Sanjiv Lingayah: This should be the year that funders get serious about racial justice

Funders must invest in long term support strategies for a racial justice movement powerful enough to transform society

After a tumultuous 2020, civil society has begun to wake up to its racism problem. In the charity sector there has been more interest in racial justice and organisations have committed themselves to change

In the context of Black Lives Matter and Covid-19, funders have scrambled to get some emergency funding to support civil society efforts led by or for racially minoritised people. 

While welcome, it is clear that much more resourcing is required. The difficulties in getting money to where it is needed have also revealed the great divide that exists between mainstream funders and racially minoritised populations.

In 2021, we need funders to move from rapid response mode to being long-term and strategic about how they support a racial justice movement powerful enough to transform our society. 

Any strategy of this sort needs a framework for how social change is made. There is no single "correct" template for how to do social change – there are just models. 

One helpful model is social movement ecology. It suggests that funders should invest in an ecology of change built around four main types of interventions: 

  1. Changing dominant institutions

Work for institutional change includes gaining concessions from the state, corporations or other institutions where power resides. Examples include efforts to decolonise universities and to change school curricula.

  1. Supporting, developing and healing impacted populations

These initiatives help people experiencing racism. This work includes providing resources to civil society organisations directly assisting racially minoritised populations experiencing difficulties, e.g., because of Covid-19.  It can also involve work to bring people together, to heal harms from racism and to help impacted people to lead change.

  1. Developing alternative arrangements

This group of interventions includes the work of people who try to illustrate what the future should look like. This includes alternatives to conventional policing or to mass incarceration. In this way advocates can say that another world is possible, and they can provide the blueprints and proposals to show how to get there.

  1. Shifting mental models. 

A fourth domain, is about dismantling mental models that sustain racially hierarchical thinking and racist systems. This includes efforts to illuminate how racism is broadcast, normalised and even celebrated; as well as reflective work on why talking about racism can be uncomfortable for some. 

The SME model suggests that the power of a change movement involves some kind of "balance" of activity and investment across each of the four different modes of intervention.

In other words, anti-racism must be as multi-dimensional and complex as racism is.

It is worth noting that funding tends to skew towards "winnable" gains in institutional practice and policy change as well as some emergency provision – as during the pandemic. 

But funding tends to ignore broader efforts to dismantle some of the underpinning ideas of racism, and those that develop far-reaching alternatives to embed racial equity in our society.

We need funders prepared to break out of these comfort zones so that we can all set our sights higher in pursuit of racial justice. 

Thinking ecologically about movements does not make funding decisions easy. There are still dilemmas for funders, including who to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to, given that money is finite. 

And the SME model does not eliminate power imbalances in funder-funded relations nor end the need to develop independent/community-generated and overseen sources of funding for anti-racism. 

However, it does help to productively focus the conversation on what it takes to deliver racial justice, and the role of funders in supporting this endeavour.

Remodelling funding for racial justice will take time – but significant progress can be made this year. 

And there are two other dimensions of funding that it is important to get right in 2021. 

One is to continue emergency funding to support civil society efforts to mitigate disproportionate harms in the pandemic experienced by racially minoritised populations. 

The concern is that some of the funding may soon dry up leaving organisations led by racially minoritised people, and those that they serve, facing a cliff edge.

The other issue is that funders must invest in changing their own institutional cultures to deepen their commitment to racial justice.

Among other things, this means understanding that people from racially minoritised backgrounds who work for funders have done a lot of recent heavy lifting to advance the conversation on ‘race’ and racism. 

Many of these staff start 2021 exhausted from their efforts of the past year. We need funders that understand this, and allow their racially minoritised staff to be at the forefront of the agenda on racial justice, but not be left to carry the burden of the work. 

This is a big year for funders and it is a big year for racial justice. We must hope that 2020 does not come to be viewed as the year of "peak anti-racism"; there is so much more work to do.

We need funders to make an explicit long-term commitment to investing in racial justice and to do so with real purpose and with strategic intent.

Sanjiv Lingayah is an independent researcher, writer and consultant

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