Free Your Mind . . . And the Rest Will Follow

This is the closing post for “Liberate Philanthropy,” a blog series curated by Justice Funders to re-imagine and practice philanthropy free of its current constraints — the accumulation and privatization of wealth, and the centralization of power and control — to one that redistributes wealth, democratizes power and shifts economic control to communities. Throughout the series, we have shared stories from some of our most forward thinking, transformational leaders in philanthropy about how they are facilitating a Just Transition for philanthropy. You can view the entire series here.

Top Left: Historical marker at Tule Lake, present day. Top Right: Tule Lake pilgrimage participants hiking Castle Rock, June 2018. Bottom Left: View of Tule Lake Detention and Segregation Center from Castle Rock, circa 1943 (all of those dark ridges in the middle of the picture are barracks). Bottom Right: Foundation of the former latrines at the Tule Lake Detention & Segregation Center, present day (notice how close the waste pipes are to each other).

Around the time when I wrote the opening post for the #LiberatePhilanthropy blog series, Invitation to Liberate Philanthropy: Kodomo no Tame ni, (for the sake of our children), I signed my family up for the biennial Tule Lake Pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is a collective inter-generational journey to Tule Lake:

“One of ten American concentration camps established during World War II to incarcerate more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, of whom the majority were citizens behind barbed wire and guard towers without charge, trial or establishment of guilt. These camps are reminders of how racism, economic and political exploitation, and expediency can undermine the constitutional guarantees of United States citizens and aliens alike.” (California Registered Historical Landmark №850–2)

More than 400 people from around the world, ranging in age from 7 to mid 90’s, traveled to be together at the California-Oregon border in late June.

One of the optional intergenerational activities was a 2.6-mile hike up a ridge known as “Castle Rock.” Part of the Cascade mountain range, Castle Rock overlooks a valley where the Tule Lake “Relocation and Segregation Center” was built, originally inhabited by the Modoc people and now known as the town of Newell, California.

This hike is optional for many reasons, one of which is its difficulty. However, nearly 200 of us — spanning four generations of Japanese Americans — arrived at the base of this ridge at 7:30 a.m. on an already-hot Saturday morning.

Hiking Castle Rock is symbolic for those formerly incarcerated because it was one of the few “outside the fence” experiences during four-plus years of incarceration in which they could “feel free.”

In my work at Justice Funders, I work with grantmakers to liberate themselves from extractive philanthropic practices that are rooted in cultures of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. These practices can happen at the strategy level (e.g., where strategy is developed by donors without input from the community), in the grantmaking process (e.g, where an over-emphasis on due diligence assumes distrust of grantees), or through the misalignment between one’s mission and where investments are made (e.g., where 95% of endowments are invested in for-profit companies that cause social, economic and environmental devastation).

As my colleague Tyler Nickerson has named, “organizational culture — spoken and unspoken norms — in foundations is one of the single most important factors holding philanthropies back from achieving their vision.”

Yet, these cultural influences permeate philanthropy and — as the status quo — constrain philanthropy from its achieving its potential.

Whether confronting issues of diversity and inclusion, shifting power or reorienting endowments, each of our #LiberatePhilanthropy bloggers shared a common theme — an ability to imagine an alternative.

As we face the reality that our field must make dramatic shifts in order to live our values, Tamara Copeland of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers has stated: “The first step in leadership is not action; it’s understanding.”

Coming to a place of understanding is the work that is required of those of us with privilege, as people working in philanthropy, in order to facilitate transformation.

As Crystal Hayling of the Libra Foundation articulates in Going Upstream: Philanthropy’s Role In Advancing Justice, understanding means “looking internally to liberate ourselves and our organizations from assumptions and practices that undermine our effectiveness in advancing justice.” She goes on to say, “In philanthropy, we have to build new muscles for trusting and engaging, if we hope to support emancipatory social movements.”

The goal of the #LiberatePhilanthropy series is to help build new muscles…as the current, dominant form of organized philanthropy will never be able to eliminate systemic injustice.

Rodney Foxworth of BALLE maintains that “Philanthropy Will Not Save Us” as it is “an exercise in privilege, wealth, and entrenched power” that exacerbates economic inequality through the accumulation and privatization of wealth, and the centralization of power and control by “2,043 billionaires and 36 million millionaires in the world.

Fortunately, we can begin to #LiberatePhilanthropy by following the wisdom offered through this series:

1. Regenerative practices are rooted in trusting relationships amongst and between board members, community partners, and philanthropic peers.

As Pia Infante of The Whitman Institute says, “trust-based philanthropy expands our bandwidth for listening, inquiry, complexity thinking, and collaboration.” And indeed, our allies at Solidaire reflected how this trust — between donors, staff, and movements — have generated both much needed Rapid Response support as well as long-term resources for the Movement for Black Lives, while working to simultaneously build new infrastructure to combat institutional anti-Black racism.

In particular, Janis Rosheuvel and Sophie Robinson share how Solidaire does not “require applications, reporting or site visits but rely on ongoing trust and relationship building to create a shared sense of commitment to Black liberation. These efforts, among others, seek to liberate philanthropy by shifting the power disparities that exist between philanthropy and movements, to build trust with movements and to enable us to move more money, more justly.”

2. The liberation of philanthropy requires that we do what is NECESSARY for justice.

This means we must courageously take risks, as Vanessa Daniel of Groundswell Fund calls on us to do, by organizing for what is right,” which offers a deep connection to our humanity and to a life purpose that goes beyond protecting our position and status, to being a part of transformation and liberation.

Vanessa’s point is that we have to actively choose justice and liberation rather than assuming that they are the natural outcomes of philanthropy. This sentiment is by echoed by Jennifer Near of Shake the Foundations, who recognizes that we must “consciously disrupt these cycles of white supremacy and liberate our philanthropic practices in service of supporting the economic power and self-determination of indigenous, black and brown communities.

3. “Disrupting cycles of white supremacy will entail decolonizing the institutions that preserve the accumulation of wealth and power.

…says Edgar Villanueva of the Schott Foundation. Alissa Hauser, formerly of the Pollination Project, agrees, saying, “the structural and systemic power that has allowed philanthropy to operate within its current colonial mindset.”

The disruption that they talk about are first how we in the field think and assess our institutions and practices. And then, says Edgar, “We can create new ways of seeking and granting access to money. We can return balance to the world by moving money to where the hurt is worst.” The emergence of new models like Buen Vivir Fund as shared by Joanna Cea Leavitt of Thousand Currents and the Fund for Democratic Communities as shared by Ed Whitfield reflect a way forward.

4. The way forward for philanthropy begins by seeking greater values alignment.

Whether through grantmaking processes, investment allocations or operational protocols, the testimonies from Ellen Friedman of the Compton Foundation, Jennifer Astone of Swift Foundation, and Rini Banerjee of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation have provided us with ways philanthropy can begin to be less extractive.

Each of these executives also described how increasing the alignment of their investments with the social justice values of their grantmaking practice expanded their organizational impact on the issues each philanthropy is addressing. Each demonstrated the possibility to reorient how philanthropic resources are managed, and it begins with clarifying the organization’s values and what practices reflect those values.

Justice Funders believes that increasing value-aligned practice is the way to facilitate philanthropic transformation. Our forthcoming publication, Resonance: A Framework for Philanthropic Transformation (due January 2019), envisions a new collective path — one where philanthropy and movements together bring an end to extractive practices, while beginning to integrate practices that reflect the responsive and reciprocal relationships of a restorative and regenerative economy.

As Taj James of Movement Strategy Center says, until recently, social change philanthropy — at its best — was still based on the premise that through incremental steps, power could be built and shifted to move our societies toward equity and justice. At this point in history, incremental approaches have no reasonable chance of addressing the scale of crisis we face. Only transformational approaches rooted in strategies with the potential to advance exponential change can put us on a path in which future generations can thrive.”

Resonance calls for a sea change in philanthropic practice:

“Philanthropy is one of the few places in our society where we can choose to redeploy financial resources boldly and dramatically to redistribute wealth, democratize power and shift economic control to communities. Through our social movements, everyday people are rising boldly to the challenge, and it is philanthropy’s role to act just as boldly to make the pivots that can put us on a new collective path.”

To forge this new path together, we must choose to create intentional philanthropic practices derived from the principles of Just Transition.

To do what is necessary for justice, we must decolonize the institutions that preserve the accumulation of wealth and power, while building new models for governing philanthropic resources — financial, knowledge, human — that redistribute wealth, democratize power and shift economic control to communities.

Resonance: A Framework for Philanthropic Transformation will build upon the values and practices that have been highlighted in the #LiberatePhilanthropy blog series. The framework will serve as a guide to accelerate work that is being pioneered in Massachusetts through what Aaron Tanaka calls Solidarity Philanthropy, which encompasses “reparations, power and democracy in reconstituting our role as stewards of capital.” What this will require is a “generational conviction to nurture and resource this field.”

Kodomo no tame ni . . . for the sake of your children and mine, we must begin aligning all of our resources to manifest the world where we all thrive.

It is my belief that the first step toward building this world is to free our minds from what we have known, and to expand our imagination about what is possible.

Being in dialogue with formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans at the Tule Lake Pilgrimage, and struggling to hike 2.6 miles up Castle Rock, I was reminded that liberation looks and feels different for everyone. For those who were physically confined, a hike untethered by barbed wire while being pointed at by machine guns would certainly be one form of freedom.

However, the Japanese American “resisters,” so classified for refusing to comply with evacuation orders or to serve in the U.S. Armed forces while their families were incarcerated, exhibited another kind of freedom.

Their liberation was driven by a belief in justice and undeterred by the lack of precedent.

It’s a powerful reminder to free your mind . . . and the rest will follow.


Dana Kawaoka-Chen is a Yonsei (4th Generation Japanese-American) born and raised in the Bay Area. She got woke when her 8th grade district-issued U.S. History textbook from Richmond Unified School District said, “Japanese Americans were interned for their safety.” Since then, Dana has worked to apply the learnings from her family and community’s unjust incarceration in all her work. She currently serves as the Executive Director of Justice Funders, a partner and guide for philanthropy in reimagining practices that advance a thriving and just world.