalan Foundation and the Beldon Fund, and a senior philanthropic advisor at Tides. Since 2010, she’s been a consultant; her clients include the Alki Fund, the California Wildlands Grassroots Fund, the Underdog Fund, and the Groundswell Fund.