For a foundation started in 1972 by four white women (Gloria Steinem, Patricia Carbine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Marlo Thomas), the Ms. Foundation has been one of the frontrunner funders pushing to increase strategic focus on women and girls of color. Currently, this oldest and first foundation for women is on year one of a five-year strategic plan to invest in women and girls of color, for the purpose of advancing democracy and creating a more gender equal country and world.
Among other goals, the five-year plan allocates $25 million toward organizations led by and for women of color. “Women of color have been on the frontlines of nearly every movement in this country — from reproductive rights, immigrant rights, and civil rights, to economic justice, and criminal justice reform,” notes Teresa C. Younger, Ms. Foundation for Women President and CEO.
Younger recently spoke to me by phone from her office in New York. She has been leading the Ms. Foundation since mid-2014, following eight years as Executive Director of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women. While working for the state of Connecticut, she engaged on issues including sex trafficking, pay equity and healthcare. Prior to that post, Younger was Executive Director of the ACLU of Connecticut (she was the first African American and first woman to hold that position).
One of the Ms. Foundation’s five-year plan’s key pieces—establishing a 501 (c) (4) arm, the Ms. Action Fund—will be realized in January 2020. This will enable the Foundation to engage in greater political organizing and lobbying efforts than had been the case previously.
“Women’s bodies are political,” says Younger, and as a 501 (c) (4) organization, the Ms. Foundation will have more tools at its disposal in supporting reproductive justice and other feminist issues. In addition to backing policies and laws that improve women’s lives, the Foundation plans to do more to support women running for political office, as well as engaging in get-out-the-vote efforts to make sure that women, notably women of color, are represented at election time.
In its advocacy for gender and racial justice, the Ms. Foundation can’t help but be political, but the organization does not endorse particular candidates. Younger says she is disappointed that the Democratic primary field is not more diverse; however, she hopes that with the now-reduced pool of candidates, “we start talking about the real issues.”
In addition to healthcare and reproductive justice, these real issues include pay equity, affordable housing, disability rights and sexual violence prevention. “We’re not getting comprehensive conversations,” says Younger. She would like to see politicians pay greater attention to women, particularly women of color, rather than viewing them as an afterthought, or a constituency that can be taken for granted. “They are not truly listening to stories coming from women of color,” says Younger.
The Ms. Foundation has advocated on the issues of childcare, abortion rights and pay equity for years, but Younger also points to the importance of infrastructure, transportation and housing for women and families. “We are criminalizing the poor,” she says of the crisis in affordable housing and homelessness that affects so many communities across the country.
The Ms. Foundation has long been interested in amplifying the voices and images of women, including the portrayal of women in the media. Younger herself is a light consumer of movies and television; “I don’t even own a TV,” she says (although she did binge-watch The Handmaid’s Tale). Regardless, “I’d like to see more women of color portrayed, and not in a monolithic way,” she says. The stories of, for example, Nepalese, Mexican, and southern and northern African-American women “are very different, but they are also the same,” she notes. Ultimately, she argues, representation needs to go beyond showing a black or brown face to make the audience feel good; it requires telling stories embodying the varied histories and cultures of the diverse communities that fall under the women of color umbrella.
Teresa Younger graduated from the University of North Dakota (UND); she’d moved to the state as an eleven-year-old when her father was transferred there by the Air Force. Younger studied recreation at UND, and in the 1990s she was Executive Director of Morry’s Camp, which sends kids living in low-income urban communities in New York and Connecticut to camp, and provides them with academic and other support during the summer, and year-round. Her encounter with a pregnant camper, and with one who wound up in jail, intensified her interest in juvenile justice and reproductive rights, and led her to engage in more direct policy work and advocacy.
The Ms. Foundation supports roughly 100 organizations across the country, but Younger says she does not see the Foundation’s primary mission as funding particular programs. “We support organizations where we believe in the leaders and the mission.” As such, a grantee might use the money for capacity building, or for operations. “We support movements,” she says, “and these often happen over time, not necessarily as the result of embracing a shiny new program.”
Younger cites SisterSong (Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective) of Atlanta as a particularly effective organization in fighting for women of color. “They continue to do a ton of work in lifting up and amplifying actions surrounding protecting women’s bodies,” says Younger. SisterSong engages in leadership, training, advocacy, and networking around reproductive justice. It is one of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit to overturn Georgia’s “fetal heartbeat” law that dramatically restricts a women’s right to an abortion. Other SisterSong efforts include founding the “Trust Black Women” partnership to improve the perception and treatment of black women nationally.
When Younger started at the Ms. Foundation, one of first things she did was to go on a listening tour which included the middle of the country, and the South. The trip allowed her to gather input from various regions; moreover, there are girls and women of color in every part the country (as Younger’s upbringing in North Dakota attests). A significant part of Younger’s work continues to be connecting with feminists, funders, and other audiences across the country, whether that be in New Jersey, Idaho, or Florida, all destinations she covered in her 86,000 miles traveled in 2019.
“Philanthropy is a very different beast than government,” says Younger, who notes that her previous work on behalf of the State of Connecticut was much more narrowly focused on policy than is her current role as an organizer and advocate for a national organization. Younger believes that the Ms. Foundation’s platform makes it ideally positioned to lead the conversation occurring at the intersection of race and gender.
In its support of feminist organizations, its advocacy on a host of feminist and racial justice issues, and in the way in which it deploys its endowment, the Ms. Foundation represents an important example for philanthropists, and society at large. Younger knows the philanthropic sector overall is drastically under-funding women and girls—particularly those of color—given the vast needs that exist. “The work of the Ms. Foundation, is for the future,” she says, “it’s to promote positive change in the lives of women and girls.”
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