By Shane Rogers, Communications and Network Weaving Strategist
We know that communities resist injustice and create lasting change when they are able to access the resources necessary to do the community work that's needed. So the idea of Resourcing Community Work should be pretty simple, right? If only…
At the Grassroots Fund, where we work in partnership with hundreds of on-the-ground community groups and organizers, we have seen countless examples of people activating their community agency to come together to lift each other up, build more resilient communities, and fight injustice. Their work is grounded in the exchange of resources that are given with love and care and spans multitudes. They range from the miles driven to deliver food and sit with one another to learn about shared experiences to lumber felled to frame greenhouses through community builds that deepen social ties and leverage community expertise to websites and social media accounts maintained to directly share the stories of the community with the community and everything in between. No matter what is needed, folks are stepping up to build community in the cracks and crevices left by an extractive economic system that values the accumulation of wealth as the end-all-be-all.
Unfortunately, for many groups and communities flush in the resources that can’t be accounted for on spreadsheets or in bank accounts, especially folks of color and other powerful groups who have been subjected to marginalization, access to financial resources often determines their ability to fully steward the change their communities seek and need. It’s a sad reality that much of the work that communities are seeking to accomplish - including ensuring that the countless community members stepping up to freely give their time, minds, and energy to these causes can meet their own basic needs - often hinges on a group’s proximity, understanding, and connections to an increasingly complex and sometimes insidious philanthropic system that peddles primarily in financial resources. But it’s also not unexpected, especially from an industry that often perpetuates the inequity caused by dominant society’s mad dash for financial wealth and centers the desires of distant funders, who lack rooted understanding of what communities need, rather than the communities most impacted.
Thankfully, countless organizers have raised alarm bells, calling out the need for philanthropy to reevaluate how it approaches its work and decenter the power that has been hoarded through this imbalance of positioning money above all other resources. A shining example is “An Open Letter from BIPOC Leaders in Food & Agriculture to Food Systems Funders” from a collective of Black, Indigenous and food systems organizers of color from across the country. In part they write, “As the world is faced with the unprecedented impacts of recent events, we invite you to see the urgency to unite and build together rather than continuing a pattern of paternalistic practices that entrench our marginalization, reinforce a culture of white supremacy, and devalue the knowledge and genius in our communities.”
There is no question that the philanthropic community across issue areas and funding priorities needs to heed these calls for change and begin to enter into true partnership with the communities they’re serving. This, of course, necessitates the decentering of funder-power. And not only because it’s just and right, although that should be good enough, but also because it’s the only way to truly break down barriers to accessing financial resources while supporting work in concert with the abundance of other intangible resources at play in communities. Just think, how many other community resources - relationships, knowledge, and the determined will to build a better future - are being ignored and lost by this perpetuation of the status quo that values only the thoughts and feelings of those with money?
Now we all love hearing and celebrating the stories of community members stepping up to help their neighbors, saving their land from unwanted development, and countless other acts of fighting for justice. And all of those stories exist, and will continue to exist, in spite of the systems that have been set up to stifle such creative acts of self determination. But just imagine what would happen if philanthropy listened deeply and gave money freely to support the knowledge embedded in communities that has been gained from years of building strong, reciprocal relationships? What could be possible if the people and places who gave freely their resources of time, minds, and efforts in reciprocity with one another were valued and supported because of those intangible resources they were stewarding? How much more could be accomplished if building true community partnerships and tearing down barriers to financial resources was actually what Resourcing Community Work looked like?
At the Grassroots Fund, we moved $1M to hundreds of grassroots groups throughout New England this past year, but it is a small amount compared to the $500 billion that flow through the philanthropic system in the United States annually. However, we are working to heed the call of the community by bringing to bear the resources we have access to while entering into deep relationship with those groups and people who are steeped in the abundance of their communities.
For us, this community-informed approach looks like reducing the barriers to grants, especially for powerful groups who have been targeted for marginalization, creating spaces to help groups continue to exchange ideas and practices, and engaging hundreds of community members through a participatory grantmaking process. This process helps the people to make decisions about the grants flowing into the communities where they live and work. It’s also through this work with the community that led to the creation of the Grassroots Fund Guiding Practices - Rooted Innovation, Shifting Power in Decision-Making, Equity in Participation, and Centering a Just Transition. These Guiding Practices act as a lens for all that we do and help us to lift up and value the resources communities are flushed with that don’t necessarily show up as dollars in spreadsheets.
Rooted Innovation focuses on understanding how a project is grounded in a community. This means understanding not only what the needs are in the community, but also how those needs are understood and will continue to be updated through feedback from the community.
Shifting Power in Decision Making focuses on how decisions are made, how those with diverse lived experiences can meaningfully weigh in, and what protocols are in place to navigate tension and conflict.
Equity in Participation focuses on understanding the barriers to participating in community building and creating opportunities to collectively respond to those barriers.
Centering a Just Transition is based in the Climate Justice Alliance’s understanding of Just Transition, which has roots within labor organizing and Environmental Justice. In order to move towards a Just Transition, the solutions and ideas of what is needed for community well-being must come from the bottom-up. It also means creating a culture of problem-solving that trusts people’s lived experiences and trusting that community members know best the complexity and the diversity of their needs.
When taken together, the Guiding Practices focuses on what the community hopes to realize. And in order to answer that question, a group has to be working with a lot of people who are freely giving their time, minds, and energy toward informing the work that is taking place. By placing value on these intangible resources and trying to follow them ourselves, we hope our community grant programs will leverage our access to financial resources to complement the community’s work while beginning to shift the dominant narrative of philanthropy and continue to decenter funder power.
For others, it will (and should!) look different based on the needs and knowledge of their partner communities. And of course, no matter what happens, communities are going to find a way to resource their community work. But the question is, how will philanthropy be a part of building that just and resilient future?