Power to Change

By Bob Tracy

Art was in Boston when he got a call from his friend Juani. She was out knocking on doors as good community organizers do. She came across a family with a newborn that was in crisis. Mom had been drinking contaminated water and breast-feeding her baby for months. Unbelievable! The family had no clean drinking water!

This was all happening in Art’s home town and in the neighborhood where he grew up. He couldn’t ignore what was happening to this mom, her baby, and their family. How many other families were facing a similar crisis, and how was it possible that a whole city could have nothing but contaminated water? He couldn’t leave it to Juani or others to face this problem alone. Art got on a plane, left Boston, and got himself home to Flint, Michigan, to do something about this appalling crisis.

Elected officials and public agencies were responding slowly. It took rapid organizing through a network of community groups to put in place a system to provide immediate access to clean water for drinking and bathing. That was the immediate issue. But clearly, there were bigger issues at play. They had a city without resources to support a system for delivering clean water, policies and actions by elected leaders that created this problem, hid it, and even did things to make things worse, and poor people and people of color who were directly affected by the problem but blocked from the power to change it.

Art and the people of Flint who were fighting for their lives decided together to launch an organization called Flint Rising that was led entirely by locally impacted people who decided they were in for the long haul. Grantmakers stepped out of their comfort zones and stepped in to help make things happen. Today, Art Reyes leads We the People, a group linking together other community groups throughout Michigan in a multi-racial, working class alliance to build the power needed to change the systems that make something like a Flint water crisis happen. Community organizing and power-building are an essential part of solving big problems.

Minnesota has its own set of vexing problems. The state is not immune to its own water quality challenges. We stare down racially defined learning gaps, persistent homelessness, a disconnect between job opportunities and affordable housing, and communities too politically polarized to even talk about issues such as climate change, racial and gender justice, and immigration. How can we tackle these big, systemic, multi-faceted, wicked issues?

A Little Dose of Democracy Could Help
The 2016 Ford Foundation review of its initiatives for promoting electoral reform and democratic participation says, “Democracy is premised on the idea that equality of voice can overcome inequality of resources. By giving people the opportunity to exercise influence over governmental decisions regardless of the resources they have, participation has the potential to be a great equalizer. Yet, this process works only if participation actually influences governance.” In other words, that there is power.

Power, whether created by the influence of money or through organizing people, is the force that changes systems. Changing systems is what closes achievement gaps, shifts a market to close wage gaps or build housing that new workers can afford, or takes inequitable tilts out of our democratic processes and institutions.

Grantmakers build power by funding civic engagement, advocacy, and community organizing. Minnesota does a good job at this. In fact, in 2014 when the National Partnership fund, a big investor in power-building, targeted Minnesota, it was largely due to the opportunity to leverage the existing base. Minnesota is nationally-regarded for its strong power-building organizers. But it is important to note that, as cited in a 2011 report about the topography of advocacy and civic engagement in Minnesota commissioned by the Northwest Area Foundation, that it is because of a well-developed and funded nonprofit sector in the state that we have this capacity. Compared to other areas of the country, nonprofits in Minnesota have enough funding to integrate advocacy and organizing into their operations. While some Minnesota funders make grants for power building, according to Foundation Center grantmaking information from 2017, more national funders are supporting these efforts than local. The report also cited a need to do more to coalesce influence by helping power-building groups connect through multi-issue organizing.

Power in Multi-issue Organizing
The big issues vexing Minnesotans are multi-dimensional with solutions nested within complex systems. Making sure kids are ready to learn when they start kindergarten is linked to providing learning opportunities in a pre-school setting and more. It’s also about the interconnected set of issues such as stable housing, good health and nutrition, and culturally and historically established expectations for success based on factors such as race or gender. Grantmakers made headway through the past ten years by lifting the focus and marshalling state resources into early childhood education. But, education and advocacy networks such as the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative and Minneminds have adjusted strategies to consider the broader set of influences on child development and school-readiness, and organizing parents who intimately understand what their kids need for success. A multi-issue approach to advocacy and organizing is the more promising path to closing the readiness and learning gap for low income and kids of color.

Multi-issue organizing recognizes that many of the issues we attempt to resolve individually are often linked to others. No surprise here; we need to see and act within the ecosystem of our world if we are to create a system that can produce different outcomes. Multi-issue organizing opens the doors of single-issue silos. It links people who are all affected by the same ecosystem of problems, though from different perspectives. It helps them to find shared values and interests, to understand root causes of systemic problems, and to organize their power in strategic ways to achieve a larger, shared purpose. This is what happened for Art and Juani in Flint. The water crisis brought people together, but they were brought into the crisis for different reasons, such as, poverty, systemic racial discrimination, fears about deportation. They moved forward under shared, multi-issue banners to use their growing, collective power to start disrupting the system of laws and people that were at the root of the crisis.

An example of multi-issue organizing in Minnesota is ISAIAH, a multi-racial, statewide, nonpartisan coalition of faith communities that see abundance in opportunity and resources to create racial and economic justice in Minnesota. Rural childcare, health care, minimum wage, and support for immigrants and refugees are some of the issues addressed through Isaiah’s community engagement initiatives. They are concerns reflective of the interests shared by individuals and faith organizations representing a variety of beliefs and coming from all corners of the state. Early in 2018, ISAIAH organizers and volunteers hosted conversations in living rooms all over Minnesota. The hosts invited family, friends and neighbors into their homes, shared a meal, and then engaged in conversations to explore attitudes and beliefs about immigration, or any other issue of interest to those settled onto couches and chairs. The evening ended with people feeling different and more connected having had a civil conversation of substance. They also signed agreements to hand off the relationship from ISAIAH to its 501(c)(4) partner organization, Faith in Minnesota, for follow-up by one of its organizers who would help them turn their conversations into action.

Fast forward, new bodies showed up for the first time to Minnesota’s precinct caucuses. Party conventions saw caucuses organized and delegates elected not to back candidates, but under the banner of Faith in Minnesota and with commitments to issues such as education equity, health care for all, or clean water. One block went into the state Democratic Farmer Labor convention holding the sway of about 15 percent of the convention. They doled out their candidate endorsement not based on a specific issue, but according to a candidate’s approach to engaging community as partners and co-creators. Faith in Minnesota then linked arms with other “c4” organizing networks to divide up the work to mobilize voters and elect candidates who shared their values and approach to civic engagement.

Looking from the outside in, Minnesota’s ISAIAH is a national jewel; a civic engagement and organizing force that works across issues and communities to create a base of abundant power and ready to move the systems of state government to new places in the interest of creating welcoming and safe homes for Minnesotans who are immigrants or refugees.

Multi-issue organizations like ISAIAH create power. But in doing so, they also heal traumatized communities. For the residents of Flint, the water crisis was simply one more cruelty on top of generations of traumas that turned the once prosperous engine of American industry and life to a community of unmatched poverty, racial discrimination and segregation, and disinvestment. Youth leadership development specialist, Shawn Gingwright helps us understand the healing nature of civic engagement. He observes that taking action “builds a sense of power and control” among traumatized groups that is perhaps one of the most significant features in restoring holistic well-being.

Philanthropy as a Power Tool
Minnesota grantmakers are troubled by the corrosive and divisive civil discourse of our time. They are trying to bring communities together around shared values. Foundation leaders in Duluth, St. Cloud and Southwestern Minnesota are drawing upon the work of Robert Putnum and the ideas in his recent book, “Our Kinds: America in Crisis,” to connect communities around shared values and interests in helping poor kids succeed. The Saint Paul and Minnesota Foundations, McKnight Foundation and Blandin Foundation hosted a year-long series of convenings with grantmaking leaders to connect people and build trusting relationships through conversation about Minnesota’s rural and urban divide. The search is on to produce different results when it comes to education, workforce opportunity, climate change, or historic trauma for Tribal and Native American communities.

Recently, grantmakers and community organizers from around the country came together to develop a road map for creating different results. At its 2018 national convening, the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP) released this “Power Team” recommendations. This set of guidelines suggests a path for how grantmakers can engage and invest in creating community power. The ten-point set of recommendations centers on understanding the role of race in systemic gaps in resources and justice. It challenges grantmakers to change the nature of their partnerships with community that embraces a deeper level of trust and vulnerability. It centers on finding answers in the experiences of people and communities who live immediate and historic traumas day-in-and-day-out. It gives richer meaning to the repeated call for long-term general operating grants; understanding them as a tool for trust-rooted partnership, time to understand problems and their systemic core, and organizing, relationship-building and connecting across issues and interests to create power to make, own and sustain change.

Whether it’s through general operating support to community partners, developing advocacy and public policy capacity within nonprofits, investing in civil leadership, lending their influence and voice, or even strategically granting to multi-issue community organizing groups, grantmakers have the tools to create power.

What are the Benefits to Philanthropy?
As FCCP’s Power Team suggests, grantmaking to create power will change how grantmakers work. The change will come with some stress; that’s the nature of playing with power. But the results can be better, both in terms of community impact and for how philanthropy does its work.

Change Power Dynamics — Barely a conversation takes place at a funders’ conference or workshop where the topic of power imbalance between grantmaker and grantseeker does not come up. The FCCP guidelines for creating power address these power dynamics and suggest a process for changing them.

Improve Transparency — Developing trusting relationships requires an openness and sharing that doesn’t evolve naturally in strictly transactional grantmaking. When the trust is there, it’s much easier to be vulnerable, open and transparent. It increases risk-taking capacity.

Better Information — Power-building partnerships open access to better information. For example, rather than hiring the consultant to gather community input to guide a new problem-solving initiative, relationships with multi-issue organizing networks provide quick and easy information from knowledgeable partners and direct access to community knowledge.

Really Solve Problems — Community-directed assessment of needs, opportunities and strategies create ownership and more sustainable solutions. Addressed through multi-issue organizing, it enables systems solutions that have impact and really stick.

Nurturing Our Democracy
Improving the lives of those who are on the short end of the power line means increasing their agency and ability to change the rules in ways that better align with their needs and interests. Power is the ability to change the rules. When we intentionally organize people to come together across issues, around shared values, and even with different interests we are drawing upon the best of our democratic values and traditions. Think of what happens when people are developing relationships and mutual accountabilities, are developing spaces for deliberation, compromise and negotiation, are cultivating civic leadership, and are connecting this with advocacy, public policy and political action. These are the practices of an engaged and truly deliberative democracy. Power-building grantmaking is philanthropy’s investment in democracy.

Bob coordinates public policy engagement and leads MCF's government relations activities. He encourages MCF members to incorporate public policy into their grantmaking.

2nd photo above is from ISAIAH. ISAIAH believes that intentional and authentic conversations across race, class, religion and geography are core components to both leadership development and shifting the dominant narrative toward community.
3rd photo above is from ISAIAH. Faith in Minnesota and ISAIAH's Claiming Our Voices initiative gives space for people of faith to be powerfully engaged in the political arena, grounded in their values.

More of Giving Forum V40, Fall 2018