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From Virtual Collaboration to Collective Action: Moving Racial and Economic Justice Forward in Oregon

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity.

As an MPP/MBA student and graduate research assistant with IERE’s Empowerment Economics team, I have witnessed the power of collective action spaces.

Building a collaborative space with Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) community leaders and funders whose goals include advancing economic and racial justice and creating greater equity in funding practices is not an easy undertaking in normal circumstances. Generating this type of collaboration and trust in an online setting during a global pandemic and historic civil rights movement creates additional challenges as well as incredible opportunities. As an MPP/MBA student and graduate research assistant with IERE’s Empowerment Economics team, I have witnessed the power of collective action spaces. As an Oregonian living in Massachusetts, facilitating this space has taught me more about my hometown than I thought I could gain while on the opposite side of the country. Here, I learned the value of adaptability and responsiveness to the challenging events that occurred over the last year, a lesson I hope we can all learn.  

In January 2020, IERE met with Carlos Garcia from Neighborhood Partnerships and Annette Case from the Asset Funders Network (AFN) to discuss the idea of bringing Oregon-based community organizations and funders together. Our preliminary proposal involved an in-person conference in June 2020, where funders and BIPOC community organizations could come together and discuss what community economic development might look like when led by communities of color, and ultimately, move the conversation into action. The conference would center the innovative anti-poverty work that Oregon’s BIPOC leaders were spearheading in their communities.

We drew on Carlos’ connections to community-based organizations (CBOs) and Annette’s relationships with funders to co-develop a meaningful event for grantmakers and CBOs. We invited Andres Lopez from the Coalition of Communities of Color to facilitate a discussion on how current and historical racism links to systemic inequities. Sky Waters would offer a lens into the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), a community-based organization providing culturally specific community development services. We asked Jess Santos to present on Empowerment Economics as an alternative framework that centers and lifts the knowledge and strengths of BIPOC communities. I spent time pulling the myriad of pieces together to create an impactful conference. Then, in the early stages of planning, the global pandemic brought a halt to all in-person activities, our conference included. Like so many others, our team decided to move the conference online and reevaluate our event.

Nationally, approximately 10% of philanthropic investments reach BIPOC communities.

The pandemic laid bare the economic and racial inequities that exist in all aspects of society. Philanthropy was no exception. The disinvestment in BIPOC communities is well-documented, both locally and nationally. In 2010, the Foundation Center released a report titled Grantmaking to Communities of Color in Oregonwhich found that only 4.3% of Oregon funders’ grants reached BIPOC communities. When disaggregated further, less than 0.5% of all grant funding went to organizations serving Black communities. The population of communities of color in Oregon is 26.8%, while the Black population in Oregon is 2.2%. This disinvestment is historically rooted in racist policies that have stripped BIPOC communities of wealth and power. Furthermore, Oregon’s racist history has contributed to resource deprivation for organizations based in BIPOC communities. These inequities are not specific to Oregon: Nationally, approximately 10% of philanthropic investments reach BIPOC communities. A more recent report looking at 25 funders across the nation found that only 1% of funding went specifically toward Black communities, while the Black population was 15% of the communities surveyed.

Community organizations have responded to the disparities in funding and wealth stripping within BIPOC communities with specific recommendations. In response to the 2010 report and the underfunding for BIPOC communities, the Coalition of Communities of Color laid out detailed proposals for funders. These recommendations included meaningful engagement between philanthropy and community organizations, multi-year funding opportunities, and less restrictive operating support. Last year, the Greenlining Institute detailed several barriers that community organizations face in the Greenlined Economy Guidebook, which lists unequal power dynamics between organizations and funders, siloed funding sources, and the entrenched nature of profit in philanthropy and funding institutions as obstacles. Similar to the Coalition of Communities of Color’s recommendations, the report suggested that changing systems requires “centering communities of color, redistributing power, and making equity real within the community investment sector.”

At the onset of COVID, many foundations quickly shifted their resources and funding practices to provide less restrictive capital for many CBOs. So, we altered our approach to include a discussion around the inequities that COVID exposed and the outcomes of community-based organizations. Then, the week before the event, the murder of George Floyd sparked a civil rights reawakening, and more interrogations around racial justice-centered funding and policies emerged. I personally drafted an email to the steering committee reflecting on the events that were unfolding and the connection to our racial and economic justice work, suggesting we center collective liberation, Black lives, and resistance in the upcoming event.

The steering committee decided it was vital to address the pervasive anti-Blackness at the root of racial inequities and began the June conference by centering race and offering a space for reflection and vulnerability. Grounding our event in the voices and perspectives of BIPOC communities enabled us to hold and lean into difficult and necessary conversations from the onset. The conference laid a foundation for trust-based relationship-building between organizations and funders and created an environment to discuss equity in funding, leading to action and policy advocacy. Though an essential step toward equity, the call for a collaboration of this caliber is not a novel concept. Requests for equitable funding, more operating grants, and less restrictive resource distribution for community-based organizations happened for years before COVID. Nevertheless, conversations between the affected community-based organizations and funders were not necessarily occurring.

Artwork from the June conference

The Oregon Economic Justice Roundtable is an example of how vital collective work is toward making systemic, equitable, and just changes in society.

The June conference attendees unanimously agreed that a space for organizations and funders to come together and take collective action to redistribute wealth and power was a necessary piece of changing our current inequitable systems. Consequently, the Oregon Economic Justice Roundtable was established to create a shared table of funders and community-based organizations working together to center BIPOC communities and shift funding practices to advance racial and economic justice in Oregon.

Since June, the Roundtable has met three more times. It has also expanded its original steering committee of Neighborhood Partnerships, NAYA, AFN, and IERE to include the Coalition of Communities of Color, Meyer Memorial Trust, and the Oregon Community Foundation. The Roundtable principles comprise a 50%+1 BIPOC membership and steering committee, equity and racial justice, intersectionality, community-driven solutions, a focus on fixing systems and not people, and collective action. Though the Roundtable is still in its beginning stages, we hope it will become a model for other communities seeking to do this work. The Oregon Economic Justice Roundtable is an example of how vital collective work is toward making systemic, equitable, and just changes in society. Through my work with the Roundtable, I have gained valuable experience, linking my graduate education and research to policies and practices that center BIPOC communities and lead to greater equity.

By Emily Daman, MPP/MBA candidate