Movement Building and System Change

Friday, May 18, 2012

By Mitch Nauffts, PhilanTopic
(This post originally appeared on PhilanTopic, the Philanthropy News Digest blog, on May 14, 2012 and is reprinted with permission.)
The bad old days of the ’70s and ’80s are a distant memory for many, but New York City in 2012 isn’t without problems. The list includes a public education system that fails too many kids, a chronic shortage of affordable housing, immigrant populations that lack basic protections and rising income inequality.
The city is home, however, to roughly ten thousand nonprofit organizations, some 70 percent of which provide direct services to constituents. A sizable percentage of these groups work at the grassroots level and many have a social justice orientation, working in and with communities and populations that are marginalized and underresourced.
How the good work of these groups can be leveraged more effectively to drive social change was the topic of an interesting panel discussion hosted by Philanthropy New York I was fortunate to attend earlier this spring.
Moderated by the Foundation Center’s Lisa Philp and featuring Hugh Hogan, Executive Director of the North Star Fund, Ana Oliveira, President and CEO of the New York Women’s Foundation, and young leaders from four grassroots nonprofit organizations, the discussion focused on strategies that funders and donors can pursue to help community-based nonprofits create a more fair, just and compassionate New York.
Early in their respective careers, both Hogan and Oliveira realized that social justice—a concern “for those who are the least well off politically, economically and socially”—would shape and inform their life’s work. Hogan’s “a-ha” moment came in Senegal and Namibia, where he spent nearly a decade working to reverse a legacy of colonialism and apartheid. That experience eventually led him to the Open Space Equity Campaign for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, which he served as Director from 1999 to 2003. Back then, Hogan told us, eight out of ten communities affected by environmental problems in NYC were communities of color; today, seven out of ten are immigrant communities.
Oliveira worked in the health and human services field for over twenty years, developing programs for vulnerable populations in New York, and then served as the first woman and Latina director of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, one of the oldest and largest AIDS service organizations in the country, before joining NYWF in 2006. The organization, which is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, was established, Oliveira noted, around what many people at the time thought was “a crazy idea”: that women from all walks of life and with different interests could come together to address the root causes of economic injustice. But come together they did, and the organization flourished. Today, NYWF funds women leaders and women-led organizations seeking to create positive change in the lives of women, girls and communities in the metro New York region and works closely with its grantee partners to incorporate their “front-line” expertise into its grantmaking strategies. Or, as Oliveira put it, the organization is “intentional [about] following its grantee partners and leading its donor partners.”
As impressive as Hogan and Oliveira were (and are), the real stars of the afternoon were the four young nonprofit leaders who had been invited to talk about their work: Jaron Benjamin, an organizer at VOCAL-NY, which works to organize low-income people affected by HIV/AIDS, drug use and incarceration; Priscilla Gonzalez, Executive Director of Domestic Workers United, an organization of nannies, housekeepers and elder caregivers that led the six-year campaign for the nation’s first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights; Daniel Gross, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Brandworkers International NY, a nonprofit that works to protect and advance the rights of retail and food employees in the city; and Kris Hayashi, Co-Director of the Audre Lorde Project, an LGBTQ center for community organizing.
All had compelling personal stories to share and all were poised beyond their years. They also were quick to give at least partial credit for their effectiveness as advocates to the coaching they received through North Star’s Movement Leadership Program. Launched in 2010, the program was created in response to requests for technical assistance that the fund was getting from grassroots groups. The goal in creating the program, said Hogan, was to free up the leaders of these groups to think more strategically about how to run their organizations, to give them an opportunity to learn from their peers and to get them thinking more in terms of a movement-building framework.
In its first year, the program awarded two-year grants of $50,000 (the fund’s largest grant previously had been $15,000) to five organizations: New Immigrant Community Empowerment, Brandworkers International, Families for Freedom, VOCAL-NY and DWU. Each organization also was invited to send a three-member team (the executive director, a leader from the board, and a member leader) to a series of workshops and trainings focused on the building blocks of community organizing: base building, leadership development, campaign strategy and strategic communications.
While movement building as a strategy in these distracted times might strike some as quixotic, it was obvious to anyone in the room on this particular afternoon that the program had succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. And indeed, earlier this year North Star decided to fund a second group of grantees through the program that includes the Child Welfare Organizing Project, which works to transform the quality of services provided to New York City families through the city’s child welfare system; DAMAYAN, a grassroots group that advocates for the rights of migrant workers; FIERCE, an LGBQT youth organization; VAMOS Unidos, a Bronx-based social justice organization founded by Latina/o and immigrant street vendors; and Picture the Homeless, a grassroots advocacy organization founded and led by homeless people. All are “in the process of expanding their organizations and work to a broader scale,” says North Star Program Officer Walter Barrientos, and that’s good news for the poor, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised in New York City.
But it’s a drop in the bucket. As Hogan noted toward the end of the event: “If someone comes into a room with a bad cut on his leg, most people will say, ‘We’ve got to get you to a doctor and get that taken care of.’ But if a dozen people, each with a bad cut on his or her leg, walk into the room, sooner or later you have to ask, ‘What the hell is causing all those cuts?'”
Social justice work is hard and not for the faint of heart. We’ve made progress as a country on a lot of fronts in the fifty-plus years I’ve been around. But there’s more to do. It’s heartening to know that passionate, talented leaders like Jaron Benjamin, Priscilla Gonzalez, Daniel Gross and Kris Hayashi are working hard every day to make ours a more just and compassionate society, and that organizations like the North Star Fund and the New York Women’s Foundation are willing to try new things and take risks to help leverage their efforts.
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