Building Systemic Justice

Building Systemic Justice reflects on what it takes to build a different kind of organisation: one that lives its values of anti-oppression, justice, and intersectionality. Read more about Systemic Justice here.

Fundraising in a world where there is no such thing as clean money 

Operating in a racial-capitalist system, is there any source of funding that could be considered sufficiently ethical to resource anti-oppression work?  

We live in a world where communities are expected to fight for their liberation on a volunteer basis. That means that having a bold vision of how communities should be able to take power and leverage the courts to advance their cause, in a way that doesn’t destroy them in the process and sets them up to actually win, is completely antithetical to the status quo. 

I’ve written previously about using the master’s tools to fight for communities’ rights. The radical change many of us would want to see –– which I described as “grinding the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy to dust” –– requires nothing less than what others have called a project of “worldmaking”. This is a task we cannot expect to be completed overnight and to not be overwhelmed into inaction (to paraphrase the work of Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò), we have to choose the domain we want to tackle. While we work on creating a better global system, we need to make the faulty systems that we now have work better for everyone in the meantime. Not to lull ourselves into a false sense of “progress” or mock liberation, but to lay the important groundwork for making a decisive push for radical change when the time comes. And to improve things in the meantime for those who won’t be around to see that moment. 

The faulty system that Systemic Justice is working on changing is that of strategic litigation, which we believe is a tactic that should be equally accessible to all, on the terms of those whose rights are at stake. Right now, communities impacted by injustice and structural inequalities do not have this option, for a host of reasons that are all rooted in the structural power imbalances caused by the capitalist system we’re operating in. 

Litigation is a powerful tool for change. It also requires not insignificant resources. And, if you want to work in the community-centred and trauma-informed way we believe this work should be done – ensuring that there is a strong foundation to support both the communities and team members as they engage in longer-term campaigns for structural change – it requires robust resources. This means that, besides the task of building partnerships and campaigns, we have the task of mobilising those resources.  

Despite the sudden wave of proclaimed enthusiasm for anti-racist and social justice work following the BLM protests and onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, in reality very little funding flows to structural anti-oppression work. A lack of transparency prevents us from seeing just how stark the contrast is between the expressed commitment to “equity” and the percentage of funding that actually goes to anti-oppression work, let alone how much of that support lives up to the popular adage of “trust-based” funding, truly leaving it to grantees to determine how it can best support their struggle. Add to that the layers of a general misperception that Europe is doing “fine”, and that structural racism, oppression, and exclusion aren’t “as much of an issue here”, and you are left with a limited set of options for fundraising. 

It’s a challenge we’ll happily take on, and: it may require us to get creative in the sources of funding our work will be supported by. One of the questions we discussed at Systemic Justice’s team retreat in May this year was: do we have any clear red lines when it comes to funding?  
We started our reflection with a discussion about FRIDA’s “Money is political” statement, issued after they received a large donation from MacKenzie Scott, the ex-partner of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. It explicitly calls out the exploitative systems the money comes from and frames the gift –– and FRIDA’s acceptance of it –– as a form of wealth redistribution and reparations. We asked ourselves the question what we would do in the same situation, and then considered if, and how, the situation would be different if the donation would come directly from Amazon or Jeff Bezos himself. As we moved through a whole range of scenarios team members felt more or less comfortable with, we came to the conclusion that none of these could be distilled into general “red lines” for not accepting funding, as in the end the sources of all funding could be traced back to extractive systems of capitalism and oppression; it was more a matter of which degree of separation or obfuscating through institutionalisation ended up making it more or less palatable.  

This doesn’t mean we will be entirely indiscriminate in what sources of funding we’ll pursue or accept. But these decisions will be made on a case by case basis by the team, our Board, and our community partners. Some of the parameters we identified for that decision making are: 

  • No funder gets to dictate our actions This includes what issues we take on, do not take on, the partners we do this with, who we act in solidarity with, and everything in between. We need to be completely free in the way we operate and determine together with the communities we serve what is in the best interest of the cause they’re pursuing. 
  • No funding we accept should harm the communities we work with For example, if funding directed at a specific litigation campaign puts communities in harm’s way or triggers trauma for them. 
  • We do not want to rely on donations from the communities we’re working with While crowdfunding can be a powerful campaigning tool, and we do not exclude the possibility of using this for specific litigation projects in the future, we will not seek direct donations from the communities we serve.  

We believe that these criteria –– which will inevitably evolve over time –– should enable us to act in line with our organisational values when it comes to navigating the complicated landscape of resourcing, philanthropy, and the funding-industrial complex. Yes, philanthropy and the capitalist system it is embedded in needs to change. But the work we need to do is urgent and, given the challenges we’re facing, we cannot have the perfect be the enemy of the good.  

Any resources we can direct towards changing the oppressive power structures that are hurting our communities is a win. We are hopeful that we can do this in a way that helps break some of these power structures down. It’s just a matter of time.