5 Questions for...Cecilia Clarke, President and CEO, Brooklyn Community Foundation
December 01, 2016
As grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter have emerged in recent years, the issue of racial equity has come into sharper focus.
In 2014, the Brooklyn Community Foundation launched an effort to engage more than a thousand Brooklyn residents and leaders in envisioning the foundation's role in realizing "a fair and just Brooklyn" — an effort that in 2015 earned BCF the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's Impact Award for its community-led approach. Earlier this month, the foundation announced that, in alignment with its commitment to advancing racial equity across all aspects of its work, it would divest from industries that disproportionately harm people of color.
PND spoke with Cecilia Clarke, the foundation's president and CEO, about BCF's focus on racial justice, its decision to divest its portfolio of industries that disproportionately harm people of color, and the post-election role of philanthropy in advancing racial equity.
Philanthropy News Digest: Before joining BCF, you founded and led the Sadie Nash Leadership Project. Tell us a little about the project and what it sought to accomplish.
Cecilia Clarke: Sadie Nash Leadership Project is a feminist social justice organization for low-income young women in all five boroughs of New York City and Newark, New Jersey. I founded it in 2001 in my dining room here in Brooklyn, and today it's a nonprofit with a $2 million annual budget serving over two thousand young women annually. One of the organization's working assumptions is that young women are ready to be leaders in their communities right now, and Sadie Nash is there to help shape that leadership through what it calls its "sisterhood model" — providing a safe space, active leadership opportunities, education, and hands-on mentorship and role modeling by leaders who look like the young women themselves.
At Sadie Nash, young women serve on staff and on the board as real voting members, and — in addition to the organization's flagship summer institute program — participate in afterschool programs, fellowships, and internships. And in everything they do for and through the organization, they are paid for their leadership, because it underscores the concept that they are leaders today. Sadie Nash is not training these young women for some hoped-for future; it's important that, given their identity and their experience, we all understand that they can be a force for social change in their communities right now.
PND: In announcing its intention to divest from industries that disproportionately harm people of color, BCF specifically mentioned private prisons, gun manufacturers, and predatory lenders. What kind of impact have these industries had on communities of color and low-income communities in Brooklyn and beyond? And how do you see the divestment process playing out?
CC: To back up a bit, when I first came to BCF, it was a foundation that had only recently transitioned from being a private bank foundation to a community foundation, and it hadn't done a lot of community engagement work. Sadie Nash was very committed to engaging its constituency, and I brought that experience with me to the foundation. So, pretty early on we launched a community engagement initiative called Brooklyn Insights through which we spoke with more than a thousand Brooklynites. And what came out of that process was that there were very clear racially biased policies and practices and traditions in the community that the people who spoke with us believed had helped create and reinforce many of the other issues we were discussing, particularly around young people and criminal justice. As a community foundation, we felt we had to be responsive to what we were hearing and to look at the issues that oppress communities of color — which make up 70 percent of Brooklyn's population.
To that end, we created a Racial Justice Lens as an overarching focus for every aspect of the foundation's work and management, not just our programming or grantmaking. And that meant we needed to look at our investments. We decided on the three areas of divestment you mentioned after multiple conversations, but I want to make clear that we are at the beginning of the process, not at the end. We chose those three areas to begin with because they were very closely related to our program areas and our mission, especially our focus on young people and racial justice. Given our commitment to youth justice, the private prison industry was an obvious area of divestment. Gun violence is still an enormous problem in Brooklyn, with a huge number of guns being trafficked into the borough, so we felt very strongly about gun manufacturers. And looking at the significant economic inequity and lack of opportunity in our neighborhoods, we saw that check cashing and other predatory financial services were making a profit off of inequity. All three of these industries profit from racial injustice and racial inequity, and we felt very strongly that we cannot be a foundation that stands for racial justice and allow these industries to remain in our financial portfolio.
The foundation doesn't invest in individual stocks, so it isn't as if we remove private prisons and replace it with X. Our investments are managed by Goldman Sachs, and Goldman chooses different fund managers with various portfolios of stocks and different investments. So what our divestment means is that we've signaled to our fund managers that these three industries cannot be included in our portfolio, and our finance committee is working very closely with the team over there to make sure that happens. The restrictions we've communicated to them work like proactive insurance to ensure that, going forward, our portfolio will be "clean" of these investments. In a way, the stars sort of lined up for us, because Goldman is getting more and more requests for socially responsible investment choices and has created a new department to do just that. So that's an instrument we can take advantage of while further promoting conversations about aligning our investments with our mission.
CC: We've certainly seen the impact of the Racial Justice Lens, in that racial justice is now very much at the center and core of our work. We've held ongoing trainings for staff and board members, we've become much better educated about the issue involved, and we've created a Racial Justice Advisory Council comprised of local and national leaders who have been very helpful in helping us define racial justice, think about racial justice advocacy, and shape the process.
The Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project also has been successful. BCF was a catalyst in getting the city's Department of Education to roll out restorative justice programs, which have been shown to be successful in reducing suspensions and disparities in suspensions for students of color and students with special needs. We have four nonprofit grantees working in three high schools and one middle school, and we've already seen a positive impact, not only on the lives of individual students but also in terms of the leadership at these schools and in their communities. We're working with Professor Anne Gregory at Rutgers University-Newark on a four-year evaluation that will gauge the program's efficacy in real time and generate best practices for models of restorative justice. She can already point to reductions in the number of suspensions, but there also are more nuanced results around how people are starting to think about restorative justice that isn't just incident- or reduction-based. For example, lessons learned from the implementation process include the importance of a comprehensive vision of restorative justice that recognizes the humanity and individuality of students and educators; "all in" support from every segment of the school community; prioritizing community-building aspects of the programming; and investment in capacity building and long-term sustainability. At the same time, the DOE, the schools, and our grantees are in constant communication and learning from one another about what works best.
The other two initiatives are brand new. The Racial Equity Fund was launched as a way to engage and educate donors, with the hope of building a significant resource in the form of a permanent or perpetual fund, as opposed to an endowment. And the Brooklyn Girls of Color Fund is still in the research and planning stage. Our thinking before the election was to address the increase in the rate of young women who are incarcerated or confined in alternative or community facilities, although it's now possible that we'll explore other areas of support. We hope to have a plan by mid-2017.
PND: Advancing equity has become a major grantmaking focus for a number of large private foundations, including the Ford, Kellogg, and Weingart foundations. As a community foundation, do you have to take a different approach to that kind of work than a large national foundation?
CC: As a community foundation, we're placed-based by definition, and so we have more flexibility in that we can directly engage and educate donors and do more around advocacy. At the same time, having been created from the legacy of a private foundation, we're not a typical community foundation that's focused on donor services, and because we're young, we're not as tied to a long list of grantees, which gives us a lot of flexibility. That said, we see ourselves very much aligned with a growing movement among community foundations to rethink what they can be for their communities and to refocus on strategic work, including by engaging local residents directly. Community foundations offer a valuable perspective because they really are the experts on their local communities, and they can bring the voices and points of view of the people who are most in need to the table as the foundation works to develop solutions to various problems. I was inspired by what I learned about the concept of community leadership when I first came to BCF, and that led directly to Brooklyn Insights, which has led to further work with community engagement through our neighborhood strength programs and by directly engaging with our grantees.
We believe deeply in a bottom-up approach. At Sadie Nash, having the young women serve in the leadership of the organization itself taught me that the first-hand experience and expertise on the part of the constituencies you serve is what can and should guide an organization if it hopes to be effective. So when I got to BCF, I said, "Let's open our doors and speak to people in the community and gain expertise that way."
PND: How do you think the 2016 election changes the role of philanthropy in terms of advancing racial justice and equity?
CC: We just had our quarterly board meeting, and there certainly was a marked increase in the sense of urgency and in the board's support for advocacy. We were already planning to create a strategy around advocacy in 2017, and after the election results came in we knew we had to work even harder and invest even more. We already were looking at immigration as an area of focus — Brooklyn's population is 40 percent foreign-born, and it was very much aligned with our racial equity lens — so the board and staff worked together to launch an Immigration Rights Fund right away. The nice thing about community foundations is that they can galvanize the power of the collective. Donors are really looking for ways to be generous and take action in the face of what might happen under a Trump administration, and we can be a resource for them, engaging with and learning from them, and vice versa.
Since the election, we've been gratified to see an increase in support for many community organizations in Brooklyn. It also happens to coincide with our annual appeal, and we've updated our appeal letter because everyone kept asking, "What can I do?" We've also seen a surge in inquiries about volunteering, and we encourage people to look at our list of grantees, all of whom have been vetted through a pretty rigorous system here. We've also begun thinking about special grants in addition to our regular grantmaking; we've already put two in for board approval — one to an immigrant rights organization that works with Muslim communities, and one to an anti-violence organization that is getting many, many calls from Muslims who are being harassed. So we plan to increase our grantmaking to immigrant rights organizations both on an emergency basis and over the long term.
Across the philanthropic sector more broadly, I think we're going to see increased attention to advocacy and policy. Advocacy is work that philanthropy hasn't always been very comfortable with — it's a long-term game, and the results aren't always clear — but I think we're going to see a shift toward increased support for advocacy work. I also think there will be a lot of thinking around immigration and racial justice. One of the very first things BCF is going to do is to gather immigrant rights leaders who are immigrants themselves to learn from them, with the assumption that those who are on the ground and closest to the issue will be able to help us not only to identify problems but also solutions.
— Kyoko Uchida