The Washington Post

The organization says the awards are a first step in making a career in advancing racial justice an option for Black Americans.

On Wednesday, more than a dozen Black social justice activists will be awarded $150,000 each to continue their often decades-long work for civil rights and to perhaps worry less about paying their bills.

Away with the Rosa Parks model, said Tara Huffman, an independent consultant who worked with Open Society Foundations to launch its Justice Rising Awards program.

Open Society Foundations, founded by billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros, provides grants to individuals and organizations that support “vibrant and inclusive democracies.”

“Rosa Parks is rightly credited with launching a phase of the civil rights movement that took the movement to an entirely different level, but decades later, she was in the news again for all the wrong reasons, as she was about to be evicted from her apartment in Chicago because she couldn’t pay the rent,” Huffman said.

“How do we make sure that people who are giving of themselves in very real ways today still have a future — still have a future for themselves and are still able to create a future for their children?” Huffman said. “We’re not saying that we have the perfect formula, but this is a start. This is introducing a model that we hope inspires others, even challenges others to improve upon what we have started.”

The Justice Rising awardees, who were selected by Open Society Foundations staff, work on a variety of issues, such as voting rights, reproductive rights and climate justice. The Justice Rising program is part of a broader $220 million investment in racial justice that leaders and organizations pledged in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed. The recipients include Desmond Meade, the architect of Amendment 4 in Florida, which restored voting rights to more than a million formerly incarcerated Floridians like himself; Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement; and LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter and a leading voice in the voting rights movement.

“I can’t even tell you how many fundraisers, how many interventions that we’ve had to do to help civil rights activists who could not afford their light bill,” said Brown, 51. “There’s an over-romanticization of activists struggling, and it’s almost like you get discarded by your own community. I’m the first to say, I’ve worked in social justice for 27 years and I don’t have enough money in my retirement to last me six months. I know folks who will go get a second job to get stability.”

Brown has spent years fighting for economic security for others that she didn’t have herself. To illustrate her point, she likes to tell a story about protesting an Alabama bill that would have cut state employee health insurance benefits.

“This was in the late ’90s, but I will never forget this,” she said. “We were at the Alabama State Capitol and we were protesting, and a Republican senator walked up to me and said: ‘You out here protesting. I know where you work. I bet you ain’t got no insurance where you work.’ And he was right, I didn’t, I didn’t have any health insurance. I had a young baby and I was making $11,000 a year. I was literally advocating for insurance as a social justice activist working for a social justice organization, and I didn’t have any sort of security,” Brown said.

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of voting rights group Black Voters Matter. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

Brown said that it often feels like people are demanding that activists struggle while doing social justice work.

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“There’s the part that nobody wants to talk about around character assassinations and questions around integrity,” she said. “There are these vicious narratives that are marketed and that are spread out in the world where you can’t own a house. You can’t go on vacation without getting taken down. I’ve literally been attacked for going on vacation. That standard isn’t held for anyone but Black activists.”

Meade, who was also awarded a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship, said what’s important about these awards is that they give the recipients time to rest and plan.

“I’ve been learning to kick back,” Meade said. “It’s been hard because there is some kind of underlying guilt that seems to be attached to kicking back. I remember there was a time when I used to say I could not stop, because injustice does not stop. But I’m starting to understand now that I can’t be everything for everybody and be everywhere, so it’s about understanding that I need to take some time for me. I need to be more conscious of my health. I need to be able to enjoy life to some degree and not feel guilty about it.”

Desmond Meade, the architect of Amendment 4 in Florida, talks to reporters outside the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office before registering to vote on Jan. 8, 2019, after felons had regained their voting rights in the state. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post)

Tom Perriello, executive director of Open Society Foundations’ U.S. program, said the awards also were an attempt to end a scarcity mind-set that often leads people to attack leaders who have started to achieve some success.

“You’ve seen movement leaders get torn down for having gotten a book deal or having bought a home,” Perriello said. “Shouldn’t we be excited when leaders who’ve been in the struggle for a very long time are able to have economic security for their family?”

Going into activism was a leap of faith for Colette Pichon Battle, founder and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, who started working for climate justice in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating impact on her hometown of Bayou Liberty, La. Before Katrina, Pichon Battle was a corporate lawyer living in D.C.

Colette Pichon Battle, founder and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy. (Chuck Kennedy)

“Really, I think I lost my mind as I watched my community lose everything,” Pichon Battle said. “It was one of those crack-in-the-universe moments where you’re like: ‘What the hell am I doing? I got to get home.’ ”

Pichon Battle moved back to Louisiana and spent several years living in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on land that her family has been on since the 1770s.

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“It was several years of living in a FEMA trailer while making no money,” she said. “In the last 16 years, I’ve had two full years of having a paid job. The rest of that was me scraping. And quite frankly, my mom, my friends used to beg me to leave, to get a job, to save for retirement, go back to the corporate world. ‘What are you doing? You don’t have any security. You’re on a tightrope and the wind is blowing, you’re going to fall.’ It’s been over a decade without health insurance. It’s just a lot of sacrifice,” she said.

Pichon Battle was using her own money to host community meetings and attend events. Soon her student loans were in default. The first thing she plans to do with her award is pay off student loans.

“This was all a gamble,” she said. “A gamble on community and a gamble on this work, and this kind of award feels like the gamble paid off, like all of the decisions to stay with my community, to make the hard choices, to stay in the FEMA trailer, to reject the reintroduction to the corporate world. Someone is nodding to say, ‘We see the sacrifice and you deserve this and maybe more, but here’s what we can give you just to get yourself to that place of stability.’ ”

Pichon Battle said she understood how some might attack the idea of activists living comfortably, but she doesn’t expect that from the community she has spent more than a dozen years working with.

“When President Obama mentioned my name in his speech at the climate talks, my community went crazy. They went crazy,” she said. “So if I say I’m taking a break or buying a house or going to the dentist for the first time in however many years, I think they’re going to celebrate that. And I have to get comfortable with my people wanting better for me.”

Adam Culbreath, project manager for the Soros Justice Fellowships at Open Society Foundations, said that part of the mission of the new awards was to bring awareness that even very successful Black activists are often struggling to keep their heads above water financially.

“With Rosa Parks, there was this kind of shock around hearing that someone could be facing eviction after a lifetime of acclaim, notoriety, achievement, accomplishment,” he said. “What we want to be doing is challenging this idea that just because you show up on MSNBC or CNN means that you’re good and stable and secure. It’s a lot more nuanced and complicated than that.”

Huffman said that many of the recipients were hesitant about accepting the money.

“These individuals aren’t the folks who have their own social media platform to make this all about them,” Huffman said. “These folks truly see themselves as just one of many in a community, and in some ways they’re a little uncomfortable taking on this recognition. They’re like, ‘But I can tell you about all the people who came before me and who were beside me, and were behind me pushing me.’ And so it feels a little uncomfortable for them to be recognized in this way.”

Makani Themba, chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies. (Open Society Foundations)

Recipient Makani Themba, chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies, a communications firm that advocates for racial justice, said many in the community are just now thinking about what it means to be an activist who grows old.

“I came up during the ’60s as a kid, and for many people in my generation, we didn’t even imagine that we would live past 30 — there were folks who have taught us how to die with dignity in the blaze of the revolution. But we didn’t have a lot of role models in terms of how to live, how to sustain ourselves. So what I love about this new generation that is here now is they’re thinking about those things, they’re thinking about sustainability, they’re thinking about care. They’re taking rest. People are talking about rest being revolutionary.”

The other awardees are M Adams, Gloriann Sacha Antonetty, Dara Cooper, Fania Davis, Dustin Gibson, Amber Goodwin, Prentiss Haney, Maurice Mitchell, Monica Raye Simpson, Deborah Small and Markasa Tucker-Harris.

Original Article posted on The Washington Post.


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