Relationship-Building for Progressive Power: A Conversation with Leah Hunt-Hendrix

Leah Hunt-Hendrix, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Solidaire.

“How do you get movements to scale, while at the same time keeping them based on relationships?” asks Leah Hunt-Hendrix, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Solidaire. It’s a question central to many progressive movements that want to help communities grow from within.

Solidaire formed in 2013, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the Arab Spring, and anti-austerity protests in Europe. These disparate movements did not seek narrow policy change; instead, they sought to question—and remake—their societies, disrupting systemic inequality and injustice.

Like these movements, Solidaire seeks to support non-traditional social transformation, says Hunt-Hendrix. By empowering grassroots organizations like Black Lives Matter and their allies, it directs funding at the crosshairs of political struggle and progressive change.

And how is Solidaire growing its impact? By growing its own relationships, of course.

“Often, people find us through other members,” says Hunt-Hendrix of Solidaire’s more than 150 participant donors.  Hunt-Hendrix spoke to me by telephone from her apartment in San Francisco, her Maltipoo, Malcolm, occasionally punctuating the conversation with a bark.

Members of Solidaire contribute $5,000 yearly to the organization’s operating budget, and another $10,000 to a pooled fund for grantmaking (“Movement R&D”). Members can also fund particular groups, and support “Rapid Response for Movement Moments.” Solidaire is thus able to respond immediately to particular needs, yet at the same time build a movement infrastructure for the long term.

Solidaire’s five-person all-female staff is based in New York and the Bay Area, and recently closed the application process for its most recent round of Movement R&D grantmaking. In keeping with Solidaire’s philosophy of bottom-to-top activism, “Previous grantees work with members to help make decisions about the next cycle of funding,” says Hunt-Hendrix.

Support from Solidaire can be used for staging protests and events, convening conferences, hiring staff, trainings, and even installations. “We don’t want to constrain the recipient organization by insisting the money goes in a certain way,” says Hunt-Hendrix, who notes that traditional philanthropy has tended to be paternalistic, and reinforce rather than disrupt hierarchies.

Solidaire is particularly interested in supporting movements working for racial and economic justice, but feminist, ecological, immigrant, and other progressive movements are well represented. Grantees have included Black Momentum, Reclaim Chicago, Honor the Earth (Native American environmental issues), Jolt (Texas Latinos), and the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute. The latter is a Detroit-based organization led by adrienne maree brown (no caps intentional) that fosters, “adaptation, interdependence, creating more possibilities, collaborative ideation, fractal thinking, transformative justice and resilience through decentralization.” In other words, not business as usual.

“One of my favorites,” says Hunt-Hendrix of grantee organizations, “is The Debt Collective, which is a union of debtors that collectively bargains with creditors.” As The Debt Collective website notes, “If you owe the bank $50k, the bank owns you. But if you owe the bank $100 million, you own the bank.”

But back to the question of how to fund grassroots movements through growing a community internally.  Hunt-Hendrix’s background may be of some help here. Her mother is feminist icon Helen LaKelly Hunt, and her father relationship guru Harville Hendrix, author of numerous self-help books in the field. They are a true “power couple” in building what they term a “Relationship Revolution … in which the primary value is relationship and universal equality is a reality.”

“They were very much an influence,” says Hunt-Hendrix; still, she says she is surprised at how much her current work mirrors that of her mother. Hunt-Hendrix says that in addition to a passion for gender equity, her mother recognizes, “the role of money in movement building.” In other words, people of means using their wealth to counteract pernicious systems of economic inequality, sexism, and racism.

Hunt-Hendrix is a descendant of Texas oil barons (the Hunt Family), and grew up in New York. She attended Duke as an undergraduate, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in religion, ethics and politics from Princeton. Her thesis was on the concept of solidarity and its role in European social movements. Hunt-Hendrix did not aspire to a position in academia, and says her doctorate was part intellectual exercise, part trade-school. “I really wanted to have a better understanding of how social movements work,” she says. “It helped me understand a theory of change, and how we form a collective identity and create a ‘we.’”

An additional influence on Hunt-Hendrix was the time she spent in Egypt, Syria and Palestine in 2007-2009. Hunt-Hendrix left for the Middle East after her first year at Princeton, and spent her time abroad learning Arabic, and studying and working with NGOs and direct-action movements. She concluded that traditional NGOs were not effective in disrupting power structures, and that social change had to come from collective action on the part of the disenfranchised.

Of course, Hunt-Hendrix could have gotten this education in any number of places, but says she had just started college at Duke when 9/11 happened, and, “It felt like we were suddenly at war with the Middle East.” She knew the situation was more complicated than that, and wanted to spend time in the Arabic world to better understand the region and its people. The struggles of Egyptian peasants and occupied Palestinians that she observed have turned out to be highly relevant to resistance efforts in the U.S.

“Protests and demonstrations are a form of narrative,” says Hunt-Hendrix. “People are putting their bodies in the street to bring attention to an issue. They are using direct action to make a point.” Solidaire supports such actions, says Hunt-Hendrix, because, “Nobody wants to fund them.” Challenges to the prevailing order, particularly by marginalized communities using unconventional tactics, make people uncomfortable. Moreover, traditional donors often don’t see the connection between such movements and policy change.

“It should be seen as a process,” says Hunt-Hendrix, “The first step is starting a conversation.” This is followed by strategizing and organizing, and then changes in laws and practices. Finally, there is holding office-holders accountable. “Sometimes that effort takes you back to the initial conversation,” she says.

Generating ideas, getting grassroots buy-in, and galvanizing people to think about social change is essential, says Hunt-Hendrix. “People who want change often start with policy, without having brought in the voices of the community.”

Ultimately, Solidaire suggests that the process of reversing inequalities and promoting social justice is not just about legislative and administrative nuts and bolts, but also the relationships that people have with one another, and the economic, political and cultural structures within which those relationships occur.

Related:

Helen LaKelly Hunt: Feminism and Philanthropy Are Converging to Create a New Relationship Culture

This Changes Everything: Early American Feminists Were Deeply Religious, Relational, and Race-Conscious

Women Donors Network and Solidaire Join Forces to Create New Fund

Author: Tim Lehnert

Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor who lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. His articles and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is the author of the book Rhode Island 101, and has published short fiction for kids and adults in a number of literary journals and magazines. He received an M.A. in Political Science from McGill University, and an M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge.

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