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Make It Mean Something

Make It Mean Something: Funding Black-Led Change

In spite of itself, this historic year has had a silver lining. COVID 19 and the tragic murder of George Floyd were historic tests of public support social justice movements. In turn, the success of mass mobilizations by activists across the country have been an inflection point, making it more possible than ever to build a broad foundation for racial justice. 

These events have also released a yet untallied millions of dollars from foundations as well as individuals and corporations like Warner Music Group, Comcast, and Netflix for policing reform, public safety and other efforts to dismantle anti-Black racism efforts. The outpouring of funds has forced a new national conversation about who is supporting Black-led social change, and to what tune – a culture shift that even the successful anti-racism movements over the past five to ten years had not yet achieved. 

But while the outpouring of philanthropic dollars is unprecedented, the question remains: will the new dollars being directed at movements create lasting and meaningful growth in Black organizing and movement infrastructure? Can the trend of perennial underfunding be reversed?

BOLD Board member Nat Chioke Williams believes it’s possible to build freedom into the definition of funding. According to Williams, it’s going to take deep, systemic transformation to make philanthropic giving to Black-led social change more equitable and sustainable. Williams is presently the Executive Director of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation and is leading the family foundation to strategically move its assets to support racial justice.

Williams was a young Black activist whose social consciousness grew in Brooklyn in the 1970’s awakening of afro-conscious pride and the hip hop movements of the 1980’s. In the late 90’s, Williams was feeling torn about leaving his role as an Assistant Professor of Black Studies at SUNY New Paltz to become a Program Officer at the New York Foundation. He convinced himself that the foundation role would help him to get closer to organizing on the ground than academia, and that if he was able to help the Brooklyn chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) get its first major grant, then it would be worth it. Williams took the job at the New York Foundation. MXGM did get a grant from the Foundation, and Williams has worked at the intersection of grant making and social justice organizing ever since. 

At the core of his work has been an urgent effort to infuse philanthropic giving with an understanding of the need to invest in Black-led organizing and leadership. In 2015, Williams led the foundation’s Making Black Lives Matter Initiative, an ongoing grant making and strategic co-funding initiative to build long-term institutional and political power for Black social change and racial justice. 

“It is by virtue of having an infrastructure for Black organizing … that movement actors were ready to seize historical moments and turn them into tipping points for social change,” he noted in a recent article. 

Like many movement leaders, Williams is concerned that, while the new investments are urgently needed, some of the recent giving to anti-racism or justice work is performative or too constrained by white guilt. 

“It broke open this conversation in a way that things like ‘white supremacy’ and ‘anti-Black racism’ are commonplace now.  So it creates a new social imperative to perform in a way that is consistent with this rise in wokeness,” he said. 

And even if [corporations] have the best intentions, doing it outside of being in relationship with the work that’s on the ground just perpetuates the same inequitable decision-making capitalist imperatives that philanthropy is built on. It doesn’t actually advance black liberation because there’s no self-determination.

Williams is figuring out a way to construct a more equitable system that embodies a commitment to Black freedom. And he’s working alongside other Black funders to take the groundbreaking steps that could help carve a sustainable movement infrastructure out of this moment. 

You might call him an organizer of funders. Based on his experience leading funder networks like the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing and Grantmakers for Southern Progress, he is now exploring the architecture for collaborative spaces where Black funders and organizers and their allies can leverage the new resources, remove  gatekeepers, and make the transfer of resources to Black-led movements more direct and long-term.

Williams is also working to establish a group called Freedom Funders. “I spent the last two months speaking to about 20 funders … who have made a substantive commitment explicitly to black organizing, black giving or black power,” he explained. The purpose of the initiative is to establish a philanthropic center of gravity for Black organizing and movement funding that persists and influences the broader sector.

“What we need to do is create … something that holds its own shape and form that it attracts others to it, that holds its own and it doesn’t have to exist on the episodic and continual incidences of death and destruction of Black bodies,” he said.

And that, says Williams, will feel like real freedom: a giving movement truly grounded in Black love and liberation.

In our talk, Williams also shared a few practical insights and recommendations for his colleagues in the sector.

Report Transparently

There is a fallacy of the reported $6.5 Billion in giving. The reports give the impression that most of these funds went to support Black-led organizing for racial justice.  Only a portion of these funds is explicitly for Black-led racial justice organizing and movement building.  In order to accurately track increases in funding for Black movement infrastructure and hold foundations accountable, the data has to be accurate. One of the tasks for the Freedom Funders may be to help accurately track this giving to make it more transparent and specific.  

Remove the Blinders

Foundations are still saying that Black-led organizations don’t need more money. There is this scrutiny, this mistrust, this lack of respect for black-led anything, particularly power organizations. We have to control the narrative. Part of the narrative on the philanthropic side is how much money is going to who and for what. But there needs to be more and it needs to be perpetual. 

Build Movement Infrastructure

It can’t just be money in, money out. As we talk about supporting the development of a strong and robust Black movement infrastructure it is important to understand and support the full scope, breadth, needs and capacities of leaders.

Sometimes when people are talking about “movement” it serves as a proxy for the Movement for Black Lives…I feel reluctant to equate the movement with one formation because I know it is broader than that. Philanthropy can be myopic and focus mostly on the shiny object in front of it. However, this could lead to the development of an unbalanced movement ecosystem and infrastructure and, in turn, curtail their ultimate power.