No matter when you've connected with Liberty Hill: You are part of a community. You are part of a fight. You are part of a solution. You are part of a movement.
When Liberty Hill began in 1976, it was a daring new foundation that turned philanthropy on its head. Today it is a national leader in social justice. Organizing and advocacy powered by Liberty Hill has changed national policies, launched social change movements, transformed neighborhoods, and nurtured hundreds of community leaders who respond to the experience of injustice by fighting for their rights.
Liberty Hill's history is the recent history of this region: A small community came together in a big landscape during a time of great fear and great hope. In 1975, four young people who'd inherited wealth met for a picnic in Topanga Canyon to discuss better ways to donate to progressive causes. In conversations continuing into 1976, Sarah Pillsbury, Larry Janss, Win McCormack and Anne Mendel—inspired by two already active alternative foundations—agreed to hire Mary Jo von Mach to see if there was a need for a similar foundation in Los Angeles. Mary Jo visited 150 organizations.
"Poor Mary Jo," Pillsbury remembered in a later speech. "She went around Los Angeles in her VW van saying she represented a bunch of rich people who wanted to know if there was a need for a foundation that provided seed money to groups working for social change. Some thought the question so ludicrous, the answer so obvious, that she must be from the LAPD."
By the mid-1980s, Liberty Hill had formed an infrastructure for reaching out and listening to grassroots leaders. Our community grew, to the point of even establishing a fund for Santa Barbara and a chapter in San Diego. National economic policies were having a significant impact on the lives of poor people and people of color; homelessness was rampant; the crack epidemic dealt South Central Los Angeles a severe blow. In 1986, 2.7 million immigrants gained documentation in a milestone that resulted in a lasting demographic shift. Community organizers in Southern California responded with the birth of the environmental justice concept and the beginnings of multiracial strategies that are now a hallmark of the Los Angeles social justice movement, but did not fully form until after the early-1990s civil unrest.
"Over this last year, you may have found yourself wondering about the future of Los Angeles," wrote Michele Prichard, then our executive director, in 1992. "You may also have wondered how to make a dent in solving the enormous challenges that face the city we call home." Also writing for Liberty Hill in 1992, Joe Hicks, then executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles said, "The challenge of this city, and to the nation, is whether or not a genuine multiracial, pluralistic democracy can be created and sustained in an age of mean-spirited capitalism, narrow nationalism and heightened xenophobia."
Thanks to years of seed-funding fledgling organizations and to a commitment to leadership training that helped empower a new generation of political leaders, Liberty Hill began to see potential for alliances and coalitions to bring groups together on larger, more complex campaigns. Responses by Liberty Hill grantees to the monumental problems of the day grew in strategic importance. Organizers battled homophobia to fight the AIDS epidemic in communities of color and empower youth to recognize bullying and bigotry. They not only rescued victims of human trafficking but also won tough sweatshop laws. As thousands of workers felt the impact of job-market changes, organizers built coalitions to campaign for living wages and community benefits.
"In California," Liberty Hill's executive director Torie Osborn told American Prospect in 2001, "We've overcome that stale tradition of political purism. We've reinvented organizing."
Liberty Hill's fourth decade began with the blossoming of the immigrants' rights movement in 2006 when millions demonstrated in March, on May Day and beyond. The strategy of investing in organizing led by people who were affected by the injustices at issue was vindicated by studies of its effectiveness such as one from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and documentation of policy changes won by progressive groups. Environmental justice issues blew up as air pollution, urban oil drilling and toxic emissions affected the health and safety of thousands of residents. Meanwhile, Liberty Hill expanded it focus on community-based philanthropy, with programs including casual new-donor events such as "Change L.A." and conferences and reports such as those on philanthropy in the Black community that led to our "Uplifting Change" program.
"L.A. has some of the most powerful and vital organizations that are moving a social justice agenda in the state," said donors Susan Sandler and Steve Phillips in our newsletter in 2008. "Liberty Hill is very much a part of that. We have a potential to model for the whole country a coalition that can advance and implement social justice public policies."