Funder Briefing with Congressmember Karen Bass and Representative Ayanna Pressley Highlights Importance of Investing in Community Organizing

June 24, 2020
By raymond

The Liberty Hill Foundation along with California Funders for Boys and Men of Color, Executives' Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, and Funders for Justice, in collaboration with the Congressional Black Caucus, joined forces this month to host a lively discussion on Criminal Justice During COVID-19. The focus of the event was to highlight the current state of the movement to reinvest funds away from ineffective punitive measures like incarceration and towards proven models of re-entry, prevention and diversion. 

Even before the powerful uprising set off by the death of George Floyd, calls to de-incarcerate and re-invest funds in community-based solutions gained the attention of mainstream audiences. Due to pressure from activists nationwide, states and local governments started to release residents behind bars to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

More than 200 funders from across the country joined us this past Thursday to find out more about the state of the criminal justice system during the COVID-19 crisis and to learn more about how the philanthropic community can support the work of grassroots organizations and activists doing the critical work of transforming the justice system from the ground up.

“The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” 
—Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley 

A common theme throughout the discussion was the emphasis on supporting and following the lead of organizers closest to— and most affected by—the criminal justice system. Congresswoman Pressley also stressed the importance of remaining in proximity so that we  better understand the complexity and nuances of these issues so we can better support the community in developing solutions. 

“Real change that impacts primarily low-income folks, typically folks of color, always happens at the grassroots level.”
— Congresswoman Karen Bass

Congresswoman Bass also underscored the importance of inside/outside strategies, and how crucial it is that philanthropy understands organizing and steps up to the plate to support the people on the ground doing the frontline work, while elected officials continue the fight on the inside to advance policy in the face of opposition. 

A perfect example of the success of this type of community investment is Families for Justice as Healing and its founder and executive director Andrea James, who also joined us on the call.

Families for Justice as Healing is an organization that works with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women with incarcerated loved ones. Andrea began this work while in federal prison and has continued to carry it forward on the outside. The org has been working for years on a plan called Reimagining Communities which includes everything from organizing training to personal development, and participatory budgeting to members. Their model underscores the idea that the people who understand the problems firsthand, are the best people to devise the solutions.

The uprising for racial justice has refocused national attention on the issue of criminal justice reform. The ideas being discussed are not new, but are finding new audiences and interest in the midst of this second crisis. Now, we have a chance to make many of the sweeping changes community members and activists have been demanding for years.  

“We have an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine our criminal justice system and the way we think about investing in our youth, our communities, and our future.” 
—Shane Murphy Goldsmith
President & CEO, Liberty Hill Foundation

All of our panelists, including Matt Cervantes of Sierra Health Foundation, James Anderson of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Conan Harris of Harris & Associates, emphasized the importance of seizing this critical moment in history to transform the criminal justice system as we know it. 

Incarcerated people are living in grave danger from the pandemic. Decarceration to reduce the risk is beginning but it is not enough. At the same time, decarceration is proving the that the imprisonment of thousands was unnecessary to begin with.

“The status quo was insufficient, unjust, and inadequate to begin with—certainly for low-income and communities of color, and certainly for our incarcerated neighbors and loved ones,” said Congresswoman Pressley. She went on to describe the People’s Justice Guarantee which aims to transform criminal justice in America centering the voices of the people most impacted by it. 

“We are navigating a pandemic within a pandemic and these times require unprecedented organizing and support from philanthropy,” said Congresswoman Pressley. “We will not be successful without a power shift and with budgets come power. So, if you’re going to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ you have to codify that in your budgets. We need to work to advance economic justice, health care justice, education justice and we have to listen to, trust and follow Black women and Black leaders.”

Three things funders can do:

Liberty Hill President and CEO Shane Goldsmith closed the discussion with three concrete ways that funders and donors can support de-incarceration, criminal justice reform, and reinvestment.

  1. Increase your giving to organizations committed to Black Lives focused on justice and power building.
  2. Contribute to pooled funds that focus on racial justice.
  3. Join a funder affinity group to learn more and develop collective strategies
    1. California Funders for Boys and Men of Color
    2. Executives' Alliance for Boys and Men of Color
    3. Funders for Justice

Stay connected to Liberty Hill for more opportunities to learn how you can support the movement for justice in Los Angeles.