Editors’ note: This article is from NPQ’s spring 2023 issue, “The Space Beyond: Building the Way.”
This is the story of the birth, evolution, and vision of Minnesota’s first Black community foundation.
In May 2020, Minnesota was a catalyst for historical uprising against racial injustice in the world. For many of us in Black communities across Minnesota, our bodies remember that eruption—it was familiar because we’re in a constant state of uprising against the systems, cultures, and narratives that harm us all.
We remember—before the news channels reported it—the video of Brother George Floyd being murdered by police, recorded by seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier, circulating within our social media channels.
We remember joining the people in the streets as they gathered, marched, sang, and chanted—crying for freedom and denouncing the degradation and dehumanization of our people.
We remember protecting our blocks, homes, and businesses as White supremacists targeted our neighborhoods.
We remember mourning Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, who were taken just months before; Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, who were taken just years before; and Daunte Wright and Amir Locke, who would be killed within the two years that followed. And mourning the many more before and after, who will never be forgotten.
We remember holding each other, protecting each other, praying for each other, and taking care of each other.
We remember working many days and nights to ensure that the impact of this collective uprising lasted beyond the moment.
It felt as if our connection was destined. We were building off of the work of previous generations of Black people. Our community, past and present, had paved the way for our power to be rooted in, multiply, and inspire a movement for new philanthropy.
We were called to leverage every ounce of power we had to defend Black life. We knew our people had experienced this before, and that if nothing changed, our people would experience this again. And we knew we had to go beyond defending—we had to dream of a new world and keep moving forward.
And so we did.
In the middle of the uprising, the three of us, Repa Mekha, Chanda Smith Baker, and Lulete Mola, reached out to one another to consider how we could move the philanthropic sector beyond momentary sympathy into accountability, solidarity, and transformation.
It felt as if our connection was destined. We were building off of the work of previous generations of Black people. Our community, past and present, had paved the way for our power to be rooted in, multiply, and inspire a movement for new philanthropy. It was an intergenerational meeting of hearts and minds, all fully present and active in our communities and leading in the sector of philanthropy.
We put forward a vision of a loving world in which each of us and our families could be safe and could live with hope, dignity, and prosperity. And the Philanthropic Collective to Combat Anti-Blackness and Realize Racial Justice—now, the Black Collective Foundation MN—was born.
We Called on Philanthropy to Transform
The work began immediately. As Black people rooted in community and working in philanthropy, we knew that philanthropy is meant to contribute to the greater good but that it has historically perpetuated anti-Blackness and racism. We were also intimately familiar with philanthropy’s proximity to power and to billions of dollars in resources. We wanted to harness that power and capital for our communities.
First, we made a call to philanthropy to step up and commit to taking meaningful action to change systems, practices, and policies within organizations, the field, and society. This included a call to make unprecedented investments in the short- and long-term to support Black movement, infrastructure, leadership, and responsive efforts, along with substantive and ongoing investment in our emerging vision.
This involved asking philanthropic institutions to sign on to a bold and courageous joint statement that amounted to a public declaration of their commitment to racial justice—in order to demonstrate solidarity with the movement and to inspire public accountability of institutional philanthropy, past, present, and future.1 This statement was shaped by a group of Black leaders and additional leaders of various cultures in the field of philanthropy. It was drafted with deep thought, and the intention was for it to act as a living agreement that will continue to inspire and invoke action long after its having been signed. It would be the first time a philanthropic coalition had specifically condemned anti-Blackness, anti-Black police violence, and racism. We dedicated many hours to talking with philanthropic institutional leaders and board members—listening and educating on the importance of the language, context, and vision being set forth.
Reception to this invitation varied. A significant number of partners moved swiftly to sign the statement with the full support of their organizations. A few institutions wound up having to have hard internal conversations, and came to the conclusion that they needed more time but offered to support the cause through funding the work and continuing their education and relationship with us. And some met the moment—and continue to meet the many moments that have followed—with inaction.
The spectrum of responses gave us important information regarding the opportunities for and barriers to change. With this knowledge and clarity, we forged forward. We established grounding values for our emerging work, including the following:
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- Belief in the abundance of resources and possibilities
- Commitment to combating anti-Blackness—the distinct and violent targeting of Black people and Black power—through centering Black dignity, power, and culture
- Recognition of the critical role of principled struggle—Black people hold varied beliefs and approaches to how change happens, and this must be taken into account when working toward change2
We Gathered, Studied, and Listened
We followed that initial call with a learning series that brought together people of great power in philanthropy to address anti-Blackness and work toward realizing racial justice in philanthropy. We invited movement leaders and members of our community into these spaces of power to define and contextualize the uprising as it unfolded in real time.
Our most impactful session took place as the Derek Chauvin trial began, in March 2021, and we pivoted from our original plans to pause and reflect. We invited guests to join an intimate conversation about what it meant to the three of us to live in a time of radical hope and despair. During the conversation, we opened up our intimate space to share our personal connection to the movement for Black lives, Black struggle, and Black joy. We discussed our ongoing grief and pain in the face of racial injustice.
We learned just how hungry Black leaders in philanthropy are for a stronger sense of connectedness to each other and to the sector.
Sometimes, it felt like we couldn’t breathe. Other times, it felt like we were living in a once-in-a-lifetime, limited moment of opportunity to bring forth tangible systemic and cultural change. Often, we felt both these things at once. Living within our bodies and within our communities, while pushing one of the most powerful sectors in the world—philanthropy—to transform, took a toll on us. We put everything on the line—our time, resources, jobs, hearts, and minds—and led with vulnerability and courage to challenge the making and function of a system that often did not include or believe in people like us.
As we engaged in the dialogue, we called in the work of ancestors and scholars Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, and others to shape the conversation. We leaned into what that particular moment was asking of us: truth and transparency. And then we imagined out loud what justice would feel like for each of us.
That particular session was special for many reasons. First, we needed it: before we are leaders—or any title at any organization—we are impacted individuals who love our people. The session allowed us to process in real time and connect our hearts to the work that was unfolding before us. Second, we learned that Black folks in our fellow philanthropic institutions also needed it. They expressed how important it was for them to witness their own experiences mirrored in the people leading the work to shift the sector. We learned just how hungry Black leaders in philanthropy are for a stronger sense of connectedness to each other and to the sector. These folks exist as changemakers in unique and often misunderstood positions, having to transform (often) historically White foundations while simultaneously being present and accountable to/in their communities. The need for intentional spaces for collectively breathing, for reprieve, and for healing was urgent. In response, we created our ongoing social, “Rooting for Everybody Black!”—a space for connectedness, mentorship, relationship building, and learning.3
During this time, we continued engaging with hundreds of individuals, staff, board members, and partners in the sector, along with many others in our community. We asked all to partner with us in an emergent process, allowing trust, space, and time for the work to become.
We engaged with communities most impacted by racial injustice in the process of identifying our strategic direction, as we sought to better understand the opportunities and obstacles in Minnesota’s funding ecosystem; identify strategic opportunities to have impact in combating anti-Blackness and realizing racial justice; and refine the goals and structure of the collective. This deep and intentional listening revealed the following clear and urgent objectives:
- Build a Black foundation to shift philanthropic power, so that Black communities are making the decisions regarding resource allocation.
- Influence the philanthropic field to adequately advance racial justice by inspiring, supporting, and transforming philanthropy to be in power-shifting solidarity.
- Sustain and grow the capacity and wellbeing of Black-led change, including leaders and organizations.
With this strong vision for our next steps, one of our cofounders (and a cowriter of this article), Lulete Mola, stepped into the role of president, and we began forming what exists today as Minnesota’s first Black community foundation.
In this time of heightened danger, unrest, and urgency, we had been leaning on Black leaders in positions of power and influence to move resources and provide infrastructure support in partnership with leaders on the ground. And as we built our organization, we leaned on Nexus Community Partners, led by another of our cofounders (and a cowriter of this article), Repa Mekha, to provide such support to us. As we were refining our vision, organizing support, and emerging, Nexus—which for over a decade has supported community- building initiatives, expanded community wealth, and fostered social and human capital—served as a container of our work by providing fiscal and operational support. (And we recorded our own experiences of emergence so that we could replicate what worked and fill in gaps in what we needed as we sought to create a thriving ecosystem of Black-led change.)
We’re supporting Black-led change through creative grantmaking that invests in the unique and special ways that Black-led change happens—from legacy organizations to emerging ideas to underground change to innovative initiatives.
We Advanced the Genius of Black-Led Change
We believe that Black people hold the solutions that can set us all free. Since May 2020, we have lived through a changing world of hope, tragedy, resilience, and possibility. Today, we share with you the realization of a historical uprising: Minnesota’s first Black community foundation, the Black Collective Foundation MN, whose mission is to amplify and invest in Black-led social, political, and economic change so that it reaches its full capacity of impact for good.
Since forming, we have done the following:
- Raised $5 million to catalyze the work
- Expanded Black philanthropic power through our Community Builders Practice—a program that trains and engages members of our community in racial justice philanthropy
- Gathered changemakers across the community
- Disbursed over $1 million through participatory grantmaking to advance the genius of Black-led change—and are poised to distribute millions more
- Influenced the narrative of racial justice philanthropy
- Continued strengthening our institutional infrastructure
Building infrastructure for this level of change will take time, but we’re working relentlessly toward bringing our vision to life in a sustainable way. A key method for this is creating an endowment, which will ensure that we are building community wealth that allows self-determination and income in perpetuity for the genius of Black-led change. In addition, we’re leading critical research on Black-led change and racial justice, and using that learning to systematize the culture of philanthropy in our communities through new iterations of donor-advised funds, participatory grantmaking, and additional tools of philanthropy.
We’re supporting Black-led change through creative grantmaking that invests in the unique and special ways that Black-led change happens—from legacy organizations to emerging ideas to underground change to innovative initiatives. We’re creating soulful spaces where Black changemakers can gather, get the personal and collective support they need to sustain their work, and build power. In a journal entry, futuristic author Octavia Estelle Butler once wrote, “All good things must begin.”4 Our collective work emerged from a time of tragedy, and today begins again as a vision of possibility. Together, we are advancing the genius of Black-led change to build a community where all Black people are holistically well and live in dignity and prosperity.
- Black Collective Foundation MN, “Joint Statement,” accessed February 9, 2023, minnesotablackcollectivefoundation.org/joint-statement.
- See adrienne maree brown, “A Call to Attention Liberation: To Build Abundant Justice, Let’s Focus on What Matters,” Truthout, March 16, 2018, truthout.org/articles/a-call-to-attention-liberation-to-build-abundant-justice-let-s-focus-on-what-matters/.
- See “Strengthening the Ecosystem” in “Signature Practices,” Black Collective Foundation MN, accessed March 14, 2023, minnesotablackcollectivefoundation.org/signature-practices.
- See Austin Kleon (blog), “All good things must begin,” June 23, 2020, austinkleon.com/2020/06/23/all-good-things-must-begin/.