Jeanne Bell: Hi, I’m Jeanne Bell, a contributor to Nonprofit Quarterly, and I’m so glad to meet you, Quanita Toffie from Groundswell Fund. As you know, we’re covering the launch of a report called Lightning in a Bottle, which has to do with big surges in focus on movement moments and movement issues, and it felt really important to talk to you, at the center of the reproductive justice movement and what’s happening there. And so, I wanted to just give you a chance first to describe the Groundswell Fund and a little bit about yourself, and then we can get into it.
Quanita Toffie: So, for about 15 years, Groundswell has put intersectional grassroots organizing led by women of color, including transgender and gender-nonconforming people of color, at the center of our giving. So, we have ultimately provided an essential irrigation system for social justice movements, a channel into which individual donors and foundations can pour resources to reach vital work at the grassroots. And we are the largest funder of the reproductive justice movement. We have around 650 individual donors and 40 foundations that give to Groundswell. Women of color and transgender and gender-nonconforming people of color who come out of grassroots organizing are making the decisions about where those resources go. Our staff is made up of organizers from community, electoral, and labor, and that really makes us unique in the philanthropic sector. We have over two hundred grantees, and we’re centering the strategies that we know work to bring about real social change, which is grassroots organizing through our 501c3 foundation and electoral organizing with our 501c4 support organization, Groundswell Action Fund.
And I come to this work…I’m originally from Cape Town, South Africa. My parents voted for the first time in their lives for Nelson Mandela in 1994. That was a pretty defining moment in my life; it shaped the way that I do my purpose work, which is around organizing and electoral justice. And when we immigrated several years later to Florida, I got involved with a local organization, also rooted in democratic struggles, to bring along our communities here in Florida toward a progressive and sort of new majority model that is pretty representative of the constituents who normally get left out of a lot of civic processes. And it was during my time in building organization on the ground in Florida, in the work to build power for our communities, that I learned firsthand the kinds of challenges that particularly women of color, and young women of color, on the ground face when building huge political homes, frankly, for communities that have been left out of sort of more mainstream democratic processes, and all that it takes to bring along those community members, day in, day out, year in, year out, regardless of whether an election is occurring or not. But really being able to play that role of trusted messenger on the ground floor to ensure that communities have the information to vote in their self-interest and participate such that their interests are represented in all levels of community and government.
When I came to Groundswell in 2016, I actually was part of an effort to continue building out their capacity building program on the c3 side, which is a really unique program that centers the needs of reproductive justice organizations. The program was actually born out of a request from our reproductive justice organizations, who were taking on voter engagement strategy for the first time and had been organizing in the grassroots space, doing policy advocacy work, for a long time and found that when they were trying to raise the resources and visibility for this kind of strategy, they were hitting sort of a glass ceiling in the larger or mainstream civic engagement sector, and said, “Hey, Groundswell, can you please actually help us get access to the tools, training, resources that we need to build the strategy? No one else is listening to us, and we know we need this to advance our work in reproductive justice.”
And so, our capacity building program is very unique in that we offer a number of holistic components of technical assistance that include general support dollars for organizations who opt into our programs, along with a field budget for groups to practice the strategy. But the magic that that exists in our programs is really on the coaching that we provide to organizations on the ground doing the work. So, we have an incredible team of POC, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people of color coaches who have been innovating in the field, movement, and field space for a long time, who are working one-on-one with our organizations to help them build plans around the campaigns, to implement it, to train and provide the kind of support that groups need to build year-round engagement operations. And this is really a critical component for groups who are really small—more grassroots, have staff of under five, have suffered longtime disinvestment, or just generally just not visible-ized, even in the larger, more mainstream social justice sector. And so along with that, we also provide an opportunity for those organizations to come together and learn and share best practices, get the sort of nuts-and-bolts skills training. And we also provide legal support as well, to those organizations who are advancing very bold strategies but doing so in a safe way.
And so, I would say, in my work on infrastructure building in particular, there are there are short-term tactics and campaigns that can advance longer-term work for liberation that our programs are really grounded in. We’re constantly working and responding to the needs of all of our organizations in these programs who are dealing with ever-changing conditions on the ground, ever-changing technology and tools, and really in deep partnership with them to provide the kind of support they need to make their organizing sustainable for the long term.
Jeanne Bell: Can we talk a little bit about this moment? I know the word “moment” is problematic in a lot of ways, and the reproductive justice movement is really always in a “lightning in a bottle” kind of moment in the United States. But we are right now potentially on the precipice of some very dangerous things with the Supreme Court taking up the Mississippi case, and I’m curious to just get your perspective, given the capacity building work you do and the relationships you have across the movement, how are you seeing groups think about this particular phase or moment and ready for it?
Quanita Toffie: Yes, we have recognized the long-term work that our groups are engaged in to be able to respond to these moments of opportunity and crisis such that the infrastructure that they need has to allow for flexibility and strategic decisions that allow our groups to grow and do that bold work. We saw the period between 2016 to 2020 as a sort of “boot camp” in terms of the kinds of responses that are needed to protect and literally save lives, and that includes building infrastructure that allows for taking those strategic decisions while also keeping an eye on that long-term sort of impact that the organization wants to have.
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After the Trump administration came into power, we started a c4 foundation, which allows our organizations to do even bolder organizing, particularly around elections. We normally don’t think about abortion as a partisan issue, but it absolutely is one; it has been one for a very long time. And so, we saw the limits to the c3 strategy and programing that our organizations were up against in order to address head-on those issues in particular. What that means, technically, is that groups can go from mobilizing organizations to vote in an election to actually holding elected officials accountable with a c4 strategy, which is increasingly an important tactic to ensure that the needs and interests of communities are represented.
We became known at that time as the largest funder of women of color-led organizing. And this came as a bit of a shock to us, given how many hundreds of millions are moving in the political space, just generally across the board, and that our contribution could land us such a title, and at such a time in the world in which that strategy continues to be the way forward for our organizations who have to operate on multiple levels all the time and enact all the strategies available to them. And so that for us was a huge lesson in the dearth of resources for that kind of bold work, and why we’re constantly in this vicious cycle of having to fight back, particularly on the issue of abortion and other reproductive justice issues, which is not limited to just abortion. It is about Black mothers’ maternal mortality rate, ensuring that those who choose to parent can do so in safe and healthy, toxic-free environments. And that includes sort of many intersections of criminal, legal system, immigration, justice, and climate. So, there is a whole host of issues, bread-and-butter issues that our organizations are advancing for the sake of the survival of our people and our planet. And it is impossible to do that without ongoing support, flexible support to enable many strategies.
Jeanne Bell: Thank you so much for that. I know that Groundswell Fund has put out an open letter just this week. I’d love to hear more about what the call to action to philanthropy and civil society is right now.
Quanita Toffie: So, this call really comes at a time when the stakes [are the] highest it could possibly be, particularly in the incredible Black organizing that has been able to allow for the kinds of change that feels closer in reach to us now than ever before. The call is really about recognizing the longstanding relationships that exist on the ground between POC—people of color-led—movement-accountable institutions, funding institutions, and intermediaries who have done the work, have built the relationships with those organizations who are advancing the boldest work right now and have been. Thanks to them, in fact, we’re at this moment. But what we have seen is a gentrification of the way resources are moving. There’s still the need for resources to flow to these trusted institutions in a way that is going to allow us to get to that next level.
We’re responding to what we’ve seen in, particularly, some of the institutions, in traditional institutions who are trying to duplicate efforts of POC-led institutions that are trying to substitute for a relationship that already exists. And we know this work can only be moved when those relationships exist with organizations on the ground doing the work and that understanding of what it takes to actually invest in the long-term infrastructure that is needed, rather than the one-off, boom-and-bust cycle that a lot of funding continues to go in that way. So, this is really a call to recognize those movement-accountable institutions who have those relationships, and to invest in them, and to reckon with that decision about, “Before I go to start something over here, let me consider what relationships exist on the ground.” And we are inviting other institutions— people of color-led institutions, movement-aligned institutions—to sign on at this time to this letter that is calling for more acknowledgment and investment in us, because we play such an essential role at this time in advancing key strategy for racial justice and self-determination by movement.
I would love to share a story about an organization, COLOR, which is Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights. Colorado has been a particularly interesting state, where the attack on abortion has been very consistent, and COLOR has played a role of beating back various attempts at abortion bans over the years. And just in 2020, they were able to defeat Proposition 115, which is a ballot initiative that would have banned abortions in Colorado after 22 weeks of pregnancy. We invested in seeding their c4 organization called COLOR Action Fund. They were one of only four reproductive justice organizations with c4s at that time. And with our deep partnership and general support dollars, they were able to build an incredible operation that would leverage a good deal of the impact that they had made through the issue organizing to then bring along [and] educate elected officials. And so what was really unique—during the fight against Prop 115, the Latinx-specific strategy that they were implementing was actually a whole lot more effective than some of the general campaign messaging that was being utilized by the larger ballot initiative campaign. Because of their longstanding community organizing with the Latinx community in Colorado, they found that they had to run their own program to ensure that those communities would be represented, particularly in this fight, because they knew it was an issue that their communities had deemed important, and so created a culturally grounded campaign to bring along those communities such that Latinx turnout was at a rate that had never been seen prior. And ultimately, that was a huge win, along with beating back this Prop 115 ballot initiative. We’re really proud to support our organizations who are enacting all strategies to advance bold change.
Jeanne Bell: Thank you so much, and people can go to GroundswellFund.org and look for that open letter to philanthropy to read its calls to action and to sign on, if appropriate. Quanita Toffie, thank you so much for talking to NPQ today, and thank you especially for the work that you and the Fund do to strengthen the reproductive justice infrastructure. We appreciate you.
Quanita Toffie: Thank you so much.