News and analysis
September 26, 2014

Activists Urge Grant Makers to Try to Prevent Another Ferguson

Nonprofit activists urged grant makers at a meeting in Washington to help strengthen community organizations that can tackle the kind of racial-justice issues exposed by events surrounding the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo.

"Ferguson’s going to happen again," said Glenn Harris, president of the Center for Social Inclusion, who attended the meeting on Wednesday, which was sponsored by the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations. "There was pretty strong agreement that this was the tip of the iceberg."

The shooting of Michael Brown last month by a white police officer sparked protests that drew police in riot gear, who used tear gas and armored vehicles to control the crowds, drawing sharp criticism from philanthropic leaders and others.

Mr. Harris and other participants said the invitation-only gathering discussed ways philanthropy could promote solutions to problems that have arisen from the country’s changing demographics—for example, the migration of many blacks from cities to suburbs. That has resulted in racial inequities in towns like Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, where the population is predominantly black but the city council and police force are mostly white.

This trend has also separated blacks from the city-based nonprofit, religious, and cultural organizations that serve as community "anchors," Mr. Harris said. "It’s not just that small organizations on the ground need support, but in many locations like Ferguson there aren’t even existing organizations."

About 50 activists and grant makers from across the country attended the meeting, hosted by the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, in person or by telephone. They included representatives of ColorofChange.org, the Florida New Majority, the Organization for Black Struggle, the Deaconess Foundation, in St. Louis, the California Community Foundation, and the San Francisco Foundation.

Lori Villarosa, executive director of the initiative, which promotes giving to combat structural racism, said they discussed ways both sides could address the underlying issues that contribute to "flashpoints" like Ferguson­—including racial polarization and weak civic infrastructure in inner-ring suburbs.

In addition, Americans have grown increasingly polarized politically and economically since the 1970s, long-term trends that cannot be fixed by "prophylactics" like better police training, said participant john a. powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California at Berkeley.

Eric Ward, a program manager at the Ford Foundation, said the conversation fit into Ford’s larger effort to promote more "inclusive democracy," an issue that also affects majority-black cities like Detroit, where an unelected emergency manager has been governing during bankruptcy proceedings.

But philanthropy can do only so much, he said, noting that there are tens of thousands of municipalities across the country. "Philanthropy at its best, and combined and aligned across the political spectrum, wouldn’t have the resources available to do the deep kind of organizing that’s happening in Ferguson."

The foundations made no specific funding commitments, participants said, but agreed to continue discussing the issues raised.

The Open Society Foundations plans to help organize a second meeting that will explore racial-justice issues in a global context, for example by examining discrimination against the Roma in Europe, said Allison Brown, a program officer at the organization.

Send an e-mail to Suzanne Perry.