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5 Questions for...Lateefah Simon, President, Akonadi Foundation

January 04, 2018

At 40, Lateefah Simon has spent more than half her life as a civil rights advocate and racial justice leader. She was a 17-year-old mother when she went to work for the Center for Young Women's Development and was just 19 when she became the organization's executive director. In the years that followed, she helped position the center as a national leader in the movement to empower young women of color — an achievement for which she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003. She later led the creation of San Francisco's first reentry services division, headed the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and served as a program director at the Rosenberg Foundation, where she helped launch the Leading Edge Fund in support of the next generation of progressive movement leaders in California.

In 2016, Simon became the second president of Akonadi Foundation, whose mission is "to eliminate structural racism that leads to inequity in the United States." PND spoke with her about the work required to build a movement focused on racial equity — and philanthropy's role in that effort.

Philanthropy News Digest: The Akonadi Foundation, which is headquartered in Oakland, is focused on "building a localized racial justice movement." Why is it important for the racial justice movement to act locally?

Headshot_lateefash_simon_2017Lateefah Simon: What those of us in philanthropy and those working on the ground doing movement-building work know is that many of the racialized policies that have divided communities, from juvenile justice to local policing to school policies, have taken place on the municipal level. We also know that our efforts have to be extremely strategic to undo these policies — for example, the disproportionate overuse of school suspensions and expulsions against black and brown students that has been standard policy for many, many years.

To create racial justice in our communities, we have to go deep — to the source, where the policies come from, and also to the culture. Our work is not just about going after and disrupting racist policy but also about ensuring that all communities of color are working together, understanding that one group's organizing, movement-building, and advocacy work will benefit other groups. If we're fighting for anti-gentrification policies in Chinatown, African-American and Latino communities are going to be able to use those efforts to inform their own organizing, and so on.

PND: The foundation takes an "ecosystem" approach to its grantmaking. What do you mean by ecosystem grantmaking, and why do you believe it's the right approach for your movement at this time?

LS: Five years ago, the Akonadi Foundation set out to envision what Oakland could look like in ten years. Oakland has been a cradle of social movements — and is best known, of course, as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. There's a historical narrative here around race and the interconnectedness of people of color coming together to defeat horrific racist policies; it's our legacy. In our ambition to create a ten-year period of change, our thought was, even as a small foundation, we need to make grants that address the ecosystem in which "justice" is created and delivered. We know that here in Oakland, for example, we have a responsibility to fund base-building groups that are enlisting people willing to fight back, to fund groups that are going to craft policy prescriptions, and groups that will — when those campaigns have succeeded — ensure implementation of those prescriptions as well as follow-up advocacy and legal oversight of the policies.

And just as importantly, we know that if we are pushing communities to organize and fight campaigns, culture has to be at the center of this work; much of our cultural work as people of color is about staking claim to a city we helped build. So thinking about how change happens, about how the people of Oakland move toward justice — it's broad, and must be led by an "ecosystem" of grant partners who are in movement together.

In 2018, we're going to be engaging our grantees and having them give us a better idea of where we are. The world has completely changed in the last year. And because the world has changed, and the conditions of our city have changed, it's important for us to go back and look at our theory of change and redefine and reexamine how ecosystem grantmaking needs to work.

PND: You've long been engaged in efforts to dismantle structural racism in multiple fields. How important is intersectionality in advancing racial equity?

LS: "Intersectionality" is an extremely important word to think about, but it's also important that we not water it down, like we have with "racial justice" or "equity" or "justice" or "movement." The lexicon of intersectionality that was developed and spread nationally and around the world by Kimberlé Crenshaw stems from a notion of black feminist theory that positions women of color coming into a space with their "full" selves, meaning that they see themselves as black and as women and as poor and as mothers and as survivors of the drug war and all the other different identities we carry.

And as this foundation — and, I hope, the social sector — thinks about how we can become more intersectional, we need to hold on to and promote that definition by supporting work that embraces communities in all their dynamism. Look at any low-income family in Oakland. Johnny may have been stopped on the street and thrown against the wall by law enforcement just because of the way he looks and because he didn't take his hands of out his pockets, and his sister has been kidnapped and trafficked, and their parents are undocumented workers, and Dad is standing in a line every morning trying to find work, and Mom is at a hotel trying to make a living wage but still working under the table and being exploited. The children are in school or not in school, they're facing the juvenile justice system, the realities of La migra are right there at their doors. And because Oakland is not hyper-segregated, children eat together, go to school together, play together, get arrested together, go to college together. In other words, we're living in a city that's complex and dynamic, and even though there are many, many structural negatives affecting people's lives, there's also an intersection of class and race and place in Oakland that is beautiful. And it is our job, as a mirror to the city and as a grantmaker that provides resources to people working to change some of these horrible policies, to understand those stories.

PND: You've argued that progressive foundations need to step up to support social justice efforts that others see as risky or "radical." In the last year or so, a number of foundations have announced major funding commitments to address issues of racial equity, income inequality, and other social injustices. Are those the kinds of commitments you had in mind?

LS: Yes. I'm so excited about funds like Art for Justice, the Emergent Fund, Solidaire — all of which have very interesting models, in that they fund groups on the ground and trust in the leadership of those groups to do the right thing. It's not enough anymore for us to think that communities can do this work without resources, relying on just inspiration and wit. We know that if we don't listen seriously to the voices of the community, our democracy is going to continue to be at risk. When you look at the work that just happened on the ground in Alabama, it tells you that people are ready and able to do the work — if we get them the resources. "Way to Win," a new construct that Leah Hunt-Hendrix, founder of Solidaire, is developing to get money to on-the-ground (c)(4) efforts in high-stakes races is ultra-political and ultra-radical, but it's really about listening to what folks in those spaces need and want to do.

I'm excited about the sense of urgency. I'm excited about people like Kaitlyn Trigger — whose husband co-founded Instagram and who is insanely smart and is working to take down the bail industry in California. And she's succeeding. I feel like this — there's no other way to say it — is a raw moment. And it's amazing. Old-style philanthropy, where people say, "We know you want to change the world but we're going to wait seven months to send you a $25,000 check," that's not working. But seeing all these brilliant leaders reinvent traditional ways of shepherding resources and figuring out how to get those resources to groups that are bringing about change in their communities is exciting, and I'm so glad I get to be a part of it.

PND: You've worked as both a nonprofit executive and as a program officer. What lessons would you share with funders looking to apply a racial equity lens to their grantmaking? And what, from a foundation perspective, is the most challenging aspect of racial equity work?

LS: First, funders who want to help build a better world cannot ignore the past. We know what it takes to win and what it feels like to lose. And, from a funder's perspective, I think we have to unapologetically acknowledge how race has played into injustice in this country and work to dismantle the vestiges of that racism. I don't believe that the racists who put racist policies on the books are smarter than we are. But I do think resources have flowed disproportionately to folks determined to uphold racism and bigotry, and to institutions that want not only to maintain the status quo but to take us back.

So for those of us on the progressive left, it's time to invest deeply in organizations working to change the narrative, laws, and policies and to create ways for people to participate in their communities. We have to do a better job of giving resources to the communities that have the most to lose so that they can win. And we have to be unabashed and unafraid, because we are the ones with the resources, and while we want to be strategic with those resources, we also know that people in the trenches need our support to do the work they do.

Why are some funders so detached from this work? There are lots of reasons, and one of them is cultural. One of my heroes, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, invites people to honor "proximity": the idea that to be invested in an issue, a cause, you have to be "proximate" to it. It's not enough to care, to read a case study. If you want to be purposeful and thoughtful with respect to the movement for racial equity, you have to be out there with the people.

I live in the same community as the people I have the privilege to fund. I want people with hiring power to hire folks who are accountable, in a real way, to their community. When my staff leave the building, they're likely to see somebody they had to say "no" to, so I want that "no" to be purposeful and thoughtful and respectful. We should be held accountable for our "yesses" and our "nos." We should be proximate to the communities we work in. National and international funders may not feel they have that luxury, but I say, Figure it out. You have the luxury to be at industry conferences throughout the year. You can take some of those resources and use them to put yourself in the community for three or four days a quarter. You can be like Dr. Robert Ross of the California Endowment, who you'll see at rallies and funerals. As a medical practitioner who cared for children for a long time, he came into philanthropy with a first-hand appreciation of the complexities of racial injustice. For much of his professional life, he saw babies come into the world and helped bury them when tragedy struck. He's the kind of funder I want to be. How do I approach this body of work over, say, twenty years and maintain the same kind of human touch and the same dedication to being a resource-bearer? It's a challenge and a responsibility: Be proximate to the problem you're trying to address.

In terms of foundation leadership and staff, it's about more than hiring more people of color; it's about hiring people who are committed to advancing racial justice and have a history of working with people on the front lines. That's a good way to think about hiring from the field, but we need to make sure that organizers on the ground also have some say-so. I'm on the Emergent Fund advisory committee with Cristina Jimenez of United We Dream; grassroots organizers like her should absolutely have a say in grantmaking decisions. Tynesha McHarris at the Novo Foundation also came into philanthropy after being an activist for many years and is one of the most brilliant thinkers in this space. I would like to see other large foundations emulate what Novo is doing. If we are really serious about changing the dynamics of racialized injustice, we have to hire and support organizers on the ground — and also in our offices.

— Kyoko Uchida

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