The Visionary Freedom Fund: Learnings from our First Two Years

Started in 2020, the Visionary Freedom Fund is a collaborative youth-driven fund that seeks to ensure that frontline communities have the resources, capacity, infrastructure, and relationships they need to transform the youth justice sector.

The Fund was created in response to directly hearing from organizations and leaders across the country that philanthropy was not giving communities the space they need to do their best work. The Visionary Freedom Fund created a table of youth organizers, movement leaders and funders to transfer decision making power and resources to support youth organizers and organizations to build visions and frameworks for a future without harmful systems rooted in white supremacy. The Visionary Freedom Fund is one example of how we can build a  process to shift power to the people on the ground who are closest to the work, including and especially Black, Indigenous, and system-impacted youth organizers.  

Recognizing that we are at a pivotal time to meaningfully address the interrelated crises of systemic racism, white supremacy, and deep historical injustices, in 2021, VFF distributed $2.5 million over two years to resource 26 youth-led organizations on the frontlines of change.  All selected organizations are led by Black, Immigrant, Indigenous, Queer, Trans and AAPI communities working to address efforts including abolition, restorative justice, divestment from policing and prisons, and investment in building the power of young people.  

Now that we are two years into this ambitious and necessary work, we talked with members of the Power Table and grantees to ask what the Visionary Freedom Fund means to them and what they’ve learned. The following key learnings emerged: 

  1. We need to move past trust-based philanthropy to build transformational relationships founded in accountability.
  2. Long-term unrestricted funding is key to supporting youth organizers.
  3. Youth organizers will be the ones that lead us and we will have to follow.
  4. More funding is needed now. 
  5. We must share our learning as we go.

See their reflections in their own words.

I’m a young Black woman so most spaces aren’t designed for me. Through the Power Table, I’ve learned to take up space. Now, I’m bringing other youth to the table. This is the time to lean into transformation, abolition, full-fledged reimagination! The VFF model shows that young people can do the work with the proper support. 

– Jemima Abalogu, one of the Power Table’s first youth leaders, who now studies Political Science at Loyola University Chicago 

What makes the Fund visionary is that it holistically supports youth organizing with an intersectional lens that honors and centers youth leadership and wisdom. Intentional trust-building is really part of the process. It takes humility from the funder communities to build trust with folks who aren’t in the funding world. It means really listening. It means stepping back. It means partnering in real ways. 

– Maisha Quint, a senior program officer at the Libra Foundation who focuses on community safety and justice

A lot of smaller groups like us that are doing critical work, particularly around developing the leadership of Black and Brown young people, don’t have a development person or the resources to do relationship-building on a national philanthropic level. The Visionary Freedom Fund has been really helpful in working with us to think through how to secure more stable long-term funding to support our youth leaders. 

– Sarah Morris and Gabby Jackson of the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project (YASP), a VFF grantee that supports young people navigating the criminal legal system while building a movement to end youth incarceration in Pennsylvania.

The Table is the start of the undoing of a system and an institution that has been serving the few over the many. To be in the process of something this transformative has been really valuable, and something that I keep learning from. That’s my main takeaway: learning to sit and confront, even when you don’t know what you’re going to do after you confront it.

– Laura Rosado, a former member of S.O.U.L Sisters Leadership Collective and Power U in Miami, and one of the first youth organizers at the Table. Laura currently serves as the Youth Fellow at The Alliance for LGBTQ Youth in Miami.

It’s been a beautiful journey full of the good, sticky challenge of what it takes to shift a broad sector and our unaddressed discrimination against young people. What we saw at the Power Table was people in the presence of deep learning. My learning was that I saw the opportunity, but I’ve been conditioned in my time in philanthropy to do long, slow builds instead of the radical interventions the movement is calling us to step into. I aspire to step in.

– Manuela Arciniegas, former Director at the Andrus Family Fund, one of the anchor seed funders of VFF

Reflecting on the conversations we’ve had with folks at the Power Table, the purpose of VFF remains clear: to begin the transfer of power and funding to youth organizers at the forefront of the most pressing social justice issues. When we center those most directly impacted by injustice, we open ourselves up to imagining possibilities for a better world. Through the Power Table, we know that these visions for a world without harmful systems including youth prisons are possible. If we listen to communities and give them the resources they need – when they need them – together, we can create the kind of world we imagine. 

Building on these first two years of learning, the co-coordinators of the Fund (and former youth leaders themselves), Jessica Pierce and Bryan Perlmutter, share what they’ve learned from being a part of VFF in the next post in our series.