Building a Racial Justice Fund in Greater Atlanta: One United Way’s Journey – Non Profit News

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How can a local United Way chapter change its behavior to be an effective partner with BIPOC community groups seeking to dismantle structural racism?  We ask ourselves this question often these days.

We know the national data. To date, only 1.8 percent of philanthropic dollars goes to Black-led organizations according to the Association of Black Foundation Executives. In 2018, the latest year for which complete grants data are available, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity reported that only six percent of philanthropic dollars supported racial equity work and only one percent supported racial justice work. Also in 2018, the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy found that one percent of local grantmaking was going to Black people.

There are consistent inequities between Black and white Americans in all aspects of life—healthcare, education, law enforcement, child welfare, wages, access to capital, and more. According to research from the Racial Equity Institute, Black Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be suspended from K-12 education than white Americans, 5.2 times as likely to be denied a loan, and seven times more likely to be incarcerated as adults.

The preponderance of racial inequities across systems and socioeconomic strata disproves the notion that such statistics are unrelated or that racial inequity is the product of individual actions or Black culture. The Racial Equity Institute finds that these issues have the same root cause—systemic racism—which it likens to contaminated groundwater that infiltrates and poisons our systems.


Designing a Fund That Meets Atlanta’s Needs

The national statistics are damning, but how does this reality translate into philanthropic action at the local level in a community like Atlanta? It certainly helps to know the territory. Two of us (Katrina Mitchell and Kim Addie) work for the United Way of Greater Atlanta (UWGA. Will Cordery, a national philanthropic consultant, supported our exploration as we developed our approach.

In Atlanta, the data tell us that myths of Atlanta as the real-world “Wakanda” notwithstanding, Atlanta has long been home to stark structural racial and economic inequality. As a 2019 article in NPQ noted, “The city has, over recent years, earned the unfortunate distinction of being the most economically inequitable city in the US.”  According to the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative, as of 2020, the average income for a Black family in Atlanta was $28,105, barely one third of the average white family income of $83,722. The average value of a Black-owned business was $58,805—less than one tenth of the value of a white-owned business ($658,264).

Once we understand the pervasiveness of structural racism, we are left with a cogent conclusion: to solve groundwater problems, we need groundwater solutions. In the past, UWGA had largely funded direct services. But 2020 led to a reckoning about how we can move beyond “band-aid” solutions and leverage our philanthropic resources to tackle equity with a systems-level approach. As a part of changing the philanthropic ecosystem, our goal was to be intentional in supporting BIPOC infrastructure.


Can an Old United Way Chapter Engage in Structural Change?  Initial Steps

This required incubating a new approach in our organization. Wanting to demonstrate that legacy philanthropic models can be responsive, we launched our United for Racial Equity & Healing Fund in 2020. This effort, of course, is part of a broader trend of emerging Black funds in communities such as Seattle, WA; Richmond and Hampton Roads, VA; and Denver, CO.

To develop our equity framing and grantmaking practices. we reached out to Dr. Yanique Redwood, formerly with the if Foundation and now Executive Director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. We also spoke with other foundations with similar funds, such as the Pittsburgh Foundation.

We are on a journey. We have made mistakes and learned from them and are striving to include in our work more and more the voices of the communities we serve. Our fund is in its infancy. To date, it has raised and distributed $3.2 million to support local racial justice work. It’s a small percentage of total giving, but it’s a start.

Not just about money, the fund is also about supporting organizations’ capacity building and amplifying community voices. Among the groups receiving capacity-building support are the SisterCARE Alliance, whose self-care and crisis response programs contribute to community wealth building. Integrating self-care into daily wellness practices helps Atlanta women protect themselves, preventing suicide, domestic violence, depression, human trafficking, and economic oppression. The organization fights social injustice in the Black community.

Another partner grantee, the Kindred Southern Healing Collective, focuses on dealing with generational trauma, using a social healing model to counter racial violence and economic disenfranchisement. Yet another grantee, Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative (PAD), intervenes in real time and on-site to keep people from unnecessarily entering Atlanta’s criminal legal system, preventing ongoing harm of Black families and lives.

As Dr. Yomi Noibi, who leads ECO-Action, an Atlanta-based environmental justice group, reminds us, “We have to invest time and money in building transformational relationships among the team and partners that you fund. They [funders] need to invest in potential, not just those that have a track record. The people that need you the most have the potential—you have to take the risk even if you mess up!” Noibi’s counsel drives home why respect for community leadership is so vital for any neighborhood change effort.


Reaching Out to the Black Atlanta Community

To guide the fund, United Way of Greater Atlanta convened an advisory committee of influential regional BIPOC leaders. Over the spring of 2020, we assembled a small, deeply committed advisory board that represents a cross-section of nonprofit and philanthropic leaders who understood the landscape and guide the process of building the fund and helped shape the fund’s priorities. Board members include Tamieka A. Mosely, Director of Grantmakers for Southern Progress; Shannon Cofrin Gaggero, a trustee with the Homestead Foundation, an Atlanta-based family foundation; Kweku Forstall, Director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Atlanta civic site; Odetta MacLeish-White, the Georgia lead for the Center for Community Progress; and Nathaniel Smith, Chief Equity Officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity.

We also hired Social Insights Research, a women-of-color-led consulting firm. Our conversations with consultants, board members, and others challenged us to think deeply about how racial healing could best be prioritized by the fund and in our daily work. As a result, we began to look at moving money towards healing justice. This was a significant pivot, and it has guided fund giving over three grant cycles, along with feedback from the fund committee members and grantee partners. For example, Smith reminded us, “We have allowed the nonprofit industrial complex to determine what success looks like.” He called on the fund to act differently and do better.

One of our partners, James Woodall of the JustGeorgia Coalition, spoke to the issue of trauma. “There was no pandemic in the [social justice] movement,” he emphasized. “We were still in the streets, fighting and protesting against police violence in Black communities.” Alison Johnson with the Housing justice League made a similar observation: “We ask ourselves, how do we come into community and be in communion to address trauma caused by all these harms?”

This input has led the fund to focus on addressing generational trauma and countering the criminalization of Black communities in our region. This work included launching a series of community-wide conversations between corporate partners, civic organizations, and donors on the topic of racial equity. The fund launch also created opportunities for UWGA staff to have difficult internal conversations via facilitated dialogues about racial equity across the organization.

Throughout the process, the fund’s committee members and grantee partners have been direct with us about past flaws. This meant there was a need to acknowledge that UWGA would no longer be satisfied with dedicating funds to addressing the effects of racism; rather, it was imperative for UWGA to emphasize racial equity in its funding applications and communication across the entire organization.

We have listened openly to feedback about how, historically, Atlanta’s local philanthropic community, including UWGA, has largely remained silent on racial equity and not sufficiently invested in local community organizing efforts. Our grantee partners asked us to not only change our guidance to grantees, but also through our communications to encourage other philanthropic organizations in Atlanta to put a new model into action and hold our peers accountable to that end.


Preliminary Lessons

The racial justice fund is still young and evolving, but some initial learnings to date include the following:

  • Doing healing justice work can itself be exhausting and traumatic. Social justice leaders informed us that they were out of money and energy. As a result, we committed to supporting the health and wellbeing of local leaders who need rest to avoid burnout; now, UWGA enables all grantees to use up to 10 percent of grant awards to support healing and restorative practices for staff.
  • Achieving systems-level changes requires moving beyond individual and behavioral change and investing in organizations that deliver services, utilize community organizing, and advocate for policy changes at the local and state levels.
  • Support organizations that are grounded in the realities and wisdom of the people who bear the brunt of disinvestment, inequity, and injustice every day.
  • Provide multi-year, unrestricted funding to BIPOC-led organizations. This funding gives grantees flexibility to assess and determine where grant dollars are most needed and allows for innovation, emergent action, and sustainability.
  • Build trust by working alongside funders and funder intermediaries to deepen understanding of lesser known or emerging organizations. For example, a grant was provided to the Southern Power Fund through Project South, which served as a fiscal agent and intermediary to support frontline organizers leading transformational efforts.
  • Don’t forget the leaders in the middle. Investment in leadership development, capacity building, and technical assistance for leaders at public sector agencies is critical, especially as local governments deploy federal dollars stemming from the American Recovery Plan Act and infrastructure spending. As Lois DeBacker and Joe Evans of the Kresge Foundation wrote in NPQ, philanthropy has a critical role in ensuring that these public dollars actually meet community needs.
  • Always solicit and act on feedback. Philanthropy is most successful when informed by the expertise and lived experience of grantee partners.


A Call to Action in Atlanta and Beyond

We know structural racism can be dismantled in Atlanta. Not only can it be done, but it must be done.

We end as we began. As the Racial Equity Institute emphasizes, structural racism is in some aspects like contaminated groundwater. We have some experience with contaminated groundwater in Atlanta. The Chattahoochee River, which runs through the city, was once one of the most polluted rivers in the country. Locals were warned to avoid the “Hooch,” as the river was called, because of its toxicity. In the 1990s, local leaders recognized that contamination had to be addressed to ensure the waterway’s long-term sustainability. And it was. Today, the Chattahoochee River is a vibrant, valued resource flowing through Greater Atlanta. It’s not unusual to encounter families floating downstream in tubes on a sunny Saturday morning or to see groups of Black birdwatchers along the riverbanks.

Undoing structural racism is more challenging than undoing groundwater contamination, but in addition to UWGA’s racial justice fund, a growing range of Atlanta-based initiatives give us hope. These include the Kendeda Fund, a national foundation which has made a public commitment to investing in equity in its home city of Atlanta; and the Reimagine Albany Equity Advancement Fund, an effort by a United Way partner chapter in southwest Georgia, the birthplace of the national community land trust movement.

For too long, Atlanta has used its image of being a Black Mecca as a kind of shield to exempt itself from criticism, even as a substantial majority of its Black residents fail to benefit. It’s past time for philanthropy and policymakers in Atlanta to move beyond the mirage and invest in a truly thriving Black community.