Building Survivor Wealth: Lessons From the Inaugural FreeFrom Survivor Wealth Summit

This summer, Vice President of Programs Camille Emeagwali participated in a panel discussion at Me Too Fund grantee partner FreeFrom’s inaugural Survivor Wealth Summit. The groundbreaking two-day event explored the concept of survivor wealth and what is needed in communities and across various sectors to develop a deeper understanding of financial trauma and healing. Camille joined an all women of color panel of dynamic funders and thought leaders to discuss the importance of survivors of gender-based violence building wealth. She reflects on the experience in a Q&A below:

Tell me about your experience at the Survivor Wealth Summit.

It was wonderful to see a room full of people from a variety of backgrounds—from community-based organizations, philanthropy, government and survivors themselves—talking not just about how to end gender-based violence, but also about creating new beginnings for survivors of violence. Often when people talk about gender-based violence, they’re referring to the physical, emotional and mental toll that the violence can take. However, there is financial and economic violence that also happens to people. Many survivors of violence are in situations that they may want to get out of but are not in a financial position to do so. Some survivors of violence may not be able to have their own bank account or work outside the home. Money that they do earn may have been taken by a partner or a perpetrator of violence.

This is not necessarily always in a romantic relationship. For example—and to be inclusive of all communities that experience violence, and that were represented at this conference, such as sex workers—economic violence is to keep women in situations where people may be exploiting them, for example. I think it’s great to have the visibility of this conversation because oftentimes the work around gender-based violence focuses on the immediate needs, like housing, shelter and services. All these needs are critical, but we need to think long-term. There are many facets to this issue and economic justice is an enormous part of that.

Sonya Passi, the founder of FreeFrom, has taken a unique approach to combatting gender-based violence. How has The Foundation also taken a similar approach throughout its 32-year history?

Sonya is inspirational. From the beginning, she has connected the issues of economic justice and gender-based violence together. In the 32-year history of The Foundation, we have always invested in organizations that do economic security work and work with survivors. Examples include workforce development programs that are inclusive of survivors and domestic violence organizations or intimate partner violence organizations that do financial coaching with survivors. Many groups have one particular area of focus and add the other issue area to compliment their work. But Sonya brought those two conversations together from the very beginning and that is why I think  the organization has been so successful in growing support so quickly.

What was the greatest takeaway from your panel session, Investing in Survivor Wealth?

One thing that was striking was that the panel was comprised completely of women of color in philanthropy and all but one of the organizations represented were women’s foundations or women-focused foundations. That is something you don’t often see, and it was very powerful. One of the main takeaways was that women’s foundations have been at the forefront of the intersections of this issue from the beginning. Further, we see each other as critical partners, whether formally or informally, on how we can not only invest in this work but advance this as an issue that all funders need to be focused on.

There’s a real need, and The Foundation has been at the forefront of working at the intersections of these issues. Grantees or potential grantees in the audience asked, “how do I get funding? How do you fund my work?” I want them to recognize that The Foundation already funds that kind of work because we don’t take a siloed approach. We obviously have issue areas that we focus on, but we want to fund organizations who think about all these issues simultaneously. We want to fund the economic justice movement and the gender justice movement and anti-violence movement all together, because we recognize that they’re all connected and they impact the same people.

The bottom line is that there’s more money and attention that needs to be brought to these issues. The New York Women’s Foundation in particular has always been perceived as a risktaker. However, we don’t think it’s risky to fund those on the ground, community leaders who know this work; who face these issues every day. With the right resources, they can figure out the best solutions  and make changes on these issues. What we need to do is bring other funders into the fold.
Another take away is that we are a local funder, but it was clear that there is national impact with our dollars. Through The Fund for the Me Too Movement and Allies, we fund across the country, and that includes FreeFrom which is based in California. We were able to do that in partnership with The Women’s Foundation of California which has its own network of funders and donors that they collaborate with. Funding in this way, in this approach to our grantmaking, only deepens our impact on this issue.

 

You mentioned the Me Too Fund as something that has taken The Foundation’s impact on a national scale. What would you say specifically helps The Foundation stand out in the field of philanthropy when it comes to supporting survivors?

I would point to how we partner with community in our approach to grantmaking. FreeFrom is a great example. Sonya and FreeFrom were recommended to us by Tarana Burke (Tarana Burke, the leader and founder of the ‘me too’ movement co-founded The Fund for the Me Too Movement and Allies with The New York Women’s Foundation). Tarana is part of this community and—more so than The New York Women’s Foundation—is close to the ground in what’s happening and knows local and national leaders who are really pushing the needle on ending gender-based violence. She knew Yolo Akili (founder and executive director of the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective, or BEAM), another grantee partner of the Me Too Fund, who was also at the summit talking about healing justice and its connection to economic justice. Tarana knew that these were national leaders who are not yet nationally known. They are folks who are having local impact that needs to be on the national level and need investment to do that.

As we do with all our grantmaking, we see our grantee partners as experts. We follow their lead. Some funders are afraid to do that or require a plethora of evidence to feel comfort and security in knowing that’s the step they should take. The Foundation’s comfort in following community lead makes us unique, allowing those who are doing this work the freedom and the dollars to do what they need to do. Whether it’s direct service, policy and advocacy, movement building, developing strong collaborations, building their capacity as leaders, we think it’s all important.  Recognizing partnership in all layers, so partnership of community, partnership with other women’s funds who share our philosophy in funding leaders in this way and having a real participatory approach to grant-making.

One point Yolo Akili of BEAM made during his speech at the summit is that “healing is expensive and healing is a privilege.” Is that something you think can be shifted, say through our grantmaking or through culture change?

Yolo talked about it not just in terms of the work we do, but of how we work. At The Foundation, for the most part we give general operating support and try to be as flexible with our dollars as possible because we know that organizations need to not only resource the work that they do but need resources to work on themselves. Many times people come to this work through personal experience or because they have such deep compassion and empathy for those who have experienced issues or challenges in the community. It’s hard work. Sometimes, some of the same systems that we fight against for one reason or another replicate in our spaces. Oftentimes, it has to do with funding structure. Yolo spoke to the fact that healing justice is an essential part of all the work we do. Not only for the people experiencing these issues, but for the people that are doing the work. At The Foundation, we wholeheartedly agree with him. We have always provided capacity building and leadership development support. We see our partnerships as going beyond grantmaking to developing trusting relationships with grantee partners, where they can share things with us in a no judgement environment.

Again, this is where The Foundation has really shown great leadership and can continue to grow the resources that we invest in capacity-building. It is the same thing we want to do with our collaborative funds as well, making sure that we are not just finding this work, but are funding and supporting the people that are doing this work. At the end of the day, this is about human beings. We very much value the human beings who are doing that work and we demonstrate that through our grantmaking approach and our relationship management approach.

To learn more about FreeFrom and the movement of building survivor wealth, please click here

A Look Back at Beyond the Bars: Centering System-Impacted Women & Families

It was once a radical concept to see the American criminal justice system for what it is—a system largely built on disproportionately criminalizing minority communities and the poor. But now, discussions on dismantling mass incarceration have moved from the margins to the center, with the closing of the infamously violent and dysfunctional Rikers Island in sight. Yet with this shift and growing public consciousness is a glaring exclusion that begs the question: where are the women?

Mobilizing for criminal justice reform can’t be done without creating a paradigm shift that centers the experiences of women and families. The New York Women’s Foundation has applied a gender and racial equity lens to this crisis to truly pave the way forward to justice, safety and the overall wellbeing of communities across New York City.

The role of philanthropy in this movement is one that can’t be underscored; those most impacted by systems of incarceration are also closest to the solutions, and therefore their voices must be heard in all aspects of advocacy.

These principles were put into practice at the 9th Annual Beyond the Bars Conference from at Columbia University, where this year’s theme Until She’s Free bolstered efforts to challenge the impacts of incarceration and criminalization on women and girls. Foundation President & CEO Ana L. Oliveira moderated the discussion A New Path to Justice: A Philanthropic Conversation on the Intersection of Gender Equity and Criminal Justice Reform, featuring Pamela Schifman, Executive Director, NoVo Foundation; Aleah Bacquie-Vaughn, Director, Circle for Justice Innovations; and Christina Voight, Program Associate, Open Society Foundations.

Setting out to demystify the culture and inner workings of philanthropy, the panelists provided a breadth of experience as experts of the field, committed to using philanthropy as a tool to resource the initiatives, organizations and leaders on the ground. “It’s more than money,” Ana Oliveira said. “It’s a concept of solidarity and creating the destiny of our grantee partners on their terms.” Solidarity also includes not only centering the needs of system-impacted individuals through funding, but in changing the culture of philanthropy to ensure formerly incarcerated people are given opportunities to hold decision-making positions. This principle is personal for panelist Christina Voight at the Open Society Institute, who is one of the few formerly incarcerated women to work in philanthropy. “Until I see more formerly incarcerated people in power positions that can actually take the money and say this is what we’re going to be funding, I’m not going to stop,” she said.

Part of demystifying philanthropy also means recognizing that the problems and solutions of a community live together. While allies and collaborators are needed in the fight, it should never be at the expense of those who are closest to the issues and have been system-impacted, Aleah Bacquie Vaughn of Circle for Justice Innovations suggested. “It’s not a terrible thing that someone who has had a great deal of privilege be involved in helping to solve a problem,” she explained.

“If you center the focus on the people who are experiencing the problem, they will tell you what the priority is. Our job is simply fund and resource that work so that the movement continues to grow.”

While philanthropy has made strides in funding some criminal justice reform initiatives—such as ban the box and outlawing shackling women during labor—there’s a still gap between needs, resources, response time and action. And when it comes to meeting the needs of cis and trans women and girls of color, particularly those impacted by the system, resources are often funneled away from them, Ana Oliveira said. “Changes are happening in philanthropy. We are constantly fine tuning ourselves to be able to do them faster and to be able to do them even more.” Pamela Shifman of The NoVo Foundation echoed these sentiments, as she detailed the awareness gained of scanning the field of philanthropy and finding how few resources were dedicated to women’s criminal justice reform. “We realized the ways in which we were not resourcing formerly incarcerated women and their leadership, and that was a real gap for us—and that is not acceptable,” she said.

The Foundation continues to drive this change in philanthropy with the Justice Fund, launched in 2018, supports community-based organizations working to advance the closure of Rikers Island, and related improvements within the local jail system through efforts that will give voice to a wide range of system-impacted community members. We are proud to count the Art for Justice Fund, Ford Foundation, Frances Lear Foundation and The Pinkerton Foundation among our partners in this urgent social action and advocacy effort.

Through The Justice Fund, justice-involved individuals, women and their families will be heard at all levels of government and supported by the organizations most closely in connection to them. “This is our own wanting to catch up with the incredible work that you all have been doing,” Ana Oliveira said. By working alongside community-based organizations, The Foundation can more successfully join forces to dismantle mass incarceration, and its effects on women, girls and TGNC communities.

To watch the full panel, please click here. To learn more about The Justice Fund, please click here.

Pride Month, Philanthropy and Inclusion: Q&A with Ana L. Oliveira

As you reflect on Pride Month and the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, how have you seen The Foundation’s work evolve to match the needs of LGBTQ+ communities?

I think The New York Women’s Foundation, over its three decades, has evolved in its inclusion and its ability to be present, see, expand and “walk the walk” of inclusion of LGBTQ+ communities. The initial level of inclusion was first about lesbian and bisexual women, but as an institution that has a gender category in its name, it is critical for us to understand the construction of gender and that it is relatively arbitrary. It’s necessary for us to expand, dilute and make the category permeable so that it does not become a category of oppression—a box where people don’t fit in; that it doesn’t become a thick border that excludes others. The fluidity of the concept of women has evolved for us and our grantmaking reflects that. I think that in the last decade we have intentionally examined our grantmaking through those eyes.

 

What specific moments in your experience at The Foundation stand out in this evolution?

The moment is 2008 when the Great Recession happened, and we saw the vulnerability of nonprofits in New York City. We saw the vulnerability of LGBTQ+ community-centered organizations and when we examined the landscape, we noticed that they tended to be smaller organizations. We also saw that organizations that included gender-fluid communities were much more underfunded. This created an opportunity for us to really step up and direct more of our funds in the areas of economic security, anti-violence, health, gender identity, reproductive health and justice, making sure that we intentionally included organizations by and for LGBTQI communities in the city. I think that moment in time facilitated our understanding of the urgency and the incredible need that existed. Since then, we have consistently continued to do that. More recently, we have joined other funders in initiatives that propel philanthropy forward. Grantmakers United for Trans Communities (GUTC) is one of them.

 

What else stands out about The Foundation’s support of LGBTQ+ communities? What top initiatives and values, come to mind?

As a funder that is concerned with the intersectionality of race, gender, economics and other structures that separate and control and oppress people, we have been very committed to not making the funding of LGBTQ+ organizations an initiative that has a beginning, a middle and an end. We structurally integrate it in all grantmaking we do. More recently—and not just at The New York Women’s Foundation, but in philanthropy—we have had to confront our small investments in LGBTQI+ communities. We’ve especially had to confront this with trans communities, particularly those of color. When we are doing an analysis of needs, looking at race, ethnicity, gender and economics is an imperative. But we must also look at gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation in a very intersectional manner. We also need to look at ranges of ability and disability. And when we do that as grant makers, we get to the bullseye: the center of disinvestment, of disenfranchisement, of lack of opportunities, of highest rates of early deaths, least rates of opportunities to achieve education, safety and health. In this, we find communities of color, gender-fluid and trans communities and communities that are immigrants and undocumented immigrants. And they have, either to trauma or to other health disinvestments, different ranges of disability—they may be invisible, but they’re there. Grant makers, we like to have contextual information. When we do that, we are forced to bring forth the investment in LGBTQI communities of color, poor communities, undocumented communities. They all will find that nexus there.

 

How important is it for philanthropic organizations to make their processes for grant seekers accessible for LGBTQ organizations?

When a community is already disinvested, members have very little access to resources. They are strong, very resilient, very resourceful, but as far as tangible resources and opportunities, they are depending on the structures of communities and societies. The organizations tend to be small and underfunded and volunteer based. Philanthropy sets these thresholds—you have to write big proposals, you have to have a board of directors with impressive names and the board needs to be fundraising. But the reality is, if the board is authentically rooted in community, then the board is going to be as economically underinvested as the community is. Philanthropy has to meet people where they’re at. The time to write a sophisticated proposal, is, for small organizations, a luxury. And many queer organizations tend to be small. I remember meeting a couple of trans leaders in Brooklyn saying they were struggling to have a place to meet. Organizations where people are working, they’re bringing the community together, they’re organizing, but they do not have the ability to write a robust proposal or pace to meet —philanthropy needs to be user-friendly for them. The Foundation funds differently, with a simpler proposal and then we go from there. This allows the organization to fund the grant writer for the bigger proposal and to rent space periodically. We need to be flexible. Real accessibility means people have the tools to be able to succeed. The New York Women’s Foundation is an organization that funds groups in their earlier stages. We get them to be able to have the fundamental resources that they need to grow as they see themselves. But in the beginning, those kinds of requirements are impossible to be met.

 

How can philanthropy better respond to the current attacks and rollbacks on LGBTQ+ rights on the federal level (particularly trans rights)? In what ways has The Foundation stood apart in their efforts? 

When you think about philanthropy the first thing you think about is funding, and it should be about that. But there’s something that philanthropy and philanthropic leaders can do beyond that, which is influence. When leaders of foundations speak up and say that Black and brown members of trans communities are being killed at an alarming rate, different people listen. That’s using our influence and leveraging our voice. Philanthropy is a field that has to constantly be aware and work with its own biases and shortcomings. One of the biases we have is we are removed from daily suffering. We are not direct service providers, we’re not direct community organizers. We are not responding to people’s wishes, pains and hopes in that way. We get really comfortable not taking a risk because we don’t experience the urgency. Using our voice, stepping up and saying something that really can move the field—a community of listeners, some members of government, other philanthropists– to a more effective world, a more just world. It’s not about political parties; it’s about the conditions of life. The justice or injustice of such conditions. It’s about invitation for humans to rise to another level of solving problems.

 

Widening wealth inequality is a threat to the well-being and security of communities around the world

Widening wealth inequality is a threat to the wellbeing and security of communities around the world. While the corporate profits and salaries of top executives continue to increase, the core of workers who provide vital and everyday services have yet to see their share of a fair distribution of wealth. A leading voice in this current movement speaking truth to power on the devastating consequences of wealth inequality is our very own Board Emerita, Abigail E. Disney. Our support of Abigail is worth repeating: we stand with her, and firmly believe in her efforts to fight for dignified, livable wages for all. It takes a special level of courage to speak candidly and from personal experience on what the impacts of extreme wealth are on society at large. Abigail’s bravery points to a larger theme that must be acknowledged: shifting the power dynamics of wealth requires those with privilege to acknowledge the inequality at hand and take a stand.

At the heart of this movement to address economic inequality sit the people who work tirelessly each day for the interests of corporations and the public good, yet struggle to cover basic necessities such as food, housing, childcare, and medical needs. Abigail spoke to this truth in a recent viral Twitter thread. “Anyone who contributes to the success of a profitable company and who works full time to do so should not go hungry, should not ration insulin, and should not have to sleep in a car,” she states. It is unthinkable that those working full time or multiple jobs would still be faced with the uncertainty, stresses, and anxieties that economic inequality can bring forth. The consequences of this are even more intensified and far-reaching when it comes to the experiences of women, people of color, those with disabilities and queer, trans and gender non-conforming communities. Economic inequality is not just another subject of public debate: it is a daily, lived experience that far too many are faced with.

The pressures of this crisis will require swift, concerted and intentional action. We cannot sit by idly as marginalized communities across New York City and beyond are denied the dignity of building lives that are secure, stable and safe. Shifting resources into the hands of those who are equally responsible for the success of a company does not deny or disregard the hard work of executive leadership. It is the fair and moral thing to do to reward employees for their contributions in building a company’s success. And as Abigail suggests, the need for a stronger distribution of resources is one that impacts every corner of life, including political and legislative interests. “We are increasingly a lopsided, barbell nation, where the middle class is shrinking, a very few, very affluent people own a great deal and the majority have relatively little,” she says. “What is more, as their wealth has grown, the super-rich have invested heavily in politicians, policies and social messaging to pad their already grotesque advantages.”

At The New York Women’s Foundation, we remain committed in the fight for an equitable future for all. We are proud to support the efforts of numerous grantee partners organizing for the benefit of women workers across New York City. By accelerating economic change, we take a stand for the future—for the women, young girls, families, and communities who deserve a bright, secure and just opportunity to succeed.