July 27, 2017

Taking stock of the changed political environment

Photo credit: Jamie Francis

Soon after the 2016 presidential election, many of us began wondering how the changed political landscape would impact our work. A number of Meyer grantees, including those in the Building Community portfolio, raised real concerns and questions about how this new reality would affect, among other things, our civil liberties, immigrants’ rights, the rights of LGBTQ people, equity and justice. As a direct result, Meyer added two new tools to our real-time response kit: rapid response grantmaking, and the Oregon Immigrant and Refugee Funders Collaborative.

In an effort to take stock of how changing realities are impacting the work related to social justice, Meyer recently helped organize and participated in an event called “Strengthening Action for Justice.” The event focused on how the changed political environment is likely to impact our work and identified shared values and ways we can support each other moving forward.

More than 60 participants representing 30 community organizing and advocacy groups and a dozen funders attended the May 25 event in Portland. Extra efforts were also made to support the participation of key representatives from rural communities, and some traveled from as far away as Ontario in eastern Oregon. In some respects, the meeting was experimental. The planning group included both funders and community groups, and though there were some specific recommendations that came out of the conversation, the main objective was to create a space for folks to learn from each other.  

Through the process of designing and carrying out the meeting, participants named and affirmed shared values, identified root causes of challenges, and began thinking about how to leverage the strengths of both philanthropic and community-based organizations. Through discussion on root causes, participants began to think more broadly than their own organization, consider possibilities for alignment and move beyond the symptoms of problems.

Impacts of the changed political environment

A pre-meeting survey as well as discussion revealed that the current environment has raised levels of fear: fear of deportation, hate crimes and harassment and concern about losing health care and other key services that disproportionately impact marginalized communities. Quickly shifting policy changes have also forced many community-based and philanthropic organizations to respond rapidly (e.g., keeping up with potential changes in Medicaid, providing Know Your Rights* education) and in a way that is often reactive rather than proactive. For all, a sense of urgency has created the challenge of balancing existing work while also responding to immediate and, in many cases, unforeseen needs. (*Know Your Rights refers to programs that provide community members with critical information on their legal rights in a number of areas including civil liberties, housing, education, immigration status, etc.)

When asked to identify the root causes to many of the current and anticipated challenges of operating in this political environment, the group noted the prominence of racism and xenophobia. Other, and often related, causes included disenfranchisement of communities of color, concentration of wealth and power, misinformation and lack of cross-community communication.  

Looking forward

The pre-meeting survey and discussion also provided insights on shared beliefs and values.  Some of these included the importance of cross-sector collaboration, dismantling systems of oppression, working toward racial equity, the need for organizational sustainability and the commitment to authentic community engagement.   

Recognizing that community and philanthropic organizations can learn from each other, participants also talked about how these two sectors could work together effectively. Along these lines, a number of suggestions related to increased communication, cross-sector (community and philanthropic) conversation and finding ways to engage in direct action.

Some specific recommendations included:

Focusing together on shared goals — Convenings like Strengthening Action for Justice hold the potential to proactively identify short- and long-term solutions on topics tied to justice and equity.  

Collaboration — Efforts that build understanding, shared language and collective power are crucial in this political climate. This work might involve activities such as collaborations with government and public officials or focus on specific issues such as fair access to housing or public education.  

Investments in capacity — Any efforts to improve organizing capacity would be helpful. This might include helping participants interpret changes in policy (e.g., new IRS rules), providing access to specific forms of technical assistance such as legal expertise, and providing general operating support funding.

Investments in justice organizing — the changed political environment has increased interest in organizing individuals and communities for collective action, many felt it is crucial to direct new energy and in a way that connects it with justice movements that have been deeply engaged in this work over time.  

A focus on rural communities — Recognizing that many communities are feeling anxious about unpredictable federal and state policy shifts, the group felt that rural communities may be particularly vulnerable.  With this in mind, participants in the meeting felt that a specific focus on rural communities was warranted.  

Tracking social services alongside social change — Organizations that provide some form of direct service can be powerful voices for highlighting broader/more systemic issues and root causes. In this climate, both services and organizing are needed to address immediate issues and mobilize people for larger change.  

Though the outcome of this meeting will continue to unfold, the timeliness of this type of dialogue was evident the very next day, when three men sought to disrupt an Islamophobic attack on a MAX train in Portland. Two people were killed and another sustained serious injury, but the incident reminded us that bias actions and injustice must be confronted strongly and directly. For those who have been working on these issues for years, it brought home the importance of continued commitment to the shared values identified in meetings like Strengthening Action for Justice.

 

— Dahnesh

 

(Special thanks to Western States Center, meeting coordinator Katie Sawicki and the Collins Foundation for their work to make this meeting possible.)