To get their perspectives on Chicago’s community justice efforts and the criminal justice funding landscape, guest editor Ryan Hollon (RH) sat down with three Chicago-based leaders from different foundations. Deborah Bennett (DB) is a program officer at the Polk Brothers Foundation. Kristen Cox (KC) is a board member of the Synapses Foundation. Craig Harshaw (CH) is a founding Director of Insight Arts, and will be serving as the acting director of the Youth Justice Funding Collaborative. Conversation topics ranged from the informal organizing work happening in Chicago, to the history of the criminal justice system, to the community impacts of mass incarceration.
DB The Polk Bros. Foundation works to improve the quality of life in the City of Chicago. We partner with non-profit organizations to ensure that people in disadvantaged communities have access to opportunities and resources. Related to the juvenile justice system, we fund everything from youth development to prevention programs. We know that juvenile crime triples between the hours of 3pm and 6pm. Kids are perpetrators and victims of crimes. We fund programs that positively occupy their time during those hours. Some is educational enrichment; others are places where youth can go for structured activities or learn to voice their opinions about the issues that affect them. We also fund ex-offender re-entry programs. We do some systems advocacy. We’ve funded the Roger Baldwin Center to improve conditions at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. We’ve also funded the Jane Addams Juvenile Court Foundation to make sure that kids who are in the system and their parents understand what’s going on.
KC Do you do systems funding through the social service sector or is it sort of discretionary?
DB It’s in the social services category. We are primarily responsive. We do have some special initiatives, though we’ve not had a special initiative in juvenile justice. An organization would have to seek funding and then meet our guidelines and budget criteria.
CH In 2000 the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored a meeting of a series of activists and philanthropists that had been in some of their programs to come together and discuss youth. We looked at what was being funded; these were really children that nobody wanted to necessarily touch. What was being funded was not directly addressing the issue. We eventually created an organization called the Youth Justice Funding Collaborative.
We give a very small amount of money a year, we give between a quarter to a half million dollars out a year. We give that to grassroots organizations that we see helping to build a movement, both a movement against the criminal justice system but also a larger progressive movement. This particular system—that’s supposed to be law and order—actually tends to be about oppression and exploitation.
We believe that everyone should contribute to the analysis, so we’re very heavy on the political education side of things. We talk very concretely, educating about capitalism, about political economy, about racial justice issues, about gender issues, etc. for everyone at the table. Rather than the activists coming in with the ideas and the philanthropists coming in with the checkbooks. That’s a broader way to bring these ideas in and change the prison industrial complex, by actually educating philanthropists.
We fund nationally, we currently do not fund Chicago. But we’re moving our headquarters here, so we’re going to start funding Chicago. I’m going to become acting director. Part of what I’m trying to do is develop donors that are interested.
KC How do you foresee building relationships that are already doing work here? We’re happily sitting in the Community Justice for Youth Institute.
CH Well, there’s a lot of work that gets done in Chicago informally, especially around organizing. I know that informal work on the North Side, I’m not sure that I know the informal work that’s being done on the West Side and the South Side. When I say informal work, if you receive city funding sometimes your agency cannot participate in organizing activity. That gets done somehow in a more informal way. In Chicago, how can we get resources to that more informal work? I think Chicago is in need of some direct action. Meanwhile we want to keep everyone that’s funding the services. When we’ve started funding the stuff that’s more extreme, it’s allowed the more traditional funders to move a little bit further to the left.
RH There was this finding about where philanthropic resources are being distributed in Chicago and very little is going south of Madison Street.
DB My colleagues at the Woods Fund did the study that really looked at where resources are going. Our funding is pretty broadly distributed. We primarily fund direct service and a bit of education organizing. I think the issue is building the capacity of organizations. The Polk Bros. Foundation does not fund organizations without a 501c-3. For us to be able to fund that informal work requires building the capacity of organizations to get to a point where they would meet our minimum criteria for funding. Capacity building includes board and staff development, financial management and analysis and fundraising.
RH In your experience, what makes the capacity for coalition building? How might that apply to juvenile justice or re-entry?
DB You have to come together and agree on the thing you want to advocate for. Figure out that thing that you will let go of your organizational self-interest for. That takes skilled facilitation. It takes organizations being honest about what the deal breakers are and what they can come together on.
CH Most the coalition building I’ve seen in Chicago has been pretty disastrous. It’s been mostly funder-driven, and that’s one of the problems with it. It’s been funder-driven sometimes for very good reasons. Sometimes because it’s cheaper to give to a coalition than to give to each individual organization. Because it’s driven in that way it usually becomes this battle around resources. The other problem is around the political climate in Chicago being so unique. We don’t see the mayor changing every 4 years, we kind of have a dynasty. Here you can see the greatest atrocities in the world happen, the greatest corruption, and it feels as if this machine is always going to be there so many people are more in survival mode. How do we survive inside this system? That affects coalition building because when you can’t really see the picture of the city you want to live in, if you’re just figuring out how to survive in this machine, it makes it really hard to come together. Then the conflicts are more like institutional conflicts, rather than ideological conflicts, like, “We want the city to look like this.” Those are conflicts you can work through. But when you get down to the level of personalities or institutions, which is what I’ve seen when there’s been money involved. But when it’s more informal, when its just folks coming together, in that way I think Chicago is really strong. Because people have been forced to do this without resources they have traditions through their faith community, or other ways.
KC In justice communities if anything is going to be reformed it’s going to take multiple collaborative partnerships, and have a common strategy and a commitment to move forward. And to be committed for a decent amount of time. A problem with funders is that you have a three year span; you have maybe a trend, and then the focus shifts. It almost would take an organization that’s committed to reformative philanthropy, and seeing the different pieces, and then be a partner in that collaboration’s struggle. Do those exist? How can we think about advocating for those kinds of entities? It’s really an interest that I feel as a board member of the Synapses Foundation, wanting to do more strategic funding in radical ways of giving, in areas that are not as “sexy”—the harder work, the threatening work, really systems-change work.
CH One of the things we can do is study the right wing. How they do their funding and how they’ve done it. They do very long-term commitments. They fund at every sector when they decide on an issue. They fund the grassiest grass seed and Anne Coulter is getting her bucks.
DB It’s the education and constituency development. I think it’s necessary. Craig touched earlier on racial disparity and institutional racism. I think we need to figure out a way to talk about that. It’s often the elephant in the room, even in progressive movements. Unless you’re very intentional about it, it can get lost. I think most Americans probably believe in social justice, but if you call it certain things, it makes people uncomfortable. We need to figure out ways to talk about that. Statistics don’t lie. People of color are incarcerated at greater rates for the same infractions. Youth of color don’t have access to the resources that white youth have to divert them from the criminal justice system. In order to keep hope, I tell myself that people don’t know it. But I don’t know.
KC Right, like our consciousness only goes so far. I’m going to go here but how far am I really going to follow through to understand the analysis? In social systems change work, root causes of everything proliferate together. It’s very difficult to be able to isolate and pick apart, yet we’ve picked these spheres.
RH How is it that people don’t take action when the situation is so grave? A lot is hard to realize. In the West Side zip code 60624, a third of the residents are locked up at any given time. Some neighborhoods have more people incarcerated than whole countries. It’s so astounding, that it really is hard for us to realize the gravity of the situation. Once you do, what is our new language for thinking about this?
DB And what are the community impacts? What is the impact of children growing up without fathers, and more and more often without mothers? Particularly males growing up without fath-ers. I think that in some instances gangs and those entities take the place of father figures.
RH When you’re giving money you need to invest in some place that has capacity and is looking to develop its capacity more, but capacity is a part of what is destroyed by mass incarceration policies and practices. It changes the level of risk that you’re taking if you’re really trying to invest in the places that have the most need.
DB I believe in personal responsibility, but I think that people act according to what they think their opportunity is. If you have institutional structures that are limiting your opportunity, be they schools that don’t educate you, brutal police forces, the criminal justice system, you make different choices than if you felt that you had the opportunity to realize your full potential.
CH People talk about reforming the criminal justice system back to the good old days, but the criminal justice system was actually created to exploit. It was created to legalize slavery and to colonize the country. This is a colonial settler state, where there were 45 million people killed in genocide. Understand that when we’re reforming the system, we’re going way back. Even looking what happened after the Civil War, how enslaved persons were released and then picked up and taken back to prison to do the same labor they were doing before.
Which is what we see happening with immigration today. Sweatshops are raided and people are taken into prison to do the exact same work that they were doing in the sweatshop. The owners of the sweatshops always get out of everything, and then after [the laborers] serve their time of five or six years they’re shipped back to Mexico, Guatemala, or wherever they were. This is unprecedented anywhere in the world.
RH What are the ways in which foundations can make themselves accountable to community people in the present moment? What could that look like on the ground?
DB Having community people on boards. Boards set policy, so that’s one way that foundations can be more accountable to the community.
KC We don’t jump in if it’s muddled and swampy, we think it’s too murky. I’m just going to leave that and going to go over here to something I understand. I think the collaboration piece gets to the question. Foundations are accountable to their trustees ultimately. Unless you have activists on the board, you’re not going to have accountability to the groups that you’re funding. They have the power to take and leave if they want. But, there is work going on. Donor-advised funds are coming in; people are giving to these more national foundations that are trying to be leaders. We need ways of shifting those power dynamics, which is what I’m really interested in. Ways of participatory grant making. How can we do that? The culture of donor work is that we have the money, and non-profit groups are always trying to play this game to get it.
DB It’s an unequal power relationship, definitely.
CH Here’s one way I think the education piece begins to equalize that. Non-profits will bring community people in and get their perspective, then say, “Now we have to spin what you just said into some language that rich people can hear.” What we’re trying to do is say to philanthropists you need to learn how to see the actual visions of the people; you need to learn how to hear the actual voices of the people. So if somebody comes in and they’re talking about community justice, kids in high school might say “community justice, oh you mean like reparations?” If you find individual philanthropists that can actually hear that and go, “I’ve studied the history, you’re absolutely right,” that changes the conversation. Then you can get people invested as a human being, like, “As a human being I do think that when governments do wrong they should repair the harm for the wrong they’ve done.” You can be a millionaire and still think that.
KC What about the organizing that happens within foundation cultures? Those that talk to each other and can advocate for initiatives.
DB The Polk Bros. Foundation is very interested in improving Chicago Public Schools. One of the strategies that we think works is community schools. Community schools are open before school begins and open long after it ends, serving children and their families. Polk was a leader in funding community schools and it organized other foundations to contribute to their creation.
CH Once some of these [informal] groups get funding so they can put themselves on the map, it will help people who work in the larger foundations be able to make the argument that criminal justice is a really central thing if you’re ever going to try to reform the Chicago Public Schools. If people really care about the public schools, they can’t be run like it’s a war zone.
We keep having these opportunities, from [former Chicago Police Commander John] Burge on up, where there are these explosions and the mainstream press does capture them. We are not building on this momentum to say we “have a really serious problem here.” We had torture chambers in a police precinct; we had a woman reaching for her cell phone get shot multiple times. We have these things but how can we connect it to people’s actual experience of living in Chicago is? Folks that live in Chicago know they have to weigh, “Am I more afraid of the police or am I more afraid of the criminal?”
DB That’s certain folks who live in Chicago. May-be that’s part of the issue; everybody doesn’t understand that. How do you make that happen? It is in the media. I think people should be outraged. I have friends who say “going to the streets and marching is passé.” So I don’t know how that outrage really manifests itself. It’s not manifesting itself in electoral politics.
RH But people on the North Side don’t feel the outrage of people living in Burnside. People’s experience of what criminal justice is so different depending on where you live. db And depending on who you are. My son’s experience of being stopped by the police when he’s with black friends is very different than when he’s with white friends.
CH I’ve seen in Rogers Park a 60-year-old white woman go out and confront the police when they’re harassing young black men. I don’t think it’s the people; we have to look at the other levels, why isn’t there an organization communicating that outrage? Why is the only thing that woman can do is go out and confront the police? Why can’t she go join an organization in her neighborhood? The kind of organization she could join to do something about that, Rogers Park Community Action Network, doesn’t have enough money to have a staff person. People don’t have a place to go to show the numbers they really have.
I also want to say that color-blind racism is really important and is something we educate about. A lot of white folks believe racism is something that existed in the 1950s and 1960s. So if they’re not burning a cross somewhere then they’re not really racist, if they don’t use the “n” word they’re not really racist. I’ve never met a white person who didn’t know that people of color had very different experiences with the police; it’s just that they haven’t cared to give up that unfair entitlement enough. The reality is people know, it’s on every TV show. People know we have a real problem with policing in this country; it’s whether or not they think that’s an urgent issue. Everybody knows the term “driving while black,” but do you care enough to do something about that? And then how do we change it from the random caring of doing something about that, into something?