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Remaking the Case for Funding Systems Change

Wednesday, September 2, 2020
Because of the dual reality of remarkable strides in racial justice and seemingly insurmountable inequities, we must work harder than ever to achieve authentic systems change.  

The past few months of worldwide Black Lives Matter protests have forced the largest scale of police reforms since 2013 — after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager. Across the country, there are new bans on tear gas and chokeholds, new requirements of body cameras, and new ways to protect communities without police departments. And yet, less than two weeks ago, Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a police officer; this week, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed Dijon Kizze in South LA.

In the past and present, every time our society inches toward progress, we are reminded that inequities persist and that our lifelong fight against racism cannot stop at small victories. 

This dual reality is omnipresent in the philanthropic sector, government, the corporate world, and our individual circles. 

Yes, we have witnessed an unprecedented momentum toward positive changes: funding is flowing to Black-led organizations; institutions are recommitting to equity; conversations are taking place among lawmakers about reparations; our friends and family members have all declared themselves to be anti-racist. We can’t help but find ourselves hoping that the world is finally changing for the better this time.

Despite all the signs showing a societal breakthrough, the criminalization of Black people continues, the racial wealth gap doesn’t get any narrower, and Black people still get killed. The Committee for Greater LA highlighted gaping inequities in our backyard. While Black Angelenos represent about 8% of the total County population, they constitute over a third of the population experiencing homelessness. And according to a report by the Institute for Policy Studies, it would take Black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth white families have today. 

I am feeling strained, anxious, and frustrated by this dual reality. You might be feeling the same. And that’s why I want to remake the case for systems change, which was articulated in a report published by McKinsey & Company in partnership with SCG member Ashoka and other systems change leaders. 

We can’t deny the amount of progress we have accomplished or the truth that we are nowhere close to ending racism. At this moment, if we don’t push for the most urgent and bold actions, we will, at the best, stand still, and at the worst, risk generations of Black people living in anguish and fear.

Recognizing that Black Lives Matter is a must. However, this recognition that Black people deserve the same opportunities to thrive is the bare minimum, not progress. It means that we are not digging deep enough to address the fundamental causes rather than symptoms of racism.

According to Embracing Complexities, “systems change approaches address root causes rather than symptoms by altering, shifting, and transforming behavioral structures, customs, mindsets, power dynamics, and rules, with the intent of solving societal problems – with lasting effects on a local, national, and global level.” 

As the SCG team prepares for our annual conference Meeting the Movement, we are more committed than ever to not only meet but sustain racial justice movements. And to do so, we are grasping the long-term, uncertain, and complex nature of systems change. 

As a sector, philanthropy needs to embrace complexities around us: we must learn from community resiliency while building our own; we must support movements without co-opting them; we must be aware of how much space we take in public discourse while centering the voices of people of color; we must simultaneous wield and cede our power to let communities lead.

Systems change work is hard work. And it’ll take every single individual and institution to accomplish sustainable results. I hope that you will join me in embracing a systems mindset, supporting evolving paths to systems change, preparing for long-term engagement, and engaging in true partnerships with our communities.


Christine Essel

President & CEO

Southern California Grantmakers

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