Opinion
July 29, 2016

After the Conventions, Time for Foundations to Focus on Change

When a political convention rolls through your neighborhood, it’s easy to believe that anything is possible. In Philadelphia, where I live, we’ve just witnessed an event that had the fervor and optimism of a Taylor Swift concert for four days but the precision and orchestration of a military convoy taking over an entire city. No matter your party, it’s hard not to feel excited about seeing democracy in action.

But when the dust settles and the last semi-trailers pull away from the convention hall, we’ll still be left with a highly polarized and dysfunctional political system in which the major party candidates are among the most unpopular ever to run for president. 

According to a recent Gallup Poll, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are tied in the ignominious distinction of being rated unfavorably by 58 percent of Americans, with only 37 percent viewing either candidate favorably. 

And that presents a great challenge. “You can win an election and still lose a country,” says CNN commentator and civil-rights activist Van Jones. 

Speaking on the eve of the Democratic Convention to local leaders in philanthropy and education, Mr. Jones said that neither presidential candidate will likely emerge with an ability to govern effectively. 

“For Hillary, she’s not necessarily going to be popular enough and have the moral authority to govern, either.”

In addition to his work with CNN, Mr. Jones is also founder of the Dream Corps, a nonprofit organization that runs social-justice projects, including #cut50, which aims to reduce America’s prison population by half, and #YesWeCode, a national effort to help train 100,000 low-opportunity youths for technology careers.

“That means that we count, what we do counts. Creating these pockets of hope and opportunity where people are actually working together is tremendously important.

“No matter what happens, we need some solutions, and we need to be able to fight for solutions no matter who wins the election.”

Reducing Jail Populations

One of the few grant makers that is taking on these challenges in a robust fashion is the MacArthur Foundation, which recently announced a $75 million Safety and Justice Challenge, seeking grant proposals from organizations offering ways to create local justice systems that are more fair and effective. “Right now, criminal-justice reform is one of the biggest issues we are working on,” said Julia Stasch, MacArthur’s president, speaking at a panel convened by The Atlantic as part of its convention coverage. (Full disclosure: MacArthur is among the foundations that support the organization I lead, Media Impact Funders.)

Earlier this year, MacArthur announced grants of $150,000 to $3.5 million to 20 jurisdictions that are working to reduce the number of people in their jails and end the racial and ethnic disparities in their local justice systems. And those efforts need not result in painful trade-offs.

According to John Wetzel, secretary of corrections for Pennsylvania, “States with the biggest reduction in prison population also saw the biggest reduction in crime.” 

That wasn’t the picture coming out of the Trump campaign and the Republican Convention in Cleveland last week, which suggested that we are living through a crime wave. In fact, crime statistics show a significant decline from historic high levels over the past two decades.

But this is just one example of how our toxic political discourse has resulted in skewed priorities. Often the greatest resources and attention are focused disproportionately. And the biggest problems get scant attention.

Off the Radar

One effort to rectify this imbalance was the Impact Film Festival, organized to coincide with the Democratic Convention, including films like Command and Control.

The filmmaker Robert Kenner and the book’s author, Eric Schlosser, reveal the gripping but forgotten stories of the many accidents bedeviling our nuclear-weapons systems over the years. And they point out that it has been sheer luck that these accidents have not resulted in an actual nuclear detonation — so far. 

Meanwhile, maintaining the safety and security of our nuclear weapons is not on the political radar during the current campaign, even though the risk of accidental detonation — and their use in battle — remains an existential threat.

The MacArthur Foundation also provided funding for the production of Command and Control. And it, along with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, supports a wider N Square Collaborative, designed to heighten awareness of the continuing threat of nuclear annihilation and the need to demand policies to lessen the risk of accidental detonation.

 If the Democratic convention has taught us anything, it’s this: A girl can dream and a guy can have audacious hope — but social-change institutions have to prepare for the next four years with a gritty realism that political leaders in Washington may remain in gridlock for many more years. And until that changes, nonprofits and foundations are going to have to take a bigger role in finding solutions.

Vincent Stehle is executive director of Media Impact Funders and a regular Chronicle columnist.