The prison abolitionist movement reacted with outrage to Ford Foundation President Darren Walker’s recent piece defending nuance against the “extreme.” Walker’s temperate tone attempts to reflect his measured approach to the terrible legacy of incarceration, in this case at Rikers Island. The scorching response from more than 300 activists and Ford Fellows reflects the heat of righteous anger and frustration many feel. While this heat may be uncomfortable for some, it is essential to usher in change.
The uproar illustrates the paradox of serving in philanthropy: we love the light, but we gotta find a way to fund the heat. And to handle that heat when it is rightfully directed our way.
We know from past experience that philanthropy has a tendency to shush, slow down, try to cool off, or change the subject when it comes to communities of color. This is partly an issue of the color of philanthropy itself—both Darren and I are Black, but much of philanthropy is still white and still not woke. Funders always say they want to learn the truth about the lives and struggles of Black and Brown people, and to reflect our thoughts and goals in an authentic way. But is that what happens in practice? Isn’t it more often the case that funders, often with the best of intentions, impose their own agenda on communities of color?
This pattern of well-meaning coercion was apparent as long ago as 1916, as Megan Ming Francis writes in her fascinating HistPhil article. The heat in that historic moment was coming from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), which had mounted the largest campaign in history against lynching and racist mob violence. Focused on protecting the rights of Black people from state-sanctioned violence, the NAACP organized mass demonstrations and advocated for their anti-lynching agenda in Congress, the White House, and before the U.S. Supreme Court. The top priority of the organization was ending the scourge of racial violence terrorizing the Black community.
That’s when the Garland Fund entered the picture.
The Garland Fund wanted to fund the civil rights organization on its own terms. Soon, the NAACP shifted focus and dedicated the bulk of its organizational resources to ending segregation in education. The Garland Fund gained influence over the NAACP’s agenda for one reason: the organization’s need for funding. While the NAACP’s leadership preferred to continue focusing on ending racial violence, the Garland Fund wanted to see the organization pivot to a focus on education that mirrored its own mission.
At the insistence of the Garland Fund, the NAACP altered its agenda. For decades, broader systemic issues of racial violence and injustice took a backseat to the important but much narrower education agenda. A worthy cause, yes, but not the one many Black leaders most wanted to pursue.
A century later, we in philanthropy still have a lot to learn.
The costs of the Garland Fund’s exertion of power over the NAACP are incalculable: no one can say how many more Black lives might have been improved and saved through a sustained campaign against racial violence at a time when there were few partners and allies for it.
The costs of opening four new jails may be incalculable, too.
I and my fellow funders must remember we play a critical role in social movements, for better and sometimes for worse. We know what happens when we try to reframe or refocus movements centered on mass liberation and ending racial violence. It doesn’t work. At best, it maintains the status quo through the preservation of power and protection of reputation. At worst, it entrenches oppression. The views of the communities we fund are not “extreme” and they are not impeding progress. The will and self-determined priorities of these communities must be our North Star. They hold power to account—including our own. The barrier to progress is Big Philanthropy’s inability to let go of control and truly trust Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities to bring change that will not only improve their lives, but that will improve all lives. That’s what mass liberation means.
To change this dynamic, we must listen humbly to people on the frontlines of change and fund them for what they want to do, not what we want them to do. We need to fund them knowing that building alternatives to our current systems means a lot of experimentation, stumbling and learning, and profound wins. Grantmaking practices need to change as our colleagues at the Whitman Institute and Keecha Harris teach us. Amplifying the perspectives of communities pushing for change is the passion of my team at the Libra Foundation. Philanthropy can make a start in this direction by supporting groups like A New Way of Life, Initiate Justice, Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), and other organizations led by and for the communities most affected by injustice. They are developing policy proposals quite different in emphasis and priority than foundations or policy think tanks might.
Once the checks are cut, we get out of the way and let them bring the heat. I invite others in philanthropy to join us.
Crystal Hayling is Executive Director of The Libra Foundation, based in San Francisco, funding organizations working to advance human rights and racial, economic, and social justice.