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A Conversation With Lori Villarosa, Founder and Executive Director, Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity

October 19, 2018

Lori Villarosa’s career in philanthropy has been driven by twin passions: to do good and to fight injustice. As a program officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in the 1990s, she managed the foundation’s U.S. Race Relations portfolio, which was focused on addressing institutional and societal racism in American society and improving race and ethnic relations. Informed by the videotaped beating of Rodney King, an African-American taxi driver, by four white LAPD officers after a routine traffic stop and the officers’ subsequent acquittal by an all-white jury — and the spasm of outrage and violence that followed the announcement of the verdict — the work was, as Villarosa puts it, “incredibly challenging” and, inevitably, led to a backlash. Undeterred, Villarosa left Mott a few years later to start the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE), which, since its inception in January 2003, has directly engaged hundreds of foundation representatives in discussions of racial equity and, in particular, how they can advance the mission of achieving racial equity through their own philanthropic institutions.

That work, as well as the work done by CHANGE Philanthropy (formerly known as Joint Affinity Groups), was instrumental in establishing racial justice and racial equity as areas deserving of and, indeed, demanding greater attention and funding from foundations. And foundations, hesitantly at first but with increasing urgency, have responded. Now a project of the Tides Center, PRE continues to be part of that movement, working diligently and creatively to increase the amount and effectiveness of resources aimed at combating institutional and structural racism in communities across the country.

Earlier this year, PND spoke with Villarosa about the difference between racial equity and racial justice, the challenges of racial equity/justice work in the Age of Trump, and the lessons she and her colleagues have learned as they have worked to create a more just society.

Headshot_lori_villarosaPhilanthropy News Digest: I'd like to start with a definitional question. Is there a difference between racial equity and racial justice, or can the terms be used interchangeably?

Lori Villarosa: PRE is actually working on two publications right now that are diving into that question in different ways. We'll be sharing a mix of what advocates say about the distinctions and relationship between the terms and how funders who are doing work in this arena are understanding and using them.

PRE put out one of the earliest definitions of what it means to use a racial equity lens in grantmaking in a guide we developed in conjunction with GrantCraft. Julie Quiroz, who was a principal at Mosaic Consulting at the time and is now with Movement Strategy Center, and I wrote that a racial equity lens included the following components: analyzing data and information about race and ethnicity; understanding racial disparities — and learning why they exist; looking at problems and their root causes from a structural standpoint; and naming race explicitly when talking about problems and solutions. The guide was also very clear about a racial equity lens needing to be used intersectionally with other lenses such as gender or sexual orientation, and it also spoke about the importance and role of power and of organizing.

We wanted to be even more explicit about it when we launched the process to update the guide earlier this year. Most of the advocates and funders we have been interviewing see racial equity as addressing the distribution of resources, privileges, and burdens — related to the quantitative, with some qualitative mixed in — across racial/ethnic group lines. They — and we — tend to use the phrase "racial justice" more when looking both at the power to define issues — and what it takes to secure that power — and more generally looking at outcomes that are ultimately transformative and positive for all. We plan to elaborate on this more in the report and will address the strategies that activists and funders are using to advance both concepts — and what they see as the relationship between the two. It was interesting to me, for example, that while many believe racial equity is one indicator on the path to racial justice, we spoke to others who thought the terms could be, or are less, interdependent than that.

In our work, we try to bring clarity and precision to the language around this work where it’s useful and meaningful, yet not be so precious about it that it keeps people from entering into the work, at whatever stage. And we recognize that while there are distinctions, there is considerable work that needs to be done to achieve both greater racial equity and greater racial justice. Where we do get more particular is when people substitute "equity" as a way to avoid talking about race and racism explicitly, or when they substitute "social justice" as a catch-all phrase and maybe focus their program on class but not race.

PND: What was the impetus behind the formation of PRE? Was it a single event or conversation, a series of events, or something else entirely?

LV: I was a program officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in the 1990s and had worked with colleagues there, as well as with community and national racial justice partners and some of our peer funders, to develop and move a portfolio and broader body of work aimed at addressing issues of structural racism. The approved mission statement of the portfolio I managed was: "To address institutional and societal racism and improve race and ethnic relations." That was in 1994, at a time when that language was pretty cutting-edge, and we were able to fund many of the organizations that led much of the work on structural racism nationally. It was incredibly challenging work, in that it was often unchartered territory, and the discomfort people felt when confronted by the truth of our collective history and the eventual backlash the work generated wasn't unique to our institution. Without getting into the weeds, there came a point after the UN World Conference Against Racism in South Africa, and after 9/11, where many of our early investments started to gain a different level of traction, and it became clear after twelve years of building that body of work that if we wanted to keep supporting the racial justice field and advance it in the direction it needed to move, we would have to focus more of our efforts on increasing the pool of funders willing to invest in work to address structural racism.

So I left the foundation to launch PRE with seed support and a founding board that primarily consisted of the leaders we had been investing in, and our goal was to get the rest of philanthropy to join us. I was very intentional about partnering with existing infrastructure organizations, what we used to call affinity groups and regional associations of grantmakers and we now call philanthropy-serving organizations [PSOs], and making sure that we were guided by folks in the racial justice field rather than by funders — while being responsive, of course, to the needs of change agents within foundations.

PND: What kinds of things does PRE do to advance an understanding of racial justice/equity issues within philanthropy? And how do you see its role vis-à-vis the racial justice/equity movement?

LV: PRE has always had a mix of approaches. From the beginning, we were closely connected to a variety of leaders in the racial justice/racial equity movement and made sure we were accountable to them before anyone else. For at least the first half of our existence, there were very few efforts at the intersection of racial equity and philanthropy that we weren't actively a part of, whether as the initiator of the effort or as a partner. But it has been incredible to see the work evolve and grow over the last several years, and as we have witnessed the truly large and exciting influx of new players into the field — both in specific communities and within the broader philanthropic and nonprofit sectors — PRE has worked to evolve and ensure that we're filling a useful niche, supporting what is growing and adding value where and whenever we can, and stepping aside when others have it covered.

Our board used to joke that we would spend half of our semi-regular meetings with me posing some version of the question of whether PRE should still exist, because I'd initially conceived of it as a limited-time project, and we intentionally adopted a model that aimed to catalyze institution building, rather than actually building institutions. But at each stage of our work, we have gotten the signal from those we sought to serve — first community practitioners, racial justice advocates, and others; then foundations and PSOs seeking information, technical assistance, and lessons learned; then funders willing to invest in us along with other players — that our work is valuable and something that should be sustained. The board took it as a huge sign of progress when the question of winding down wasn’t on our agenda for the first time in 2016. In fact, we're actually adding to our headcount at the moment and have just brought on several prominent and younger board members who are stellar leaders in racial justice work nationally and internationally.

We also see it as a sign of success that the leadership within the sector is so diverse, and that so much of what is happening in the field is being led either by newer groups, by mainstream groups that are finally coming more fully to the table, by activists without any clear ties to philanthropy, or by change agents within foundations themselves. It's exciting. You know, at one of our earliest meetings, in 2003 or 2004, a board member asked, "What would success look like in five years?" And the answer was: "A clear movement within philanthropy fighting for racial justice."

Of course, we can't overlook how much still needs to be accomplished — the philanthropic practices that are still perpetuating so much inequity, the outrageous lack of funding going to people of color-led work — all of which is complicated by the attacks on our democracy, the racists who feel more emboldened, and the terrifying levels of dehumanization we are witnessing in this country and too many other places around the globe.

PND: Looking back, are there things you regret or wish you had done differently?

LV: Are there days I wish I'd had more staff or wish perhaps we'd done more. It's interesting to speculate about what we could have achieved had we been bigger, been more focused on some of what philanthropy rewards — or if there had been a different level of urgency in the country around these issues when we were getting started. I know some of those coming up behind us kind of assume we could have or should have been bolder, but we were bold relative to what was then the baseline. We called out structural racism in our mission statement in 2002. Then we had to spend several years in the mid-2000s beating back some of the diversionary discourse that was happening in the field as some people started talking about "diversity" as if it were a new, cutting-edge idea, even though we would try to point out that the language being used hadn't been cutting-edge since the '80s.

That said, it's impossible to know whether the activism and youth leadership and community uprisings of 2014 after Ferguson could have translated so quickly into the kind of attention and action that came out of those protests if racial justice leaders of the '90s and '00s hadn't laid the groundwork that they did. And it's worth noting that many of the efforts that led to PRE's early work were sparked by the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles that followed Rodney King’s beating and the eventual acquittal of the police officers who did it. But there's also no denying that the protests in Ferguson and elsewhere have created greater heat, urgency, and focus and led to an amazing expansion of the movement.

PND: Where has philanthropy made the most progress in terms of advancing racial justice/equity issues? Where has it made the least? And what kinds of metrics do you use to measure that progress?

LV: PRE put out an infographic last year, based on 2014 data, that showed how the percentage of domestic funding going to communities of color has not exceeded 8.5 percent — and most of that is for service delivery rather than systemic change efforts. However, we were able to show that there was an increase in the number and kinds of funders that were supporting work that explicitly addresses racial justice. And we have new data we'll be releasing soon that shows considerable increases in 2015 and 2016, coming on the heels, of course, of the protests in Ferguson, the broader Black Lives Matters movement, the protests at Standing Rock, and the organizing around and by Dreamers. We hope to see comparable increases down the road as there is more activism around the Supreme Court-sanctioned Muslim ban and the many other regressive policies affecting communities of color that is a hallmark of this administration.

What's harder to measure because the data isn’t available but is easy to see from the vantage point of someone who spends an absurd amount of time at philanthropic convenings is the undeniable increase in the sheer number of foundation staff and leaders who are so much more knowledgeable and engaged and pushing for their institutions to support racial justice work.

PND: Can you give us a few examples of racial equity practices that have worked and should be replicated more broadly?

LV: One of the things I often caution people about is that for almost every problematic practice in philanthropy, there was some well-intended thinking behind it at the beginning. And likewise, for every promising approach, there is always the potential for some aspect or component of it to go awry or lead to negative unintended consequences. So it's with those caveats that we tend to focus on lifting up foundation practices, rather than naming specific foundation examples — unless, of course, it's part of a case study or one of our labs, where we can examine the good/bad calculus with more nuance. Then, too, we've seen individual foundations do powerful racial equity work at a point in time, only to step back from that work — either as the result of a leadership change or because one area of the program staff operates totally differently than other areas and everybody ends getting out of sync.

That said, there are definitely many encouraging examples of funders doing more to engage and really put strong POC community advisors and activists into the grantmaking decision process. So many of the most critical racial equity practices are in fact simply best grantmaking practices — things like more general operating support, more multiyear grants, more outreach to ensure you're surfacing new ideas and going beyond the usual suspects. All are fundamental and critical to strong racial equity practices. In our new guide, we'll also be sharing various practices that deepen power-building, more directly address anti-black racism, and are effectively intersectional.

Of course, the overlay on all this needs to be providing support for work that is led by those who are most directly affected by structural racism and who are willing and able to innovate in meaningful ways because they have both a different level of personal investment in these issues and a different level of accountability to their communities. One of the assumptions I find most offensive — and one that, unfortunately, still comes up in too many foundations — proceeds from the premise that impact and effectiveness are the domain of one set of grantees and "equity" is the domain of another. And yet there are so many examples of philanthropy accepting mediocrity from white-led institutions while not recognizing the level of impact and excellence among so many POC-led ones. The most effective approaches are those that not only look to POC-led orgs to shape and lead work but recognize the need to resource them in the same way that mainstream white-led organizations are resourced. We need more funders willing to invest risk capital, seed funding, sustaining funding. And most importantly, we need approaches that disrupt the flow of dollars that has POC-orgs effectively subsidizing the growth and capacity of white-led organizations in the name of "equity."

This last practice is one of the most problematic indirect negative outcomes of some of the less-thought-through approaches to racial equity, one in which funders ask enough of the right questions to have mainstream grantseekers want to engage more partners of color — but the money, control, framing are held within the white-led organization while the POC-organizations at best get a subcontract in return for their time and wisdom. We see this in every issue area, from health and education, to the arts, to economics, to our own philanthropic/nonprofit sector. There are some funders that have figured out how to shift that dynamic, but it takes intentionality and vigilance at each phase of the decision-making process. Absent that, the status quo will win out.

PND: We're almost two years into Donald Trump's presidency. Has Trump and the policies his administration is pursuing changed the way you approach your work?

LV: It has been both a nonstop nightmare for all our communities and has exacerbated the perennial challenges of long-terms systems transformation work. Really, it has tested us all on every front and kept us running at an even more intense pace. On the plus side, we do see the movement growing and attracting a more diverse and sophisticated set of players. I worry sometimes that philanthropy will get confused about where it should be placing bigger bets and inadvertently undo some of the progress we've made by not recognizing who is actually driving the change we need and capturing the imagination of the public. There are so many examples of black women and young undocumented immigrants and Muslim activists and others leading not just their communities but actually changing the conversation and practices in industries like Hollywood and doing great work to mobilize countless otherwise non-political folks in ways that should inspire all of us.

For us at PRE, it has been a challenge to make sure that funders continue to recognize what is working and to build on that — and, at the same time, to make sure they don’t lose sight of the investments we need to make today that lay the groundwork for the next stage. And part of that balancing act requires us to avoid overly simplistic answers and the idea that there is only one way to advance this work.

PND: Given the combativeness of the administration and many of the people who support its policies, do you have any concern that funders may start to back away from an explicit focus on race and racial justice?

LV: I was concerned early on, after the election, as we began to hear centrists complain about a politics of division, mischaracterizing community building as "identity politics" and using the problematic term "tribalism" in the same ways their counterparts used the term "Balkanization" in the 1990s. The reality, of course, is that attacks on all non-dominant communities have been so constant and egregious — and so clearly targeted at specific communities, whether black folks, Muslims, LGBTQ, Dreamers, or immigrants — that I think even those who were perhaps looking for an excuse to hold onto some last vestige of "color-blindness" are having a harder time doing that.

PND: Clearly, we're seeing a revival of ideas and attitudes that are not particularly sympathetic to racial justice arguments. What advice would you give to young leaders in the sector who are eager to pick up the racial justice/equity banner?

LV: I'm not one to romantically assume that "young" automatically means more radical, but I do have tremendous confidence in many of the young leaders I spend time with, many of whom are incredibly clear about the intersectional ways oppression is impacting them and their communities. At the same time, I also recognize that there are patterns and histories we can all learn from, and so what I'd say to them is what I would say to anyone: "Stay vigilant, be open to learning from others, whether it is elders or ‘yelders’. And recognize that power is situational and evolving." It is so critical to be mindful of those dynamics and to not adopt the same dehumanizing tactics that have been used against our communities.

PND: What are two or three things that foundations can do to deepen and broaden support of racial justice/equity issues and movement building?

LV: Recognize that the leadership this country needs to move forward will come from those communities that have been part of the resistance throughout their histories — but that also have excelled at innovation, community building, and recognizing and appreciating the interdependence needed to make progress. Funders also need to be bolder with their investments. They need to take bigger risks and support efforts that are promising but have not had the level of resources needed to succeed. And they need to challenge their own internal systems to ensure that they are making the big bets needed in these critical times.

PND: So what will success for PRE look like in five years?

LV: Whereas my answer to that question back in 2004 was wanting to see a movement for racial justice in philanthropy, at this stage, when there is unquestionably an active movement of which PRE can take pride in having contributed to, I would like to see our movement accomplish a couple of things.

First, I would like to see clearer measurable increases in funding for long-term racial justice efforts led by people of color, and that will require clearer actual ways to measure such work. To that end, we, along with our CHANGE Philanthropy partners and others, will continue to explore what we can do to help define and acquire more meaningful data.

Second, I would like to see more obvious pathways for funders at all levels that lead them to stronger racial justice practices and grantmaking. I say "obvious" because there are an incredible number of resources out there that offer very straightforward guidance on what is needed and how to achieve it — yet we are constantly hearing funders say they want more. I don't think they lack the will or the tools, but I think it is easy for them to get stuck, backtrack, or get off course.

And third, I would like to see stronger accountability measures for racial justice practices. This is so tied to the points above: with more data transparency leading to a greater ability to hold funders that purport to be committed to these issues accountable, I think we would see far less equivocation and backtracking.

To that end, we are focusing more on engaging foundation boards and recognizing that while there are many more foundation staff willing to spend serious time in deepening their own racial justice understanding, we as a field need to make greater inroads at the trustee level. What we are seeing is that it is less challenging to get foundations to make statements about equity, or even racial justice, but when you tap into the board it becomes clearer that the real understanding and buy in to the kind of power shift that would happen with such justice or even equity hasn’t been fully adopted — or in some cases even tested.

This is where we are today. And going back to what we're seeing nationally, how do foundations lead when part of their leadership requires them to give up some of the power and privilege they currently enjoy? Will they recognize that real impact only will happen when they are willing to turn over more of the ability to frame solutions to those most affected by inequities? We're in a moment where we can really build momentum for racial equity and racial justice, and the stakes are simply too high to allow the progress we've made to stall out. We have opportunities to create greater structural impact, and all of us who are in any way on the inside of philanthropy need to courageously claim and use our power to start moving philanthropy to a community power model.

You know, we recently asked a number of funders, What are you willing to risk for racial justice? And while the intent certainly was to push them to move beyond playing it safe, we also wanted them to understand what a risk it is to NOT act. It's tricky. As one community organizer added, we don't need you to lose your job — if you're in there, we want you there. But we do need you to stand up for change and, ultimately, to move money to where it can have the most impact.

Mitch Nauffts

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