We Speak For Ourselves
The opportunity open to philanthropy right now is to take the lead from communities on the frontlines of inequality and the frontlines of the solutions.
At the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, we see the power of real grassroots leadership that arises from the California communities we work with. Our members are low-income Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants and refugees. They know the problems they face better than any outside organization ever could. And they craft solutions that will work better than any outsider could imagine.
That’s why community members drive every aspect of APEN’s work. Laotian refugees collaborate to curb pollution from the dirty refinery in their neighborhood. Chinese immigrants band together to stop the eviction of low-income residents, and win affordable housing concessions, as well. Communities of color join forces to defeat Proposition 23, an oil industry ploy to gut California’s landmark climate change bill.
Whether they speak Mien, Cantonese, Mandarin or Khmu, our members would tell philanthropies that cultivating frontline leadership from impacted communities themselves is key. Philanthropies should learn about the problems facing the hardest-hit people, but also learn who the doers and fighters on the ground are, and seek ideas and solutions arising from those same communities. Lift up the voices of people facing the brunt of inequality, and learn right alongside them. Support communities take to be bold and take risks, make mistakes and try again. Support on-the-ground organizing, alliances and networks that allow us to build our power.
At the same time, philanthropies must tackle amplifiers of inequality, like climate change. Climate change is a crisis created by, our economy, our democracy, and our environmental practices, and the burden falls most heavily on communities of color. Philanthropies can help by investing in real alternatives that transition our economy away from extractive fossil fuel energy and toward clean, renewable power that is locally owned and controlled, and that helps build resilient neighborhoods.
Just as philanthropy is part of systemic inequality and not separate from it, philanthropy must be a partner in developing solutions, and not a separate and sole director. Issuing prescriptions from on high doesn’t help level the playing field. Philanthropies must let the people speak for themselves.
We have an opportunity to build communities that are equitable, engaged, healthy and transformed. Philanthropy has a key role to play in that. But remember: At the end of the day, even the most hands-on philanthropies invest mostly money. The people you are hoping to help are investing their lives.
Miya Yoshitani is executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, APEN.