The concept of being trained has been watered down. In many social justice circles, going through a two-day workshop means you are “trained” in something. And perhaps with some skill sets, two days is all you need. But we see institutions that rely on violence – the police, the military, etc. – take the concept of training very seriously. They invest tons of resources and often times the initial training can last years.
At PPWN, we believe that we need to invest in trainings in the same way, and commit to training ourselves to create change in our world. Change is not going to come overnight, and it will not just be handed down to us. We have to fight for it, and in order to do that we need to commit ourselves to training our communities – no matter how long it takes.
Looking back at the last ten and a half years of my life, it feels like it has just been one long training session. On June 30th, 2012, I will fully transition out of my role at the Peace Development Fund, an organization that I have worked for since January of 2002. I came onboard as an eager and perhaps naive 22-year old temp, and will leave as Program Director, having been given the opportunity to work with hundreds of grassroots social justice organizations from around the world, to travel to every corner of the country and even abroad, to meet with incredible elders from various movements and to have been taught lessons I would never have been able to learn in a classroom.
I never thought I would spend over a decade working with PDF. I guess as a 22 year old, you don’t really think too much beyond your immediate future and most people my age don’t end up spending such a long time with one job. It was not always an easy job – and at times it frustrated me to no end. But for 10 years it was my dream job. I’m eternally grateful to PDF for all the opportunities they gave me, for believing in me and for investing in me. It set me up well for my new life with the Positive Peace Warrior Network.
As I look back and reminisce, here are some stories, lessons and experiences that come to mind:
More Than Money
PDF, as far as foundations go, is very unique in its ideology. Since as far back as I can remember, PDF has thought of itself as more than just a funder. Yes, we give grants and that is the core of our work. But we have always been cognizant of the power dynamics that come with money, and have tried to tackle those dynamics head on.
We recognized that in order to create real lasting change in our communities, the relationships we build with our allies has to be genuine and authentic. And as long as our work was simply about giving away money, then the relationships we build with the groups we fund are based on money, contracts, and reports.
So how can a foundation be more than a funder? How can we be more than just another financial institutions, and how can we award grants in a way that doesn’t create unhealthy power dynamics? How can we, as an institution with access to resources, take leadership from the grassroots as opposed to setting the agenda ourselves?
These were never easy questions to answer, and we were not always perfect in our attempt to put these principles into practice. In fact, our efforts to experiment with new ways to build relationships often ended in heated debates, tears, and arguments. But it would be silly to think that we can address issues of power and money without it getting ugly. To me, it was PDF’s commitment to have those arguments and continue to work through them that separates us from many mainstream funders.
PDF was not afraid to build real, authentic relationships. And we know that any authentic relationship means that there will be challenges. Real relationships are not always a clean thing. But for us, many of our grantees are people we consider friends and families, and the majority of our Board and staff come from grassroots communities. These relationships may be viewed by some as a potential “conflict of interest.” But for PDF, it was a way to honor the relationships we build.
I remember shouting matches and tears being shed during hard discussions with some of our grantees and community partners. But these are the same grantees and community partners that we are still working with years and years later. Those tears hurt, but those tears are what helps us create the authentic relationships that are necessary for us to create a movement. It’s all part of the training.
Funding the Groups with the Best Grant Writers
This is what many funders ultimately end up doing, right? You read the proposals that you get, pick the ones that sound the best, perhaps do a follow-up interview or site visit, and fund the ones that you think sounds the best.
And that’s fine. In fact, that’s also how PDF does a huge chunk of our funding. But I will always be grateful to the Board of PDF for their flexibility and their trust in the staff to make the right recommendations. Because the reality is this: There are so many small, grassroots organizations that are doing amazing work in their communities that never get funded because they don’t know how to write a good grant proposal or work with foundations.
Throughout my time at PDF, we supported many organizations with their first ever grant. And in many cases, if we based our decision only on the application that they submitted, we would have never funded them. Instead, we relied on our relationships. Because we so strongly emphasized building authentic relationships on the ground, it gave us a good sense of the work happening in many grassroots communities. It wasn’t just what we were reading about in grant proposals and reports, it was what we were seeing as we participated in community meetings, in campaign work, in coalitions.
There is no way to know of the amazing work being done by small organizations, all volunteer groups, and other communities who may not have the skills to articulate their work in a way that a funder could buy into unless you are on the ground, in the grind with them. The PDF board encouraged that sort of relationship building, and trusted the recommendations we made to them – despite what may have been on paper.
One way that we were able to build those relationships and have a deep level of understanding of grassroots communities is the fact that PDF allowed some of my staff time to go into community organizing work. These were not site visits, it was not research, it was no in an effort to evaluate our current grantees. It was simply to offer another resource, and to commit to being at the table as an equal. Equal power and equal responsibilities.
Over the last few years, PDF has allowed me to work as the Convention Coordinator for Harry Belafonte’s Gathering for Justice’s national convention. I was able to spend significant time and PDF resources in the aftermath of the Oscar Grant shooting. They allowed me to be a member of the Stop the Injunction Coalition, a community based coalition that came together to fight a series of gang injunctions in Oakland, CA.
These were invaluable experiences for both myself and for PDF. These efforts allowed us to create trusting relationships deep into the grassroots, and have us intricate knowledge of the issues and the players in the community. And it gave me invaluable training in community work.
I wrote about this a while ago for PDF’s newsletter. Often times, foundations are looked on as “gate-keepers.” We get to decide who can come in and access resources and build relationships within philanthropy.
But PDF viewed ourselves as Gate Openers. Being a foundation gives us access to tables that aren’t available to grassroots communities. That is a privilege that we have as a funder, and we attempted to take that privilege and flip it on its head. We didn’t selectively close gates, we opened them as wide as we could for as many communities as we could.
A good example of this was the last National Network of Grantmakers conference that took place in Chicago in 2006. So often, funders get together to talk about an issue and build strategies on how to fund that issue without the voices of the communities that will be impacted by that funding. Many funder conferences will fly in a speaker from a grassroots group to speak on a panel in a way that seems tokenized. We wanted to change that.
The theme of the conference that year was going to be on funding in the criminal justice arena. PDF had a seat on the conference’s planning committee, and we were able to use our influence to get the committee to agree to have three formerly incarcerated organizers join us on the committee. This way, the voices of most impacted communities will be present from the beginning.
By the end of the conference, PDF was able to sponsor five of the twenty workshops, three of the four plenaries, both of the keynote speakers and both of the emcees. The vast majority of them were formerly incarcerated, and we worked together to challenge the funders who were present to hire formerly incarcerated people on their staff or include them in their boards.
We have also brought grassroots communities to the United Nations, to ensure that their voices are present during international negotiations. In particular, we have sent delegations to the annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change for several consecutive years. This was important because our delegation consisted of communities who are directly impacted by the nuclear industry – communities who live near uranium mines, nuclear production and waste facilities. While nuclear power is being touted as a clean, green and sustainable form of energy, the communities who live near these facilities share a very different experience. Our delegation was the only grassroots delegation from the US that included directly impacted families.
Thank You PDF!!!
This 10.5 year training has been invaluable for me. I have learned way more than I can ever fit into a blog, have met people that I will continue to work with for the rest of my life, have gone through experiences I could never have imagined, learned skills that will continue to benefit me and my community, and I have grown into the person I am today. Many of our Board members have known me and have worked with me for a decade, and have helped to shape who I am today, and I will always be grateful.
10 years seems like a lifetime, and it’s not like this is a chapter of my life that will close forever. I will always be in debt to PDF, and hope to continue a long relationship with them as I move forward.
But as I move ahead with this transition, I want to thank all those who I have met throughout my time there. The staff, the Board members, the grantees, the donors, the foundation partners. PDF helped to make me who I am today, and if anything I have ever done has benefited you in any way, we all have PDF to thank for that. As I move ahead with PPWN, I want to encourage all of you to continue to support the Peace Development Fund.