The Path to Liberation- how to walk the talk of equity rather than white supremacy in philanthropy

By Jennifer Near

This post is part of “Liberate Philanthropy,” a new 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 will be sharing stories from some of our most forward thinking, transformational leaders in philanthropy about how they are facilitating a Just Transition for philanthropy.

Movement Generation, Thousand Currents and Shake the Foundations at the 2018 Edge Funders Alliance conference, hosting a conversation on communities’ right to land and capital, and the need for reparations through community reinvestment.

I grew up on a small farm in central New Hampshire with a strong sense of community and the importance of building resilient, regenerative systems and economies of mutual support and reciprocity. There was a culture of bartering and exchange, and we shared the food we grew, our land, and some of our skilled labor with others in our community.

Fifteen years later, I was living in Chicago working for The Libra Foundation, a private family foundation with a focus on human rights and social justice movements in the U.S. During my time at The Libra Foundation, we started to look critically at our grantmaking portfolio and investments through a Just Transition framework, thanks in large part to our work with our grantees and movement partners, such as Movement Generation. We quickly realized that there were gaps, challenges, and new capacities that were necessary to implement strategies and find mechanisms to redistribute capital back to communities in alignment with our values of supporting regenerative and cooperative local economies.

For example, most of the reinvestment opportunities we found were either focused on microfinance and access to capital in poor, “underdeveloped” communities in the global south, or “green” funds seeking to screen out fossil fuel investments and move capital to renewable investment opportunities.

Neither of these approaches was rooted in a systems, political or power analysis. And they didn’t consider the role of community ownership or wealth building as a part of building communities’ access to capital or renewable energy.

Or worse, they positioned US and Western donors as “white saviors” able to bring capital to “emerging markets” that were under-capitalized, and build the renewable energy infrastructure in underdeveloped regions, all while extracting a large return from impoverished communities.

Around this time we joined a diverse group of people working across different social movement and philanthropic organizations who were coming to similar realizations. We came together to ask ourselves questions such as:

— How do we move all philanthropic resources — both grants and investments — toward a Just Transition?

— How do we explicitly shift power, decision-making, and the control of capital, land and production to communities?

— How do we make capital available in ways that shift us from the current paradigms of extractive finance (one that mainly prioritizes and benefits the investor), to one that is non-extractive (where the primary beneficiary of that investment is the community and the workers)?

— How do we learn from one another in this work, especially given the current political moment and the opportunities to shape what a reinvestment strategy in communities might look like?

From these conversations, “Shake the Foundations” was formed. We are a network that provides peer-to-peer exchange and support for funders and movement partners aiming to move capital into community-based, democratic re-granting and investment vehicles as mechanisms to redistribute capital, land and power.

This work is complicated and messy. It requires a deeper level of relationship, trust, patience, flexibility and technical knowledge than most people bring into a typical grantor/grantee or investor/investee relationship.

While Shake the Foundations and others are working to radically shift how we approach our work in philanthropy, many foundations are funding more people of color led groups, while their Boards are simultaneously making funding and investment decisions that continue to aggregate their wealth and power in ways that hurt communities of color and undermine our path to liberation. For example, I’ve worked with a local foundation that is aiming to increase its pool of resources to support racial and health equity work while also making investments into fracking companies that are poisoning communities while generating large returns. The enclosed power structure of this Foundation’s board and the lack of directly-impacted communities in the decision-making process is in part what enables these blatant contradictions to exist.

Philanthropy must play an active role in facilitating a Just Transition if we truly want to align with the long struggle for liberation. So how do we 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?

By grounding the work of Shake the Foundations in the history of wealth accumulation and privatization, as documented in ”Stifled Generosity”, we recognize that the path to liberation must include the intentional redistribution of power and resources as well as reparations to communities of color for the harms caused by our long history of wealth and resource extraction. Here are a few suggestions on what philanthropy can do:

  1. Move grants and investment capital into movement and community-controlled infrastructure: We need to decentralize and redistribute power and decision making. We can do this by supporting, aligning and moving our resources into participatory and democratic grantmaking and investment structures such as the Building Equity and Alignment (BEA) Fund, Working World, the Climate Justice Alliance Just Transition Loan Fund, the Buen Vivir Fund, and other peer loan funds that collectively make up a structure known as the Financial Cooperative. Further, it is critical to provide both grant AND investment capital to these vehicles. Philanthropy must invest in this foundational work to accompany movement partners in their efforts as they work to build new mechanisms to redistribute capital back to communities.

2. Give long-term, general support to bottom-up organizing: Strong organizing, relationships, community spaces and social connectivity are the critical elements to reorganizing our economy.This includes groups doing incredible organizing, ecological and economic justice work, like Push Buffalo and Urban Tilth.

3. Organize and hold other funders and donors accountable: Our sector is part of the social change ecosystem, and all of us working in philanthropy can step up in new ways. This means organizing within our institutions and our field, and developing the skills of others in philanthropy to organize. We can look to Resource Generation, the Edge Funders Alliance, Justice Funders, Thousand Currents Academy, Indie Philanthropy, BALLE for support in this work.

4. Engage in deep relational/personal transformation work: This work requires a critique of capitalism and privilege. The only way I’ve come to this work is through deep self-reflection and transformation on my own power and privilege and how it is intricately linked to the liberation of others. We have to build our individual and collective capacity to dig deeply into the history of slavery and racism in our country and its connections to our current economy and wealth accumulation. Groups like the Catalyst Project and the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond can support you and others in this process.

Dramatically transforming our personal politics, our philanthropic practice, and the extractive economy will be a long journey. And there will be contradictions all along the way, but you are not alone in this path.

I just finished an Undoing Racism workshop with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, and on the last day the trainers asked us,“What is your highest self power to undo systemic racism? How might we assert that power not over others but in our various roles and points of privilege? And what might the multi-generational impacts be if we followed this path of our highest power to undo systemic racism and build toward relationships and processes rooted in liberation?” I invite you to explore these questions individually and collectively as we continue on this path together.

Jennifer Near is the coordinator for Shake the Foundations, an emergent collaborative project of philanthropic and economic justice organizations working to effectively invest in a Just Transition and build regenerative economies in ways that increase economic and political power for frontline workers and communities.You can reach Jennifer and learn more about Shake the Foundations at jmnear@gmail.com.