Collaborating to Advance Justice for Women: Solidago Foundation

Sarah Christiansen of Solidago Foundation discusses their unique “solidarity economy” approach to funding.

Solidago Foundation might only have $5 million in assets, but you wouldn’t know it from their leadership among social justice funders, especially when it comes to supporting women at the grassroots.

“We are small, we don’t move a lot of dollars, but we move big ideas and are deeply committed to being in community in the arena where we hold our positional power,” said Sarah Christiansen, the Program Director for Environmental Justice and Inclusive Economy.

This outsized role is highly visible in the nascent funding for solidarity economy, an organizing framework that often overlaps with new economy, economic democracy, cooperative economy, and/or inclusive economy. It is characterized by economic initiatives and enterprises that are community-controlled, democratic, sustainable, committed to social and racial justice, mutualistic, cooperative, and respectful of diverse approaches.

Historically, solidarity economy is a term used in the global South to describe anti-capitalist innovations emerging from a desire for self-determination. Typically, the concept includes models such as community land trusts, worker cooperatives, community-supported agriculture, food cooperatives, community gardens, housing cooperatives, credit unions, barter networks, time banks, and cooperative loan funds, among others. Women form a disproportionately large percentage of the people engaged in forging and sustaining solidarity economies globally and in the United States, often as a response to discrimination and abuse in the larger economy.

Solidago Foundation was among the first funders to support organizations explictly focused on the solidarity economy, starting with the United States Solidarity Economy Network in 2009, based in the fund’s home region of Western Massachussetts. Since then, this commitment has grown to include the Solidarity Economy Initiative, a collaboration among eight funders to grow economic democracy in Massachussetts. To date the fund has provided $425,000 to fifteen groups, supporting the Boston Community Land Trust Network to create affordable housing land trusts, the Boston Ujima Project to provide a community-governed capital fund for new enterprises, and the Massachusetts Jobs not Jails campaign for prison divestment and investment in ex-prisoner co-op enterprises. The Solidarity Economy Initiative has also raised $500,000 to invest into revenue-generating enterprises like cooperatives.

This support was a natural outgrowth of Solidago’s work funding independent political power building. There was a realization among both grantees and staff that independent political power could not be achieved without independent economic power too.

“All these amazing movement groups do incredible things, but there’s a gap in how they relate to finance, investment, and revenue. These groups are doing things like fighting for higher wages or pushing for a particular piece of legislation, or lobbying for more public revenue to be earmarked for their communities. Many of them are women of color, and they can’t always access the capital because of the racial wealth divide,” Christiansen said. Unsurprisingly, many of the grantees that Solidago already works with on climate and political power were also eager to address the issue of financial access.

This led Solidago to begin supporting democratic community financing vehicles like Democratizing Capital East Bay. “If the deeply principled financial vehicles don’t exist, how can we catalyze them?” Sarah asked. The solutions look different depending on the local economy and the landscape of community development financial institutions. Solidago works with each community to identify the strategy.

While this kind of support for solidarity economy, and explicitly feminist economic organizing, might be relatively new in its structure, Solidago has always supported women, and especially women of color, both in their grantmaking and in their work organizing funders.

“It has been clear from the beginning that no matter what we’re doing, we need to think about whose voice we’re lifting up. Every time we organize with funders or have a chance to speak, we make sure that we’re being clear of who is visible, which voice?” said Christiansen.

She also referenced Solidago’s commitment to become more explicit with efforts at racial diversity. “I spend my time on organizing within philanthropy. It’s a big part of my role to think about where the women of color are in philanthropy and how can I as a white woman make sure to use my privilege to support their leadership and work.“