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We Are Grateful for You (December 2020)

Dear Community,

Take a moment and reflect on where we started this year. In January 2020, the U.S. announced its first case of coronavirus, a disease largely unknown to most Americans. The country was about to go to war with Iran and three violent shootings had just occurred, two of them in public schools. Kobe Bryant tragically passed away along with his daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles.

In February the president eked out a lifeline and averted his impeachment. The first American died of coronavirus. Do you remember when the field of democratic presidential candidates rivaled in number a full soccer team? And in February, the delay in the Iowa caucus began a long campaign to sow doubt in the electoral process. As foundations were rounding out their first quarter in the year, many anticipated a strong performance in markets which often dictate operations spending. Hidden Leaf Foundation and many of our grantee partners–grassroots organizations, frontline community organizations and networks, or intermediaries–were moving into full throttle for the big election year. 

Then March. The whole world changed. I remember my last trip away from home. I was in Atlanta with a cohort of other philanthropic colleagues as part of the second class of Thousand Currents Leadership Academy. We were just beginning to build on how we’d join forces to support some much needed shifts in our sector and for the field. While by no means was that work in vain, it certainly did change–because everything changed. 

On March 11 the CDC declared a global pandemic; March 19 the state of California, where we are situated, entered shutdown like most of the country. Businesses, schools, households were thrown into mayhem. There was a run on basic provisions as global supply chains jammed. In April more than one million Americans contracted the disease. By May more than 100,000 had died. The U.S. quickly became the global leader in COVID-19 cases. About this same time: a racial reckoning came to bear on the United States. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, among other Black Americans, sparked protests all over the country. The disproportionate impact of policing on people of color–and particularly on Black people–was matched by the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 on communities of color–and particularly Black communities.

Record numbers of Americans were (and still are) dying, unemployed, doing the double duty of childcare and teaching, barely finding the wherewithal to survive. The world seemed turned on its head and all eyes seemed fixed on what this country would do, how it would treat its citizens, and how it would reckon with the beasts it bore. Many organizations did more than adapt strategies to meet the moment; they innovated past what we could have imagined. The work of 2020 did not happen in a vacuum; organizers were able to pivot rapidly because of a deep commitment to movement building that spans decades. Organized communities vote, rain or shine, pandemic or no pandemic. Without a doubt, there were unforeseen levels of hardship. In November, organizers were turning out on the frontlines even while their communities were dying, hospitalized and struggling with COVID, complicated by historical divestment and disenfranchisement. There is no greater proof of how steadfast they remained and what impact they’ve had than to see the greatest number of Americans turn out to vote in history. It was young people and people of color, Black and brown women, who turned the election and who have been turning out in larger and larger numbers each election of the last four. It was the frontlines and grassroots who did the hard work. 

To support this critical work, Hidden Leaf gave more in grants than we ever have before: $1.8 million. (For a complete list of our grantees please visit our website here.) Like many of our peers, we provided no-strings attached emergency grants to all of our grantee partners in response to the rapid and devastating impact of COVID-19. We also provided a second year of grants to all of our partners while suspending grant applications and reporting requirements for the year. And we made an additional commitment (of $200,000) to support Black movement infrastructure. 

We want to shine a light on the work of the five organizations we have newly funded this year:

  • Chicago Torture Justice Center seeks to address the traumas of police violence and institutionalized racism through access to healing and wellness services, trauma-informed resources, and community connection. The Center is a part of and supports a movement to end all forms of police violence.
  • The Embodiment Institute, a national organization based out of Durham, North Carolina, emerges out of the long-term somatic teaching and on the ground healing justice work of its founder, Prentis Hemphill, who has worked integrating embodied learning and relational transformation into Black movement for nearly a decade. TEI expands on that work to bring political and embodied emotional skills to our broader communities and to expand in our capacity and practice of just relationships.
  • Essie Justice Group is an Oakland, California-based organization of women with incarcerated loved ones taking on the rampant injustices created by mass incarceration. Their award-winning Healing to Advocacy Model brings women together to heal, build collective power, and drive social change. They are building a membership of fierce advocates for race and gender justice — including Black and Latinx women, formerly and currently incarcerated women, transgender women, and gender non-conforming people.
  • Power U organizes and develops the leadership of Black and brown youth and Black women in South Florida so that they may help lead the struggle to liberate all oppressed people. Power U envisions a society free from all forms of oppression in which decisions are made democratically and resources are utilized for the collective benefit of everyone.
  • Youth United for Change’s vision is to develop young leaders in Philadelphia with a critical political, historical, and economic understanding of society, and to empower them to improve the quality of their lives and communities.

As my colleague Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation shared in his article, Why Should it Take a Pandemic to Bring Out the Best in Philanthropy?, philanthropy has pivoted, but how can we make sure that these changes last? We know that investing in this work works. Just look at the results of voter turnout alone for 2020. However, the issues communities organize around persist, well beyond this election. These are the same issues that have been around since the last election and they grow exacerbated by the rapidly growing chasm between poor and rich in this country, the deep and persistent wound of racial injustice, the suppression of the rights of women and girls. The problems our country and our planet face are vast as we look off the cliff of climate change. The amplification of resources from philanthropy in 2020 must persist too.  

How can we ensure that we keep up these practices, working alongside movement instead of against it? The level of trauma and burnout have been tremendous this year. Let’s not forget America has already been in a prolonged racial injustice pandemic. How do we ensure that in the coming years, a collective amnesia doesn’t set in and we revert to old practices that protect our endowments but leave our partners vulnerable? How can we take the best of this crisis to work for all? How do we step into the imagination that there is enough for everyone to thrive and survive so that we can unleash our collective liberation? 

As we move into 2021, we at Hidden Leaf are considering not just how much we are giving in grants but how we move money. How can we share power and decision making with communities? We experimented with sharing decision making around our Black movement infrastructure grants to a working committee consisting of board, staff, and an advisor who has dedicated her life to transformative movement building and Black liberation. We see this as a step in the right direction, and we want to do more. Sharing power liberates us all. 

Hidden Leaf is also considering how we move our investments into community-driven efforts, ensuring that we are building wealth and the local economies that are needed for the long term. In 2021 we are excited about experimenting how we move some of our investments along the same strategy as our grants: into community-led projects, where governance of these assets is shared with the community. We don’t purport to know any answers, but we are blessed and lucky to work alongside Nwamaka Agbo, a trailblazer fighting to restore economies to work for Black, brown, and other communities of color not only left out of the game to begin with but whose wealth has been stripped to create the game in the first place.  Nwamaka introduced us to some peer funders doing amazing work: Regan Pritzker at the Kataly Foundation, Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation, and Sonja Swift of the Swift Foundation. 

When I was hired by Hidden Leaf two years ago, I was the foundation’s first non-family, women-of-color hire. That was a big move for the family and they continue to step into the call. This year the 30+ year old organization expanded the board, once all family, to include me as an ex-officio member. And, still we want to do more to embody our values through shared governance for the sake of realizing our mission of building transformative approaches for a more effective progressive movement. We are in the process of continuing to expand our vision for the board, exploring questions with our partners around how this governance structure can further shift to include community trustees as well as the next generation of the Brown family. 

The ever-present and often elusive question in philanthropy is: but how do we know what we invest in works? There are debates ad nauseum about impact. But this year we saw our grantees (and the movements they are embedded in) truly turn it up and turn it out for an election in the middle of a global pandemic. We as funders of transformative change are witnessing practice in motion, transformation before our very eyes, in our lifetimes. This, as our friends at Organizing Upgrade have been saying all year, is not a drill. As we move into the new year, we at Hidden Leaf hope that we can work with our peers in philanthropy to consider how to share the power that will liberate us all. It’s time to jump on the train and move together at an accelerated pace, taking our cues from the frontlines. 

Wishing you a restful end of year. I hope everyone can take a moment to pause, to empty your cup, as my teacher Norma Wong says. 2021 is merely weeks away. We are buoyed by the news of a vaccine, and yet the road is long. Count on us to be on that journey with you. 

With gratitude and in solidarity, 

Supriya Lopez Pillai

Executive Director