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Adopting a Racial Justice Framework for a Resilient Democracy

Thursday, May 28, 2020
In April 2020, Philanthropy California virtually convened over 600 funders from across the state for a day dedicated to philanthropy's role in strengthening our democracy and civic engagement during this unprecedented moment. SCG is excited to launch our Policy Blog Series to elevate critical lessons from the Summit and further our conversations and learning. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed our world and further exposed the stark realities of our inequitable systems. The outbreak has disproportionately impacted and devastated communities of color, who have long grappled with the legacies of racial injustice and economic disenfranchisement. As we approach the November elections and the 2020 Census deadline, these communities are now facing worsened conditions in addition to a new set of challenges that threaten the integrity of our democratic systems. 

At the 2020 Philanthropy California Virtual Policy Summit, Aimee Allison, Shena Ashley, Cathy Cha, and Sonja Diaz discussed how philanthropy could address these inequities and protect our democracy during this pandemic and critical election year. These four dynamic leaders unanimously agreed that we could not go back to “normal” and that building a truly resilient democracy and a path to recovery will require funders to adopt a racial justice framework in their advocacy and response efforts. Philanthropy has long worked to address systemic inequities. Still, now more than ever, the sector has an opportunity to be a leader in advocacy and policy change to support our most vulnerable communities.


CATHY: What are the critical stories related to vulnerable communities, equity, and COVID-19 that we should be working to uplift media to shape a new narrative with new voices for our rapidly changing world?

SONJA: The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified California’s inequities in dealing with poverty and homelessness. These worsened inequities are disproportionately devastating communities of color. Research shows that women of color overwhelmingly are on the front lines of our workforce and that many don’t have access to quality and affordable healthcare. In Los Angeles County, the pandemic has hit the retail and service sectors the hardest. These businesses have significantly impacted Asian American and Latinx communities, which also happen to be California’s fastest-growing demographics and future workforce. How will California continue to be the fifth-largest economy in the world if its workforce and families continue to get sick, lose jobs, and suffer? We need to continue elevating these inequities and working to ensure that everyone is protected. If we fail to protect our most vulnerable communities, the second wave of the virus will hit all of us even harder and result in an even greater loss of wealth and an unnecessary loss of life. 

AIMEE: People of color are also courageously responding to this crisis. This moment calls on us to explicitly acknowledge how women of color are shaping democracy. Philanthropy needs to begin supporting and investing in fact-based, science-based narratives that elevate Indigenous, Latinx, and black leaders’ voices. As COVID-19 continues to disproportionately affect Black, Brown, Asian American, and Indigenous communities, we cannot afford for the experiences of people of color to get pushed aside or treated as add-ons. Right now, women of color are some of the most prolific and courageous leaders defining a political agenda in California and nationally. These women are the trusted voices in their communities and will be sought after for their leadership and counsel as we define the road to recovery for COVID-19. Philanthropy can catalyze impact by validating and supporting the platforms of these leaders across the state. 


CATHY: Despite the coronavirus, we are still approaching the 2020 Census deadline and one of the most consequential elections in our lifetimes. How can we ensure that we hear our most marginalized communities’ voices and protect our democratic systems’ integrity? 

SONJA: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Census was a prominent focus for advocates and civil society organizations. We must continue to prioritize these efforts to ensure that our policymakers have the most accurate data to inform their decision making. When I founded the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, there were substantial data gaps around race, demography, and geography that excluded communities out of policy decisions. Philanthropy and our state leaders can ensure we don't go another ten years without statewide advocacy research organizations. Funders can also support these advocates and civil society organizations in continuing and reimagining their Census work to make sure that we don’t silence the voices of our communities for another decade. 

AIMEE: Philanthropy can work to ensure that communities, especially communities of color, have the ability and information needed to cast a vote in our November elections. It is not an exaggeration to say that disinformation, voter suppression, and an overwhelming fear threaten our democracy. Philanthropy can provide resources and infrastructure to organizations already working to adapt and digitize voter education, advocacy, and mobilization efforts. We can collectively reimagine what participating in a democracy looks like and create new ways for people to make their voices heard. I encourage philanthropy to step up when we lack federal expertise and leadership to help our state face this pandemic in a way that makes sense for our 40 million residents. Not to overstate it, but philanthropy can save democracy.


CATHY: What are the lasting impacts of this pandemic on the nonprofit sector? How can we re-imagine philanthropy’s role in the sector and the ways foundations think about their investments? 

SHENA: The COVID-19 pandemic has positioned nonprofits as necessary enterprises for economic recovery, as is demonstrated by their inclusion in response efforts such as the SBA loans. Additionally, we’ll also see a shift around how the nonprofit sector thinks about financial health. This crisis has shown the sector the vulnerability and risk inherent in relying on earned revenue as the critical element of nonprofit sustainability. As nonprofits shift their operating strategies, foundations will need to reimagine their practices and develop a different picture of what financial health looks like for their grantees. Empirical studies demonstrate foundations are less likely to fund nonprofits having six months or more of reserves and need to rethink such restrictions. To help move our economy forward, foundations also have an opportunity to reimagine how to utilize their more extensive set of assets, current portfolios, and endowments to participate in impactful practices like impact investing, loan equity sharing, and more. Now is the time for foundations to lift restrictions to allow new strategies to emerge as the sector enters an economic down-cycle that will also impact them. 

AIMEE: Philanthropy can begin to invest in projects and solutions that are race-conscious. The most affected nonprofits now tend to be located in the communities most impacted by the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, these nonprofits tend to be led by people of color and have not received the wide-scale public support and investment they need to survive. By adopting a racial justice framework, philanthropy can reexamine its current grantmaking practices to allow for deeper and more meaningful investments in communities and organizations supporting those most devastated by COVID-19 and systemic inequities. 


CATHY: What role can philanthropy play in advocacy and policy as we begin shaping our new world? 

SHENA: Policy windows are opening up at this time, particularly around recovery. For example, the federal infrastructure being built to send cash payments to individuals helps remove administrative barriers that have historically obstructed progress on universal basic income. These developments will help create more policy opportunities for UBI in the future, especially as unemployment levels continue to rise due to COVID-19, new technologies, and our rapidly changing workforce. There’s also an opportunity to expand access to healthcare and legal services for people living in remote locations. The innovations that have emerged around telemedicine and telelegal services have given people access to the healthcare and civil legal aid that they’ve needed but haven’t had access to previously. There is tremendous potential at this moment where ideas that were once considered unattainable are now within reach. 

SONJA: Crisis transforms society. Philanthropy has a vital role in this pandemic by ensuring that vulnerable communities can survive and emerge without losing everything. One of the Great Recession byproducts was our collective willingness to foster cross-sector partnerships between philanthropy and the government to solve our most pressing issues. We recently saw an example of this collaboration with the California Immigrant Resilience Fund, which will ensure that about 150,000 of the state's undocumented workers will receive aid since they were ineligible for any support under the Federal Cares Act. We need to continue identifying our most significant gaps and vulnerabilities to envision new ways for people to access basic needs like healthcare, housing, and wealth. Let’s not go back to “normal” because it wasn’t normal. I’d love to think of this moment as an opportunity to create something that works for all of us. 




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