Grantee & Partner News
August 24, 2021
Foundations launch $30M storytelling initiative for global south
By Stephanie Beasley // 30 July 2021
The Ford, Skoll, and Compton foundations this week announced the launch of a 10-year initiative to help “frontline communities” in the global south — including Indigenous people, as well as women and girls — spread their own messages through short films, animation, social media, and other visual content creation.
The foundations plan to spend up to $30 million over three years on the International Resource for Impact and Storytelling to help communities in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia combat inequality driven by “deeply rooted cultural narratives that undermine fairness, tolerance, and inclusion.”
“IRIS is a response to an era shaped by polarizing narratives, deepening inequality, technological disruptions, and rising authoritarianism,” said Ellen Friedman, executive director at the Compton Foundation, in a statement. “In the face of these complex global challenges, we recognize the power of storytelling as a critical element in organizing for cultural and political change.”
Stephanie Kimou sees three windows of opportunity for global development professionals to decolonize the way they work: dismantling the white gaze, fostering transparent partnerships with locally rooted partners, and elevating local expertise.
“New cultural organizing approaches are needed to complement philanthropy’s more traditional funding in research, advocacy for policy change, rights-focused legal strategies, and organizing,” according to Friedman.
Cara Mertes, founding director of IRIS, told Devex that the initiative could help dismantle the “white gaze” — or narratives that prioritize white people and their experiences — in philanthropy by elevating the voices of communities that have not always had an opportunity to tell their own stories.
As Devex has previously reported, some civic leaders see this kind of change as key to “decolonizing” global development.
“I think when you actually put resources into raising up voices that are not about a Western and a white gaze, then you’re doing something to break apart the dominant paradigm, which is very, very devastating for so many communities around the world in various ways,” said Mertes, who has also served as project director for the Ford Foundation’s Moving Image Exploration program and was previously director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program and Documentary Fund.
“In the face of … complex global challenges, we recognize the power of storytelling as a critical element in organizing for cultural and political change.”— Ellen Friedman, executive director, Compton Foundation
She said IRIS will adopt a distributed leadership approach and not a top-down model, with plans for regional leads in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Currently, an all-women team is behind the initiative, Mertes added.
IRIS was launched with over $8 million in seed funding, but additional funders may soon bring that figure closer to $10 million, said Marc Climaco, a spokesman for the Ford Foundation.
The initiative will be housed under its fiscal sponsor, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and is expected to soon launch a fellowship program.
August 19, 2021
Army Corps Orders Full Environmental Review of Formosa Plastics’ Controversial Louisiana Plant
Grantee News From Louisiana Bucket Brigade:
|Decision Follows Lawsuit, Permit Suspension, Public Pressure|
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced today it will require a full “environmental impact statement” for the massive petrochemical complex Formosa Plastics proposes to build in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The decision is a major victory for opponents of the plant, who sued to block the project in January 2020 and convinced the Army Corps to suspend its permit last fall.
Today’s announcement means the Army Corps will now do a complete analysis of the public health, environmental, climate, environmental justice and cultural impacts of what would be one of the world’s biggest plastic-making plants. Plaintiff groups representing the Black and low-income communities affected by the project — from an already polluted industrial corridor known as Cancer Alley or Death Alley — have long said a proper environmental review would show the project should never be built.
“The Army Corps has finally heard our pleas and understands our pain. With God’s help, Formosa Plastics will soon pull out of our community,” said Sharon Lavigne with RISE St. James, who earlier this year was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work defending her community from petrochemical polluters. “Nobody took it upon themselves to speak for St. James Parish until we started working to stop Formosa Plastics. Now the world is watching this important victory for environmental justice.”
RISE St. James, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Healthy Gulf were represented in the litigation over this permit by the Center for Biological Diversity. Local opponents of the project have been aggressively dismissed, arrested and publicly criticized over their work to stop this project, which received huge taxpayer subsidies from the state.
“Today’s announcement is the ultimate David v. Goliath victory,” said Anne Rolfes, executive director of Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “We were not scared of Formosa Plastics and its $9 billion project, or the fact that our governor has been cheering for Formosa all along. St. James Parish residents are the ones who have shown leadership and wisdom. What the Corps has done today is common sense. Of course one of the biggest plastics plants in the world should require an environmental impact statement. Our state and federal officials should have demanded it from the outset. I am hopeful that this is the nail in the coffin of Formosa Plastics in St. James Parish. And don’t try to build somewhere else. Pack up and go home.”
The proposed facility would emit 13.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 3.5 coal-fired power plants. It will also produce 800 tons of toxic air pollutants annually, doubling air emissions in St. James Parish, to produce plastic for single-use packaging and other products. Recent studies have linked exposure to air pollution with higher COVID-19 death rates. It’s one likely factor in the disease’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans.
The lawsuit sought to invalidate Clean Water Act permits issued by the Army Corps in 2019. It asserted that officials violated federal laws in approving the destruction and damage of wetlands, which help protect the region from hurricanes that are intensifying with climate change. The Corps also ignored the water, air, climate, and health impacts of the complex and failed to properly evaluate and protect burial sites of enslaved people discovered on the property.
“This long-overdue review will show the unacceptable harm Formosa Plastics’ massive petrochemical complex would inflict on this community, our waterways, and our climate,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney at the Center. “This terrible project shouldn’t have been rubber-stamped and it should never be built. Climate action and environmental justice mean we have to stop sacrificing communities and a healthy environment just to make throwaway plastic.”
The growing chorus of project opponents includes the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, which called the project “environmental racism” in March and urged U.S. officials to reject the project. [ 1]
“Our region is already full of toxic, polluting plants,” said Myrtle Felton, director of Inclusive Louisiana. “If Formosa Plastics is allowed to build, it will be a death sentence for us. We can’t breathe already so we say no to Formosa and its pollution.”
Formosa Plastics’ massive proposed petrochemical complex would include 10 chemical manufacturing plants and numerous support facilities, spanning 2,500 acres, just one mile from an elementary school. By turning fracked gas into the building blocks for a massive amount of single-use packaging and other wasteful plastic products, the project would worsen climate change and the ocean plastic pollution crisis.
Last year Formosa Plastics agreed to pay a record $50 million in cleanup and restoration costs to settle a civil lawsuit after its Point Comfort plant discharged billions of plastic pellets into Texas waterways over many years. That settlement included a commitment to zero future plastic discharges from the Texas plant — a standard that has not been applied to its plant in Louisiana.
U.S. MUST NOT ABANDON AFGHAN WOMEN & GIRLS
News from the Compton Foundation:
Joint Letter on Afghan Women to POTUS and VPOTUS
U.S. MUST NOT ABANDON AFGHAN WOMEN & GIRLS
Dear President Biden and Vice President Harris,
We are heartbroken by the devastating news coming out of Afghanistan about Taliban’s advances and are writing to you with our plea for your administration to take actions to protect Afghan women and girls and to address this unfolding human rights and humanitarian catastrophe.
As you have stated, America went to Afghanistan 20 years ago to defeat the forces that attacked the U.S. on September 11th. But we also made commitments. Twenty years ago, the United States made promises to the women and girls of Afghanistan. The contributions of literally billions of dollars the U.S. and NATO countries in support of the work of Afghan women’s rights and human rights leaders led to increases in education and opportunities for Afghan women and girls, increases in representation of Afghan women in government and all sectors of society, improvements in civil liberties and civil rights, and decreases in maternal and infant mortality.
All of these gains – and the very lives and futures of Afghan women and girls – are now in grave jeopardy. As the Taliban has taken over territories, they have committed war crimes and engaged in the same brutal tactics that marked their rule before they were removed from power. We have heard reports in the media and directly from our colleagues in Afghanistan that women’s rights and human rights activists and journalists have been assassinated; girls’ schools have been closed; women and girls are being forced to marry Taliban soldiers in what amounts to sexual slavery; and women and girls are being forced to stay in their homes and punished even for using cell phones. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been internally displaced and are attempting to flee to Kabul and neighboring countries in the midst of an historic drought, raging coronavirus pandemic and widespread hunger. The situation of internally displaced women who are fleeing with their children, who comprise 80% of IDPs, is especially dire.
This is why we implore your administration not to agree to a deal that includes recognition and support of a Taliban regime. The U.S. and U.N. previously refused to recognize the Taliban based on their brutal disregard of human rights, especially of women and girls. Any deal by the United States that would include recognition and support of the Taliban regime would be a reversal of U.S. commitments that were made to the Afghan people, especially women and girls, and would undermine commitments by the U.S and your administration to human rights globally and the Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017.
Further, we implore you to take immediate action to save the lives of Afghan women’s rights and human rights leaders and advocates who have selflessly and courageously worked at great risk to advance the rights of women and girls and are now being targeted by the Taliban. We ask for the evacuation of these leaders and Afghan women students who have secured commitments at universities here to pursue their education. Safe passage to the United States must be provided immediately.
Your administration, President Biden, has accomplished much for women and girls in the United States over the past seven months, and you have achieved an extraordinary record in the Senate and as Vice President in combating violence against women. And Vice President Kamala Harris has worked over many years for women’s rights, especially women of color. That is why we are appealing to you to fulfill the promises made to protect human rights globally, especially Afghan women and girls whose lives and futures are now in peril.
We respectfully await your response to our urgent requests.
Eleanor Smeal, President Feminist Majority Foundation
Dolores Huerta, President Dolores Huerta Foundation
Cecile Richards, Co-founder Supermajority
Carol Jenkins, President and CEO ERA Coalition
Russ Feingold, former US Senator, Wisconsin
Stephanie Sinclair, Founding Executive Director
Too Young to Wed
Mavis Nicholson Leno
Ambassador Melanne Verveer,
Former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues and Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace & Security Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security
Gloria Steinem, Founder Women’s Media Center
Christian Nunes, President National Organization for Women
Chief Program Officer Jewish Women International
Debra Ness, President National Partnership for Women & Families
Susan O’Malley, UN Representative International Federation of Business and Professional Women
Joi Chaney, Executive Director, Washington Bureau & SVP for Policy and Advocacy
National Urban League
Donna Norton, Executive Vice President MomsRising
Marcela Howell, President & CEO
In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda
Barbara Arnwine, president Transformative Justice Coalition
Monica Ramirez, Founder & President
Justice for Migrant Women
Leng Leng Chancey,
Executive Director 9to5
Marissa Conway, Co-Founder & UK Executive Director Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy
Houry Geudelekian, Chair NGO Committee on the Status of Women
Elsa Marie DSilva, Founder Red Dot Foundation
Gillian D’Souza Nazareth,
Director Global Partnerships Red Dot Foundation
Tim Isgitt, Managing Director Humanity United
Jordan Brooks, Executive Director
United State of Women
Donna Lentz, president National Women’s Political Caucus
E. Faye Williams, PhD, president
National Congress of Black Women
Jody Rabhan, Chief Policy Officer National Council of Jewish Women
Stacey Schamber, Senior Program Officer
International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)
Ellen Friedman, Executive Director
Emilie Cortes, Treasurer Compton Foundation
Susan Saltz, Board Member Jewish World Watch
Saru Jayaraman, President One Fair Wage
Rebecca Dennis, Sr. Legislative Policy Analyst PAI
Johna Hoey, Interim Executive Director
Peace is Loud
Paige Logan, Policy Advisor Ipas
Shaunna Thomas, Executive Director
Erin Vilardi, CEO Vote Run Lead
Maria Fornella, UN Representative, NY Soroptimist International
Katherine Spillar, Executive Director
Feminist Majority Foundation
Kathy Bonk, Strategic Consultant
Feminist Majority Foundation
Ashley Steimer-King, Program Director
Girls Learn International
Patricia Cooper, Founder Womens Regional Network: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India
Farah Tanis, Co-Executive Director
Black Women’s Blueprint
Stacie Murphy, Director of Congressional Relations Population Connection Action Fund
Rebecca Obrock, Director of Program Development & Policy Advocacy
Heartland Alliance International
Shenee Simon, Founder S.H.E. Collective, LLC
Carol Cohn, Director Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights
Olivia Garcia, Public Policy Manager
Esperanza United (formerly Casa de Esperanza: National Latina Network)
Jin In, Founder
4Girls GLocal Leadership (4GGL)
Joanne Smith, CEO Girls for Gender Equity
Founder Anam Films
Vanessa Hope, Filmmaker Double Hope Films
Director/Producer Independent Films
Dani Ayers, CEO MeToo International
Lauren Strogoff, Journalist Chivo, Inc
Julie Grau, CO-CEO Spiegel & Grau Publishers
Laura Dawn Murphy, Founder & Chief Creative
ART NOT WAR
Ernestine LALAO, Advocacy Congrégation of Our Lady of Charity of Good Shepherd
Alexis Schutz, Assistant NGO Representative to the United Nations
Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd
Good Shepherd International Justice Peace Office
Alice Marie Giordano, JPIC Coordinator
Ursulines of the Roman Union – Eastern Province
Bonnie Abaunza, Founder Abaunza Group
Annemarie O’Connor, UN Representative Passionists International
Beatriz Vieira, Interim CEO Women’s Foundation California
Shirley Graham, PhD,
Gender Equality Initiative Elliott School of International Affairs
Valerie Hudson, PhD,
The WomanStats Project
Robert Nagel, PhD,
The WomanStats Project
Michele Goodwin, Chancellor’s Professor
University of California, Irvine
Kimberly S. Adams, PhD,
Professor of Political Science East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania
Jennifer Haythe, Associate Professor of Medicine Columbia Univeristy
University of Minnesota Duluth
Alison Brysk, Mellichamp Professor of Global Governance University of California Santa Barbara
Donna Lee Bowen, Professor Emerita, Department of Political Science Brigham Young Universityi
Emily Bent, Associate Professor Women’s & Gender Studies, Pace University
Rose McDermott, University Professor
Lynne Nielsen, Professor Brigham Young University
International Consultant Ohio State University
Valentine Moghadam, Professor of Sociology and International Affiars Northeastern University
Arie Thompson, President Sunlion Performance LLC
Jill Goldman Larissa Peltola Caroline Themm Gina Goldman
July 29, 2021
Recognizing the Power of Storytelling, a Funder Collaborative Backs Media in the Global South
News from Inside Philanthropy:
From oral traditions to streaming movies, storytelling is central to the human experience. But beyond simple entertainment, stories have the ability to impact people and advance social change.
Take, for instance, Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle,” which exposed conditions in the meatpacking industry and led to the passage of new food safety laws. The story of how Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus is often told to highlight the unjust conditions that Black Americans face and as a story of resistance during the civil rights movement.
It’s no surprise, then, that many organizers and institutions working for change are harnessing the power of narrative to strengthen the impact of their work. There’s also a set of philanthropies that have come to recognize the potency of storytelling as a funding strategy.
Earlier this year, the Ford Foundation partnered with other organizations to launch the Reclaiming the Border Narrative project to support authentic narratives from people who live along the U.S.-Mexico border, with the hope of reshaping the national conversation about the region.
Now, Ford is turning its attention to the Global South. In partnership with the Compton and Skoll foundations, Ford is launching the International Resource for Impact and Storytelling (IRIS), a $30 million donor collaborative that will seek to strengthen the impact of creative moving image content as it intersects with social issues.
IRIS is envisioned as a 10-year initiative and will launch with $10 million in seed money. Ford Foundation is providing $7.5 million in seed funding and anticipates another set of investments totaling up to $20 million. Compton Foundation, which is a spend-out foundation, is contributing $250,000. Skoll Foundation will contribute $450,000 for the initial year, but hopes the partnership will evolve and deepen over time.
IRIS will focus on regions in the Global South, including Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Ford has referred to the exclusion of certain communities from full participation in political, economic and cultural systems as “the defining challenge of our time,” growing worse along with inequality. According to Ford, cultural narratives that undermine fairness, tolerance and inclusion are a primary driver of this inequality.
In response, IRIS will fund organizations, research and the creation of moving image content itself—including filmmaking, but also virtual reality, social media videos, and more—to create a collaborative network of storytellers and civic leaders.
This isn’t Ford’s first foray into funding storytelling. IRIS evolved from the Ford Foundation’s Moving Image Exploration project. Cara Mertes, who recently served as that project’s director, will also lead IRIS. Before working at Ford, Mertes was the director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program Fund.
Compton and Skoll have both worked with Mertes previously, and have also backed narrative work. Storytelling has long been a core part of Skoll’s approach to social change, and Compton’s two main funding strategies are supporting leaders and “courageous storytelling.” So for both foundations, IRIS seemed like a perfect fit.
During her time at Sundance, Mertes worked directly with emerging organizations in the Global South that were resources for nonfiction filmmakers. It was through this work that Mertes began to see a widespread need to elevate voices from communities outside the Global North. IRIS continues in that spirit, moving resources and knowledge to the Global South and then creating a conversation among organizations there and in the Global North.
“I think it’s critical that there are resources for creative storytelling that are working in concert with other strategies in social justice like advocacy, like policy work, like rights-based work,” said Mertes. “If you don’t have artists and creative storytellers working alongside and embracing these movements and embracing these sort of goals, then you leave a very, very powerful tactic off the table.”
The “lingua franca” of the the age
So why the focus on moving image storytelling? According to Mertes, Ford sees this medium as “a kind of lingua franca,” or common language of our time. It’s highly influential, and it’s the language of young people. By tapping into this, IRIS aims it can make the biggest impact while reaching the widest audience possible.
But moving image storytelling extends far beyond documentary films. Although nonfiction is important in social justice work and is what Mertes refers to as the “legacy approach to storytelling,” IRIS is broadening narrative storytelling parameters to include new media and fiction—formats that are not typically supported by philanthropy.
These include virtual reality and augmented reality, short-form media, hybrid, comedy, satire, animation, webisodes and social media content, among others. IRIS will look to distribute through a variety of platforms, including streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, TikTok, visual journalism, immersive storytelling and more.
“We want this to be a place where donors can feel comfortable learning and experiencing and understanding this question of meaning-making and culture and progressive change,” said Mertes.
At the intersection of storytelling and social change
Through a series of conversations with Mertes, Ellen Friedman, executive director of the Compton Foundation, “came to the understanding that this intersection of storytelling and organizing and social work was evolving into a pretty robust and important practice.”
One of the primary focuses of a recent global conference of grantmakers called Shimmering Solidarity was rising authoritarianism around the world. According to Friedman, one of the things that came up was the importance of lifting up narratives and stories about those who embrace a more inclusive and diverse future.
“The power in this kind of work is in the combating of isolation and thinking that you’re in this alone, and IRIS is a beautiful example of saying, ‘No—there is a global network of people from North to South, East to West, that are actually working every day to lift up a different narrative of what the future can look like, and pushing back on authoritarian narratives,’” said Friedman. “And I think this is the moment—it’s a critical moment for a project like this to be launched.”
In addition to the rise of authoritarianism, some of the other challenges that IRIS hopes to address are climate change, polarization in societies, the erosion of civil rights, and involuntary migration due to both economic and climate-driven challenges.
For Ford, as in all of its funding, the core focus is inequality and addressing its key drivers, said Martín Abregú, vice president of international programs.
“We know that one of the key drivers of inequality is related to narratives that exclude some voices and that bring forth a message that is basically perpetrating inequality,” he added. “So in that context, we wanted to ensure that we were paying enough attention to the question of cultural shifts, of building the narratives that will basically help us build the kind of global systems that will address inequalities.”
According to Abregú, IRIS will create the infrastructure needed to provide opportunities so that those historically excluded stories and voices will be elevated and shared globally. Mertes explained that IRIS won’t be dictating how that will happen, or whether something has to go to a particular streaming platform, for example. “We believe that it’s important to first create robust stories, build a narrative analysis, and then let the stories find their own pathway, and then to promote those pathways,” she said.
Crucially, the majority of IRIS’ leadership will not be based in the U.S. Most of the core members of the team will be located internationally, as Ford has offices around the globe.
Connecting local voices to global audiences
Through its Moving Image Storytelling program, Ford has already been funding the kind of work it will support through IRIS. One example of this is its support of Jayro Bustamante’s feature film, “La Llorona,” a 2019 Guatemalan horror film that looks at the genocide of Indigenous Mayans in the 1980s. “La Llorona” was shortlisted for Best International Feature Film in the 2021 Academy Awards.
Another prominent example is None on Record, which is a digital media organization based in Nairobi that tells stories of LGBTQ Africans, countering false narratives with personal stories. Started in 2006, None on Record documents stories from across the continent and produces content including documentaries and podcasts, with Senegalese-American journalist, filmmaker, radio producer and writer Selly Thiam serving as its executive director.
Ford’s East Africa office supported None on Record with multi-year, general operating support to build its infrastructure. One of the biggest challenges facing the organization has been finding places to distribute the work. While it’s been able to use platforms like YouTube, in recent years, many countries have made it increasingly difficult to distribute content that discusses LGBT issues, even on seemingly open platforms.
“As more people have access to mobile phone data, more people are online in the continent, I think it has become an issue where people are seeing these distribution platforms as actual threats to society, however that’s defined,” Thiam said. “One of the larger challenges is finding distribution platforms that can keep the storyteller safe, can keep us as a team safe when we’re producing this content and distributing it.”
None on Record has been able to distribute its work through universities, podcasts, film screenings and festivals. Its Seeking Asylum series was distributed on PBS and the group partnered with the U.N. for its African Allies series.
Thiam noted the importance of having a record, an archive, of these stories. For a long time, there was a prevailing narrative that there were no queer Africans.
“It’s a really painful thing when you are described as so far out of your culture that there was no way that you could have existed before colonization,” Thiam added. “It’s something that kind of renders you invisible. And I wanted to make sure that we had something where the next generation can see themselves and know that there are more people like them and how they organize themselves and how they tell their stories.”
As part of IRIS’ approach, the Compton Foundation will be working alongside Ford to create a fellowship to learn more about how the intersection between storytelling and organizing can be a more powerful force for social change. The fellowship will embed creative storytellers with civil society leadership.
Friedman said, “The idea right now is to pull together practitioners and really learn from them about what is useful, what is needed, what have they learned from this integration between storytelling and organizing and what would be helpful in investing in a fellowship that will help to promulgate those learnings.”
Mertes sees this role as a kind of “chief storytelling officer,” and refers to this body of work as narrative analysis, which seeks to better understand the structures of “meaning-making.”
“You can think of it as kind of multi-level,” said Mertes. At the deeper level are discussions about narrative structures themselves, and then at a higher level are the stories that draw on those structures.
Elevating voices for change
While IRIS is launching with three funders, Mertes hopes that it can work with additional donors to really think about how creative moving image storytelling intersects with social movements around the world. According to Mertes, IRIS will be a space where donors with different agendas will be able to work together to create progress on issues related to inequality.
Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, both Mertes and Abregú echo the sentiments many organizers and advocates have expressed: that communities closest to the pain hold the keys to solutions. Indigenous communities, for example, have long grappled with issues like environmental racism and degradation. For Mertes and Abregú, these communities can, and often already have, developed solutions to these issues.
IRIS seeks to “raise these solutions up, articulate them, circulate them, and really fight for their implementation,” said Mertes. “So this is one way of doing that in light of many other tools.”
IRIS will be a way of using the power and impact of stories as an additional tool to create a better future, not just for the Global South, but the world in general.
“It’s very hopeful, in my mind, to really identify the places and people that are actively and daily working to help all of us see a future that we want to live into,” said Friedman. “I don’t know if that’s too optimistic, but I think that’s what keeps all of us going, is that we’re laying down the pathway for that to happen, and IRIS, I think, is a critical step along that path.”
July 22, 2021
Grant makers must fund the big dreams of the youth movement
News from Alliance for Youth Action:
By Sarah Audelo July 8
Sarah Audelo is executive director of the Alliance for Youth Action, a progressive organization that supports local young people’s organizations to strengthen democracy, fix the economy and correct injustices.
Individuals and organizations invested millions of dollars to turn out the youth vote in the 2020 elections. Youth civic engagement groups saw their budgets double and even triple. The results of this investment in the energy, innovation and vision of young leaders were stunning: 50 percent of young people (ages 18-29) voted in the 2020 presidential election — an 11-point increase from 2016, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. The old stereotypes — young people don’t vote, don’t bother contacting them — were finally put to rest.
The record-shattering results of 2020 beg the question: What if local youth organizations had million-dollar budgets every year, not just in presidential election years? What if those funds were committed before the kickoff of the new year? While there has been a great deal of talk in the funding community about resourcing youth civic engagement year-round, 2021 fundraising is off to a very slow start for 501(c)(3) activities, and even slower for advocacy and political organizing in 501(c)(4) groups.
Funders often view young people solely as voters to be activated in election years, especially presidential election years. Without the need to get out the vote, they may not see a compelling reason to invest in young people’s civic organizations. This is a mistake. Voting is one tool, and a powerful one, but it exists alongside all the other tools that young people use to flex the muscle of democracy: from protesting in the streets to creating art that tells their stories to testifying in city council chambers and state houses, to name only a few.
Building political power is a continuous process that goes beyond voting and elections. In off-years, young organizers have been getting the police out of public schools in Milwaukee, defeating an anti-transgender bill in Montana, and passing legislation to protect student loan borrowers in Colorado. Every non-electoral victory that young organizers achieve keeps young people engaged in their local communities and is a proof point of why voting matters. With support, young organizers can build the skills and relationships they need to bring their peers to the polls, when the time comes.
As we end the second quarter of 2021, we are falling behind. For example, Wisconsin has a tight Senate race next year, but money is not flowing into Wisconsin like it needs to. Montana now has a second House seat, but the state isn’t yet on funders’ radar screens. Young people in New Hampshire defeated voter suppression legislation that would have hobbled the youth vote, just in time for what will be a close Senate race next year, but they did so without robust financial support.
In the southern states, young bad-ass organizers are doing the work, but not yet attracting the attention of funders. Although funding for civic engagement from national donors started to arrive in Texas a few years ago, it is a big state with big needs. Black youth in Mississippi are working hard to transform their communities, and so much is possible if funders would invest in the state with at least a 10-year vision, as was done in Georgia.
If youth civic engagement organizations were adequately resourced, executive directors would have room to innovate and carry out big ideas. As only one example, in 2018 through the Midwest Culture Lab, three groups in our network experimented with training local rappers, DJs and other artists as “cultural organizers” to provide political education to their fans and followers. Now this is common.
The power isn’t just in the field, knocking on doors. It is investing in communications to tell the story of what’s happening on the ground, collecting data from every interaction to track what is working and what is engaging young people, and creating infrastructure so that the organization is healthy and sustainable. Higher and dependable salaries would enable organizers and other staff to stay in their jobs long enough to apply what they’ve learned in one election cycle to the next and, ideally, continue to create safe and loving communities over a lifetime.
Youth organizers are to thank for the 50 percent turnout rate among young people, although it is not nearly high enough. Millennials and Generation Z — who now make up the largest voting bloc and whose values of community and care are staying remarkably consistent as we age — are at the center of a vision for a new, multi-racial democracy. We are fighting for, and have the most to gain from, policies that will address systemic racism, curb climate change, extend health care to everyone, and help families become financially free to achieve their goals, including college without crushing debt.
For some funders, the driving motivation is simply turning out voters, but just imagine what could be accomplished if they thought beyond the ballot box. Grant makers who want to see real change should commit to long-term sustained investment in the youth sector. Young people — with their joy, optimism, and innovation — will take it from there.
July 7, 2021
Letter to a New Executive Director
January 12, 2021
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