Covering the Landscape: Justice, Change, and Philanthropy in Chicago

Since the 1960s and 70s, I think there has been a change in community consciousness, including in the communities that have been most affected in terms of who goes into prison. “Law and order” became the mantra. Even criminalized communities bought into law and order policies. There are realities about how crime changed in communities. Literally you saw with crack cocaine the level of violence changed. And with that it became punitive, punitive, punitive. It’s a different environment, there’s a different feeling in communities around this stuff than there used to be. The way communities dealt with it years ago is different than the way communities are dealing with it now.

You mention a shift in community consciousness. Was that people calling for more police presence?

In Chicago you’ve got the Alinsky Model. A lot of groups went through different organizing schools that came from that model; they almost all had a problematic community safety component to their work. And we saw the shift here at Crossroads. We’d start to get proposals, and this was like 10 years ago, in these proposals people would talk about the community, and the prostitutes, and the drug dealers, and the gang bangers. They’re advocating for more security cameras on the outside of the school, so they can grab these youth. We’re sitting here like, “Where did it stop that we were working with the youth and the prostitutes?” I don’t want to romanticize it. There are realities that people face in their lives and they become very challenging. I think some of that is changing now for the better… some of the groups that talked that way are now developing a more sophisticated analysis that actually addresses racism and the role of the police and prisons in their communities.

[Today] there are fewer jobs, fewer economic opportunities in communities. Whereas movements were born around community ferment, now there’s more of a drive around jobs. There’s a not-for-profit sector that didn’t exist back then, so there’s a different reality to how people organize around these issues. Movements are now sort of funded, movements didn’t used to be funded. We have to take responsibility for this at some extent, as the Crossroads Fund. We have a somewhat different philosophy than other foundations; you don’t have to be a 501c-3 and all that. But there’s a professionalization that has occurred—some of it is good and some not.

One example of a really successful moment you see when groups did come together was around the death penalty in Illinois. You saw every level of institutional and grassroots groups focusing their attention on a moratorium. It was brilliant that they sort of drove this little wedge to jam the gears with the moratorium. The next step is abolition and that’s a much tougher thing. Although New Jersey’s doing it, and that’s about cost. It’s phenomenal that New Jersey is thinking about abolishing the death penalty because it’s cheaper to keep them alive. And, you know, “There are some morality issues,” but [cost] is the first thing they talked about today in the New York Times.

In the death penalty coalition, was there a specific capacity that was unique to that effort?

They started having monthly meetings. It sounds simple, but think about it. It has to do with people’s capacity to get from one place to the other, and people prioritizing what they’re doing. It was this interesting thing where people were like, we’ve got to start meeting with each other and we’ve got to be clear about what skills we’re all bringing to this. They kind of did it for a couple years and it really culminated in something.

What roles do you think funders can or should play in trying to build the capacity for coalitions?

It’s complicated. It’s a tricky business. I’m operating from the Crossroads Fund, it’s very small. We’re a speck in the dust of the philanthropic universe. With that being said, it’s important for like-minded foundations who are interested in progressive change to play a role, taking some risks. The whole issue of criminal justice is one of the hardest places to work, the prison system is almost impenetrable. I did work years ago with act-up around hiv/aids and prison. The prisons didn’t have to disclose anything. They always have a good excuse, which is security.

Crossroads Fund is a little bit different because we’re a public foundation, we’re not endowed. So we are closer to a not-for-profit. Somebody gives us a thousand dollars and they want to know what we did with it, and they want to know that the groups that we’re funding have some meaning. Most foundations have no accountability mechanism to the general public. They have to give a report to the IRS, but nobody can go to endowed mainstream private foundations and say we’re going to take your money away because we don’t like your grantmaking decisions. You would think that since they have so much space that they would take more risks.

So a primary focus of mainstream foundations now is re-entry because communities are being flooded. We all know the story of the 1980s and 90s and the huge amounts of people who went to prison, some of them are coming out now. Re-entry has become the way many foundations fund criminal justice. It’s important but you don’t see many people giving to projects in prison, or pre-prison. A lot of it’s like they’re coming out and looking for jobs and things like that—which are hugely important. But it’s too little too late on some level. It doesn’t really address criminalization in schools, criminalization in communities, the cycle. It takes people and says, “All right you did your time, now let’s see what we can do.” A lot of the rhetoric of it is the fear of communities being overrun by criminals.

Locally, I don’t hear a lot of foundations talking about this as really an issue of race. That’s something that is really problematic. There are these code words like “affected communities.” MacArthur Foundation has a number of designated communities—the zip codes where most of the people are coming out of prison, right? And that’s where they’ve been flooding money. There’s no acknowledgment of the fact that this is about race in America, and the legacy of how we have institutionalized racism.

For activists and organizers in the city that are trying to bring the political possibilities and the discourse more to the left, where do you think attention should be focused?

There are issues here that are so complicated at this point. This whole thing about the non-profit-industrial complex. You read this all the time, the civil rights movement was not funded by foundations. You can’t argue with the fact that more resources are now available. People will argue that the right-wing spent 20 to 30 years building an infrastructure which then led to their “revolution” in the federal government. And that was all about creating infrastructure and institutions. And the left didn’t do that. There’s so many things that need to happen at so many different levels. You need to have it all. You need to have programs that are about creating jobs for former prisoners. That’s social service. Particularly because so many people have gone to prison, and particularly because people who haven’t gone to prison can’t even get a job. As the left, what is our real program for making that happen? I don’t think it’s something we pay a lot of attention to.

Then there’s reform. Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (claim), spent years getting the state to change the law about wo-men being shackled during childbirth. Can you imagine having to go down to Springfield over a period of years and go, “Gee, it’s bad when a woman’s giving birth to be shackled.” They had women who were shackled, former prisoners, go down there and tell their stories. So legislators go, “Oh, this is horrifying.” Finally, after some time, they get that passed. Well, yeah, I think it’s important that somebody works on that, and ultimately it’s a reform. But we can’t get community based sentencing for the same women, those same women are still going to Dwight, so it’s not an alternative. It’s better though.

Then there’s grassroots, in your face, we are not gonna stand for this, kind of stuff. I think that without all of those things, somebody’s screwed for the short-term and for the long-term. We have to create all of those levels of support. I think most foundations are there to support the jobs and social service, then maybe advocacy/ reform and almost never grassroots activism.

A positive example is where the Woods Fund worked with TARGET Development for a collaborative campaign around expungement. There are very few initiatives like that that are about street activism that are going to get supported. That’s where we really have gaps. I think there is a lack of creative thinking and energy around that stuff locally. I think all those things have to happen on all of those levels—service provision, reform advocacy, and activism for systemic change. They need to be supported on all of those levels. And the people who are working on those levels somehow need to find a way to have a connection with one another.

Meanwhile, there are so many resources poured into the oppression, the systematic removal of people through the prison system.

I just read this interesting article, with this whole argument of the prison system being a logical extension of slavery and Jim Crow. Loic Wacquant does this analysis where he talks about the four peculiar institutions: slavery, Jim Crow, the urban Ghetto, and “the organization of the compound formed by the vestiges of the ghetto and the expanding carceral system.” It’s interesting because he talks about the merging of the ghetto with the prison system. They’re one and the same at this point, they function in very much the same ways. The chaos that’s creating people’s lives is very similar, the level of isolation from the rest of society.

It was very heavy to think about that. The descriptions I hear from people who are incarcerated—how much more people are in and out, back and forth. Granddaughters and mothers, the generational stuff. It seems to resonate with how he’s describing it in this article. The idea in the United States that these are the solutions, while the solutions are just expanding the program. You resolve Jim Crow, supposedly, but your resolution is to expand the program of incarceration. Women are actually the fastest-growing prison population. He doesn’t deal with women very well in the article. You see a lot more women going to prison, which is another problem actually in funding. People don’t really see women. Claim deals a lot with the termination of parental rights. You’ve got communities of women who are losing their kids, for shoplifting or prostitution. The kids are out on their own, in a different system. Maybe with family if they’re lucky, or they’re becoming wards of the state. It’s just deeply wrong.

Wacquant didn’t deal with women very well but he dealt with labor extraction, social exclusion. Angela Davis asks, are prisons going to become the new place where the workforce is? We see that happening.

Which is why the slavery parallel is so powerful. We talked about how foundations don’t deal with race. How is not dealing with race tied to not dealing with history?

Foundations were created by the captains of industry to make sure that the workers didn’t bring disease in, that they could do better at their jobs because they could teach them how to read a little bit. Start schools and libraries. [Foundations] created different cultural realities for upper class folks. So the idea of poverty is ok to talk about. But not the idea of racism, what the country was built on. It doesn’t then address how these companies made their money, how they continue to benefit. Nobody’s money is clean.

Most of the foundations in town were founded with assets from accumulated wealth due to some sort of exploitation. Whether it’s money earned from selling penny insurance to people down on their luck, to coal mining, to building a company on paying low wages—foundations are mainly built from someone making too much money. I don’t know too many examples where it’s not. It would be very difficult then to attach race to that for a lot of these Boards of Directors and trustees. It’s taking on something that they don’t really want to address, it’s unspeakable. So the words “poverty” and “disadvantaged” are more comfortable to use.

Are there unique opportunities that you see that are out there today?

I think there are. It’s about being strategic. It’s really about the organizations being experts about the current climate. At the Crossroads Fund, we’re interested in organizations that have a long-term vision.

We fund a group now that’s working with long-term prisoners. They’re very focused on that population because nobody else is thinking about them. The C# prisoners. They’re saying that for anyone who is in prison for a long time, there need to be programs, medical care needs to be different, prisons need to be constructed differently. These are reforms, but they know that if that stuff gets dealt with it’s only gonna get better for the overall population. You can make an argument that these guys are being warehoused, they’re in there for 20–30 years and they should have educational programs, not just tv to watch. That’s gonna trickle in some other way to other prisoners. But is anybody looking at the whole thing, and creating an agenda?

I have a lot of questions around where we would want our money to go if all the money that the state uses supporting an unjust criminal justice system was reinvested. How could that money be deployed in a way that led to community self-determination and not to tons of in-fighting?

Are there people who are sitting there creating those models? Are there people who are sitting there and going like, “Say we had a hundred million dollars, how would we structure this?”

I don’t think it’s a task that any one person should take on, there should be a collaborative coalition-based visioning project. I wonder how that can happen and how supports for that can happen.

That’d be an interesting project for philanthropy. Dump a $100,000 over 2 years. That’s not that much money for a lot of foundations or a group of foundations. And say, “Ok, we’re going to open this up, we’re going to ask groups that have been working on this to each nominate three people. They can nominate one from their own organization and two from other organizations. We’re going to put together a think tank, let’s do some thinking around this.” I guess some groups like Metro 20/20, that’s part of what they say they’re doing. I don’t think that they get as grassroots as they probably could. They’re very practical, they start from expenditures. They’re sophisticated, they know what the arguments are for government, and in a “law and order” atmosphere.

I’d be interested in people exploring models that are beyond the US. We’re really messed up. We know that incarceration rates in other countries aren’t as crazy. So let’s look at some of those examples and those models. The model that Cheryl Graves [of the Community Justice for Youth Institute] is working on. It really is about teaching people to think differently. Changing our practices about how we are angry with each other for what we do to each other. It comes from another cultural reality that we don’t really have in most of the country. I give them a lot of credit for how deep that work is, and I think that is absolutely necessary.

We know that the state’s concept of justice is bankrupt—meanwhile we as people invested in social change use the term justice so much. What are your thoughts on the meaning of the term?

I’ve heard so many conversations that say it’s about re-entry, or it’s about expungement. Obviously those things are a part of it, but there is so much more that’s a part of it. It really is about everything that happens before you go in, and everything that happens after you go in, and everything that happens to divert you from not going in. If a kid shows up in school and they don’t have enough books in the schoolroom, there is no justice. That’s where it starts. That’s where that kid starts getting treated unjustly. That’s about allocation of funds. It’s about class and it’s about race ultimately. Every time you go back to the statistics that’s what we see. There is such a deep, deep connection between all of the different issues. That’s why it is so important that somebody sits down and creates a movement that can strategize across those issues.

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