Last week, to feel some sense of control during this pandemic, I decided to remove the blackberry plants that had been multiplying on one side of my backyard. I had ignored them when they first sprouted last year, and now they had formed into a thick bramble. Himalayan blackberries (originally from Western Europe), may be delicious, but they are invasive and a nightmare to deal with. They choke out native plants and destroy the habitats and food sources of native animals. The most efficient way to get rid of them is to use herbicide, but we plan to grow food in our yard, so that option is out. What is left is to cut off the stems, and then to painfully and meticulously dig up as much of the entrenched roots as possible. If even a tiny piece remains, this berry—aka, the Devil’s smoothie booster—will regenerate.
After six hours, some blood from the thorns lacerating my arm, and two broken tools (Grampa’s Weeder, you served valiantly), I was able to get rid of most of the bramble. But plenty of the roots remain, and there are more buried in the ground that I cannot see. The battle has only begun, and it will last years. On some nights, I stay awake, plotting revenge while lightning flashes, illuminating the thorny silhouettes of this prolific, sinister plant.
I bring this up as a metaphor to raise a point reinforced by a tweet by colleague Catherine Garcia (@thecathyshow on Twitter), who wrote “It’s wild when foundations ask ‘what can we do to help change systems of inequality’ but won’t even fund the advocacy & grassroots organizers who make policy & systems change possible. The question is disingenuous. Put your plata where your boca is.”
Over the past few decades, the invasive brambles of injustice and inequity have taken root in our world, watered by racists and xenophobes. Direct service is like cutting down the leaves and stems: the results are immediate and visible, it feels good, and it does slow down the plant’s growth. Advocacy and systems change work, the digging out of the roots, is the opposite: It takes 10 times longer, you get injured and dirty doing it, it is aggravating and frustrating, and possibly leads to extreme cussing that may be heard by your small children while they are on a break from crisis-home-schooling.
But if we are going to make a dent in creating a more just world, we need to continuously do the hard and time-consuming work of advocacy, community organizing, and systems change.
Unfortunately, not only have progressive-leaning funders severely underinvested in these areas in the best of times, but now in the worst of times have decided to cut back on it. Some funders are diverting funds from advocacy and organizing to crisis response. Not only that, I was on a virtual panel where it was brought up that some funders are now encouraging advocacy/organizing nonprofits to shift their missions to do more direct service work.
All of this is incredibly short-sighted and one of the biggest reasons we continue to struggle as a sector to make progress on a host of issues.
Why is the importance of systems change so difficult for foundations, donors, and others with money and influence to grasp and support? Why do people refuse to understand that we have to implement parallel strategies, both direct service AND systems change simultaneously? It’s like we have learned nothing from the previous few years and remain stubbornly unwilling to learn anything now. If advocacy organizations focused on changing laws to provide paid sick leave, increased wages, and health insurance had received more support to do their work, maybe so many millions of people wouldn’t be suffering now.
If progressive-leaning funders had focused more resources into voter mobilization and ensuring people of marginalized communities are not prevented from voting, things might have been different. Maybe we would have a different Governor in Georgia. Maybe we wouldn’t have this white nationalist president and administration whose propaganda, racism, and incompetence have killed 80,000 and counting.
If we had invested more support for advocacy and systems change, fewer people would have died or faced increasing threats to their survival, people who are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, people of color, people with disabilities, etc.
Many advocacy and community-organizing nonprofits are on the brink of extinction, even as the pandemic has made it is so glaringly obvious how important their work is. Funders, I am begging you again to increase your payout so you can fund both direct service and systems change. Your underinvestment in advocacy and community organizing for years has amplified the inequity of the current moment. Do not make the same mistake again. Now is the time to significantly increase funding for systems change, not cut down on it.
I have mentioned in a post earlier (“It’s 2020, Be Bold or Get the Hell Out of the Way”), we have a few critical levers that would improve every single issue we all care about:
- Get more women of color elected into office. They suffer the most injustice and would have the lived-experience to shape policies that would work for everyone and not just rich white folks
- Provide support so marginalized people can vote. Stop voter suppression; increase outreach. When people of color are able to vote, we tend to swing toward inclusive, equitable policies. Racists and xenophobes know this, which is why they do everything in their power to stop people from voting.
- Remove the influence of corporations and money on politics: Corporations and billionaires will continue to do everything they can to protect their wealth, including backing politicians who enact policies that screw over the poor.
- Change tax codes so the wealthy pay their fair share: Enough with the charity mindset. Nonprofits are exhausted and overwhelmed filling in the gaps left behind by government because we keep letting the rich not pay their fair share of taxes.
- Change the narrative to get the public to believe in science and facts and not buy into fear. We see how powerful right-wing media are in shaping everything, and yet we continue to underinvest in progressive media.
Even in this crisis, you must continue, or start, to invest significant funds into these and other areas if we want to make any sort of progress. We’ve been so focused on addressing the symptoms of injustice, happy to spend time cutting down stems and leaves, feeling like we’ve been making progress. In reality, by ignoring the more difficult and painful work of advocacy and systems change, we have allowed the roots of injustice to grow deeper and to spread further. We have been complicit in perpetuating the inequity we all vow to eradicate.
When everything is on fire and it is overwhelming, we all seek to feel a sense of control. I know it is easier and feels better at this time to focus on getting food to people who are starving, developing a vaccine, providing testing, etc., than it is to support efforts to get people to vote, fill out the Census form, discuss tax policies, fight gerrymandering, prevent right-wing judges from being confirmed, etc.
But we must not be tempted to only do what’s visible and immediately effective. If you only invest in crisis response and not advocacy and systems change, if you move funding away from these areas, we will lose so much time and progress that so many people and organizations have worked hard over decades to make. It will set us all back significantly and make our work exponentially more difficult later.
If we want to make any sort of progress toward creating the world we want to see, we must not only continue but increase by tenfold the long, thorny, painful work of digging up the roots of injustice. And, to paraphrase Catherine Garcia, that requires everyone with the resources and connections needed to strengthen systems-change work to shut your bocas and put out more plata.
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