Archive for June, 2013

Fountain and Fairfax

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

One of my favorite parts of working at Hispanics in Philanthropy back in the day was serving as the HIP representative to the Joint Affinity Groups – the associations of grantmakers organized by population, generally personal identity. Them what experienced oppression, basically. We each had our own agenda, but we had a joint agenda. The promise of JAG was that we would own each other’s agenda – when Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues advocated with the Council on Foundations that their demographic surveys should include sexual orientation, the rest of us would have their back. Your issues are my issues.

This made so much intuitive sense to me – we’re stronger together, and I have people speaking out on my behalf when I’m not even there to speak for myself. What could be better?

Years later, I learned to call this “intersectionality.” I guess it technically means the intersections among multiple forms of oppression, but I’ve always thought of it as the intersection of multiple identities and the power and possibility that brings. And I’ve always enjoyed the thought that intersectionality is a way of life for younger generations – young undocuqueer activists like my cousin Juan and his husband Felipe live intersectionality every day, and use it as a base from which to fight.

Which means this week, of all weeks, I’m particularly attentive to who acts on intersectionality when some folks have had huge wins this week and others have had huge setbacks. The affirmative action non-decision, the Voting Rights Act defeat, the DOMA and Prop 8 victories, the Wendy Davis filibuster, and today, comprehensive immigration reform gathering 68 votes in the Senate – whew, as a politics junkie, I’m overwhelmed.

This week, of all weeks, is the time to live intersectionality, and to celebrate wistfully, to mourn with some joy in your heart, and above all, to resolve to keep fighting for justice and equality.

Kudos to Black Girl Dangerous for holding our feet to the fire. Check out her post on “DOMA, the VRA and The Perfect Opportunity“. Couldn’t say it any better. This is the chance to show your values, to show that you mean intersectionality.

And philanthropy? You’ve got no excuse not to be intersectional. Ask it of yourself, ask it of your grantees, ask it of your partners? How are you seeing the intersections of the issues you support, who’s living at the intersection of the issues you care about, and what can you learn from each other? I say “learn from each other”, not “learn from them”, keeping in mind a great quotation I saw on Facebook today, originally from aboriginal activist Lilla Watson:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Indeed. My schtick on this blog is to have the post titles be song titles. “Fountain and Fairfax” is by the Afghan Whigs, one of my favorite bands from the early 90s. It’s shambolic indie rock sung by a white guy with a sandpaper throat who thinks he’s a soul singer from the 60s. Like many of their songs, “F and F” is about a drunk/junkie trying to make good. “Angel, I’m sober / I got off that stuff / Just like you asked me to.” The addict makes promises, over and over, and keeps breaking them. Time and again, he has a chance to start again and misses it. But not this time.

“I’ll be waiting for you / At Fountain and Fairfax”

Time to show up.

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Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die #3

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

(Part of a continuing series)

#3: “We can move the needle.”

I help foundations develop theories of change – being clear about how what they do makes a difference in the world. What I try to remind them of, and I need to get better at doing this, is what can you really do as a funder with a $6 million – or even $60 million annual grantmaking budget?

  • You work in education? The annual budget of the Fargo, North Dakota school district was $124 million in 2011-12.
  • You work in health? The Biloxi Regional Medical Center paid more than $48 million in wages and benefits in 2011.
  • You work on the environment? ExxonMobil spent $12.9 million on lobbying in 2013.

So what are we talking about here?

Let’s say you want to improve the unemployment rate in the Cincinnati metro area. To move it even one-tenth of a percent, you’d have to help 1,000 people find jobs in a month, which is how often the “needle” is measured.

What is this needle, how are we moving it, and how do we know it stays moved? You have to adjust unemployment statistics for seasonal trends – a lot of people get temporary retail jobs around the holidays, more farmhands are hired at harvest time, kids in school get summer jobs. The change you achieve may get swamped.

So unless you’re changing the rules by which a system operates – which takes gaining political power, mobilizing a base to demand for change, or developing an alternative philosophy and doing the hard, generation-long work of making it the new status go – your signal is likely to get drowned out by a lot of noise.

Or you can go really specific and really small. A neighborhood? That you might be able to change? A city? Come on now.

Our theories of change need to be about movements, about narratives, about systems, if we’re going to live up to the ambition that so many foundation staffs and boards rightly entertain.

Why would you want to move a needle anyway? Better to move the whole haystack.