Four Suggestions for Social Justice Funders, #2

On a panel at the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy pre-Council on Foundations Conference in April, I presented four suggestions for social justice funders to consider.  Last month, I wrote about the first of these, Find a Political Home.  Below, I share the second of four suggestions.

2.  Build the Vehicles to Move us Forward

The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is undoubtedly a powerful one.  But while the courageously repeated and mass act of refusing to cooperate with a racist bus system dominates the popular narrative about the boycott, it is that other side of the story that continues to captivate me.

For African Americans in Montgomery in the 1950s, the bus system allowed them to travel from one place to another, usually from their homes to their jobs (which often were at the homes of white residents).  It came, though, at a heavy price.  By segregating the ridership and requiring African Americans to give up their seats to white riders, bus drivers made African Americans pay their bus fare plus the added indignity that comes from suffering unjust acts.  They were, in short, not allowed to bring their full selves on their daily commute.

In response, the Montgomery African American community decided not to remain complicit, choosing instead to boycott.  In order to make possible and sustain a bus boycott, civil rights leaders had to create and organize a massive car pool system, up to 350 cars daily, that required immense financial and human resources from an already under-resourced black community.  It is this car pool system that seems particularly instructive.

Set-up by a newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association, the car pool system, like the bus system, also offered African Americans the ability to travel from one place to another. The difference, however, was that the car pool system did so in ways that did not cost African American passengers their dignity. It brought together the fractious classes of Montgomery’s African American community in what Taylor Branch described as a “radical act of togetherness.”  And, just as importantly, the car pool system advanced a social and racial justice agenda, offering all the residents of Montgomery a much needed level of redemption.

For those of us in philanthropy, foundations, like the bus system, offer opportunities to move individuals, communities, organizations, and/or ourselves from one place to another.  In our case, it has the ability to move us closer to the social justice ends that we might seek.  But for so many reasons, whether those be legal, financial, or political, what or how we move forward can be structurally and culturally constrained.  If this is the case, then it begs the question, what’s our car pool system?  What are the additional vehicles or ways of moving that we need to create, as funders, that will get us to where we need to be and that will sustain our organizing efforts to get there? Creating such vehicles seems to be the task at hand for social justice funders.  It is the task being undertaken by those organizing within the philanthropic sector, whether through affinity groups, study groups or spaces such as the Bay Area Justice Funders Network or Bay Area Blacks in Philanthropy. It is, perhaps, our own small and necessary acts of radical togetherness.

Next post in the series: 3) Develop Your Skills as an Organizer

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