“When we intend to do good, we do. When we intend to do harm, it happens. What each of us must come to realize is that our intent always comes through.”

Thurgood Marshall

How can local governments work with philanthropy to create more just and equitable communities? Our world, country, and state face unprecedented upheaval that communities cannot ignore. The MML Foundation’s president, Helen Johnson, with a panel of thought leaders in philanthropy, opened a conversation to tackle this topic head-on during the Michigan Municipal League’s annual Convention, which pivoted this year to a virtual format for the first time. Panelists Regina Bell, Freyja Harris, and Michael Shaw shared their ideas and experience in ensuring that power is shared in communities, so people can live self-determined lives and create the conditions for justice that includes mercy and grace.

League members from across Michigan learned from this conversation about how developing relationships with local funders can build civic muscle and equitable community wealth for an active, engaged, and caring community. Below are some key highlights, resources, and points of learning from the discussion.

Image showing panelists and moderator on a video call. Upper Left Corner: Helen Johnson, Upper Right Corner: Regina Bell, Lower Left Corner: Freyja Harris, Lower Right Corner: Michael Shaw

Creating the conditions for equity to thrive

Recent uprisings have shown a light on the deep-reaching racial injustices that are embedded into our society in a way that demands everyone pay attention and act. As Regina Bell of the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) stated, many public policies were designed explicitly to ensure that equity was not achieved. And now it is on all of us as people in relative positions of power to be “thoughtful and planful” to reverse these policies. It requires being honest about how policies will impact people – especially those who are not at the decision-making table. Power has been systematically stripped away from many groups of people. How can communities examine their own practices and policies to identify how power can be returned to the people from whom it has been withheld?

One way is by creating the conditions where people trust they will be heard and their experiences lifted up. Through her work with the Pontiac Funders Collaborative, Freyja Harris has learned from residents that they have been “researched to death” over the years – and yet, not much has changed for them. Things have been done to Pontiac residents, but not with them. The Pontiac Funders Collaborative is working to flip that script, gathering residents every other week to hear their experiences in order to address the community’s needs and reach its goals. The work of the Pontiac Funders Collaborative places equity squarely at the center and participants have agreed that they want to “move at the speed of trust.”

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s major initiative, Truth Racial Healing and Transformation (THRT), addresses the historic and current effects of institutionalized racism in communities across the U.S. Of the 14 THRT communities in the United States, four of them are in Michigan: Battle Creek, Flint, Kalamazoo, and Lansing. While every community is different, the case studies and lessons learned can be adapted and applied to nearly any community.

Michael Shaw of the Hudson-Webber Foundation had some very practical advice for white people engaging in work that requires difficult conversations – get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Always have good intentions. Also, recognize and admit when your actions or words have a negative impact on someone, regardless of your good intent. Freyja Harris drew on the words of Thurgood Marshall: Your intent will be evident in the results.

What are things local leaders can do to create an environment for equity to thrive?

  • Do a local policy equity audit through the Government Alliance for Racial Equity (GARE).
  • Check out the Truth Racial Healing and Transformation work from W.K. Kellogg Foundation for resources that you can bring to your own community.
  • When making decisions at the local level, talk to those who are impacted by the decisions and make sure they speak first.
  • Don’t rely on people of color to do all the work or expect them to speak for all people of color. Do your own homework and research on issues first.
  • Don’t discount qualitative data – in other words, the lived experiences of people matter just as much as data.
  • Examine your intent, admit when your words or actions have a negative impact, and always strive to do better.

Don’t sweep tension under the rug

If you’re engaging with community members, working toward large goals, and experiencing tension, then you’re probably doing something right. When people feel that they can express themselves honestly, then there is an inherent level of trust in that space that will lead to healthy tension. In fact, if you aren’t experiencing tension when working on community projects and engagement, then look at your process and what is being done. Harris said she uses tension to check in on the Pontiac Funders Collaborative’s work. She said during the panel discussion, “If a room is void of tension around something where there is no tension, then I tend to question things. It doesn’t make sense for everyone to be agreeing.”

Tension is frequently a result of the scars that harmful power dynamics and institutionalized racism have left. Obvious power dynamics exist in every single community – especially where philanthropy and government are involved. Shaw’s advice: Don’t be afraid to name your power. In fact, it would be disingenuous to pretend like power dynamics didn’t exist. Once you name it, use your relative power, whether as an individual or organization, to advance the work and goals of the community.

Trust was a recurring theme in the discussion. Harris defined trust as placing the “relationship over issue or task.” Without trusting relationships, you’ll never move past the power dynamics and you can’t surface tension in a productive way, and community issues remain unaddressed.

How do you daylight tension as a way to achieve better outcomes?

  • Name your power, as individuals and organizations, and share it by bringing it to the table for the advancement of community goals.
  • Use tension – or a lack thereof – to gauge the inclusivity and openness of your work.
  • Place your community’s relationships over the task at hand. What good will your results be if you’ve further frayed trust in the community? Remember: Your intent will be apparent in your results.

More than dollars – what do philanthropic organizations bring to a community?

Progress on goals can be realized more quickly when everyone in the community takes a role in achieving the shared goals. Many times, people assume that philanthropy brings one thing to the table: money. As Bell put it, “For philanthropy, a lot of times the thought is that what they bring to the table is a checkbook and that could be nothing further from the truth in terms of the assets that they actually bring to the table.”

The Pontiac Funders Collaborative works to break down the silos among the business community, government, residents, nonprofits, and other stakeholders. Many times, philanthropic organizations can be strategic in “table setting,” or creating a neutral space where stakeholders can come together to identify and work toward shared goals. It’s often in these cross-sector spaces that include those who will be most impacted by major decisions that the most creative solutions bubble up. Foundations also have access to a deep well of best practices that can be adapted to meet the needs of the community.

Local governments also play a significant role in advocating for their residents and for creative solutions to challenges they create in concert with stakeholders. Bell noted that by working together, local governments and philanthropic partners have the “ability to provide […] added connective tissue between community and policy.” Activities that build community wealth and advance equity sometimes need public policy to make them possible. A good example would be crowd investing; in order to make crowd investing possible, new legislation was needed at the state level. Legislation passed in 2014, opening up a new avenue for individuals and organizations that couldn’t invest $100,000, but could invest a few hundred dollars into startup businesses that have a hard time securing capital – a common issue for many Black-owned businesses.

Impact investing is another buzzword you may have heard. While the definition still varies based on whom you ask, what it can look like for local funders is allocating their portfolio of investments held in their endowment into investments at the local level, or socially-conscious investments. Funders can also guarantee loans that are – possibly unfairly – assessed as too risky. Funders can also partner with municipalities with the tools at their disposal such as tax increment financing and municipal bonding. It’s a dense subject, and we aren’t experts, so we won’t dive too deep into it here. But we are always happy to connect Michigan’s communities with experts!

What are ways that philanthropy and local government can align their resources for greater impact?

  • Look at the Council of Michigan Foundation’s resources on impact investing.
  • Philanthropic partners can act as “table setters” – providing a neutral space for stakeholders to identify goals and volunteer their resources, time, and power to achieve them.
  • Local government acts as an advocate for their residents and for the successes of the community. They can help advocate for policies at the state and regional level that create the right conditions for change.

If you missed seeing this session live, you can watch it now on our Convention site.  This and most of our other Convention 2020 sessions were recorded; you can use your existing registration to access them, or register now for on-demand access. If you are interested in talking with the MML Foundation about anything discussed in this blog, reach out to us at mmlfoundation@mml.org.