6 Ways Funders Can Support Visionary Freedom

The following article is co-authored by Manuela Arciniegas, Director of AFF, Bryan Perlmutter and Jessica Pierce of Piece by Piece Strategies. Manuela is also a Philanthropic Partner of the Visionary Freedom Fund, an AFF initiative that seeks to ensure that frontline communities have the resources, capacities, supports, infrastructure and relationships they need to develop and implement inspiring long-term strategies that will transform the youth justice system. Bryan and Jess serve as Project Coordinators for the Visionary Freedom Fund.

How funders can challenge white supremacy, shift power and follow the lead of youth organizers and BIPOC communities

Society is battling threats on multiple fronts: The pandemic, ongoing police brutality and anti-Black violence, rapid climate change — and the cascading effects are falling squarely on the shoulders of Black, brown and Indigenous youth and their communities.

Despite facing mounting challenges, young people and community organizing groups are articulating solutions and realizing substantial wins — and have been doing so for decades.

Youth-led organizers have championed the call for divesting from prisons, defunding the police and investing more in education, housing and social services. They have helped elevate these demands to the mainstream dialogue, contributing to momentum behind a new federal bill called the BREATHE Act and some public schools ending their contracts with police.

Grantee partner Young Women’s Freedom Center. Photo by Brooke Anderson.

We in philanthropy who work closely with young leaders know that resourcing youth organizing groups is part of the formula for social change. Yet, foundations give roughly $200 million per year to youth organizing — a drop in the bucket compared to $1.8 billion in funding for youth development. And few funders give youth a direct say over where and how these funds should be deployed.

So why aren’t more funders giving youth organizers more grants over the long haul? Why are we afraid to follow the leadership of young people and cede decision-making power?

White supremacy is holding funders back
Philanthropic refusal to listen to grantees and, beyond soliciting advice, formally committing to position directly impacted people at the decision-making table, is our largest deficiency as a sector. For far too long, too many funders have talked about sharing power with grantee partners, only to end up stalled in the land of theory and no action.

Communities would rightfully pull our grant and refuse to fund us ever again were the power dynamic to be reversed. Yet, while we have seen a number of participatory grantmaking models in action, most foundations have delayed creating formal mechanisms that give communities a direct say over grants.

A large reason why is the continued influence and power of white supremacy.

Inherent to white supremacy is that Black, Latinx, Asian American and Indigenous youth and their communities are unequal to white communities and unworthy of equal power, access and economic investment. White supremacy has excluded BIPOC communities and their intellectual powers from the mainstream narratives and closed doors to the rooms where decision-making happens, treating them as incapable of managing their own economic and political power.

Philanthropy, much like our national identity and economy, was originally constructed on a foundation of white supremacy. Like it or not, it has and continues to shape how foundations work. Most philanthropic institutions fund organizations that they believe have the best ideas, strategies and shots at success. Often, their confidence is rooted in the false narrative that wealth equals expertise and that, as a result, some community-based nonprofits, especially in BIPOC communities, can’t possibly have better solutions than their foundation colleagues.

However, what would happen if we widely practiced a philanthropic model that requires funders to resource organizations that movement groups believe are best positioned to lead and deserve resources?

What would happen if we acknowledged the white supremacist elephant in the room, let alone do something about it?

The opportunity to build aligned, lasting power
The question of stewardship of resources and decision-making power is where philanthropy can contest white supremacy. In reflecting on philanthropy’s practices, funders have the opportunity to transform themselves from the inside out.

Grantee partner FCYO’S 2020 Youth Organizing Snapshot: A Field Poised to Lead.

In doing so, they can transfer power to directly impacted youth and build long-term power for BIPOC communities. More importantly, we can ensure that resources are deployed precisely where they are needed most — from the perspective of communities who carry the burden and live the impact.

6 steps toward visionary freedom

Here are 6 steps funders can take to challenge white supremacy, shift power to communities and support youth-designed transformative, visionary freedom:

1. Reckon with racism, white supremacy and power.

Funders must make time to do the personal work of learning about and undoing racism, white supremacy and power.

There is a wide gap between the lived experiences of those with more access to wealth and low-income, BIPOC communities, which is evident in the family philanthropy sector. To bridge this gap, trustees and staff must commit to education and set aside the time to become anti-racist.

Board and staff must take this learning journey together to understand, identify and actively change the policies, behaviors and beliefs that perpetuate racism. This will help heal the harm caused by institutional and generational racism often shouldered by communities and staff of color.

It will also open foundations to a culture of not just listening but acting accountably. It can widen the entry way for traditionally overlooked and excluded youth and communities to participate democratically and begin the accountability and healing process required to truly end the harm caused by racism.

2. Bring youth and communities to the table.

Sometimes funders believe it’s not possible to include youth voices in decision-making. But in reality, there are several funder collaboratives that closely engage BIPOC youth organizing groups so that those closest to the problem inform funding to their communities.

These models build relationships and skills for youth and funders and root decisions in the lived experiences and realities of those who will directly benefit from the change being funded.

The Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, Grantmakers for Girls of Color and the Communities for Just Schools Fund are exemplars of how to consult, involve and value the voices of youth organizers.

The Native Voices Rising Fund has committees of youth and community members who actively direct grantmaking. The abundance of investment opportunities shows that we only need to unlock the willingness to share capital with communities in poverty.

3. Nurture and fund interdependence.

We must prioritize funding in intersectional, interconnected and collaborative ways, and support networks of organizations to steward resources together.

This approach promotes interdependence and collective problem-solving. The California Funders for Boys and Men of Color aligns resources and networks held by the CEOs from the state’s leading philanthropic institutions to support a constellation of groups serving BIPOC men and boys, helping lessen competition and support collaborative approaches.

Justice Funders have developed a Resonance Framework to support foundations in democratizing power and shifting economic control to communities while reducing extraction and promoting a just transition.

4. Be accountable to communities.

In practice, the threshold for movement leaders to be deemed expert enough to sit on philanthropic advisory boards is inequitable, by far surpassing the requirements to sit on family philanthropy boards.

If philanthropy wants to catalyze change beyond grant life cycles, it must be willing to cede decision-making power to those directly impacted by how those dollars will flow to youth-led work. The Decolonizing Wealth Project regularly educates donors on the imperative of shifting power and returning resources to communities as a path towards collective healing.

Electing directly impacted youth community board members, building funding advisory councils and moving resources to participatory grantmaking vehicles are just some of the necessary commitments that would proactively support youth leadership.

Hiring staff from the organizations and communities they fund and creating leadership pipelines for young people for these positions would not only provide additional support, but also help increase foundations’ accountability to communities and the movements that sustain them.

5. Engage in solidarity philanthropy.

Funding visionary work requires a deep level of trust, and the burden is on funders and trustees to extend trust to their partners — especially young people.

Many of the antiquated rules funders follow slow grantees and funders down. Part with these practices! Trust-based philanthropy outlines a set of six principles that we can collectively use. We must create diverse learning and action spaces dedicated to building solidarity relationships with movements, like the Visionary Freedom Fund (VFF) or Funders for Justice.

To follow the lead of directly impacted communities and learn how they are networked and collaborate, funders must build authentic relationships with those communities and examine biases against youth leadership. Foundation staff should do the heavy lifting.

6. Join the Visionary Freedom Fund learning community.

The Andrus Family Fund’s recently-launched Visionary Freedom Fund (VFF) is an example of participatory grantmaking that moves decision-making power to young people directly impacted by the youth justice system. VFF’s Power Table has convened 8 youth organizers with a broad vision of what their communities need to thrive, 4 adult movement leaders and 11 funders to collaboratively determine where the $2.6 million initiative should distribute its resources.

As we embark on this experiment to design new grantmaking structures rooted in collectivism, interdependence, transferring power, right relationship and creative visioning, we invite other funders to join the VFF Learning Community. Together, we can learn and act toward transformative change for youth and their communities.

This article was originally published on Medium by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. 

AFF Statement on Racial Justice

The Andrus Family Fund (AFF) stands in solidarity with our grantee partners and the movement for Black lives—a movement recently pushed forward by the gruesome murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. We recognize the countless other Black and Brown lives taken by systemic racism and discrimination leading up to—and since—this current moment. We also work to shine a spotlight on the especially targeted members of the Black, Brown, Native, Women/Girls and Trans communities who experience extreme violence and erasure—people like Breonna Taylor, whose experiences are readily forgotten, not centered, and to whom justice is not delivered.  We are committed to dismantling white supremacy in order to promote and uphold racial equity. We will not forget. 

As a social justice philanthropy, with a focus on racial justice and the liberation of youth, we recognize elements of power and privilege at play, notably in relationships with trusted grantee partners. It is these partners who have been leading on-the-ground organizing, advocacy and service work. Partners such as Youth First, aiming to close youth prisons which disproportionately impact Black youth, The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), mobilizing individuals and Black organizations to create a shared vision and agenda that defends Black lives, and Dream Defenders, an organization founded after the killing of Trayvon Martin to promote the organizing of Black and Brown youth and restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people. We support you and stand in solidarity with our resources and connections to help you continue to build power for directly impacted youth in this current moment and for the long haul.  

Now is the time to collectively re-imagine a just society—a society where the work of AFF and its partners would not be necessary. Our mere existence as a foundation is evidence enough that justice is not a lived experience for many of the communities we aim to support. In order for this vision of justice—a vision that so many of our movement partners hold—to become reality, this moment is requiring more from all of us.  

Given the need for immediate action and response, AFF has shifted various grantmaking practices toward trust-based philanthropy models in order to move increased dollars more quickly to the field. We are also organizing with other funders and internally to educate family members about the systems, policies and biases upholding racial injustice that are pervasive in today’s society.  

In this critical moment, we invite other foundation boards to respond to the moral imperative presented by this moment. This is not a time to center white fragility and turn away from the sorrow, maintain status quo practices and funding levels, or ignore the urgent demands and needs of grantee partners. Instead, this is a time to commit to funding Black-led organizations, engage in deep education to undo racism at the levels of boards and senior leadership across foundations, diversify foundation boards, lean into trust-based philanthropic practices by removing barriers to funding, and organize other foundations to robustly fund groups at a level and scale “like we want them to win” (in the words of Ash-lee Henderson, Co-Executive Director of the Highlander Center). This is a time to explore what accountability to social justice movements can look like. Foundation boards unilaterally have the power to vote and implement these powerful changes immediately. Bold, courageous action, like the actions being taken by frontline Black and Brown communities. 

We recognize the need to do more—that this moment requires more from us—and ask ourselves “if not now, then when?” This is our moment. We must act now. 

The AFF board resoundingly supports following the lead of our grantee partners and our nation’s young people committed to racial and social justice, and urges us all to stand behind them.  

In Solidarity,

The AFF Board & Staff

Succeeding Together: Meet Niara, AFF’s Summer Intern

Niara Nelson joins the AFF staff as this year’s summer intern. Learn more about her below.

Tell us about yourself.

I am a 21-year-old from Brooklyn, NY and a rising junior transferring to Columbia University this fall. My interest lies in multicultural psychology. I love to hear about the human experience in different forms and why people behave the way they do in specific contexts. This is my first time learning about philanthropy and social change in such a unique capacity. In the past, I have worked with food justice on an urban farm. I have also benefited from direct service organizations such as Prep for Prep, and a capacity building organization, Ladders for Leaders. Ladders for Leaders is a component of the Summer Youth Employment Program which is run by the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development. 

What do you like most about your internship at AFF?

I am fascinated to see another side of social justice and social change and I am curious how this knowledge will evolve throughout the summer. I am excited to learn more about the amazing work AFF’s community of grantees has accomplished and how this work has impacted many people’s day-to-day lives. I know that whether it is direct service, advocacy, community organizing or capacity building, together you are all making incredible strides towards that just and sustainable change we all believe in. 

I appreciate working in service of AFF’s mission as well as their grantee partners’ because I know, from experience, that changing one person’s perspective can change an entire community’s reality. AFF and their grantee partners know the importance of knowledge and resources and share this knowledge. I love that there is an emphasis on learning and collaboration rather than individualism, so that we can all succeed together. I have never been so welcomed and supported from the start in a new environment. I imagine this translates into the grantmaking process as well. 

How do you think this internship will impact your future?

I hope I can learn how to be involved in social justice in my own life. I have already begun to explore the plethora of resources and organizations in Brooklyn. I can be hesitant in new situations, but I hope to gain the confidence to find the different communities I may need that will allow me to grow into myself. I also want to find the communities that I can uplift with the knowledge I have gained through my experiences. I hope to learn to be a kind, creative and understanding leader. 

Welcome to the team Niara!

Grantee Spotlight: Ruby Ruiz of Communities United/VOYCE

A space to build youth power and ignite movements

*This was recorded/written prior to the passage of the HB 2084 bill in the Illinois State Senate, which will increase mental health resources in schools.


I am Ruby Ruiz, an organizer with Communities United and VOYCE.

I am my cousin…who is on his third strike and is locked in a cage, but is waiting on me to send him a dictionary so he can expand his knowledge.  

I am my mother who is a sexual violence survivor. 

I am my brother who lost his life to a fight with depression.

I am one of the many faces behind a movement to change the notion that in order to be safe, we need to have metal detectors and more police officers in our schools and communities.

Today our communities are fighting back against that notion. We know first-hand the repercussions of combating poverty with a baton instead of job, to address trauma and drug addiction with handcuffs and overcrowded jails rather than therapy and rehab. 

What safety means to our communities is that our brothers and sisters have someone to talk to if they are experiencing trauma or abuse.  Safety means that we can walk the hallways knowing that people do not see us as criminals, but as people with value.

This issue is very personal to me, just as it is to the students and survivors that stood in front of a room full of cameras in February as we launched the Rethinking Safety Campaign. Our goal is to create safer and healthier schools and communities through investments in mental health, and shifting resources from the criminalization of poverty to jobs and mental health. Most importantly, our goal is to challenge traditional thinking on what it means to be safe. 

I am proud to say that in the coming week, over 300 young people will fill the halls of the Illinois State Capitol calling on policymakers to take action on our vision for change. We hope you will join our movement.

Disrupting Inequity to Heal, not Harm: Empowering NOLA’s Opportunity Youth

In our last blog series, we identified grantee partners in New York and California who incorporated healing, hope and care into their program models. Now, we’ll introduce you to inspiring New Orleans-based organizations that are committed to working collaboratively to empower the city’s youth. We at The Andrus Family Fund strongly believe in the power of collaboration and know that collaboration on a local level is critical to helping young people improve their lives.

From income and education to criminal justice and LGBT rights—research clearly shows us the structural inequalities in Post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Ten years after the storm, inequality continues to be a critical issue in the recovery efforts as low-income children and families continue to be left behind. Additionally, we know that the well being of our country’s youth is declining and the racial disparity of those negatively impacted by the child welfare and criminal justice systems is widening. Children and youth of color continue to be overrepresented in these systems. Even though both systems are meant to be temporary, they tend to create long-term outcomes that negatively impact the ability of these young people to be productive in our workforce and economy. This inequity is why we, as a funder, feel it is important to support grantee partners that are deeply rooted in the fabric of New Orleans and actively engaged in empowering vulnerable youth.

“We saw there was a need in the community; there was a gap in services that was not being met. Young people want to have opportunities to better themselves and create better lives for their families. We want to give young people the opportunity to be a catalyst to do that.”
Melissa Sawyer, YEP Co-founder and Executive Director

The Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) is a force of positive change that helps opportunity youth[1] in the greater New Orleans region succeed. YEP was formed in 2004 as a response to the lack of services and high recidivism and mortality rates among juvenile justice involved youth. Since then, YEP has grown significantly and now operates nine programs that serve more than 1,000 youth annually.

YEP engages underserved young people through community-based education, mentoring and employment readiness programs to help them develop skills and strengthen ties to family and community. Working with a positive youth development model that recognizes the trauma its young people have experienced, YEP provides individualized and nurturing wraparound supports to give participants the caring services they need.

YEP’s community-based education programs, NOPLAY and The Village, provide young people with HiSET (GED) preparation and wraparound supportive services. These programs work to improve adult literacy rates through both structured classes and drop-in centers available in four locations across the city. Although YEP’s educational programming is geared toward youth between the ages of 16-24, YEP will not turn anyone away who wants to learn. Recently, a mother and daughter duo completed NOPLAY and received their HiSET diplomas within months of each other.

The organization’s Community Reintegration Program (CRP) remains the only re-entry program in New Orleans that provides intensive supports to young people exiting from secure and non-secure state-operated juvenile justice facilities. As a result of the program, one recent CRP graduate said, “I’ve learned to stop and think before I act, and recognize the consequences of my actions.”

YEP also helps to develop the employability skills of youth participants through the Trafigura Work and Learn Center. Here, young people can earn educational stipends while they acquire necessary job skills and gain hands-on experience in fields such as computer coding, graphic design, bicycle repair and customer service. Nearly 40 percent of graduates from the Work & Learn Center have successfully transitioned into employment opportunities, chipping away at the city’s staggering unemployment rate that reaches 52 percent for Black men[2].

In response to the pervasive challenges (lack of good educational opportunities, insufficient and unreliable public transportation, inadequate amounts of quality affordable housing, etc.) that persist in New Orleans, YEP is committed to finding innovative ways to meet the needs of marginalized youth in the community.

YEP’s Executive Director is a founding member of the Opportunity Youth Coalition. This group of executive leaders represents some of the city’s most reputable youth serving organizations, and meet regularly to ensure that they are sharing resources effectively, providing unduplicated, quality services and raising awareness about the challenges opportunity youth face. Additionally, YEP is part of the Opportunity Youth Data Sharing Council (OYDSC), convened by local funder Baptist Community Ministries. This initiative brings together service providers who are working together, utilizing their data to improve the outcomes for youth in the region.

YEP also partners with many non-profits across New Orleans to address the critical issues that negatively impact youth. An example of this collaboration is with fellow grantee partner BreakOUT!, whose mission is to end the criminalization of LGBTQ youth to build a safer and more just city. YEP partners with BreakOUT! to ensure that there are quality, accessible adult education opportunities that meet the needs of young people who identify as LGBTQ.

Collaboration between grantee partners strengthens service delivery and helps to ensure that resources are being maximized to address the comprehensive needs of opportunity youth in New Orleans. AFF is proud to work with all of our regional grantee partners to provide the support they need to sustain and strengthen their individual and collective impact.

In our next blog post, we will focus on how grantee partner BreakOUT! is disrupting inequity to empower New Orleans’ LGBTQ youth.


[1] The term “Opportunity Youth” was coined by John Bridgeland in a 2012 report, discussing the “extraordinary untapped potential” of connecting the nation’s 5.6 million young people who are out of school or unemployed to schools or jobs.

[2] as noted in the 2015 report The State of Black New Orleans 10 Years Post-Katrina

Healing, Hope and Care: Models for Transforming the Lives of Vulnerable Youth, Part II

The Andrus Family Fund recognizes the role that healing, hope and care play in developing young people as well as fostering strong, vibrant communities. exalt and RYSE are good models of how this approach is being used to transform the lives of vulnerable youth.

“Because of past trauma, some of these young people are on survival mode. We emphasize the need to build students’ self confidence, focusing on their strengths. All young people have the right to thrive and explore their passions. That’s why we focus on helping them build their best possible self, healing along the way.”
Danielle Brown Fuller,
exalt Executive Director

exalt is based in Brooklyn, New York and works directly with court-involved youth. By reaching youth at a critical crossroads, exalt inspires lasting behavioral change by teaching youth to believe in their self-worth. exalt empowers their youth by developing life skills—such as how to communicate in the workplace—needed to avoid recidivism and reach their personal and professional goals. exalt’s program is responsive to the needs of young people, supports those who are motivated to change and acknowledges the barriers they face—all within a nurturing environment.

Unlike other programs, participation in exalt is completely voluntary. They believe the non-compulsory nature of their program is the reason why it is so well received by youth. Even before students are accepted into the program, exalt staff will meet with them to gauge their commitment to the program and themselves. This screening process is meant to put students at ease and motivated to change their behavior even before they set foot in a classroom.

While classes meet after school, the lessons taught at exalt cannot be found inside a traditional classroom. exalt’s core curriculum is designed to help students develop four core skills: critical thinking, creative problem solving, communication and resource management. These lessons resonate with students because they are taught within real-life situations they can relate to and connect to their lived experience. Additionally, exalt tackles the injustices stacked against their students head-on—educating them on the school-to-prison pipeline and the systemic injustices that feed it. By helping students understand these connections and realize their potential, exalt is actually counteracting the pipeline for its students.

“exalt brings out the confidence in you; it gets you to try to better yourself so that you can grow to be who you want to be in life.”
Imanii, exalt youth

Putting students on a path to employment is another important aspect of the program. Through partnerships with employers across a variety of industries, students obtain paid internships. Some students have completed internships at organizations—such as the Innocence Project and Criminal Justice Initiative—that are reforming the very criminal justice system they are a part of. Many times, this is the first job a student has had. For some, these internships have led to additional internships and permanent jobs.

Even after youth graduate from the program, exalt continues to work with students through its open door policy and alumni networking events (i.e. educational support, career exploration, college enrollment, alumni internship, etc.) that support their continuous well-being.

We are excited to be working in collaboration and supporting exalt as they raise awareness about their innovative approach to youth development, build their capacity to share promising practices and expand internship opportunities for students and alumni.

On the West Coast, another grantee partner is using its own integrated approach to transform vulnerable youth.

“At this center, youth are actually telling us what they need and we’re making it happen.”
Kimberly Aceves, RYSE Executive Director

RYSE is a youth center in Richmond, California built on the principles of social justice, youth organizing and community transformation. The center’s current response to this trifecta is a burgeoning Youth Justice program called the Restorative Options and Reentry Project (ROAR). They take a trauma-informed approach to youth development that aims to curtail involvement in the juvenile system, provide reentry supports, increase educational and employment opportunities. This model incorporates four core initiatives:

Intervention – Youth touched by the justice system can participate in an integrated 8-week program. Upon completion of the program, youth may have their arrest charges dropped and record removed.

Reentry Programming – For young people that have spent time within a facility, ROAR provides holistic reentry support, which includes individualized plans to fit the needs of each young person.

Hospital-linked Violence Intervention – In order to interrupt cycles of community violence RYSE engages young people that have been harmed by crime at their bedside. More than just a hospital visit this includes assistance with medical follow up, victims of crime compensation application, navigation with and between legal, medical, educational, and other systems, and aid in securing material and well being needs.

Career Development – With a focus on helping young people dream their own futures ROAR focuses on the booming technology industry in the Bay Area. They arm participants with skills they needed to become part of the technology sector.

By providing stabilization, recovery and healing, ROAR believes that it can transform the lives of young people and the communities they come from. We are proud to partner and learn from their model.

In the final installment of our first Healing, Hope and Care blog series, we will see how grantee partner The Reset Foundation is using trauma informed interventions as an alternative to incarceration.

Katrina is an experienced and respected leader with more than 15 years of experience working on a national and regional level. She has worked in the non-profit and philanthropic sector, including serving as AFF’s Program Officer. Currently, Katrina is testing how partnerships between philanthropy and government can work on behalf of our most vulnerable youth and their families as the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services. Connect with Katrina on Linkedin.