Joy-Centric Movement Building: NoVo Partners With Consortium to Empower Southern Black Girls

Movement Builder LaTosha Brown is leading a new consortium of organizations in the Southeastern U.S. dedicated to empowering women and girls of color. (photo credit: TruthSpeaks Consulting Facebook photo)

Despite the myriad challenges that young Black women face in the U.S. South, only 5.4 percent of all foundation funding in this region is focused on women and girls, and less than 1 percent on Black women and girls. To address this imbalance and empower southern Black females, LaTosha Brown of TruthSpeaks Consulting is coordinating a new initiative called the Southern Black Girls and Women’s Consortium (the Consortium), with support from the NoVo Foundation (NoVo). Brown has a clear, creative vision for this work, which she plans to orient around listening to Black girls and “Black joy.”

NoVo’s Partnership With Southern Black Girls and Women’s Consortium

In the fall of 2018, NoVo, one of the largest private foundations advocating for gender equality, announced a partnership with the Consortium, which is a collective of funders, activists, and community leaders. Along with regional grantmaking, the Consortium will coordinate efforts and support opportunities to provide spaces for healing, political education, and capacity building for movements centered on and led by Black females of diverse ages.

Brown, who has a background in philanthropic advisory and social-impact philanthropy, recently spoke with Philanthropy Women to discuss one of the main challenges of advancing this work in a region that has been “deeply, deeply under-invested in.” She sees a “delicate dance and balancing act” ahead as they work to address historical barriers of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism while also creating new programs and avenues of support for Black girls.

“I think part of the challenge is being able to build and tear down at the same time,” says Brown. “To tear down those barriers that have had a disproportionate impact on Black girls, while, at the same time, building a new vision and creating a new framework.”

NoVo’s decision to team up with the Consortium marks the beginning of a new and essential stage in the foundation’s seven-year, $90 million commitment to strengthen its work with women of color in the U.S. — the biggest commitment ever made by a private foundation to address the structural inequities facing this population. In accord with the foundation’s core strategies of valuing the experiences of and empowering those most impacted by social injustice, the Consortium is coordinated by Black women in philanthropy, activism, and work with girls who, like Brown, have robust experience movement-building in the Southeast.

Women of color, having once been girls of color, are uniquely suited to steer this undertaking. Girls of color themselves will be included in the development of the evolving consortium, as they were in its selection by NoVo. After announcing the new giving strategy in 2016, NoVo spent a year conducting listening sessions with girls of color, movement leaders, and organizers, many in the South, Southeast, and Midwest, along with urban centers where it has established partners. Jennifer and Peter Buffett, NoVo co-presidents and board chairs, also conducted a similar listening process internationally when developing the focus for their foundation more than a decade ago. After the recent listening tour, NoVo requested national proposals for resourcing the movement for girls of color in the Southeast, and with the help of an advisory committee experienced in these fields, chose the Consortium as its core partner.

“Our goal is to create the conditions for change by advancing the work of the real experts in this movement: girls and young women of color and the advocates working with them,” Peter Buffett said of the new undertaking.

The strategy of zeroing in on young women of color aligns with NoVo’s missions of promoting adolescent girls’ rights in the U.S. and Global South and ending violence against girls and women. And, the Consortium’s mission can be seen as part of NoVo’s work to advance social and emotional learning and local community engagement. The new undertaking and partnership also recognizes the historically proven abilities of females of color to solve societal problems; the foundation lists notable activists Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hammer as inspirations.

In a similar vein, Brown says that in girls’ communities, there is “a lineage of women that feed into each other,” which is key to the Consortium. She describes its efforts as multigenerational, wherein girls’ mothers, aunts, and grandmothers are “very much a part of this work.”

NoVo Executive Director Pamela Shifman tells us, “We know that girls and women of color are powerful agents in addressing the systemic and structural racism, sexism and other forms of oppression facing communities.” Shifman also noted that the leadership of women and girls of color “has been largely overlooked by philanthropy and is long overdue.”

The Southern Black Girls and Women’s Consortium is also supported by the Appalachian Community Fund (ACF), the Fund for Southern Communities (FSC), and the Black Belt Community Foundation (BBCF). The BBCF, led by President Felecia Lucky, carries out grantmaking in Alabama‘s “Black Belt,” an area named for its rich soil that stretches across the middle of the state from Mississippi to near the Georgia line.

The foundation’s mission is to infuse this region with resources “that make a lasting impact,” with the guiding “idea that those living and working in the Black Belt best [know] the area’s challenges and opportunities.” The emphasis on trusting community members as change-makers resonates with both NoVo’s and the Consortiums’ goals, as does the BBCF’s statement that it values “the strengths of pluralistic communities where economic, racial, and social justice are practiced in a spirit of trust and sincerity.”

FSC’s work also lines up nicely with the Consortium’s plans.

“In a nutshell, FSC’s mission is to support organizations working to create just and sustainable communities through grant-making,” Executive Director Alice Jenkins says. She thinks the vision of the Consortium “perfectly and directly aligns” with this mission, pointing out that FSC and the Consortium also both seek to support “nontraditional and startup groups working to advance the work initiated by Black girls and women.”

Likewise, Margo Miller, executive director of ACF, sees the partnership with NoVo and the Consortium “as a real opportunity to lift up and bring much-needed resources and attention to rural areas like the Appalachian region in support of the creativity and power of Black girls in the South.”

The Consortium’s First Steps 

During the next year, the Consortium’s leadership team will create a strategic work plan. It will partners with girls and their adult supporters in the field, design an infrastructure to manage grantmaking and additional capacities, and bolster related social movements.

Brown says listening will continue to be a core principle of the Consortium’s work. “The one thing that I often hear more than anything else from young people, and particularly young people of color, is that they do not feel listened to,” says Brown. “We will make sure Black girls are centered in the decision-making process from the start.”

Brown also wants the Consortium’s work to help Black youth question and decide what they think power actually is and what it means to them. “Creating and embracing the opportunity for Black girls to really be able to seek and define power for themselves is transformation,” says Brown.

Brown’s Philosophy of Change: Listening, Joy, Power, and Freedom

Black girls and women experience many obstacles and disparities. For example, from the start of their lives, girls of color are more likely to face poverty, child sexual abuse, public harassment, school suspension, and dating violence than their white peers.

Brown acknowledges that these types of stats can drive engagement, and “as a grown-up Black girl,” she knows that for many of these young people, their “orientation of being comes from a place of pain.” But, she is quick to point out that the Consortium will be initiated from a place of Black joy, and of “creating spaces to lift up and celebrate the beauty, diversity, innovation, and creativity of Black girls.”

Brown envisions joy as the driver for the healing that is part of the Consortium’s mission. “Joy [is] a vehicle to open up spaces for healing, spaces to build relationships, to break down protection mechanisms — these barriers that we have to our connection,” says Brown. “We’ve seen how that works; how a little bit of joy can just create a whole bunch of trust and space for people to communicate and to open up. And so the healing is not framed by victimization but within the frame of survivorship and the concept of joy.”

While working to build an infrastructure for regional grantmaking and movement building, this joy-centric consortium-in-the-making will provide resources to locally-based organizations, including those outside of traditional nonprofits. Brown says these may include networks and organizations carrying out intersectional and cultural work. She foresees that fields like music and art will be harnessed as powerful points of connection, expression, and empowerment for Black girls. She has a background in music herself and has always found freedom of expression to be a strong root for selfhood.

“I really believe that being encouraged by my family to use my creativity and my imagination gave me faith that the world didn’t give me,” she says of her own youth. She shares that while her school experiences were often filled with stifling expectations of how Black girls should behave, her family supported her curious, questioning, and free-spirited nature.

“My family was traditional about children respecting adults, but they created space for who I was as a very independent person,” she says, recalling being allowed to climb a tree in her patent leather shoes as a memorable example.

Drawing on her own life wisdom, Brown is embarking on a new journey with the NoVo Foundation and the Consortium’s other partners and participants, who seek to broaden Black girls’ support structures along with their realms of possibility and autonomy.  “An element of liberation for me as a child, and even as a woman, was when others created space for me to be my whole audacious self,” she says. “Being able to express myself outside of the norm gave me a sense of agency for my own life. I would like to create embracing spaces where young Black girls can demonstrate agency over their own lives and have the freedom to express themselves.”

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NYWF Report Stresses Urgency of Addressing Child Care, Housing

The New York Women’s Foundation recently released a new Voices from the Field report that stresses the urgency of creating more affordable housing and childcare opportunities in order to advance gender equality movements.

The New York Women’s Foundation distributed a record $8 million in 2017 for undertakings in line with its mission to create “an equitable and just future for women and families.” A vital part of this 31-year-old foundation’s work is drawing on local expertise to create and disseminate research on the needs and circumstances of women, girls, LGBTQI, and gender-nonconforming people.

In the fall of 2018, the foundation released part of a series called, Voices from the Field, which explores challenges and support strategies for low-income women in NYC during four major developmental periods: ages 0-8, 9-24, 25-59, and 60 and up. The newly released “Blueprint for Investing in Women Age 25 – 59” draws on data and expert interviews across academic, policy, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors to identify systemic barriers and potential solutions for these populations.

New York City is home to a diverse group of 2,250,000 female-identifying people. Striking stats from the NYWF research include that in the state of New York, the rate of workforce participation for women with children under six is 81 percent for Black women, 64 percent for Latina women, and 50 percent for White women. A total of 56 percent of Latina household incomes cannot cover basic living costs, along with 47 percent of Black households, 44 percent of Asian households, and 24 percent of White households.

Given that many women of color and immigrant women in poverty are both primary caregivers and breadwinners, stable housing and care for their children emerged as key focus areas. President and CEO of the New York Women’s Foundation Ana Oliveira said the report clarified that “there must be a concerted and coordinated effort by the government, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors to use their resources to expand access to affordable housing and reliable child care.”

An anonymous participant in a job training program is quoted in the report, explaining how having to both earn wages for a household and be its primary caregiver can be a catch-22:

“I’m constantly worried about my children because I can’t always arrange good care for them while I’m in training. And once I’m hired, I know I’ll be constantly worried about my job because there are bound to be times when those arrangements will fall through and I’ll have no choice but to stay home to take care of my kids. Women can’t be in two places at once and—when we try to be—everyone loses. Why haven’t people figured that out yet?”

Reasonably-priced child care was found to be the most crucial need for women in NYC, with affordable housing a close second and a clearly interconnected factor in women’s stability. Being able to pay for housing also connects to other obstacles for women, such as domestic abuse; women who cannot afford a place to live struggle to leave violent situations. Similarly, equitable and living wages, quality health care, and inclusion and representation in the public sector are all areas where barriers exist and overlap for women, especially for those of color and of immigrant status.

The NYWF calls on the public, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors to step up their support for these females, pointing out that it can only benefit the metropolis as a whole.

“[The Blueprint Series] is offered with the conviction that there is no better strategy for boosting New York’s overall economic strength than supporting the women who provide the cultural wellspring and the economic and caregiving bedrock for the city,” the foundation states in the publication.

Specifically, it asks the government to back policies including family leave, equal pay, job training, emergency refuge, improved sexual assault and rape prosecution, and to “forthrightly identify, monitor, and combat institutionalized harassment and violence against women of color, immigrant women, and LGBTQI individuals.” Nonprofits and funders are similarly encouraged to serve and empower women economically, civically, and through high-quality health and family services, including those relating to reproductive care.

NYWF emphasizes the need for multifunder efforts and collaborative action to reach these goals and recommends that funders “ensure that all those efforts reflect the explicit input and guidance of those constituencies” served. Participatory and inclusive grantmaking and strategic partnerships are methods the foundation already embraces and practices itself. Examples include its, “Girls Ignite! Grantmaking,” which empowers teenagers to distribute local funds, and its funders collaborative called the New York City Fund for Girls and Young Women of Color, among many of its other undertakings.

The New York Women’s Foundation also recently announced the first recipients of grants from its Fund for The Me Too Movement and Allies and launched the Justice Fund to address the effects of mass incarceration on females. It will certainly be interesting to see what new endeavors and developments 2019 holds for this women’s foundation; in the most recent annual report, Oliveira and Board Co-Chairs Kwanza Butler and Janet Riccio write they are “more resolved than ever to take bold action to create gender, racial and economic justice.”

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