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.