Vanessa Daniel on Funding Black and Indigenous Leadership
Underrepresented populations, including BIPOC and gender non-conforming people, are often on the frontlines of justice movements. Existing at the compounding intersections of state violence, these groups have developed an adaptive ability to see the world with astonishing moral and political clarity. They are illuminating new ways toward liberation in which everyone benefits, and yet they remain the least funded. What does it mean when the majority of philanthropic funds go toward white-led organizations? How can philanthropy pivot to support initiatives from more diverse groups?
Vanessa Daniel is the founder and Executive Director of Groundswell Fund and Groundswell Action Fund, two organizations that support grassroots organizing led by gender non-conforming people and women of color. In the following keynote address, edited for length and clarity, Daniel forces us to reckon with the urgency of the current moment. Her call to action is simple. We can no longer afford to wait — the time for change is now.
We are in an important time in history for donors and foundations to give boldly to support social justice movements, and to heed the call of grassroots leaders like Ash-Lee Henderson of the Highlander Center and the Movement for Black Lives, who says to us: “Fund us like you want us to win.”
The clock is running down on our planet, so winning is not some theoretical political scorecard, it’s about whether humanity survives or not. And as someone who leads a foundation that’s trying to heed that call, I’m really excited to dig into thinking about how we can all do that in philanthropy.
I truly believe that humanity has every single thing that we need to build a better world. We have all the resources we need to ensure that every single person has enough food, housing, education, medical care, a planet to inherit, and opportunity. We have an embarrassment of riches in our social justice movements, and grassroots leaders who are so clear on how we get there.
One of the most stunning gifts that humanity has been given and that we must turn toward in order to survive is the leadership of women of color and transgender and gender non-conforming people of color. These are the people who have lived their lives at the sharpest cross sections of oppression and, as a result, have developed an adaptive ability to see the world with 360-degree vision.
360-degree vision is about the ability to see and to tackle any issue with an intersectional lens, that dismantles white supremacy, patriarchy, extractive capitalism and colonialism simultaneously. 360 vision reveals the solution to any issue that it examines. For example, take the issue of gun control: Through an intersectional lens, we are able to see that banning assault rifles is good, but it’s not enough when the majority of mass shootings are carried out by white men with a history of battering women, and white nationalism. We have to dismantle white supremacy and toxic masculinity in this country; for youth of color who are living in this pressure cooker of poverty, police brutality and deportations, we have to demilitarize our communities in order to see the violence abate.
We can look at the issue of climate change through that lens and understand that strategies of parts per billion carbon reduction are insufficient, that we really need a just transition that’s grounded in the wisdom of Native environmental protectors, grounded in the health and well-being of jobs for people who are in frontline communities, that that’s what’s needed to save and to come back into right relationship with our planet.
When we turn to reproductive freedom in this country, we understand that the legal right to access for abortion is critically important. But it’s not enough when millions of people can’t access that right because they’re poor, an immigrant or transgender. We have to expand access and public funding for abortion, but that alone is not enough. We also have to end the violence happening to communities that’s preventing people from having kids, environmental pollution that’s causing poor reproductive health outcomes, mass incarceration, and discrimination in our medical systems.
In every single social justice movement, there is a set of organizations with this kind of lens, and overwhelmingly they’re led by women of color, and transgender, and gender non-conforming people of color, and they’re like bright flashlights. They’re shining a light on the way to freedom for all of us. We all benefit when they’re able to shine the light brighter. And funders and donors have a role to play in supporting them to do that.
I lead two public foundations. One is Groundswell Fund, which is a 501(c)3, and the other is Groundswell Action Fund, which is a 501(c)4. They are both grand experiments in building community across race, class, and gender. We have 500 mostly white women, individual donors, and 40 private foundations, who are giving us resources that we will distribute to the grassroots. But the people who decide where the resources go, the people who created and run Groundswell, are women of color and transgender people of color who come out of grassroots organizing.
Because we decide, we have created an irrigation system for movement over the last 10 years that now moves those resources to 150 organizations that are doing intersectional organizing, and that are mostly led by women of color, with a particular focus on folks who are Black, Indigenous, and transgender. We’ve been able to accomplish some things we’re proud of, moving over $65 million to the field, including early support for many of the organizations that were so critical in states like Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania in this election.
What unites us as a community is one thing: We believe that the full truth is important and human beings will neither realize freedom or survive if we tell half truths. If we tell the truth about climate change, we must also name the existence of patriarchy; if we tell the truth about capitalism, we must also name the impact of white supremacy; if we tell the truth about LGBTQ+ rights we must also name the caustic effects of xenophobia. We must tell the whole truth, and that work begins by lifting up the truth tellers, the people who are brave enough to break the spell of denial that so many progressive movements have been under and are keeping us from winning.
Lesson number one that we learned at Groundswell is this: The way all people get to freedom is by following the people who know the way. It was Latinx and Native people who flipped Arizona when other people thought it was impossible. One of our grantees, Luca, together with their coalition partners, knocked on 1.5 million doors. They registered 200,000 people to vote. Their executive director shared with us through tears after the election what it was like to see people coming back day after day to canvass voters, after burying loved ones to COVID. After losing jobs in this economic environment and being crammed multiple families in single apartments.
The Navajo Nation, which was most impacted by COVID, turned out at an incredible 89% to vote. API people in Pennsylvania made 1.3 million calls to people in 10 languages, voters who’ve been ignored by so many other electoral operations. And Black women, the backbone of our democracy and the vanguard of social justice movements who, even after the theft of the governorship of Stacy Abrams through horrendous voter suppression two years ago, picked themselves back up and through sheer grit and determination, fighting for their lives and the lives of their children, made a way for their state and for our country.
Here is something philanthropists must reckon with: What does it mean when the political and moral clarity of Black women is unparalleled by any other group in this country, and yet they are one of the least funded groups? What does it mean when Native people, who were responsible for the margin of victory in so many states, remain largely invisible to electoral donors? The margin of victory that people of color created in this election with women of color at the helm is not identity politics, it’s math.
What does it mean for the hope of freedom for all of us when the majority of philanthropic dollars continue to go to white people and organizations led by white people, when white women voted in even larger proportion for Trump after four years of seeing what he was capable of? What does it mean when white men, who are responsible for leading us into pretty much every disaster we are in as a country and as a planet, supported putting Trump back in the White House more than any other group and supported more than any other group putting a rapist on our Supreme Court? What does it mean when that is the group that receives the vast majority of philanthropic resources?
What does it mean when donors think the electoral playbook that most white liberal organizations use is the one that works? This election was a total repudiation of a conventional voter engagement playbook, and by extension, most of the philanthropic dollars that support it. The victory against Trump occurred in spite of, not because of, dollars wasted on targeting white swing voters. It occurred in spite of dollars wasted on parachuting GOTV infrastructure into states six weeks before an election with a plan to pull it right out the day after, in spite of millions of dollars spent on ads to project messages that were polled and tested and found to be safe with voters. It was a victory won by organizers of color, particularly black women who had the good sense to throw that playbook out and organize in the way that they know works: building relationships with voters year round, year after year, on the issues that their communities care about, using bold messages that really resonate with their people. And most of all, they’re tackling problems in an intersectional way.
So lesson number one is to support, fund, follow the people who know the way. Lesson number two is to open the flood gates. Maurice Mitchell of the Working Families Party and the Movement for Black Lives says it so beautifully. He says “Biden is a doorway, not a destination.”
When Obama won, progressives took our foot off the gas. We mistook access for power. We mistook representation for power. We made a mistake, we missed an opportunity, and we can’t afford to do that again.
There’s no more time that’s been added to the clock of the planet, to reproductive freedom of women, trans and gender non-conforming people in this country, to the possibility of our democracy. Time is running out. Movements cannot downshift; they have to floor it with bold public pressure for decisive action on climate change, and racial, gender and economic justice. And funders and donors have to show up and open full throttle with the scale of resources that’s required to allow them to do that. Our imagination and our giving cannot be calibrated to what’s possible and seems radical to the very low bar that we’ve been at. It must be calibrated to the bar that we have to reach to save our planet.
We need to ditch the payout. We need to spend down. We need to cut the red tape to make it easier for grantees to apply for funding. We need to stretch beyond 501(c)3 voices to support people of color-led 501(c)4s and political PACs that are rooted and organizing year round in their communities. We need to be prepared to ignore financial advisors when they tell us that it’s time to pull back because there’s a recession coming. We need to understand that they may have a myopic fixation on the stock market, but that we see a bigger picture about saving our planet and the window in time in which we have to do it. We need to be prepared to tell them they’re no such thing as a rainy day fund because the rainy day is now.
In closing, I want to remind us that it’s an opportunity that we have now. Fund the people who know the way to freedom. Open the flood gates for flexible, general support and ongoing funding to deep organizing led by people of color, and particularly women of color, transgender and gender non-conforming people of color.
There’s no one coming to save us. Every one of us who’s alive now, who’s able to take action, we are the team on the field. There’s no guarantee that in 30 years some future generation is going to have the time left on the clock of the planet to do what we were too afraid to do, to be bold where we were timid, to act where we hesitated. This is our moment. This is it. This is our shot. Let’s be brave and make it count.
Vanessa Daniel, a former union organizer and longtime social justice activist, is an award-winning innovator in the field of philanthropy. She founded and is Executive Director of Groundswell Fund, the largest funder of the U.S. reproductive justice movement, and of Groundswell Action Fund, the largest U.S. institution helping fund women of color-led 501c4 organizations. Groundswell, among other achievements, is the country’s only fund dedicated to supporting access to midwifery and doula care for women of color, low-income women and transgender people; and funds a women-of-color-led Integrated Voter Engagement training program as well. Vanessa also serves on the board of the Common Counsel Foundation.
This Bioneers podcast features courageous and eloquent women environmental and social justice leaders – journalist Rose Aguilar, biologist Sandra Steingraber, and reproductive justice advocates Vanessa Daniel and Eveline Shen – sharing their stories of how the leadership of women is changing the story and the world.
Read Groundswell Fund’s blueprint for removing barriers that reproductive justice organizations face, enabling these organizations to strengthen and scale their work.