Three old telephones on the wall with striped wallpaper
Photo by Pavan Trikutam on Unsplash


“Traditionally, advocacy has been a few people speaking on behalf of others. But…it is also about movement building and power building, grassroots engagement, and community organizing. It is about people being able to create the paths and environments to speak for and advocate for themselves.”

Cesar Aleman, Director, Connecticut Urban Opportunity Collaborative

This past June, three Connecticut community foundations—the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and Fairfield County’s Community Foundation (based in Norwalk), which combined have assets that exceed $2 billion—announced their joint hire of Cesar Aleman to direct a newly-formed Connecticut Urban Opportunity Collaborative (CUOC).

The foundations’ agenda is ambitious. As their press release states, CUOC seeks to coordinate senior staff across the three foundations to “develop collective strategies to dismantle structural racism and advance social and economic mobility; aligning the strategic and programmatic efforts of the three foundations to create an actionable plan that builds on each organization’s individual strengths.”

In an interview with Aleman shortly after his hire, New Haven radio station WNHH program host Babz Rawls-Ivy expressed her surprise that community foundations would take on promoting racial and economic justice as primary goals. Her implied question: Is this real? Just a half year later, it is too early to say. To learn more, NPQ interviewed Aleman, along with Will Ginsberg, who has led the New Haven foundation for the past 21 years.


A Pre-COVID Shift in Foundation Philosophy

Ginsberg credits his colleague, Jay Williams—former mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, and head of the community foundation in Hartford since 2017—with initiating a cultural change in Connecticut philanthropy. “When Jay Williams became head of the Hartford Foundation, it seemed like an opportunity to have this [justice] conversation in a way that hadn’t really happened before.”

Ginsberg notes that while he and Williams came from very different backgrounds, they share a passion for the pursuit of racial and economic justice, with a focus on urban communities. They also, as it happens, both served for presidents in the exact same role as assistant secretaries of commerce in the Clinton and Obama administrations, respectively. As Ginsberg recalls, “When Jay came to the Hartford foundation, we started having this conversation. And we talked about focusing on the cities. And we created a six-community foundation collaborative.”

The six-foundation group included the three members who now are the foundation members of CUOC, along with smaller foundations in New London, New Britain, and in Waterbury (Connecticut Community Foundation). Ginsberg notes that while the coalition had fewer resources and operated informally, it did make some steps toward developing a common policy agenda and narrative. This included supporting a series of articles in the Connecticut Mirror on urban issues as part of a joint narrative change strategy to lift up cities, where most residents of color in the state live, as vibrant places of possibility rather than “problems” to fix.

Three of the six Connecticut foundations in that initial coalition were also members of a national network, the Community Foundation Opportunity Network (CFON), which Terry Mazany—former president of the Chicago Community Trust—discussed with NPQ in the fall of 2019. As 2019 ended, Mazany and his colleagues were aiming to recruit a cohort of community foundations to create a community of practice within which foundation leaders could deepen their racial and economic justice grantmaking and investment. At the same time, in New Haven, the community foundation adopted its 2020-2024 strategic plan, with a dual focus on opportunity and equity. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.


The COVID Accelerator

As Ginsberg observes, the foundation’s work, “changed dramatically as a result of COVID—what we do, what we focused on, our processes, our schedules.” At the same time, “the focus on opportunity and equity did not change.” Ultimately, both in Connecticut and nationally, the COVID-19 pandemic—along with the national racial justice uprising of May and June 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd—acted as an accelerator.

At the national level, CFON launched its NEON (Nexus for Equity + Opportunity Nationwide) cohort program. Foundations within CFON had to apply to join what became a cohort of nine community foundations that aim to be a peer learning community. The three Connecticut foundations that were members of CFON applied as a group and when their application was accepted, the CUOC experiment advanced considerably.

At roughly the same time, the community foundation in New Haven launched its “Stepping Forward” initiative, which dedicates $26 million in foundations resources over three years to COVID relief and recovery and to advancing racial justice. A unique feature of this fund is that $15 million of the fund is borrowed from the foundation’s endowment (the other $11 million is solicited from foundation donors), with the money scheduled to be repaid to the endowment over seven years. Effectively, this raises the foundation’s spending from 5.5 percent of its endowment to roughly 6.25 percent for a 3-year period.

Ginsberg emphasized that the foundation’s board agreed to this shift not only because of the extraordinary needs “but also because we saw an opportunity to make real progress on racial equity because of the protests that emerged last year after George Floyd’s murder and everything else that was going on.” The foundation, he added, saw a chance to invest in “new voices, new energy, new ideas, and a new generation.”  One area that Ginsberg cites where the foundation is applying its approach is its New Haven Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystem program, which seeks to “build an equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem designed for historically marginalized entrepreneurs, such as those who identify as Black, Latinx, and women” and is overseen by a council of movement and community development leaders.


Building the Collaborative 

While the concept behind CUOC has a longer trajectory, Aleman was only hired as its first staff member and director in June 2021. A half year in, a lot remains in the idea stage. But some contours are becoming clearer. Aleman notes that the group focuses in two areas: 1) income and wealth, and 2) power and leadership. In terms of levers to create shifts in those areas, Aleman says one area of focus is advocacy. “Because Connecticut is a small state, we have good opportunities to influence and shift advocacy efforts to improve a lot of policy pieces in our cities,” Aleman remarks.

Another focus area is narrative change, a topic Aleman is passionate about. “We know there is a dominant narrative, certainly in Connecticut and I think it’s true across the country that often time gets in the way of change, specifically policy change. That’s the narrative around things such as school and achievement.” Aleman calls for reframing the “achievement gap” as the “opportunity gap,” for example. Similarly, he adds, “There is a dominant narrative that locates the problem of poverty on people who are experiencing poverty…People’s perspectives, minds, and ideas around how poverty exists need to change.”

Aleman identifies inclusive economic growth as the “third bucket of work that we are doing.” A lot of this work involves supporting business ownership in BIPOC communities. In New Haven, Ginsberg notes that as part of an unprecedented PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) agreement with Yale University. Yale is not only providing $135 million in payments to New Haven for services but also committing $5 million to an institution called the Center for Inclusive Growth, which the community foundation has backed and which will be housed at the Yale School of Management under Dean Kerwin Charles. Ginsberg says the foundation has been asked by the city’s mayor “to be part of discussions of how to structure the Center going forward.”

Aleman also emphasizes that CUOC’s existence has helped prod foundations to inspect their individual grant making. In Fairfield County, he explains, “they just went through an entire process to do an internal audit on how they were spending their money.” The audit found that even when funding services for Black and Brown people, “there was not a big population of Black and Brown people in the leadership of those groups.” In Hartford, Aleman noted that the foundation there was focusing its efforts on boosting support for community organizing and engagement.

Aleman adds that as a staff of one, his role largely involves helping the group “think about how to leverage opportunities and resources. It is about coming together with the executive team. Here’s what each of our community foundations is doing. Here’s where we are prioritizing our work. Here’s our framework of common strategies. As we are seeing the alignment across them, here are the places where we see opportunities for aggregate impact.”

Ginsberg also offers a more long-term goal for CUOC, which is to explore the possibility of creating a permanent organization. “Right now, CUOC is a collaborative with a staff of one,” he observes. “If we can show an ability to raise money and impact, we should here think about creating a permanent structure.” This, Ginsberg contends, provides “a different approach to the basic idea of place-based philanthropy.” Right now, Ginsberg notes, each metropolitan area has its own community foundation, with urban and suburban communities together. “If you think about the place that CUOC is focusing on as these spatially disconnected but much in common urban areas—Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport—all of a sudden you have got a different idea of what place-based can be.”

Ginsberg adds, “That’s my vision for the long-term, that we create a powerful urban-focused placed philanthropy that is funded by donors and funded by our community foundations and funded by national funders too.” Such a collaborative, Ginsberg contends, could really tackle “issues of social and economic mobility, equity, and dismantling racist systems and structures in our cities in new ways.”


But Are Community Foundations Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem?

Echoing the comments of the WNNH radio host, Ginsberg acknowledges that community foundations—which are, after all, funded primarily by local wealthy donors—make for unlikely racial and economic justice advocates. As Ginsberg puts it, “The basic conundrum…that the field has been grappling with for a number of years is, fundamentally, are we part of the problem or are we part of the solution?” Recalling the Occupy movement of a decade ago, Ginsberg notes that at the time a colleague asked him, “Are we part of the 99 percent or are we part of the one percent?” The answer, says Ginsberg, “is both.”

Ginsberg adds that in response, “What we’ve seen in the field—writ large, in the community foundation field, and certainly here in New Haven—is grappling with the question: How do we position ourselves, not just as a reflection of wealth, power and privilege in our community and our society that remains overwhelmingly white but also as an agent of change?” While seven of the foundation’s 11 board members are people of color, that does not change the fact that most donations are from white donors.

One foundation strategy to address this dilemma has been to develop participatory grant programs, which allow community members to decide on grant awards, regardless of the source of the funds. For example, the foundation’s Racial Equity and Community Healing (REACH) program “turned over the program design and the decisions as to grants and awards to a group of local artists, arts patrons, and arts administrators” and made $583,000 in grant awards. Ginsberg says the foundation aims to at least double the amount of dollars going through participatory grantmaking processes in 2022. The foundation has also raised a $2.5 million Black Futures Fund, and is convening a group of Black community leaders to advise it on how the funds should be utilized.


Building for the Long Haul

For his part, Aleman acknowledges that he is an unlikely philanthropic program director. Much of his work has been the fields of community organizing and affordable housing. For much of his life, he also was a true believer in many of the narrative myths he is now seeking to dismantle. “I am somebody who benefited from an opportunity. I come from a low-income background. I am undocumented, I am queer, I am a first-generation student.” Aleman notes that the narrative that hard work reaps success “felt true to me for a very long time.” Aleman adds that it wasn’t until he worked for a private landlord and saw the conditions of tenants first-hand that he realized that “there are a lot of external factors as to whether somebody can escape poverty. I really have dedicated my career to disrupt the narrative in myself and the communities I am a part of.”

As to what degree disrupting those narratives is possible, Aleman maintains a mix of optimism and realism: “I think that we have a real opportunity and community foundations are well positioned to be long-term partners to do some of the work that we are identifying,” he says. Aleman cautions, however, that, “Dismantling structural racism is something that is going to take decades. It has taken decades to cement the racist practices that we have across all sectors. It will take an equal amount of time to dismantle it.”