Vantage Points: Rebecca Allen

Rebecca Allen is Program Manager with the Social Justice Fund Northwest.

Can you tell me about your current organization, and your role in it?

Social Justice Fund Northwest is a member-funded foundation that supports the creation of a just society through fundraising, grantmaking, and member involvement in the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.  As a foundation, we are different because of our focus – we only fund one thing, and that is community organizing for progressive social change. Of course, community organizing is a strategy so what that work looks like can be very diverse across issues, and across our five states.  Our region encompasses a huge amount of land.  Our region and what we fund has remained the same over our 40-plus year history.  Over the last few years, however, the way we do this work has changed quite a bit–I’ll talk more about that later.  

Community organizing is also a form of jargon or a buzz word.  Everyone means something different when they use the term.  So we try to be very clear about what we mean.  For us, we fund work led by the people most directly impacted by the issues they are working on.  That needs to be more than a superficial commitment or surface-level engagement.  We only fund groups that have the people most impacted in their leadership in significant ways: on their board of directors or steering committee. This weeds out a lot.  

The type of social change work we support is extremely underfunded.  Projects and initiatives that are looking at systemic change and seeking to address root causes receive less than 1.5% of philanthropic dollars.  The percentage is even more miniscule for work that is led by Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color.

What are some of your primary activities or programs?

We organize and lead Giving Projects.   These are a unique, participatory model of funding which provides significant financial resources to organizations that work towards long-term progressive social change.  

Giving Projects bring together a multiracial group of people of varied class identities who are passionate about social change and want to strengthen their skills in fundraising, grantmaking, and community building. Participants work together to deepen their understanding of social justice principles and engage in collective giving and fundraising to support grassroots organizations.

Why is this work important?

Supporting grassroots movements for social change has perhaps never been more important and this is our core mission.  We have to be honest that philanthropy was created to protect rich people’s wealth.  We are trying to do “social justice philanthropy” with the end goal of ending the need for philanthropy.  Like I said, community organizing looks really different in different communities. Some of the work we fund, for example, is Native-led organizing that is focused on preserving cultures historically and currently threatened by settler colonialism and genocide. Center Pole in eastern Montana is on the Crow Reservation.  The people there are doing deep cultural work.  They have taught us that they cannot do community organizing without preserving language and protecting Indigenous ways of knowing and being. 

We’ve also had recent grant cycles focused on Black-led organizing and another on rural and small town organizing How do we leverage and redistribute the relative wealth in our more prosperous urban centers like Seattle and Portland to help the rest of our region? How do we get wealth out of the hands of white people–who hold disproportionate amounts of financial wealth in the U.S.–and get it to Black communities?  

Overall, our region is very predominantly white, but we have communities of color throughout our five states.  In our rural and small town funding cycle, what was exciting was that all the finalist organizations had leadership bodies with more than 50% leadership from Black people, Indigenous people, and/or people of color.

One project I love to talk about is Hilltop Urban Gardens (HUG) in Tacoma, Washington.   We talked a lot in the Rural and Small Town Organizing Giving Project about displacement and gentrification and how their community has experienced a kind of trickle down displacement connected to what’s happening in Seattle.  The Hilltop neighborhood is on Puyallup land and became home to Tacoma’s Black community. Now it is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.  

HUG is a Black, Queer and Trans/Non-binary led organization that works for food justice through a unique model of community-led urban agriculture. The group works with residents to locate garden plots in yards, lots, and parking strips.  Together, these shared sites form one Urban Farm and the produce is shared throughout the neighborhood through a Food Share Program where anyone can come and pick up a bag of HUG produce, so long as they share something back in exchange. The exchange can be any gift neighbors find valuable enough to share.  HUG has also been working with people transferring out of the carceral system. 

How did you get to where you are now? What has your life/work journey looked like?

I am white, heterosexual, middle class and married, and I have a lot of power and privilege.   During my post-college years, I worked on human rights issues in rural Guatemala.  I lived in a Mayan community that had been displaced during a civil war.  Everyone had lost family members and suffered displacement and trauma.  The indigenous people there organized to survive, and ultimately to demand rights and land from the government that displaced them.  Because they organized, they were able to rebuild their homes and communities after the war That would not have happened without the community coming together to build power.   I learned what people are really capable of when they organize

I returned to Seattle, did some direct services work and then went to school for public health.   My public health skills and interests lie in organizing to change systems and work for justice across so many layers of identities.   Our systems are designed for people like me to succeed and for so many others to fail. I can’t live with that.

After graduate school, a friend had been through a Giving Project with Social Justice Fund NW.  She organized me to donate and that is how I became involved. I started to learn about what organizing looks like in my own community.  

My role now is one I love – to mobilize resources and let the people most impacted by injustice make decisions about distributing those resources and leading our movements for liberation.   

What about your organization/work might others be surprised to learn about?

Giving Projects came out of our work about 10 years ago in the middle of the last recession.  It was a hard, hard time, and some small funders like us closed their doors.  We were able to adapt and experiment and take some risks, and the Giving Project model was the result.  The idea has evolved a lot over time, but at heart the concept brings together a group of people of different racial and class identities. We want to change how philanthropy operates, and stop giving decision-making power about how money is distributed to people with wealth. Giving Projects involve so many more people in donor organizing and grantmaking, building skills and leadership in our communities.

Each Giving Project brings together a group that commits to a series of workshops over about six months together.  We start with community building, getting to know each other, considering how to show up as respectful human beings together and doing the work to begin to build trust.  We do political education, and include discussion of racial justice, white supremacy, and anti-Black racism, class and classism, and more.  We have found that it is necessary to unpack how identity and power play out in the world, but also in the people in the Giving Project. A third area is fundraising.  We ask people to give their own financial gift to the project – to give an amount that is meaningful to them.  We also train them in fundraising  – how to become “donor organizers” to fundraise from their own people – their neighbors and friends and family and faith communities..  Usually they need to overcome some fears and hesitancies to do that, so we provide a supportive environment. It is really important for BIPOC individuals to have those skills, and for white people to work on organizing other white people to give away wealth that doesn’t truly belong to us.  

And our fundraising goal is a group goal, a shared goal, so the work of fundraising is shared equitably. We don’t expect everyone who shows up to raise the same amount of money–that doesn’t acknowledge the reality of the racial wealth divide in this country.. Then, in our final stage, this same group of people who fundraise together actually make the grant decisions together.  We train them on our grantmaking process and criteria, and how to consider and address power dynamics in the group.  We go on site visits and have them actually meet with people and spend time in communities.  It is a powerful process.

Starting about five years ago, we began to hear from other foundations interested in doing their own Giving Projects. We’ve formed a National Learning Community and organize together with 9 other funds to learn and improve projects together.

What do you most enjoy about this work?

Right now, we are in the midst of some transformative work.  I have been here six years.  When I began, there were just a few Black people on staff. Organizationally, we weren’t recruiting and retaining many Black people to Giving Projects, nor funding many Black-led organizations. Our racial justice framework was anti-Black, and fed into the white dominant culture of the Pacific Northwest. There is a lot of unhelpful politeness around race here, and that sometimes results in people using the right words without doing the deep difficult and personal work.   It was very common here to use the term “people of color” to talk about anyone that isn’t white.  I’ve been learning from my Black colleagues how that erases the distinct experiences of Black people from other communities of color.  

Over the last two years, we have committed to centering Black liberation organizationally. We’re still figuring out what that means! We’re working on eradicating anti-blackness from our curriculum and we now have a majority Black staff.  

For me, this journey has been hard and full of mistakes, and also a gift.  This moment of pandemic, of climate crisis, of police violence, is a hard time to be a human, but every day I see and participate in efforts to do better, to de-center whiteness, and to focus on Black liberation. I’m learning how to be more myself when I can get out from under the oppressive thumb of white supremacy.   

At Social Justice Fund, I see us asking important questions about work and livelihood and dignity.  How do we build an organization that really supports people?  We have a precious opportunity now to build better relationships with others and so many people are devoting energy and brilliance to social change. I feel fortunate to be part of that.

What is most difficult or challenging about your work in this time? 

The first thing that comes to mind is that we are trying to slow down.  We have to slow down in many ways.   The need to slow down is happening at the same time that the work we do becomes more urgent.

More white people are waking up for the first time.  They are becoming more aware of issues like anti-Black racism that have been here a long time.   Working through these issues can be exhausting, very tiring and difficult…though not as exhausting, tiring, and difficult as living them as a Black person. I want to be present and supportive and engaged with other white people who want to take anti-racist action, and we also have to do it in a way that is sustainable for the long haul and recognizes all the generations who have come before our personal moment of awakening.

Right now, our staff and the people and organizations we support are immersed in protests and issues in a variety of ways.  So how do we provide space and support to nourish and sustain people in this work? 

Sometimes it is awkward. We are in circumstances that are new to everyone, so sometimes we have to hit pause.

Also, there is now more money flowing for some of the issues we have been working on for decades.  Donations are coming to us with very little work on our part, because we have a base of people who understand what we’re doing and want to support those on the frontlines.  

In response, we established a new grant cycle we did not anticipate.  The focus is on eradicating anti-blackness and  covid-19 recovery.  This is an interesting moment as a funder.  We need to lift up the groups we have traditionally been funding.  So this is not so much of a course correction for us as it is for many others.  We were already working on an economic justice grant cycle when COVID hit.  The Giving Projects for that cycle smashed their fundraising goal as they talked with their donors about the impact of capitalism & COVID-19.  And that creates new questions, of how to allocate funds to support both crises of the moment and give to long term, multi-year change processes.  The work of social change cannot be done overnight.

What lesson or advice from your work and experiences might others find helpful?

I could answer that many ways, but thinking about Giving Projects, there are two things I will lift up. First is the experience of doing something hard with other people and finding it rewarding. We practice hard things like a grant making process where a group of 20 people make collaborative grant decisions. Or asking a family member to give to community organizing. It requires courage – or heart – to connect in a human way and to ask someone to give money to something you care very deeply about and to also find a way to connect to something they care deeply about.  It also takes courage to have meaningful conversations about racism and justice and more. People in Giving Projects support each other to work through a lot of challenges.

Second, the importance of being a part of a collective and doing something together. White supremacy teaches us to be ultra-independent, and it’s so damaging to us. In Giving Projects, we have a collective fundraising goal but never set individual funding goals for our participants.  For some people, giving $120 and raising $500 is a big deal; others can give $50,000 and fund-raise another $75,000. All of those gifts are important.

People at both ends of the class spectrum struggle with fundraising, and often feel bad they don’t raise more money. It is an important opportunity to process why individuals are feeling bad, especially when the group often hit the collective goal. I think it has to do with our shared longing for justice (which is powerful!)- and putting that weight on ourselves as individuals (which isn’t usually helpful).  Focusing on the individual over the collective is white savior and white supremacy thinking, and doesn’t help us get where we need to go. We have seen the value for people to have a visceral experience to be a part of a group that does this together.  People undergo a transformation when they see what is possible together.  Many of us don’t have a lot of places where we can do that.

Where are you finding hope?

The organizations we fund give me so much hope. Who said, “hope is a verb”?  We have to take action, we have to do our hope.  That is why we go on site visits and get to know our grantees and the people and places where they work.  We see firsthand in places like Bozeman, Montana, where Black people and their allies are organizing around to support black-owned businesses that were vandalized.  That makes our work real and crucial and we try to engage more people, different people working together, in that active work of hope.