Navigating Toward Justice

Reflecting on: What advocacy is being done to address the needs of African, Latine, Asian, Arab, and Native American (ALAANA) arts communities in need of greater support?

At the top of my to-do list, I keep a list of links to resources that help me navigate philanthropy. They help me wrestle with questions like: how do I/we keep moving in the direction of justice? How can I/we acknowledge that systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism have been extracting resources and labor from land and people for centuries and that I/we’ve played a role in that? How can those of us in philanthropy (in its many forms) support the artists and organizers fighting to upend those systems with a myriad of strategies daily? Before the pandemic, during, and after. I’ve shared those links at the end of this post, and my work and words here are indebted to the individuals and collectives whose words are represented there, as well as many others.

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I’m honored to work as a program officer at Opportunity Fund in Pittsburgh, PA. The foundation is the legacy of Gerri Kay, who was a white woman like me, whose values and passions guide our work every day. She fought for (her words) “civil rights for African American and LGBTQ people” and for “humanistic values,” a philosophical and ethical stance emphasizing the value and agency of human beings. Our Executive Director Jake Goodman has said, “Gerri believed that art has precious value, in the lives of individuals and to greater society. Art can break down barriers, build empathy, illuminate new perspectives, criticize existing systems, connect us, humanize us and make the world more beautiful.”

When this crisis hit, we moved quickly to send a message to our grantee community. About a week later, we made deeper commitments to many things called for in this time: increased payout, a COVID-19 Response Fund, loosening restrictions, minimizing reporting, sending approved payments in advance, and a commitment to listen. Jake’s voice and leadership is always full of heart, care, and empathy. I’m so grateful for that.

Then we set about the work to honor those commitments. Jake immediately began spending time in virtual and phone space with our grantees to hear what was happening, how folks were responding, and what was needed. We attended organizing meetings, joined Zoom town hall meetings, and talked to artists and arts organization folks.

Although we’ve been moving toward participatory panel processes in our regular funding cycles, we believed that this moment called for fast, trust-based funding decisions. The Opportunity Fund board reviewed notes from the many conversations, and determined that prioritizing support for grassroots entities and small arts organizations would align with our values and have a strong impact in communities, especially communities of color. These are also the entities least likely to have access to larger foundation emergency funds or government assistance.

As we do in our regular cycles, we looked at the racial representation of our funding in “real time” as we made draft and final decisions about unsolicited grants from our COVID-19 Response Fund with a spreadsheet that was constantly updating the demographic distribution of our funding. It is clear to us that COVID-19, as well as nearly every other system in this country, has disproportionate negative impacts on people of color, so our funding needed to reflect that greater need.

In the end, 43% of our COVID-19 Response Fund went to Black-led organizations, 35% to white-led organizations, and 23% went to organizations with Latino or multi-racial-team leadership. Over half the funds went to entities with budgets under $500,000 and 79% went to entities with budgets of $1.5 million or less. Much of the funding was unrestricted. We have also pre-approved some general operating grants for arts organizations in our next cycle, no application required. We sent our list of grantees to foundation colleagues, knowing that funding from one foundation can be the vote of confidence needed for another foundation to give, especially to small organizations.

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Beyond the Opportunity Fund, it’s also my deep honor to be a facilitator and board member for artEquity. Early in the pandemic, philanthropist Wendy vanden Heuvel made a strategic and justice-centered decision. She asked artEquity—a community whose values align with how she wanted to distribute resources—to take full control and power over how to allocate $1 million toward COVID-19 relief. The team at artEquity, led by Carmen Morgan, sought advice from people throughout the community by asking questions including, “How can we disrupt old patterns of philanthropy? What can we do to rebuild a system of giving informed by our values and ethos of justice? When this moment is over, what can we take away from this new model of giving?” Soon after, the team developed a plan to launch the Artist + Activist Community Fund, a rapid response fund targeted specifically to alumni of artEquity national facilitator training and organizations and funds recommended by that alumni community.

The list of entities, funds, and artists supported to date is fierce. Scroll down that page and you will see the artEquity team's transparent report to the community about where the funding is going and the demographic representation of the distributed funds. The team is analyzing that data to identify who isn't receiving sufficient funding and asking how we can seek out those folks for the next rounds of funding.

artEquity has shared some lessons learned relevant to all of us well beyond 2020:

  • Give support to individuals, not just institutions;
  • Build relationships 365 days a year, not just when needs are acute;
  • Provide support to individuals [and organizations] without asking them to prove their worthiness;
  • Be mindful of your identity (race, gender, disability, immigration status, sexual orientation) and how that may impact which people and organizations you support;
  • Give to people with social justice values who will in turn exponentially spread those ideals through their work and art-making.
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To the question, “What advocacy is being done to address the needs of African, Latine, Asian, Arab, and Native American (ALAANA) arts communities in need of greater support?”

While some institutions have used their resources to enter public conversations, amplify voices, conduct policy research, develop communications campaigns and advocate for policy change, the small organizations I work with most intimately have responded to the crisis largely through practices that deliberately prioritize communities of color.

This everyday advocacy is being done by people of color—often Black women—doing mutual aid work, leading grassroots organizing, providing healing and mental health support, distributing resources, and advocating in predominately white institutions and funding entities. I’m grateful it’s being done at Opportunity Fund and artEquity. It’s being done by each human committed to justice speaking up for levels of support long stolen or withheld from Black, Indigenous, People of Color artists/individuals, and organizations. It’s being done anytime someone points out that predominantly white institutions still receive the vast majority of funding.

It’s not yet enough, but I hope it represents navigation in the direction of justice.