Grasstops to Grassroots: Philanthropy and Activism in Movement Building

To mark Black History Month: A Century of Black Life, History and Culture, The AGF explores today’s Movement for Black Lives in a series of posts from Hero Citizens within our community and beyond. The second installment in the series (see the first here) is from Nadia Owusu, a Member of The AGF Millennial Advisory Committee.


I work for an organization that is a national funder of efforts aimed at dramatically improving the lives of low-income people in America’s cities. When I talk to my activist friends about what I do, some are quick to dismiss that type of work as maintaining a system of power that produces inequitable results for low-income people and people of color. And, when I talk to friends who work in philanthropy, I am often struck by how dismissive some can be of the work of activists and community organizers. Grassroots work, some assert, will never be able to address the root causes of poverty, inequality, and racial inequity because to do that, you need the people who have power and resources to change their behavior.  I fundamentally disagree with both views.  A movement that results in meaningful and enduring social change at a scale and pace that is commensurate with the scale of our challenges has to be envisioned, championed, broadcast, organized, implemented, and funded at all levels—from the city block to the national level.

The Civil Rights Movement taught us that it takes work at the grassroots and the grasstops; in churches and in Supreme Court chambers; in city halls and in the White House; and in the streets and on the media to change the world for the better. Yet, recently there has been a lot of criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement for being unfocused without clear leadership or agenda.

However, the rallying cry and call to action around Black lives mattering, and the strategic and forward thinking work that propelled it into our national consciousness is an important contribution in and of itself. Have we forgotten the vital role that messaging and building awareness played in sparking action against racism in this country? From Harry Belafonte’s pivotal work in using his celebrity to  shine a light on and raise funds for the Civil Right Movement, to James Brown’s empowered message “Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud”, that work takes leadership and it was an important part of a broader agenda.

When NBA players wear “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts on the court at the risk of being fined, that brings visibility to the movement. When a hashtag like #BlackLivesMatter goes viral, it has the power to reach people in ways that are similar to what artist-activists like James Brown, Nina Simone, and James Baldwin were able to do through their work. These awareness initiatives have the power to direct people to partners and resources that they might otherwise have been unaware of. Is it enough? Not on its own. But, again, it is a contribution.

Relatedly, with the release of the movie Selma, we are reminded of just how powerful a driving force protest and civil disobedience were to the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to increasing the visibility of the cause, these strategies also put pressure on decision and policy-makers to act, and to act faster. And, for those who were not alive during the Civil Rights Movement, I am quite convinced that the recent wave of protests has the potential to lead to a widespread civic awakening. That work is important; it is a contribution. When people (generally of older generations) focus on the lack of leadership in the ranks of those doing that work, my response is that there is leadership, it just might not look like what they are used to. With the rise of the internet and the flattening of many organizations, today’s organizers tend to prefer a more distributed model of leadership that harnesses the wisdom of crowds. And, it’s not hard to find young people who are leading on issues of racism and racial inequity in America, both in collaborative ways and via their own individual work and activism. Dante Barry of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Phillip Agnew of the Dream Defenders, and  the three black women who started the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and worked to move it from the virtual space to the streets—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—immediately come to mind.

To those who reject that philanthropy could play a transformative role in advancing a movement, I would point to the contribution of the ‘Freedom Funders’, a small group of foundations that provided modest but important financial support to the Civil Rights Movement’s leadership organizations. Today, philanthropic efforts like the Campaign for Black Male Achievement and the Executive Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color; working with activists, organizers, and others; have the potential to build on those important efforts.

For the Black Lives Matter movement and the broader movement towards racial justice and equity that is currently underway to grow and achieve even greater impact, it will take deep models of collaboration. That collaboration must be grounded in an understanding and appreciation of the goals, strategies, and contributions of all of the actors working for change. We should engage in conversation with others who are leading differently and working differently than we are—not from a place of skepticism, but from a place of openness. This includes cross-sector (a central focus in the work of Living Cities), cross-generational (a focus of The Andrew Goodman Foundation and one of the reasons that I am so excited to serve on their Millennial Advisory Committee), and cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration. We all have something to learn. We can all do better.

A movement is, by definition, about many people and institutions coming together to organize around a shared objective. Rather than focusing on what is lacking in the contributions of others, we should be asking ourselves how we can build on them, support them, accelerate them, develop them, amplify them, and fund them.

About the Author

Nadia Owusu is the Assistant Director of Strategic Communications & Storytelling at Living Cities. She’s also a member of The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Millennial Advisory Committee.