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5 Questions for…Vanessa Daniel, Founder and Executive Director, Groundswell Fund

December 07, 2017

Vanessa_danielGroundswell Fund is the largest funder of the reproductive justice movement in the United States. In addition to its CatalystRapid Response, and Birth Justice funds, the organization created the Liberation Fund in the wake of the 2016 elections to support effective grassroots organizing efforts led by women and transgender people of color across the social justice sector. A joint project of the Groundswell Fund and the newly created 501(c)(4) Groundswell Action Fund, the Liberation Fund will announce inaugural grants next week to grassroots organizations selected with the help of women leaders of color, including Alicia Garza, Ai-Jen Poo, Mary Hooks, and Linda Sarsour. 

PND spoke with Vanessa Daniel, founder and executive director of the fund, about intersectionality in the context of reproductive justice and racial equity and her hopes for the Liberation Fund. Before founding the fund in 2010, Daniel worked in grassroots organizing, advocacy, and grantmaking at the Tides FoundationSEIU, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, and what is now Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation.

Philanthropy News Digest: You founded Groundswell Fund after working to advance LGBTQ rights as well as economic and environmental justice at various organizations. Why did you decide to focus on reproductive justice for women of color, low-income women, and transgender people?

Vanessa Daniel: When I first learned about the reproductive justice (RJ) movement in 2005, I had been working in various social justice movements for ten years. The RJ movement had been founded a decade earlier by a group of black women and was on its way to becoming the largest force in the country in terms of engaging a multiracial base of women of color, low-income women, and LGBT people on reproductive issues and as grassroots organizers and activists. I was a young, twenty-something, queer, biracial woman of color from a working-class immigrant family on one side and raised by a second-wave white feminist single mother on the other.

I had, like many women of color, experienced what I lovingly refer to as a lot of bad "movement dates." Have you ever been on a date with someone who orders for you without asking what you want? Or people who talk about themselves the whole time without asking how your day was? Well, you can have the equivalent of that date with a social justice movement. It's not true for every organization, but for example, you have a lot of labor unions that invite women to the table but don't want to talk about reproductive issues, even though these issues are important to women. You have many immigrant rights groups that don't want to talk about LGBT rights, even though there are lots of LGBT people in the immigrant communities they are organizing. You have way too many white feminist organizations inviting women of color to the table and then not talking about race, even though racism is literally killing us. The reproductive justice movement was, quite simply, the best movement date I ever had, because it was the first time I had encountered a movement that didn't require me to leave any piece of myself or anyone I loved at the door in order to enter. I could be whole.

And here's why. There are three hallmarks of RJ: First, it's multi-issue. That means it says to people, yes, we are standing with you on the right to access abortion and contraception, but we are also standing with you to stop environmental pollution that is harming reproductive health; to stop mass incarceration and immigration detention and deportation that continues an ugly legacy of breaking up families of color that dates back to slavery and mission schools and immigration exclusion acts; to expand comprehensive sex ed in the public schools along with non-stigmatizing supports for young parents that don't shame and shut them out of their education; to expand access to birthing options like midwifery that are finally shifting racial disparities that have left black women four times more likely to die as a result of childbirth than white women in this country; to fight for LGBT rights. It's a holistic movement.

Second, it centers grassroots organizing as a strategy. It doesn't believe major social change trickles down from large organizations sitting "inside the beltway"; it believes it surges up from cities and states, from ordinary people holding their elected officials accountable in their home districts.

Third, it is a multiracial movement with significant leadership from women of color working alongside white women who are able to consider things through a racial justice lens. It is tactically impossible to move the needle on most social justice issues today without the leadership and engagement of communities of color, which, polls show us, vote in a more progressive direction down ballot on nearly every issue progressives care about.

The RJ movement exemplifies what it means to build a movement with the backbone to leave no one behind. And that, I believe, is the kind of movement that all social justice activists should be looking to build. RJ is shining a light on the path the larger progressive movement needs to walk in order to be successful.

PND: It's estimated that African-American women in the United States are three to four times more likely to die of childbirth-related complications than their white counterparts, while the infant mortality rate for babies of African-American mothers is more than twice that of babies of white mothers. What's behind these racial disparities?

VD: The data has perplexed many scientists, in part because when they control for education levels, economic status, diet and behavior, and other factors, the disparities still show up in the data. This means that middle-class, college-educated black women who take excellent care of their health are still dying at higher rates than low-income white women without a high school diploma. How does one explain that? There is a growing number of scientists, including epidemiologists who believe that racism itself is a major factor in these disparities. First, the racism and implicit bias of many medical practitioners often leads them to provide substandard care to women of color. Many studies back this up; one recent study, for example, shows that people of color, including children of color, are given significantly less pain medication than are white people.

Second, and very importantly, scientists are pointing to the impact that racism, experienced on a daily basis by people of color, has on the body. The midwifery and doula models of care we support are often run by women of color or by a multiracial staff that provides high-quality, culturally competent care. Our grantee Sacred Heart Birthplace in Espanola, New Mexico, has a 2 percent cesarean section rate, compared with a state average of 24 percent, and a 92 percent breastfeeding rate at six months post-delivery, compared with a state average of 26 percent. In Florida, our grantee Common Sense Childbirth has achieved a 0 percent preterm birth rate among black women, compared with the state average of 14.2 percent.

PND: Groundswell Fund believes that the people who are most directly affected by an issue are also the ones best able to develop strategies to address the issue. How do you envision the fund's work with respect to advancing racial equity more broadly?

VD: White supremacy is bad for all of us, and dismantling it and advancing racial justice is what will lift all boats. We cannot move forward or evolve as a country if we don't do this.

The strongest efforts to dismantle white supremacy in this country are being led by people of color. As a country we need to follow their lead. That is why 90 percent of our grantee organizations are led by women of color. If more of us had followed the lead of black women last year, when they voted 96 percent against Trump, none of us would be in the mess we find ourselves in. White people also have an important role to play in dismantling white supremacy, and we make sure that the white-led organizations we fund are actively doing this work in white communities. It's not an addendum to moving the needle on issues like reproductive justice or climate change or healthcare access — it's a requirement and an imperative.

PND: The Liberation Fund was created in the wake of the 2016 elections to support those who "bear the greatest burden of white supremacy and misogyny in the U.S. — women of color and transgender people of color." Why did you decide to focus on grassroots organizations? And what are your hopes for the first cohort of grantees?

VD: The list of organizations the Liberation Fund supports were curated by fifteen of the most prominent women of color leaders in the country. They have teamed with Groundswell to bridge a longstanding gap that exists between the funders in this country and the grassroots organizing work that is offering the boldest and most effective solutions to white supremacy and misogyny. Since the election, billions of dollars have flowed into progressive movements, and nearly all of it is going to large national organizations. While many of these organizations play an important role in the social change ecosystem, they cannot protect communities or advance bold change on their own. Most of us don't believe in trickle-down economics, so why do we fund trickle-down social justice? Elected officials are elected in their home districts and must be held accountable by people who live and vote in their districts. Groundswell's Liberation Fund has teamed with these fifteen advisors to provide an easy way for donors and foundations to move money to the strongest grassroots organizing efforts in the country led by women of color and trans people of color.

As we face the two-headed monster of misogyny and white supremacy, women of color, who have been battling that monster for hundreds of years for our very survival, have something to teach America about how to fight.

The path to large-scale progressive change in this country is one of bold, multi-issue, solidarity-based organizing. My greatest hope for this first cohort of grantees is that the Liberation Fund helps them turn up the powerful light they are already shining on the path that social movements writ large must travel in order to win, and that those movements and donors follow their lead.  

PND: What could other funders interested in supporting efforts to advance racial equity learn from your experience working at the intersection of reproductive, racial, and economic justice and LGBTQ rights?

VD: Fund multi-issue grassroots organizing work led by those most affected by injustice. Take steps to make people of color-led work that has a strong race/class/gender/decolonization lens the majority of your grant portfolio. Don't fund white-led organizations that lack a racial justice focus or demonstrated practice of standing in solidarity with communities of color against white supremacy. Given the fact that less than 7 percent of all domestic giving goes to communities of color — a number that hasn't increased in years — with even less going to grassroots organizing, philanthropy has its work cut out if it hopes to remain relevant to one of the most important fights for freedom in the history of this country.

-- Kyoko Uchida

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