Two recent, alarming trends drove the foundation I lead, Liberty Hill, to seek out newer, smaller organizations with shorter track records and tiny budgets. In the process, we became newly acquainted with many groups carrying out innovative approaches to building power — and realized we had to change how we operate in order to support them. The lack of funding these organizations receive should challenge other foundations with commitments to equity to ask whether our practices truly serve our principles.
The first trend that made us reconsider our own grantmaking was an effect of rapid gentrification. Black and brown people, driven out of metropolitan Los Angeles into “civic deserts” in commuter cities, found themselves with little access to political power, despite rising numbers. What groups, we wanted to know, were addressing these issues? The second trend was the emergence of organizations representing underresourced constituencies such as transgender, Indigenous, and Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander people.
Liberty Hill had always prioritized early, consistent and flexible investing in multiracial, immigrant-serving, community-organizing groups. Even so, as we sought to expand our reach, we found no shortage of groups making exciting departures from the models that the foundation had typically supported through four decades.
The examples are many and inspiring:
Indigenous Pride Los Angeles is the only organization for Native/Indigenous Queer people in LA. IPLA runs groups and wellness programs for this population and then connects attendees to organizing campaigns. IPLA has called out the lack of a single support group in L.A. for queer indigenous youth to address their mental health issues. Other Indigenous groups lead land-back campaigns and demand representation on public advisory bodies using organizing and power-building approaches rooted in their cultural practices, which look very different from traditional organizing.
An emerging housing justice group called the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action uses a grassroots legal services model that works to reduce reliance on lawyers and a broken court system, based in abolitionist principles. With support from staff attorneys, LACCLA organizers train residents to defend themselves and each other from evictions and abusive and illegal practices by landlords. This innovative combination of legal services, organizing and mutual aid is building power for tenants to address immediate needs and long-term systems change.
Rideshare Drivers United has warned that many Uber drivers are homeless because Uber reduced driver pay rates to increase profits for investors as they took their company public. RUD has developed innovative software and digital organizing strategies to organize a workforce whose atomization and separation are intrinsic to the industry’s business model.
In Chinatown, groups such as the Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA) have raised the bar for youth organizing by taking on complex land use issues to stave off gentrification, while also operating COVID vaccination clinics because government cannot reach these residents with culturally competent language and outreach. Chinatown Community for Equitable Development has shown us that Chinatown has no grocery stores, laundromat or hospital, it is the poorest neighborhood in L.A., and is advocating for innovative community development models.
Often working beneath the radar, these innovators challenge our understanding of what community organizing is and can be. With minimal outside investment, they build long-term resilience from the inside out, using internal organizational structures and leadership practices that center racial and gender equity and healing justice to address burnout, trauma and inadequate resources.
Where we found barriers, we opened doors
Recognizing this need left us with a challenge — how could we invest in these innovative approaches and critical new geographies and constituencies while maintaining our support for our long-term partners with broad reach, who have come to serve as anchors for the L.A. social justice movement?
New models of power-building and engagement can’t develop when groups are bound by typical grant application processes and standard assessment criteria. To stay true to our values, Liberty Hill had to overturn our assumptions. We had to expand outreach, make radical accommodations and increase endowment spending.
First, we held discussions, surveys and focus groups. Zoom meetings opened up corners of Los Angeles County that we hadn’t yet invested in, where community experts helped us understand how little we knew.
Second, we removed our letter-of-intent process in favor of an alignment survey, shortened our application, removed requirements for grantees, and began accepting grant proposals that had already been written for other funders. We interrogated every step of our process in order to make “radical accommodations” such as arranging for language interpretation. Where we found barriers, we created doors, and we invited these “rising activists” — our name for this new cohort — to walk through them. And one significant bonus of these new practices was that they not only helped us connect with these innovative organizations, they also helped us build even deeper trust with those anchor groups that we already thought we knew.
Finally, we had to ask what kind of trust we would build if we told groups that their work was worth funding — but that we weren’t going to fund it. Our Community Funding Board, made up of organizers and front-line experts, advised that we make grants to every one of the 19 qualified organizations. Doubling our grantmaking budget, this would throw us into deficit — unless we tripled our typical annual endowment spend, smashing past the 5 to 7% level recommended by California’s Attorney General.
I grew up in poverty; a scarcity mindset is deep in my bones. But our endowment investments, like most foundations’, had prospered throughout the COVID years. What, exactly, were we saving up resources for if not this exact moment? Our board approved the withdrawal.
Rising to the moment
It wasn’t a moment too soon. After the pandemic hit, these rising activists had gone into overdrive, and they were simultaneously proving their worth anew while also straining themselves to meet the need in their communities.
They created networks for mutual aid, providing food, child care and money to keep the lights on. Many pivoted from political organizing to dropping groceries at members’ homes. They provided life-saving public health information to communities that did not trust or have access to government programs. Members of Rideshare Drivers United even reallocated stimulus to one another based on need in a jaw-dropping display of solidarity and mutual care.
Ultimately, leaving our comfort zone was less risky than remaining inside it. To donors and grantees alike, bold moves in support of equity demonstrate our long-term health. Donors perk up when they see that they’re making a difference. Partners are more likely to trust us. Fellow foundations will be more likely to follow our lead. And they should.
It’s natural to have blind spots when it comes to standard operating procedure — even for Liberty Hill, known for investing in risk-taking, grassroots activism — but those blind spots give us a dangerously narrow view of a vital ecosystem. If application processes and fiscal practices prevent investment in small, innovative, lesser-known organizations, those processes and practices have to change.
The activists’ rising, life-saving importance during the pandemic reinforces this point. We can’t, on the one hand, rely on organizations to fix holes in our safety net, and, on the other hand, not fund them to do that work. And if we want to understand how badly that safety net failed marginalized communities, we should start by asking the people who proved capable of serving them.
To preserve the legacy that has been passed down to us, we must constantly question our assumptions. Only then can we hand that legacy to the next generation in a form we can be proud of.
For a list of emerging power-building organizations in L.A. with budgets under $500,000, visit our website.