Lateefah Simon, president of Akonadi Foundation, explains how philanthropy can be on the right side of history as a staunch ally of the movement against structural racism and white supremacy.
The police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others in 2020 mobilized more than 20 million Americans demanding an end to rampant, state-sanctioned violence against Black people. The rallying cry “Black Lives Matter” has sustained the largest people’s movement in the U.S. since the civil rights era and stretched across the globe to more than 60 cities worldwide. For funders, however, this historical comparison carries a cautionary tale. Philanthropy can indeed bolster Black-led organizing, but also has the potential to undermine the movement’s call for racial justice.
In the early 20th century, for example, white philanthropists deliberately shifted civil rights leaders’ focus from lynching and mob violence to a cause more palatable to their liberal sensibilities. These funders “engaged in a process of movement capture,” the scholar Megan Ming Francis wrote, “whereby they used their financial leverage to redirect the NAACP’s agenda away from the issue of racial violence to a focus on education at a critical juncture in the civil rights movement.”
In this century, a growing number of foundations have prioritized efforts toward racial diversity and inclusion. It is white-led organizations, however, that have received the bulk of these investments.
According to one study, a mere 1% of grant-making from a cross-section of community foundations was specifically designated for Black communities. Such disparities have existed for generations. As Fred Blackwell, CEO of the San Francisco Foundation, recently said, we must begin “to make up for the decades of neglect and underinvestment in Black-led organizing and advocacy on the part of philanthropy.”
Today’s movement against police violence and mass incarceration has reawakened a centuries-old struggle against oppressive and discriminatory law enforcement. To make racial justice real, however, philanthropy must be cognizant of its fraught history and endeavor to reverse it by doubling down on racial justice. We can achieve this by investing wisely and widely in Black-led organizations that focus on power-building and policy change through grassroots organizing.
The pattern within philanthropy of sparsely supporting Black-led civil rights and community-based organizations, compared to their white-led counterparts, signals that the need for a racial reckoning in our sector is long overdue.
It is vital that philanthropy invests, for the long haul, in community-based, Black-led organizations that are working not just to dismantle but to transform public systems plagued by institutional racism. By doing so, structural and transformative change can emerge from the nightmare of police violence. Our philanthropic efforts, just like our public services and institutions, must be accountable to low-income communities of color.
We have seen examples of how Black-led organizations can catalyze systemic change. One example, here in my city of Oakland, California, involves stopping the school-to-prison pipeline by countering the growth of state policing in public schools. To set the context, in 1975, only 1% of U.S. schools had police officers on-site. By 2018, 58% of schools had an institutionalized police presence. This mirrors — and has almost certainly helped drive — the explosive growth of the U.S. prison population, which roughly quintupled during the same time period.
The policing of students has had a disproportionately negative impact on Black youth. In Oakland, for instance, Black youth make up approximately 26% of the school district’s enrollment, but 73% of school-based arrests. We also see the fiscal impacts of this investment in policing at the expense of our children’s future: the local county spends US$ 500,000 per year to keep one young person behind bars, while Oakland spends US$ 15,000 per child per year on public education.
In 2011, a police sergeant employed by the Oakland Unified School District (the Oakland school district had its own police force) murdered a young Black man named Raheim Brown. When local officials turned their backs on Brown’s mother, she sought help from a community organization, the Black Organizing Project (BOP). To ensure that his death would not be in vain, BOP launched a painstaking, decade-long grassroots campaign to end the criminalization of Black and Latinx students.
A few years before Brown’s death, I was working in the office of San Francisco’s District Attorney Kamala Harris, who had enlisted me to spearhead an initiative to address racial discrimination in the criminal justice system focused on reducing rates of recidivism. That work helped inform a grant partnership between the Oakland-based Akonadi Foundation, which I now lead, and BOP, which was working with Raheim’s mother to abolish the Oakland Unified School District’s Police Department as part of its efforts to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
Ten years after Raheim Brown’s killing, the persistent work of BOP and its core allies led to the successful abolition of the Oakland Unified School District’s Police Department. Akonadi Foundation continues to invest in BOP and our other grant partners to end the criminalization of youth of color in Oakland by demanding an end to student surveillance and youth incarceration. Black and brown community organizers are also working to institute restorative justice models that create meaningful school safety and ensure that students are nurtured — not targeted for expulsion and arrest — while they are trying to learn on a course to fulfill their dreams.
The vibrant civil and human rights movement of our time has brought renewed attention to law enforcement’s inexcusable treatment of Black lives as disposable. As funders, we can work alongside this movement by addressing the racism and classism historically embedded in our field. A first step in this process involved examining our own institutional practices and creating accountability markers.
I don’t presume to have all the answers, but I can share the efforts of which I am a part. Akonadi Foundation’s mission is to develop powerful social change movements to eliminate structural racism. We believe that by investing in community-led organizing, advocacy, and coordinated campaigns that lead to enduring systems change, we can help create a racially just city of Oakland.
These stated commitments do not, however, inoculate us from the presence of anti-Black racism within our own foundation. Mindful of this reality, we have dedicated ourselves, as an ongoing practice, to deeply understanding anti-Black racism and learning how it shows up in our organization so that we can undo it. I am cognizant of the fact that our epistemology can and should always go deeper.
In this ongoing learning process, Akonadi’s grant partners are those to whom my colleagues and I listen and defer. Our most impactful work and our truest calling is to harness the wisdom and power of the Oakland community members these organizations represent. Communities that are over-policed, disproportionately targeted by the juvenile and criminal justice systems and whose members possess direct lived experience of structural racism are most qualified to determine for themselves how community safety is pursued. After all, those most affected by institutional inequality are best suited to define the terms and create the means of their own liberation.
We must also take action in response to our shared learning. For instance, I was among a small group of foundation leaders who worked together last summer to launch the California Black Freedom Fund, housed at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. This pioneering fund, a partnership among nearly two dozen funders, is a US$ 100m initiative dedicated to Black power-building and organizing in California.
American history makes certain that — for now, at least — we will have no choice but to continue to march in protest of the senseless killing of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. In response to injustice, a mass people’s movement will rightfully continue to grow.
Equally there are hundreds of Black-led organizations across the U.S. like BOP that mourned and mobilized after Raheim Brown’s killing, but then launched a campaign for systemic reform. BOP sustained its tireless work for a decade, ultimately achieving its goal — long seen by many as preposterous — to end school policing entirely in Oakland.
BOP’s victory in Oakland — the abolition of the school district’s police department — rippled across the nation. In the past year, according to the Advancement Project, some 25 cities across the country have ended or significantly curtailed their school districts’ police capacity.
Ultimately, our job as funders is to invest sustainably in vibrant movement leaders like BOP and its counterparts nationwide that have the courage and vision to radically reimagine — and the tenacity to strategize and create — what true public safety and well-being means for our young people and families.
It’s time for philanthropy to foreground and follow the lead of Black organizers by investing in Black-led solutions and making deep investments in Black-led organizations. By doing so, we can serve our highest calling at this historical juncture: to be true allies and righteous accomplices in our nation’s journey toward racial justice.