Social Justice Ecology: Movements Strategy Announcement

TBF’s journey to deepening support for social justice movements and the organizers, residents, and organizations who fuel them

 March 5, 2021

By Cairo Mendes

On January 6th, many of us were glued to our phones, TVs, laptops, and computers, watching hundreds of men and women storm the capitol building. As our President & CEO Paul Grogan put it: “We are witnessing not only an attempted coup, but also domestic terrorism, wrapped in white privilege. To tolerate it is to be complicit in it.” I couldn’t agree more. 

What happened that day was a painful reminder to people of color that America is a long way from being the multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy it is meant to be – that while white supremacists successfully stormed one of the oldest democratic institutions in the world, with little to no consequence, black and brown people, even while protesting peacefully, are met with brute force. For me, it starkly reaffirmed something I had known for many years: the foundation of this country is rooted in white supremacy. A simple change of President will not fix it, and all of us have a duty to dismantle it. 

So how do we eliminate white supremacy? How do we win in the long run? We do it by organizing, advocating, and educating; we do it through social justice movements. Often when I say the words “social justice movements”, the first picture that comes to mind is mass protests. Protests are an essential and effective tactic, but they are just one element of what a movement is or does. Movements are about creating a better, more just world for all of us. They require strategizing, training and in the process, mentoring and empowering residents to become active leaders in their communities. 

Social justice movements have a long and important history in America. Around the turn of the 20th century, the labor movement rose as a response to the horrid conditions that workers (mostly women, children and immigrant men) faced at the start of the industrial revolution. Those workers formed unions, they organized, and they were able to secure benefits many of us enjoy today such as the five-day workweek, paid holidays, overtime, and other benefits. The women’s suffrage movement leveraged decades of organizing to secure the passage of the 19th amendment and the right to vote in 1920. In the 1950’s & 60’s the civil rights movement took shape and through boycotts, sit-ins, and protests, an empowered people brought down Jim Crow and expanded voting and civil rights for Black and Brown communities. 

These examples, however, have been neither perfect, nor perfectly equitable. Too often, they have excluded the voices and leadership of many of those they seek to help. Too often, legislative “fixes” have unintentionally or intentionally excluded or left Black and Brown communities behind. But as someone who came up through youth organizing, I am proud and excited to see how movements in the 21st century, such as the immigrant youth movement and especially the movement for Black Lives, are demonstrating the power of Black, Indigenous people of color, of women, or LGBTQ+ leadership. Most importantly, they demonstrate the power and need for movements to be driven and led by those closest to the issues. 

"And too often our movement leaders, overworked and overburdened, find themselves with little or no financial support for their critical work. Philanthropy has both an interest and a duty to invest in these movements and these leaders, before they burn out and fall short of creating the just, equitable society we all deserve."

Today, our movement leaders are fighting the mass incarceration of Black and Brown communities, often called the second Jim Crow, a massive racial wealth gap enhanced by the inequities of the pandemic, and the inequitable impacts of climate change on lower-income, higher density communities. But progress will come slowly, Today’s movements face backlash and resistance, just as they have for decades. And too often our movement leaders, overworked and overburdened, find themselves with little or no financial support for their critical work. Philanthropy has both an interest and a duty to invest in these movements and these leaders, before they burn out and fall short of creating the just, equitable society we all deserve.

The Boston Foundation, like many other funders, is recognizing the critical role we can and must play in this space. We have expanded our investment in these leaders and movements, most recently through our partnerships with the Boston Neighborhood Fellows, grassroots movement leaders, and other funders.  

We are deepening our strategic commitment, through the Movements Strategy of our Social Justice Ecology framework, to invest in the long-term sustainability of the local and regional movement ecology. At its heart are two approaches:

  1. Building the Capacity of Justice-Focused Organizations. Investing in the infrastructure for sustainability of movement building organizations that centers those most marginalized and historically excluded from institutional philanthropy. 
  2. Supporting Civic Engagement on Resident-Led Issues. Funding movements led by organizations and leaders that are authentically connected to their communities in their efforts to: amass and sustain power, protect our planet, strengthen our democracy, and create a more equitable and just society.

These approaches will guide our philanthropic investments in these areas, and we will announce our inaugural slate of Movement strategy grants in the coming weeks.

It is long past time for philanthropy to invest in the leaders and organizations on the frontlines of social change. We are a sector that historically has done as much harm as good in supporting movements, but we have an opportunity to undo some of that harm. This moment calls us all to act and we must respond. 

Over the last three years, my role has been connecting our work here at The Foundation with grassroots, movement leaders. Yet I never do this work alone. Through the close partnership with our grantees and The Boston Neighborhood Fellows, building on the work of my former boss and mentor Natanja Craig-Oquendo, and under the guidance of Jennifer Aronson & Orlando Watkins, I’m excited to be passing on the baton to my brother, and friend, Vetto Casado, Assistant Director of Programs. For organizations interested in learning more about our Social Justice Ecology: Movements strategy please contact Vetto Casado, 

In solidarity, 
Cairo Mendes
(Formerly Sr. Associate, Programs, now Co-Director, Access Strategies Fund) 

 The Social Justice Ecology’s Movements framework would have not been possible without input from the following partners: Members of The Boston Neighborhood Fellows Class’ of ‘19 & ‘21,  Hyams Foundation, Resist Inc., Haymarket People’s Fund, Episcopal City Mission, Access Strategies Fund, Center for Economic Democracy, Asian American Resource Workshop, Mass Trans Political Coalition, Hyde Sq. Task Force, Centro Presente, New England United For Justice, Mass Voter Table, Muslim Justice League & The North American Indian Center of Boston.