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Co-Design Blog Post #3: Montgomery and Birmingham, AL

Monday, September 09, 2019 8:44 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Alabama, July, 2019
By Paula Liang, Catalist Chair 

This third in-person meeting of the Co-Design team was different, more personal, more emotional than the first two. As a team, we have been grappling, in the aftermath of our field-wide convening in April, with how strong a values statement we wanted to make to undergird the work. The question we were asked a lot in Seattle was: More #GivingCircles in service of what?  It was a great question.

It’s easy to say that hate is not welcome and if you fund terrorists, we won’t provide support. But the real issue is, do we go further and make a strong statement about equity and justice as common values, knowing those words might not be commonly understood among potential founders or funders, and off-putting to some.

Our friend and colleague Marsha Morgan, Chair of Community Investment Network which supports African American giving circles invited us to Birmingham for our Summer meeting so that we could meet with her Pastor, Bishop Van Moody who supported the First Step Act, and has been hosting panel discussions about Race and Reconciliation in their community. Several of us decided to fly down a day early so we could visit Montgomery as well, to see the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Justice and Peace, sometimes referred to as the Lynching Museum, in advance of our meeting.

We visited the Memorial first. The primary structure is an L-shaped pavilion cut into a square of grassy knoll on a hill, a bit reminiscent of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial. It is beautiful and haunting and exquisitely done.  The sculptures outside the pavilion are arresting and heartbreaking. Inside the pavilion, each of the 400 counties in the US in which the Equal Justice Initiative could verify one or more lynchings has an 8-foot Corten steel monument into which the names of the individual, when known, and the date of the lynching are cut. On some, there are just one or two names in large, easily legible letters. On others, there are two columns of tiny names. There is a 45-minute path you walk through this experience, starting with green lawn, some sculptures and explanatory signage. Then you enter the L-shaped pavilion.  At first, the monuments are on the ground and you walk among them, reading names and counties, as if they were people.  But soon you start to walk down hill, and the monuments are suspended, a little bit at first, and progressively higher every few yards. By the time you turn the corner and reach the end of the building, the 400th monument, you can only see the name of the county on the bottom of the monument, because they are fully hung above you. That’s where I found the monument for Duval County, Florida, my adopted home town.  There were 7 lynchings in Duval from 1909 to 1925. The name of the first and last human beings who were lynched are not known, which is heartbreaking. As Marsha pointed out, it is as if those lives simply didn’t matter. 

The vertical monuments inside the pavilion seem to be arranged in a totally random manner.  Outside, there is another set of identical but horizontal monuments arranged, like coffins, alphabetically by state and county. It had just rained, and they shone as if they were bronze. I was able to find the Duval monument and the other 44 Florida monuments (Florida has 67 counties, so at least 22 have something to be proud of here) and read the names and dates I could not see from below. This set of monuments is available to be claimed by Counties who want to start the process of reconciling their past with their present. I don’t have a ton of hope that my community will take this on, but I do have a Tweetstorm in mind as soon as my desk is clear.

In a very subdued car, we headed next to the Legacy Museum, which is also run by the Equal Justice Initiative, and which traces the slow but inexorable crawl from slavery to mass incarceration. Through photos, statistics, primary source quotes, original signage from buildings, video and other media the interactive exhibits make a full-throated and undeniable case for systemic racism as the backdrop to mass incarceration, the wealth disparity between families of color and white families, and pretty much every other disparity. There are also rows and rows of huge jars of multi-colored dirt, with the names and dates of Alabama’s lynching victims; the product of a project to send students and other volunteers around the state to collect earth from the sites of the documented sites of Alabama lynchings. The walls and walls of these enormous jars make quite a statement.

Some Peach Cheesecake ice cream atop blackberry cobbler at a spot chosen by Marsha along the route to Birmingham picked up our spirits a bit. Liz Fisher, ED of Amplifier, which supports giving circles inspired by Jewish values, opined that this might suffice for dinner, but we all managed to eat later at the hotel.  Also, there may have been wine. 

We gathered the next morning to see what our consultants had come up with since we met last:  a growth model, a financial model and a business model. What we heard was energizing, and gives us a roadmap for the future, pending funding. Our final proposal has been submitted to the Gates Foundation, and we should know within two months whether they will provide the anchor funding for a 5-year campaign to showcase, scale, strengthen and sustain existing groups, and look to grow up to 1500 new ones over 5 years.

The Mission of what I alone call 5YC is to catalyze and connect the giving circle movement and to democratize and diversify philanthropy. The Showcase strategy will include things like a broad awareness campaign (imagine, if you will, never having to explain to anyone, ever again, what your organization does!), as well as special targeting to underserved populations; retirement communities, perhaps, or communities of color, and a HUGE marketing push.

The Scale effort will likely include online toolkits as well as incubators that work across many models as well as consulting with philanthropic partners and corporations to build giving circle networks within their organizations and supporting new networks for affinities not currently networked (i.e., LGBTQ).

The Strengthen initiative will involve an annual field-wide convening and other network-weaving activities. There is also an opportunity to use research and reporting to aggregate the work of the entire field

Sustain efforts will involve communities of practice, donor education, webinars, micro-grants for Networks in formation and back end technology infrastructure for networks who would like that assistance. 

The Co-Design team has decided to stay attached to the project through the end of Calendar 2019 to continue to fundraise and hire the ED, should we be fortunate enough to raise sufficient funds. 

And one final note: This isn’t the only values statement we landed on, but perhaps the one we will plant our flag on, and one I am particularly proud to have been a part of crafting:

 We believe in a philanthropic landscape in which ALL donors can participate in a way that fits their ambition, values, and personality. We are committed to building philanthropic infrastructure that supports collective givers, especially those traditionally underrepresented in philanthropy so that more resources are leveraged for communities, issues, and to reduce disparities. Communities are their own best experts and so we listen deeply, respect different opinions, and value all voices.

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