by Contributing Writer Jaden Janak
Thirteen years ago, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, an organization dedicated to ending state and state sanctioned violence against Black and Brown communities, released a groundbreaking anthology titled, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded (Duke University Press). In it, the authors illustrate how the ever-expanding non-profit sector has attempted to sanitize radical social movements and how community organizations are creating more grassroots ways of funding their work. The authors implore the book’s readers to seriously evaluate the role that non-profits play in movement work and if they have become movement work, rather than a support to movement work.
Unfortunately, the questions raised by these scholars, activists, and organizers are as relevant as ever. Nationally, the Ford Foundation— an organization dedicated to funding social improvement work within the United States and globally—continues to be a major funding source for social movement actors as it has been historically. Take my field of study, Black Studies, for example. Though some think Black Studies came about solely through the demands of Black student activists, the truth is much messier. Students are certainly responsible for militant actions that pushed universities to establish these programs. However, the Ford Foundation played a significant role in the financing of Black Studies, eventually resulting in Black Studies programs across the nation.
Presently, the Ford Foundation has labelled itself as a bastion of criminal justice organizing. The Ford Foundation has heavily invested in projects and organizations that seek to reduce mass incarceration, such as #CLOSERikers, a coalition of non-profit organizations who work in support of the New York City plan to close Rikers Island and open four smaller jails. In September of last year, however, the President of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, penned a thinly-veiled attack against radical abolitionist organizers in New York, who have called for the closure of Rikers Island without additional jails or prisons replacing it. The significance of the Ford Foundation weighing in on a political dispute between organizations cannot be overstated. The Foundation, which boasts a $12 million+ endowment, is among one of the richest private endowments in the world. Their opinion, bolstered by a Board of Directors that includes criminal justice reform advocate Bryan Stevenson, has significant impact. In this case, it could help proliferate the expansion of the unjust prison industrial complex.
You may be wondering what relevance organizations like the Ford Foundation have on local politics in Tulsa. The difficult truth is that many of the dynamics present in the functioning of the Ford Foundation exist in local “progressive” organizations here in Tulsa. Our movements for police accountability and justice for Black lives are filled with corporate non-profit interests. As noted by an editorial from guest author Dr. Julianne M. Romanello , the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) supports local organizations such as Oklahomas for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR), a non-profit dedicated to research and action that reforms the “justice” system. The Board of Directors (BOD) for OCJR, inclusive of GKFF Senior Program Officer Amy Santee, also includes Gene Rainbolt, Chairman Emeritus of BancFirst Corporation. According to opensecrets.org, a non-partisan group that tracks money in U.S. politics and elections, Rainbolt spent close to $30,000 towards the election of Rep. Tom Cole (OK-04). In 2017, Cole released a statement in support of Executive Order 13769, better known as the Muslim Ban.
What are we to make of this information you ask? Well, firstly, how individuals (and organizations) spend their money says far more about their politics than their publicly professed beliefs. In this case, how the Chairman Emeritus spends his personal money to influence elections reflects on him as an individual, but also on the work of OCJR, whose BOD includes bank employees, oil and natural gas affiliates, government officials—all industries and structures with investments in the prison industrial complex continuing, not ending. Organizations like the Ford Foundation and OCJR may seem like they are “doing the work” but may actually be in service of being the reason the “work” continues in the first place. Reform efforts, while mostly well intentioned, actually expand the power of the police and the state, rather than reduce it. This is why abolitionists call for a radical reconception of society: from one rooted in punishment to one rooted in communal thriving. While the elimination of the death penalty, for example, is a good step for us to take, we do not eliminate harm as long as the remaining option is life without the possibility of parole. If we take Black lives seriously , we cannot settle for Black faces on white supremacist superstructures. We must abolish these structures and build anew. We must create a world where the image of public safety does not include police in riot gear, but instead community gardens and tangible support for survivors of abuse.
This is not a call-out, but rather a call to reimagine our movements. We have the tools within us and amongst us to find ways of funding our work without relying on these toxic corporate structures. We can be bolder in our demands than to ask for piecemeal accommodations like researching the effects of police brutality on Black communities (which are well-documented). It’s high time we take larger risks and abandon the elevation of singular individuals by prestigious fellowship programs (and book contractors) at the expense of larger movements. We do not need Color of Change or GKFF or MacArthur or VERA Institute of Justice. We have us. As Assata Shakur taught us, “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
For more information on Black Studies and its funding sources, see White Money/Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education by Noliwe M. Rooks and In the Vineyard: Working in African American Studies by Perry A. Hall.
Illustration: Patrick Norman