Philanthropic foundations are getting more criticism as we learn how their efforts shape our politics. But that impact has a long history, including pivotal roles in the Civil Rights Movement and the California farmworker movement. It turns out the money often comes with quite a few strings. Megan Ming Francis finds that philanthropy shifted the NAACP from its early focus on lynching and mob violence to its education-focused litigation. Erica Kohl-Arenas finds that foundations repeatedly encouraged the farmworker movement to pursue nonprofit services over radical politics. Both say foundations still shape what social movements can pursue and what gets left off the table.
Studies: “The Price of Civil Rights” and “The Self-Help Myth”
Interviews: Megan Ming Francis, University of Washington; Erica Kohl-Arenas, University of California, Davis
Grossmann: This week on the Science of Politics, how philanthropy diverts social movements. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Philanthropic foundations are getting more criticism lately as we learn how their efforts shape our politics, but their impact has a long history, including pivotal moments in American social movement history. From Brown v. Board of the civil rights movement to the farm worker organizing led by Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta, it turns out that the money often comes with quite a few strings.
This week, I talked to Megan Ming Francis of the University of Washington about her new Law and Society Review article, “The Price of Civil Rights.” She finds that philanthropy moved the NAACP from its early focus on lynching and mob violence in the early 20th century to support education-focused litigation. I also talked to Erica Kohl-Arenas of the University of California Davis about her Cow Press book The Self-Help Myth. She finds that foundations repeatedly encourage the farm worker movement to pursue nonprofit services over radical politics.
Francis’s work focuses on the early NAACP and the role of philanthropy.
Francis: I think the main takeaways from my article are, one, about kind of the trajectory and the focus of civil rights, that especially for black activists in the early 20th century they were really centered on racial violence, concerns around lynch and mob violence, and not necessarily really focused on education. And the second big takeaway from my article is the role of foundations in the making of civil rights. I tend to think that the way in which most people understand how civil rights were actually kind of developed is that African Americans and their supporters took to the streets and to lynch counters and demanded that this country recognize and also protect equal citizenship rights.
Francis: And I think that is still very much true, but I think one of the things that has been overlooked in the past is the role of foundations in kind of … not necessarily kind of the secret role, but the important role they played in the civil rights movement, sometimes in helping activists but oftentimes in co-opting the agenda of civil rights movement activists as well.
Grossmann: Kohl-Arenas, who focuses on the California farm worker movement, also finds that foundation dependencies limit what social movements can do.
Kohl-Arenas: The biggest findings from my book, some are obvious and some not so obvious, and the obvious findings include on the ground realities where private foundations who have expressed interest in investment in social movements have hard and fast lines in terms of how far they will go to support social change and, in the case of the California farm worker movement, would not support strikes, boycotts, picket lines, unionization, or anything that had to do with confronting the economic structures of agriculture, and similar findings throughout my anonymized ethnographic case studies during the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s within different historical contexts, focusing mostly on immigrant organizing.
But the not-so-obvious findings include the ways in which nonprofit and foundation staff members negotiate frameworks for social change. And really, my book shows how foundations are not closed monolithic organizations in many cases, but contain and often power a diversity of professionals who believe in the movements they want to fund but then themselves are constrained by the limits in which they work in their own institutions.
Grossmann: Francis says the prehistory of the civil rights movement is not well-understood.
Francis: The public understands civil rights as something that happens … begins in 1954, really kind of takes off after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, and then culminates in ’64 with the Civil Rights Act and in ’65 with the Voting Rights Act. I know obviously, right, that scholars, especially those focused on black politics and political science as well as those in black studies and obviously those who are civil rights historians, have really tried to think about a longer civil rights movement and have argued that we should expand the timeline, not just something that kind of begins in ’54 but something that really begins at the end of the Civil War to today.
And so I do think that for … there is a considerable amount of scholarship that is focused on a longer trajectory of civil rights. But still, even today kind of the main thrust of civil rights scholarship is really 50s, 60s, and 70s. Did scholars know about the role of philanthropy? There’s some really important studies that are focused on philanthropy in civil rights, especially around the Ford Foundation in the 60s and some especially focused … I think Ben Marquez has a really great article on bankrolling the movement, focused on the role of the Ford Foundation in some level kind of co-opting the agenda of Chicano activists and directing a lot of the energy of the Chicano movement into focused legal mobilization.
But before kind of the 60s, there’s very little work that focuses on the role of foundations in the civil rights movement, and that’s because kind of we think that big philanthropy takes off in the 30s, 40s, 50s and really interacts with the civil rights movement in the 60s and in the 70s. And so this early work that I’m trying to do, which is focused kind of the late 1920s and early 1930s, has not been focused on that much before.
Grossmann: And Kohl-Arenas says, even though movement support is not the main focus of foundations, many movements are quite reliant on it.
Kohl-Arenas: There was just the beginnings of a conversation about the way that private philanthropy has sort of moderated, watered down, and in some cases controlled the more radical social movements of the 60s and early 70s. So this was kind of just beginning to be a part of the scholarly and nonprofit lexicon people beginning to talk about how and why the revolution would not be funded.
But not many books about philanthropy out there. That’s certainly for sure. And no real studies of philanthropy in the Central Valley and immigrant and farm worker communities. And I think that one could easily say, “Well, foundations and California philanthropy doesn’t really fund the Central Valley significantly or community organizing that significantly. So why does this matter?” And I think one of the things that my study shows that’s quite different then but also now is that, even if you look at that pie chart, and I taught nonprofit studies for seven years at the New School in New York City, you always see that pie chart that shows that most philanthropic wealth goes to education and healthcare, a very slim amount to social justice or social change organizations.
Well, nobody’s done the statistical analysis, but so many small grassroots organizations rely on private philanthropy. They might get a small sliver of the pie if you look at it in terms of the division of the wealth at large, but so many small organizations rely on money from foundations. And what my research kind of revealed at the time when it came out in 2015 is that, wow, you have so many social movements in this country and in regions we don’t often think about, have been transformed and in some ways maintained, although in different shape and form, through donations from private foundations.
Grossmann: They both took interesting paths to the current research. For Francis, her book on the NAACP’s success in early anti-lynching campaigns made her wonder how that history was supplanted by the conventional story of education litigation.
Francis: I became interested in this topic, this intersection between philanthropy and civil rights, specifically the Garland Fund and the NAACP, after work on my first book. So very quickly my first book documents the NAACP’s campaign against racial violence in the first quarter of the 20th century, and I document their work and I say that in terms of the timeline between 1909 and essentially 1925. And I document their work in trying to change public opinion in the streets, through demonstrations. I have another chapter where I focus on their work in trying to convince, I know this always sounds crazy to people, but Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding to make a statement condemning lynching, as well as their work in trying to pass anti-lynching legislation in Congress.
Francis: And then my book kind of ends in this big, dramatic, what I think is dramatic, Supreme Court case called Moore v. Dempsey, which is the first time in which the Supreme Court actually gets involved in state criminal court proceedings. And really this is kind of the beginnings of a much longer criminal procedure revolution that then takes off in the 30s, 40s, and 50s and then 60s.
And so I wrote this book in part because I had been interested in civil rights for a very long time, very interested in legal history. And everything I knew about the NAACP was focused on voting and education. And here I was, and so it was actually interesting, at the beginning of my work in graduate school, I had no idea how to do archival research. And so my two advisors at the time, Paul Frymer and Melissa Harris Perry, told me just to go into the archives and start reading, and I was like, “I don’t know about that. I have to leave soon. I need to find direct education and be done soon.”
But I just started reading from the very beginning, and what I saw develop, unfold, through the papers was a story about how the NAACP was so interested in questions about racial violence. And so I knew that I had to write that book. Though after I wrote that book, I was … the question that I got the most, and one that always stayed in the back of my mind, was if my analysis in my first book is correct, and I believe that it is, that the NAACP was concerned for two decades about lynching and mob violence, then why do we understand the NAACP today as an organization focused on education, desegregation litigation, LDF in particular, and an organization focused on housing and voting.
And it puzzled me for a long, long time until I went back into my papers, photocopies of archival papers, and I found … after the 1923 Supreme Court case, I found some correspondence between the Garland Fund and NAACP leadership. And I was like, “Wait. Hold up. What is going on? Because I only know the Garland Fund, or at least legal historians do, in terms of the Garland Fund is the reason why we get Brown v. Board of Education.” We would not have … The entire litigation strategy that culminated in Brown v. Board is we know because of the Garland Fund. It is kind of the heroic story in liberal philanthropy, that if you can fund an organization they can ultimately change the landscape of the political … of politics and law.
And so I know the Garland Fund from that story. I do not know the Garland Fund from another period. And so then I was like, “Wait a minute.” So then I went back into the NAACP archives to see what I could find about the Garland Fund’s correspondence with the NAACP, and then I also went to the Garland Fund archives. They’re at the beautiful library, New York Public Library on 42nd Street. And I just read American Fund for Public Service archives and the NAACP archives. And what I saw develop actually as I read very closely was this interaction between the Garland Fund and the NAACP.
Grossmann: Kohl-Arenas’s project was built of her long personal history of activism and how radical movement ideas change as institutions develop.
Kohl-Arenas: I was born in Berkeley, California in 1968 to rebellious, radical parents. And so I grew up in a context in California where many movements, and my parents were involved in the open classroom and the kind of free school movement, and sort of grew up in a context where many people were organizing for radical change and believed that another world is possible, another world outside of the kind of politics of compromise and business as usual.
And so I guess I’ve always had a rebellious spirit based on when, where, and by whom I was raised. And I dropped out of Reed College when … right before when I had to write a senior thesis and I wanted to get some grounded experience in the politics of rural economic development, really inspired by E.B Tompkins’s making of the English working class as so many were and other kinds of ideas about rural resistance that I felt I needed experience with before writing.
And so I called the late Miles Horton, who was the founder of the Highlander Center in Tennessee, which is a known popular education adult social movement center outside of New Market, Tennessee. And Highlander Center was an important learning space for adults involved in the early labor movement, all the way through the civil rights movement. And Highlander was important to me because Miles was something that I knew through my family, and he said in true Miles and Highlander fashion, “You won’t learn anything from me, but go to this coal mining town in southwest Virginia.”
And the long story short is that I was completely changed by living and working with a rebellious coal miner’s wife who believed that another future was possible, that this community could build its own rural infrastructure, it could fight the last sale of their industrial land when the mines in Union Carbide had picked up and left. And I got involved at a very young age in cultural organizing and grassroots economic development, and I felt that I was sort of set on a life course at that moment in time working in rural southwest Virginia.
And I came back, of course I finished college, I finished Reed, I wrote a dissertation that is not … or a thesis, an undergrad thesis, that’s not unlike my book. And I look at the difference between grassroots local economic development, such as in the town that I was living and working in, as compared to the Appalachian volunteers, which was the outside war on poverty wing of community action programs that kind of descended upon Appalachia in the 60s. So I did a kind of historical then and now comparison, which is, I didn’t realize this later, but very similar to what I always do and is featured in my book.
And so over the decade that I graduated from undergrad and worked as a community development and popular education practitioner in California across the Central Valley and youth organization in the Bay area, I think I was … I had many, many, many moments of what now I look back on as naïve awakening, when I realized not everyone means the same thing when they say civic participation, not everyone means the same thing when they say community voice or community-owned. And I, as a 20-something and then early 30-something year-old, was constantly frustrated with projects that claimed to build community-based visions, ownership, and power but then had hard and fast limits about who could sit at the table and what kind of projects one could take on, what kind of structures of inequality were not allowed to be addressed.
And so by the time I got to UC Berkeley, I was … let’s see, I was about 36 years old, and I was pretty much needing to analyze what had happened with my decade of sort of disillusionment of community engagement projects, that the buck always kind of stopped at addressing racism, addressing structures of capitalization, and addressing true community ownership over a project.
Grossmann: Let’s dig into each project. To understand Megan Ming Francis’s work, you have to know that the NAACP started as a fledgling project.
Francis: NAACP today is the oldest civil rights organization in this country. At that time, so now I’m talking about, especially their interact with the Garland Fund, between about 1922 and about 1930, the NAACP is a relatively young organization. It began in 1909. But they were one of the fastest growing organizations in terms of … that focused on civil rights for African Americans.
Francis: And so one of the things that many people kind of find interesting is that, in the beginning period, the NAACP, it’s not viewed today, but back then it was viewed as a radical organization. You had initially when it was formed … the leadership was all … there’s kind of the sons and daughters of white abolitionists, and the one black member was W.B. DuBois. But that changes very, well I think, quickly in 1916. James Weldon Johnson becomes the head, Walter White then becomes second in charge, and DuBois is still there. So the leadership changes to basically kind of a mostly black leadership.
Under James Weldon Johnson’s charge, they open up many more branches, NAACP branches, in southern states, and they are still very much interested in how to fight racial violence. And so here we have this kind of young organization, it’s … I can’t remember the exact numbers of the top of my head, but it’s thousands of people across the country that consider themselves as NAACP members. The membership is white and black.
And it’s important to know for purposes of my study that they had very little money. Each year, they barely kept the lights on. They had no big funders and really no big grants at the time. They collected money mostly through their membership and membership drives. And so something like at that time $100, $200 would have been considered kind of a large sum of money, a large contribution to the NAACP. They were unlike, and I make this point in my article, they were unlike say the National Urban League, who at this time already received grants from the likes of Carnegie and Rockefeller. So there was again, at this point in terms of their interaction, their conversations, with the Garland Fund no big foundation. No big or small foundation was interested in funding and supporting the work of the NAACP, and they were in dire need of funding at this time.
One of the other interesting things that I always focus on as well in talking about the early NAACP is that we tend to think of the NAACP and then what would develop into the NAACP LDF later on-
… what would develop into the NAACPLDF later on as an organization that knew they wanted to focus on the law. I try to push my audience to think about how do we understand civil rights without a way of fighting for civil rights, without federally guaranteed movement and rights. Before the 1960s, before Brown v. Board. Right? When the federal government did not protect African-Americans’ actual right to live.
How did black organizations on the ground fight for rights? And the NAACP, at this time, was not sure if it was through public protests, if it was through Congress, through legislation, or if it was through courts.
Grossmann: In addition to close reading, Frances categorized NAACP minutes into four categories to document the shift and focus from racial violence to education.
Francis: The most informative area of the NAACP archives for myself was the Board of Meeting minutes. What those were focused on, the most important issues of the NAACP in a given month. They met 11 times a year, and it was the NAACP’s leadership. They were always trying to strategize about what were significant issue areas and how did they actually need to address that.
What I did is I broke everything out into four categories. One, a focus on racial violence. The second was education. The third was labor. And, the fourth was voting. My sense was that, essentially, education, labor, and voting are traditional, I feel like, today, areas that we think about in terms of civil rights. And racial violence I obviously put in there because that’s what I was thinking about … That’s what I’ve seen the most, at least in the first decade in terms of the NAACP’s Board of Meeting minutes.
In terms of what went into each category, racial violence was one that when they discussed at the Board meeting, anything that pertained to lynchings and mob violence. So very much questions around lynchings and mob violence went into coding for racial violence.
In terms of education, they were still. And I want to be very clear in this article, I’m not saying that education was not a radical issue. I’m not saying that the NAACP was not concerned about education at all. They were. It just wasn’t the top of the agenda. So education, oftentimes, not oftentimes. But, in the language they talked about, it was sometimes around complaints around the education buildings, the teacher salaries, the condition of schools, the number of pupils actually in a school. We know, of course, and I discuss this in the article, that Du Bois in a crisis was very much concerned about the education that young black students actually received. Also in there is schoolings that different, like black teachers would set up.
In terms of labor, that is often around … Questions around sharecropping. One of the things that very much comes out, Du Bois is an outspoken critic of the often exploited sharecropping arrangements that African American farmers, women and men, were involved in, as well as pay and questions around, oftentimes, black exclusion from labor unions in the north. And so, what you see also, in this graph that I have in my article, is that labor is a big concern for the NAACP. Much bigger than education. This also [inaudible 00:22:35] onto the work of Paul [Frimer 00:22:36] and Sophia Lee that really focus on the NAACP’s focus around workplace discrimination and labor.
And then, voting, of course, which is different forms of disenfranchisement for African American voters and different ways to increase black voting percentages.
So, that’s kind of what went into each category. What you see, ultimately, in the graph is a really [inaudible 00:22:59] is a tremendous of racial violence concerns from the beginning of when they kept minutes in 1911 through about 1926, 1928. And then you really see education kind of taking off around 1930. And they are talking about education much more in their Board of Meeting minutes. And that’s going to be when the Garland Fund decides to fund the NAACP and for this education agenda.
Grossmann: She found that the Garland Fund changes the trajectory of the NAACP, perhaps even helping set the ground for philanthropy’s focus today.
Francis: This is going to be the last … The Garland Fund’s last big grant, in part because they lose money and the Great Depression and their big, what was thought to be $100 thousand grant to the NAACP. It’s whittled down to less than 30 thousand.
So, with the Garland Fund, still in terms of members who are Board members, especially Roger Baldwin, at the time, really championed NAACP’s work and consider Board v. Board as the way in which they’ve changed the American law.
Francis: In terms of the NAACP, this really very much … It changes the trajectory of the NAACP and of LDF, in particular. We know in so many ways, that education becomes a centerpiece issue for the NAACP and for LDF, the Legal Defense Fund, in particular. The way in which they’re going to go about shaking the ground on Jim Crow is through the question and through the issue of education. That is still something, especially the Legal Defense Fund, is focused on right now, is education, desegregation, litigation.
I think more broadly around liberal philanthropy, is it very much set the agenda that education is an important … for those foundations who are interested in fighting racial justice or interested in social justice in this country, that education is a top concern. We know that liberal philanthropy today has funded all types of successful and, oftentimes, not successful education initiatives. And I have no doubt that’s in part because of the way in which education is viewed in its relationship to civil rights and to racial justice in this country.
Grossmann: The strategy was, ultimately, quite successful in its own domain. But we still don’t know what would have happened if philanthropists had listened more to activists.
Francis: Are you trying to say that education and Brown were not important, significant decisions? Absolutely not. Brown is so important, and you are correct that we do see a trend after about 1934 of lynchings decreasing across this country. I think it’s … For the benefit of retrospect, everything, at some level, this is great that it happened. But I wonder, I can’t help but wonder how different civil rights would have been today if we actually took the voices and the complaints of the black leaders at the NAACP seriously. We know for sure that James Weldon Johnson and Walter White and W.B. Du Bois protested in their own ways the focus, the change of focus to education.
The really wanted the Garland Fund to fund a litigation program, a legal mobilization program focused on racial violence. And I think that still matters. They were willing to along with the greater focus on education. But I wonder, in that transition, about what was lost and what was given up in the pursuit of civil rights. I think that there was always a belief, I think a number of my colleagues in different areas have made the argument, especially focused on worker economic rights and labor. And I wonder that if we … The idea around education and voting was that if we focused on and secured rights around education and voting, that so many of these other rights that we consider to be important to the larger umbrella of civil rights would follow. We thought that kind of … It was assumed that worker economic rights would be … would follow.
We know that it did not. That somehow questions and the fight for economic equality fell out of the larger campaign. So did, somehow, concerns around racial violence got scuttled in the process. And I wonder about if racial violence was made the centerpiece of the fight around civil rights, I also wonder if labor and economic rights was made the centerpiece of the fight around civil rights, if, perhaps, education and voting would have also followed.
What we know for sure is the fight around education did not produce subsequent gains in terms of protections around racial violence. So yes, I think it’s great we got a landmark decision in civil rights. We know that lynchings decreased. But I don’t think that we can necessarily contribute a decrease in lynchings to Brown v. Board. I’m just not sure where we would have been. I am sure that we need to listen to the demands of social movements on the ground about how they envision freedom and justice.
Grossmann: Frances says her methods help to challenge conventional historical narratives.
Francis: One of the aspects that I was excited about with this article, in terms of methodology, was one around historical methodology. I work in the subfield in political science called American Political Development, which often uses historical sources. And, I was trying to figure out how to interpret, or how to challenge, the traditional narrative that we know about the NAACP and the Garland Fund, which is really one about resource mobilization and one of collaboration. So we tend to think that the NAACP and the Garland Fund worked collaboratively and then brought us this amazing Supreme Court victory in Brown. We tend to think that, oftentimes, social movement organizations look, kind of evaluate the landscape, the political only landscape, and then move into areas, strategically, about where resources might be.
So that’s often how we’ve understood the NAACP, which is, obviously, not what I saw.
I always try to figure out how do researchers look at the same materials differently? Because I was interpreting the actions of the NAACP and the Garland Fund in a different way than past historical researchers. I wanted to think in this paper much more critically about the conditions that produce archival materials, and about the decisions researchers make about whose voices to count and what lives are legible in the writing of civil rights history.
Part of the intervention that I wanted to make in this article was one about the production of civil rights history. And I wanted to make a claim that even in the writing of history, that we need to be attending to the power dynamics that are at play in the process. Sure, just looking at the papers of the American Fund for Public Service, and looking at the papers of the NAACP, there’s different ways in which we can read things. Especially in reading papers written about historically marginalized groups that we need to be cognizant of the way in which power and race shapes what can actually be written down and noted about these groups.
So, writing this in terms of the way in which I do historical research was a tremendous lesson for me to be attuned to interrogate, sometimes, the archives.
Grossmann: She says it fits well with Kohl-Arenas’s work, which looks at the broader effect on movements.
Francis: Her work really takes us to the troubled days of the farm worker organizing in the late 1960s. And I think it’s really important, especially this kind of period of the ’60s and the ’70s when we see this kind of huge influx of foundation money in … that are trying to fund group activism. Really, and I think her work shows in terms of the way in which private foundations, not necessarily co opt, but redirect the direction of movements. I think that’s the way in which our work is different, is I focus on a much earlier time period as well as a greater focus on legal mobilization. And her work, I think, really shows the way in which private foundations impact movement development, itself.
Grossmann: Kohl-Arenas looked at three different cases linking foundations with farm workers over decades.
Kohl-Arenas: My book is really centered around three case studies. The first case study is about the ways in which Cesar Chavez, who was one of the leaders of the California farm worker movement of the ’60s and ’70s, and Delores Huerta and other staff members of the United Farm Workers Organization as well as the non-profits, negotiated relationships with private funders.
My second case study is an anonymized ethnographic study of a major civic engagement initiative across California’s Central Valley that aimed to empower and engage immigrants and groups that organized immigrants and farm workers across the Central Valley. And then, a third anonymized case study was another major investment in the Central Valley later, in the 2000s, that invested $5 million a year in particular farm worker communities to improve living conditions, health and wellness, in farm worker communities in the Central Valley.
These are three different historical eras and three different moments where I look at the relationship between immigrant and farm worker organizing and private philanthropy.
Grossmann: She found that a self help ideology was endemic to foundation involvement and quite different from where farm workers started.
Kohl-Arenas: You know, in this country, we’ve always had the cultural tropes and beliefs in … about working hard, about pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps, about the possibility for personal betterment and also intergenerational mobility through hard work, through assimilation, through learning how to play the game. And that there’s endless opportunities for everyone if you could just work hard enough. That kind of self help ideology is often, in funding initiatives, deeply entangled with community based projects who have a much more radical interpretation of self determination.
So, what I looked at in my book is how very radical notions of self determination were transformed through relationships with private funders into much more mild projects that only asked farm workers to help themselves change their behaviors, form educational programs to learn a little bit more, but would never really take on the agricultural industry in a way that meant that farm workers were actually forming cooperatives, owning land.
One of the misunderstandings of the California farm worker movement is that it was always, for example, a union movement. Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta were trained in the community organizing tradition of the service organizations, such as Saul Alinsky, Fred Ross, and others who really believed in building self sustaining mutual aid institutions. So, Chavez’s original vision for the farm worker movement was actually a healthy, vibrant, dignified, and culturally driven agricultural economy that was entirely transformed through collectives, through self ownership, through farm cooperatives, through sustainable local farming. These all sound like things we talk about today, but got pulled into union organizing and activism when Larry Itliong, who was the Filipino leader of farm worker organizing at the time, in ’64, invited him to join the strike.
Now, Chavez then became a union leader and, eventually, a nonprofit manager through entanglements with both service center management and union organizing. And the radical vision of self determination of an entire agricultural region that was about farm worker ownership and dignity turned into union battles and nonprofit management. So, self help was one, but not the only.
One of the poles in which very specific debates were negotiated between farmer worker movement leaders and private funders. Meaning I looked at so many letters in the archives where Cesar Chavez was arguing with program officers back and forth, arguing with the OEO, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and their war on poverty grant making. Back and forth. So the poles between self determination, which was a much more radical sense of self ownership, and self help, meaning, well we won’t fund worker collectives, we won’t fund land ownership, we won’t fund boycotts, but we will fund a service center and a community school, for example. How about that? Would that be okay?
Grossmann: Foundations didn’t destroy the movement, they just changed its path.
Kohl-Arenas: In my book, I don’t show how foundations destroyed a social movement at all. That’s not the story. But the story is that the nonprofits became a safe place to retreat to when things became hard and difficult and the power structures aligned against the movement.
Grossmann: Over time, the focus moved from thinking of the constituents as farm workers to immigrants.
Kohl-Arenas: I followed an interesting transition where, all of a sudden, all of the funders stopped funding and stopped using the term farm worker, including the Rosenberg Foundation, in the mid ’70s, and started talking about … including the Rosenberg Foundation in the mid ’70’s and started talking about immigrants. This really fortified and built the early years leading up to the Immigrant Rights movement and the immigrant mobilizations of 2006 but the terms farm worker and laborer just as immigrants became more present in foundation archives, farm workers and labor disappeared. So that, you’re absolutely right, that the immigrant rights movement has kind of surpassed which is an important movement in and of itself but deeply needs to be reengaged with labor as it has in some spaces.
Grossmann: And today there’s not as much farm worker organizing with bigger problems on immigration.
Kohl-Arenas: Farm workers are not being organized, for one. The United Farm Workers has a very small and decreasing membership with the rise in undocumented farm labor and the increasing of policing under ICE as well as local conditions and fears. Nobody’s organizing. Everybody’s afraid and hiding out and so when I talked to the leaders of nonprofit organizations they say, well, it’s not really foundations. It’s that nobody wants to organize. Everybody’s afraid and everybody’s afraid of their own livelihoods both from the grower who’s threatened by drought and from their perspective worker shortages and from the worker’s standpoint who’s afraid of losing their citizenship and increasingly afraid of incarceration and family separation.
Grossmann: Kohl-Arenas says foundations helped farm workers make real gains but there’s certainly a chance to improve.
Kohl-Arenas: I think there are a lot of spaces of hope and in this particular case I think that what played out was that private foundation investments and commitment in farm worker leadership, in farm worker civil rights and in farm worker engagement and kind of kind sweat equity and some self help programs that were really valuable around farm worker housing and later farm worker health really catalyzed the beginning years of the farm worker movement.
So for example the Rosenberg Foundation had three generations of presidents from Ruth Chance to Kirk Wilson who were committed to Farm Worker organizing. From my interviews, from my archival research I truly believe that private philanthropy played a really important catalytic role in building farm worker leadership leading up to the farm worker movement and in the very early months and perhaps first year or two of the farm worker organizing around strikes and boycotts.
That’s where the lines were just drawn. There’s some pretty amazing Rosenberg Foundation annual reports that talk about boards of trustees being very happy to support farm worker self help when it comes to housing and health and education, but having zero interest in strikes and picket lines and when the movement became heated and violence kind of struck out on the picket lines the foundations really pulled back, disappeared or insisted on only funding service center part of the work and not leadership development or organizing.
I think that the way I look at the role of private philanthropy is we have to understand that private foundations were created on the production of wealth that is almost always built upon low paid, under paid or unpaid wage labor and exploitation in the most objective sense of the term of resources, of land. They will only thus because they’re created out of the production of wealth and the exploitation of labor and environment, they will only go so far to challenge those very structures. We should just know that.
My answer is foundations are great for some things. They’re great at leadership development but when things get sticky and when industry becomes the target of the organizing they will usually step back and I think that social movements do and should kind of understand that. One of the most beautiful phrases that I found in the archives is that Cesar Chavez started to call the nonprofits he formed, which was required by the foundations because they would only fund the service work through the 501(c) incorporated nonprofits, and he called them the Hustling Arm of the Union. So Chavez was really quite aware that getting the foundation money was a hustle and that these dollars would certain things but not other things.
Grossmann: She says her work matches Francis’ findings, both part of a broader focus on rising through education in the current system.
Kohl-Arenas: I think that the trends really map on. Education is a battle ground as we know in so many spaces from the work of Sarahs and Megans and other folks work that are interpretations of education towards mobility education towards social change are widely contested. If we look at how community education was funded in all of the strands of the civil rights movements from the ’50’s up to the present we see that same negotiation between self determination and self help and foundations often revert to the easiest framework which is, let’s fund poor communities and communities of color to train themselves, to become more educated, to have greater mobility within the existing system rather education for liberation.
Grossmann: Francis agrees that foundations should still be thinking about their role in capturing movement actors today.
Francis: I think that it’s something that can be useful to movements as well as foundations as they think through their relationships with grantees today and that’s my hope. My hope is that by kind of highlighting this issue of movement capture that foundations who are well intentioned can be focused on the power dynamics that are often at play between foundations with tremendous amount of resources and grantees with not that many resources and with a desire to want to appease their funders. I think that often times what happens … ’cause there’s not … Like even this article that I’ve written, there was not a point in which James Wood and Johnson or D.B. Dubois stood up and said, “I don’t want this funding. Why are you forcing us to change directions?” They didn’t say it in those words but they intimated it in different ways.
One of the kind of hope and pointing to movement capture is that foundations and philanthropies care. Philanthropy in general can be more focused on their relationship with grantees and more attuned to the way in which privilege operates, privilege as it pertains to economics as well as race, so you found in your dynamics with with the groups that they want to fund.
Grossmann: Kohl-Arenas says current movements still have to watch out when they become nationalized.
Kohl-Arenas: As someone who studies patterns of institutionalization and professionalization and the limits that come with scale, with greater national scale and more deeply embedded relationships with national funders and stakeholders there is a great risk. I think that we see a lot off initiatives that on the face of it all of our social media organizing and posts, we might think are grass roots that are indeed not. I’m working with CUNY postdoc Erika Grajeda on a project where she looks at domestic labor organizing that on the face of it many of us think as the cutting edge of grassroots organizing through the National Domestic Workers Alliance and other organizations, but she shows how private funding in localized nonprofits that organize day laborers, people are actually being incentivized on a point system to participate in national actions and demonstrations that have no deep connection to their daily lives.
Once you hit this national scale, once you get funding from that whole collection of funders from Kellogg to KC to Ford and the big funders who want to work with the big intermediaries, the grass roots work of actually building community, of building a critical analysis from the local space, of building ownership and building voice also risks being lost even if it’s a very timely compelling national campaign, right?
So I think part of the risk today is getting too big too fast and only relying on national intermediaries. When the Ford Foundation committed all of it’s endowment to tackling inequality what many people said and again I didn’t study this particular pattern, is that the big intermediaries got more funding and the grassroots organizations kind of lost out. We see this mapping onto the gay and trans rights movement. We see it mapping onto the immigrant rights movement, is that sometimes those movements gain a national presence, the funding follows the big intermediaries and the local work where people are actually struggling in their communities and in their neighborhoods lose resources.
Grossmann: She says foundation’s ideas about building broad partnerships might be unrealistic in the short term.
Kohl-Arenas: Funders loved the idea back in the ’90s of unlikely allies, of putting people together who just literally didn’t think that they could work together with this idea of multi-sector, multi-approaches, a diversity of stakeholders sitting at the table. I think that likely allies are probably strategically more powerful to convene than unlikely allies because these sort of collaborative funding initiatives never really last more than about five years. Eight is probably pretty darn good. So when you bring unlikely allies together it’s going to take at least five to bring them together on strategy that’s also going to involve a whole lot of compromise. When you bring stakeholders together of greatly unequal power the compromise usually excludes the more radical concerns of the smaller or weaker parties. So you’re going to spend a great deal of time coming to a center with unlikely and unequal partners, where as if you try to organize likely players and likely partners you might be more effective if you’re only going to invest money in the short term.
Grossmann: Francis is looking at one big contemporary example: Black Lives Matter, which is also changing with foundations support.
Francis: So I do think that’s already starting to happen with a lot of Black Lives Matter movement. It’s been fascinating for me as somebody who’s been interested in questions about racial violence, black political organizing and philanthropy, to watch over the last seven years. One of the things initially was that Black Lives Matter activists took to the streets and a lot of people, kind of the mainstream left were like, “Whoa! This is crazy and radical!” Then what you saw probably about two to three years later was actually a number of foundations started to fund different groups, different Black Lives Matter organizations and you see now these big initiatives. Especially for those organizations philanthropy foundations that are focused on racial justice, many of them fund Black Lives Matter activists.
This question that you raise about, all right, what are foundations [inaudible 00:50:03] Black Lives Matter activists and what should they be concerned about and how should they proceed is a crucial one. I would say to be wary, to be very clear about what they want, about what their agenda actually is. I do think that as agenda formation takes place and we know that agendas change over time, absolutely. We know that things can shift and I think it’s easy to do that especially when there are perhaps as is the case right now, millions on the table.
So the question here is one about how to make sure that an organization is being true to it’s interests and true to the people that actually support the movement. One of the things that I think it would be key to a number of these organizations is having accountability measures, whether that is making sure that there is a board constructed of members of the community, an internal board of members constructed of the community that you’re able to … Okay we had this discussion with let’s say it’s the Ford Foundation or the Open Society and this is what they proposed. This is what we agreed to do. Does this map onto what we said that we were interested in and or our focus? Does this shift? I think that’s really key right now in thinking about how to ramp up, how to build for some of these much smaller organizations and how to proceed further and maintain integrity.
In terms of foundations this is a tough one. I’ve actually had a number of foundations reach out to me after this article and ask this question about, “Okay, I found aspects of this article persuasive. How do we proceed in a more responsible manner with our grantees?” I don’t have the silver bullet. I don’t have the answer but I know that part of the answer starts with one, really listening to activists and privileging their voices. I know that it also starts with, begins with being aware, being hyper aware of the privilege that foundations actually have in their interactions with grantees, especially Black Lives Matter activists. I think also three, it begins with reassessing the process of program evaluation.
There is, and we know this, through foundations and grants, that often times at the end of a year or the end of a two-year grant, we like to know how many people were impacted, what were the results. We know of course that groups want continued funding and so what happens when after a two year grant or after even a five year grant, because there’s no way in two or five years that racial violence is ending. There’s no way that a Black Lives Matter organization is going to be able to return back to a foundation and say, “You know what? That’s it. We fixed racial violence,” right?
I think there needs to be, especially working with Black Lives Matter activists a more creative understanding of what program success might need. I think that’s going to be key to continued funding and support of the Black Lives Matter movement. I think part of what might help that is an understanding that civil rights and if you are really in it, if you are committed to racial justice, to ending racial violence in this country, that is a very long battle. It’s not something that’s going to be fixed in two years or five years. It means being in this for the long haul.
Grossmann: Her next step is to look at the trajectory of activists in the movement.
Francis: The relationship between Black Lives Matter activist organizations and funders. I am actually in the process of collecting data about a number of Black Lives Matter organizations and I want to track them over five or seven years. Organizations that kind of sprung up in the after math of Trevon Martin and Michael Brown and ones that receive funding. I’m curious about if their relationships with funders changes the trajectory of their agenda and what they deem are actually important areas to fight on. I’m kind of interested in taking this historical study into the present and seeing if these types of dynamics are still at play in the contemporary movement.
Grossmann: And Kohl-Arenas is involved in the practice of public scholarship and a new research project on the radical California of yesteryear.
Kohl-Arenas: I’m leading a national organization called Imagining America Artists and Scholars in Public Life that really convenes, connects, engages and promotes public scholarship and creative community organizing. I’m a bit consumed with that. It takes up a lot of time. I’ve only been leading this national initiative for a year now but it’s an amazing national network of scholars and artist and organizers. That’s one practice based project but I do have two research projects kind of cooking and one of them is to look at a particular moment in time in the kind of mid to late 1960s in the cultural movements in California where people were not beholden to the so-called nonprofit industrial complex to interview …
I’m going to interview some social movement elders. My father is 81 and many of his friends and colleagues and many of the folks we study in our history books are actually getting older. I’m going to go back before the patterns that I studied in my book became so cemented and look at a space in time where there was a great moment of possibility from the hippie back-to-the-landers to the Royal Chicano Air Force and the cultural arts movement to the occupation of Alcatraz, to the free school movement and look at both the freedom dreams and the current moments of despair, of some of the movement elders from the 1960s.
Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center and on iTunes. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Megan Ling Francis and Erica Kohl-Arenas for joining me. Please check out the paper and the book, The Self Help Myth and then in listen in next time.
Photo Credit: Movimiento [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]