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Black Equity Collective Is Transforming the Relationship Between Philanthropy and the Black Community

Five organizational leaders come together at a community-building retreat for executive leaders funded as part of the Black Equity Initiative.

Our issue is the sustainability and organizational resiliency of Black-led and Black-empowering organizations. We bring the worlds of philanthropy and community together to be in strategic relationship around the issue of Black equity for the long haul,” said Kaci Patterson, founder and chief architect of the Black Equity Collective (BEC), a grantee in our Leading for Power and Change portfolio.

Even though BEC officially launched in January 2021, the network has been operating for nearly four years under the name Black Equity Initiative. Since 2017, BEC has been supporting Black-led and Black-empowering organizations with grants, leadership development, capacity building and community building through convenings.

We spoke to Kaci Patterson on December 10, 2020, and were deeply inspired by BEC’s vision for Black equity and resiliency of Black-led community organizations. Among many things, we spoke about how philanthropy can support Black visionaries and leaders, what Black organizations really need to thrive and why stamina should be a requirement for philanthropy and deep rest a necessity for community leaders. Our conversation with Kaci Patterson has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Kaci Patterson headshot close up
The only way that these issues will stay in the public domain, the only way that we'll advance equity and justice and liberation, is if philanthropy keeps the window open.

Kaci Patterson

Cal Wellness: Black Equity Collective is such a visionary organization. Can you tell us your origin story?

Kaci Patterson: The Collective was born out of the Black Equity Initiative, which was launched in 2017 with fifteen Black-led and Black-empowering organizations between Los Angeles and San Bernardino. We focused on three issue areas: education, workforce, and criminal justice. We did it as a cohort model, so in addition to the grants that the organizations received from our funder, the JIB Fund at JMC Philanthropy, I facilitated regular convenings over a four-year period.

The JIB Fund was focused on Black equity and was explicit and unapologetic about investing in Black people over time. But the organizations implored us to elevate this conversation in philanthropy overall. “It was wonderful that JIB gets it,” they told us, “but JIB can't be the only funder. How do we have a larger conversation about how Black people and Black issues get erased in larger community of color discussions? How do we ensure that we have specific, strategic and intentional investment in Black work?”

In 2019, we held a funders convening that brought funders and the organizations together. Most funder convenings don't actually include organizations. And most organization convenings don't include funders, not substantively. A funder may participate in a panel discussion and leave soon after. But we intentionally designed the convening to connect these two worlds and build and bridge relationships.

Coming out of that convening I started to see that there was a little bit of blinding happening with the Initiative. I started to see that funders were looking at the Initiative as the work of Black equity. As in, "If we just funded these 15 organizations and we basically did what JIB is doing, then we would be doing Black equity." There was a danger in that. It was too myopic. As I continued having conversations with funders, I understood I needed to pull back the lens and put the Initiative in the context of a larger framework of Black equity. Black equity was more than just funding these 15 organizations in these three issue areas and doing convenings. That's the Initiative, but that's not Black equity.

So I started to talk about the Initiative as a pilot, as an example of what good grant-making could look like from a Black-equity perspective. As an experiment in what could happen if we, as funders, took the same kind of approach that the Initiative took. If we were unapologetic about the community that we wanted to invest in. If we took a long view and invested over time. If we matched the dollars to the significance of the cause. And if we allowed the leaders to guide and direct our investments. What could we transform if we took that approach?

During one of our convenings, we spent an entire day casting a 10-year vision for Black equity. And in one day, these 15 organizational leaders came up with a 10-year vision. That vision is the Collective. I took that vision, put it to paper and started to say: All right. If we believe the work of Black equity is important and if we believe that we need sustained investment to move the work forward, then we have to have more than one funder at the table. We have to think about how do we transition from what has been an initiative into a broader table of funders, issues and organizations. That led us through an eight-month-long planning process. And that’s how the Collective was born.

Kaci Patterson talks about the "synergistic and necessary relationship" between community and philanthropy. [Read here the transcript of all audio clips in this story.]

Today, the work of the Black Equity Collective is to fundamentally change the relationship between philanthropy and the Black community. Often, we think about the capacity that needs to be built in communities and in organizations. But we rarely think about capacity that needs to be built in philanthropy. And if we're honest, there's a lot of capacity that philanthropy needs to build about how to work well and effectively with Black communities. And that's what we're offering to philanthropy. At the same time, what we're offering to communities is an opportunity to think about their sustainability and their infrastructure. To be issue-agnostic because the Collective is issue-agnostic. Our issue is the sustainability and organizational resiliency of Black-led and Black-empowering organizations. It’s bringing the worlds of philanthropy and community together to be in strategic relationship around the issue of Black equity for the long haul.

What do funders need to know to better support Black-led nonprofits?

Kaci Patterson: We hear so much that we're in a moment. That George Floyd and the racial uprising broke open a moment. A moment that has produced a movement. And so we often talk about how do we go from a moment to a sustained movement.

I actually describe this period as a window. It's a window that can stay open. It's a window that can slam shut. Or, it’s a window that can slowly close. There's a visual that I have of a window that's about to close, but you use a prop to keep the window open. I actually see philanthropy as that prop. The only way that these issues will stay in the public domain, the only way that we'll advance equity and justice and liberation, is if philanthropy keeps the window open with funding so that organizations can continue to push the narrative, the systems, the systemic change, and the structural transformation that's required.

Government will never change itself. It's not designed to. Business will never change itself, because its motivation is profit and the bottom line, not humanity and the human condition. But philanthropy's motivation is humanity and the human condition. So, it is imperative that funders think about their obligation to keep the window of equity open, so that we don't revert back.

We could just look at the pandemic to see that there is fatigue. There is fatigue, and we all want to revert back to what's familiar and what's comfortable, because we get tired. And I completely understand that. And yet, when it comes to equity and justice and liberation and human dignity, we cannot get tired of that work. We cannot revert back to familiar oppression. We have to push ourselves to demand more, to require more of our systems, of our elected officials, of our communities, of our enterprises. We have to do that work. And the role of philanthropy as the funding fuel source to keep those vehicles of change driving is so important.

"What I think Black organizations really need is time. Because what we know about the culture of white supremacy is that everything has to happen now, and it has to be perfect. There is no room for error." —Kaci Patterson

What do Black organizations in California need right now to thrive?

Kaci Patterson: I think the obvious thing is to say that they need resources. But I think what they really need is time. Because what we know about the culture of white supremacy is that everything has to happen now, and it has to be perfect. There is no room for error. And I think that if we actually allow the work time to breathe—to breathe the air that it needs to breathe—then we will get so much further.

Another thing Black organizations really need is for funders to rethink their framing around risk. Oftentimes, funders think about risk as if it's a risk to them. As if funding an organization that doesn't have a large budget, that doesn't have a long institutional history, that doesn't have a leader who is an influencer, that they’re not funding the sure thing and therefore taking a risk.

That is fundamentally untrue, because the risk is almost entirely on the community organization. It's entirely on the nonprofit and the leaders. Because if it doesn't work out for them, if they take on some work and it is not successful, not only does it do reputational harm to them, which can potentially prevent future funding, but more importantly, lives are at stake if their work is unsuccessful. As funders, the same is not true. The stakes aren't that high if an investment doesn't work out. You make a decision to not make that investment again and you move on. But there is no personal or organizational risk to funders in supporting Black-led organizations.

So I think what Black-led organizations need is for funders to reframe their thinking around risk and to understand that the greater risk to the human condition—the greater risk to justice and liberation failing—is funders not investing in their organizations.

What is your proudest achievement since launching BEC?

Kaci Patterson: I am most proud of the trust and the camaraderie that we've been able to cultivate through a participatory co-design process. That we’re listening to Black leaders in philanthropy as much as we're listening to Black leaders in community. I am proud of the fact that we could bring a vision to life. I mentioned that we spent a day in a room together, wrote down our vision on chart paper, and then translated that chart paper into a concept paper, and then translated that concept paper into a planning process, and then translated that planning process into an implementation plan, which we're set to launch in January 2021.

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about the way we are collectively working for social change, what would it be?

In closing, is there anything you’d like to share with our readers?

Kaci Patterson: I would change the stamina for equity. We have very short attention spans as human beings. We have even shorter attention spans as Americans. We have incredibly short attention spans as funders. And yet organizations—not just Black organizations but all organizations in community—they don't work that way. They don't get tired. They don't dial it in. They don't move on. They can't!

I would change that inertia, that knee-jerk inertia in philanthropy to chase the next big opportunity when the opportunity for justice and liberation has been staring us in the face for decades. The same thing that Black folks were crying out about in the '60s about police brutality, the Watts Uprising, is the same thing that we've been crying out after the Rodney King beating. It's the same thing after Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin. It's the same thing after George Floyd. Our message hasn't changed. The only thing that's changed is that ears, hearts and minds are open. But for how long? How long before people get too tired of confronting racism? So, that’s what I would change. We need more stamina in our sector. Until the change has come, we will not move on.

Kaci Patterson: I played a lot of sports growing up, so I use a lot of sports analogies. I compare this work to being an elite athlete. We have organizers, community healers, funders, visionaries who are on par with elite athletes. They are as exceptional at their craft as elite athletes are. They train and prepare for their work as intentionally as elite athletes do.

And besides the main difference being the amount of money they get paid, the other difference is that athletes value recovery, rest, healing, refocus and restoration. They have an off season. Not a day, a whole season just to be off and prepare for the next round of what they're about to put their body through. I think that if we begin to think about our healers, our organizers, and our visionaries as elite athletes, we will invest in them differently. We will invest in them in a way that ensures their longevity and sustainability as human beings, not just for the work.

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