Tributaries: October 29, 2020

Recently, one of my board colleagues at Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice talked about the dissonance she is experiencing between her head knowledge and her heart knowledge. As I listened to her, I felt like the air had just been knocked out of me. What she described was my very own real struggle—as a mother, as a leader, and as a community member.  

The clock is ticking on the election, and I am feeling anxious. I wake up in the middle of the night to racing thoughts that I cannot quiet. I struggle to stay focused on normal daily tasks. I can’t resist constantly scrolling Twitter and Facebook. When I sleep I grind my teeth, and when I am awake I clench my jaw. I vacillate between anger, disillusionment, and numbness.  

What’s happening in my mind and my body is not unique. So many people I know are experiencing the same anxiety, the same anger, the same numbness. We won’t know the results of the presidential election for days or weeks later. Many of us are exhausted from years of organizing and fighting for justice, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for this work. Regardless of the outcome after November 3, I am concerned about the fallout—both for me and for our community.  

The global pandemics—COVID-19 and anti-Black racism—have spurred people to give, but I worry that those investments won’t last. One-time financial gifts have made it possible for movement organizations to build momentum in 2020. That is not enough. For us to protect our democracy and to build real, durable political power, groups led by and for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC) need long-term financial investments. 

I am thinking about our future and I urge you to consider the following six calls to action.  

One: Support the self-determination of BIPOC movement organizations and leaders. I recently participated in the Feminist Organizing School for Funders, hosted by EDGE Funders and Grassroots Global Justice Alliance. During one session, national movement leader Tynesha McHarris from Black Harvest said, “I’m not making cases anymore. You will either resource Black movements or you won’t. We suggest you do.” I could not agree more. In 2020, Black people should no longer have to make the case for donors and funders to take notice, value their lived and historical experiences, and invest in their freedom. Black leaders—as well as Indigenous leaders and leaders of color—need the flexibility and trust from funders and donors to be creative, learn from their mistakes, and win.  

Two: Invest in infrastructure. The movement is a complex ecosystem made up of various kinds of groups—nonprofit organizations, lobbying and advocacy groups, collectives and coalitions—as well as activists and organizers, dreamers, healers, and artists. Supporting infrastructure requires donors and funders to invest in these groups and people and resources the work that often goes unrecognized or unappreciated.  

In 2016, our friends at Propel Nonprofits published a piece called “A Graphic Revisioning of Nonprofit Overhead.” In the article, now Director of Nonprofit Innovation at CliftonLarsonAllen Curtis Klotz argued that when framed as overhead or administrative expense, “…we imagine important infrastructure… as taking a slice out of the pie – as diminishing the “real” work of [an organization’s] mission.”  

At Headwaters, we’ve heard from grantees that they need support for financial management, human resources, communications, fundraising, and more. This behind the scenes work is critical to ensuring that organizations have the policies, systems, and processes that make the public work of community organizing possible. Individual donors and institutional funders are notorious for refusing to pay for what they consider overhead or for expecting groups to operate on a shoe-string budget. To me that makes about as much sense as designing and moving into a beautiful house but refusing to pay the people who built it. 

Three: Focus on what BIPOC movement leaders are trying to build, not just what they are striving to win. Elections and legislation are tools for creating change. They are not ultimately the change. Organizers and activists are working to build people power, to transform communities through healing and joy, and to change destructive systems and institutions. Another world is possible.  

In her poem “there is an edge (ode to radical imagination),” well known activist and author adrienne maree brown writes: 

All we need is to remember 
there is an edge
And grow our dreams beyond it.

We must trust and support the radical imagination of the people who are leading the way. Organizers, healers, dreamers, and artists are showing us the edge and shape of a beautiful world beyond what we currently see. Always—but especially right now—people like me who rely on logic and empirical evidence need imaginative leaders because they offer a vision of collective liberation. Do you have the courage to follow? 

Four: Fund healing justice. Organizers and activists are combatting historical, generational, and contemporary trauma. Trauma takes a toll on the individual and the movement, resulting in exhaustion and burnout. In a report published by Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, Healing Justice: Building Power, Transforming MovementsSusan Raffo writes, “Organizing and healing are not separate from each other. Both are focused on reconnection and repair towards an interdependent and thriving collective liberation.”  

Individuals and organizations need the flexibility to heal and restore in ways that make sense to them. Consider making financial gifts that enable organizers to seek out therapy, receive coaching and mentorship, or attend retreats. In December 2019, HFJ hosted a retreat for immigrant justice organizers where the only agenda item was healing. With support from our friends at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation, we brought in artists, healers, and body workers to refresh the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health of our participants. Although this was a one-time event, one organizer reported that her sleep improved not just the night of the retreat but for days after. 

Five: Stay humble and curious. Unchecked white supremacy in progressive spaces is just as dangerous as blatant racist attacks from the far right. This is a moment of reckoning for donors and funders who have long touted racial equity values. Over the years, Headwaters has moved from diversity, equity, and inclusion to equity and justice to Black Liberation and Native Sovereignty. The shifts have been intentional, but not without challenges. As individuals and as an institution, we are committed to doing our work. This looks like undoing racism in our individual thoughts and actions, as well as interrogating and changing policies, systems, and processes that have racist impacts. For more on my thoughts about what it means to do your work, see my first Tributaries piece

Lastly, take care of yourself. It is important to resource your mind, body, and spirit. As a parent and as a leader, I care deeply for the people around me. My fight for justice is a fight for my beloved community but fighting takes a toll. I am grateful to the teachers in my life who are helping me to learn how to reconnect with my purpose and to care for myself like I care for my people. Some days that looks like reading a few pages of a book. Other days it looks like cooking an elaborate meal and savoring every step of the process. Or sometimes, it’s simply listening to my body and going to bed early.