So often our time, attention and resources are focused on urban and suburban areas, leaving rural communities on the periphery of our understanding of racial equity work. Our societal narrative is that rural areas are synonymous with all – white communities and thus not a factor in our collective work to advance racial justice.
This misunderstanding leaves us uninformed about the reality of rural communities and continues to create a false sense of division, as opposed to distinction, about how racial equity work is unfolding in these diverse and growing areas.
The REACH Fund has a commitment to expanding our support of racial equity practitioners and racial justice work in rural communities, and this month we are excited to learn from REACH grantee and rural community funder Ron White from Humboldt Area Foundation, about the rural context for the work and lessons for funders that are relevant in any community.
As 2020 draws to a close, we want to thank you for your commitment to the work of advancing racial justice and your attention to this monthly Storyletter which we hope will spark new ways of thinking or renew your commitments to action.
We hope you join us in reflecting on (and planning for) how to move boldly into increased racial justice in 2021.
Wishing you all a restorative and peaceful holiday season from rural California.
[Image description: Ron smiling into camera, wearing maroon rectangle glasses and a kufi with geometric triangle patterns in yellow and black. Ron is wearing a blue and white striped shirt with a collar, and a black vest layered over it. Behind Ron is a grassy background.]
This month’s spotlight features Ron White (he/him/his), Community Strategies Senior Advisor of the Humboldt Area Foundation—a 2020 REACH grantee partner—located in Bayside, CA. He oversees the Equity Alliance of the NorthCoast and grassroots community leadership development. Read on to hear about Ron’s work in promoting racial justice in Northern, CA. (Note: Ron’s views are based on his long experience in philanthropy and are not an attempt to represent his foundation’s views.) Learn more about the Humboldt Area Foundation here.
Can you paint us a picture of the rural and Humboldt County-specific context and history? Content warning: There is a graphic description of violence in this section.
I’ve worked in philanthropy for a while, and a lot of my work was in rural contexts. This area Humboldt County shares some similarities with other rural areas I have lived and worked in: the isolation and lack of infrastructure for things like medicine, transportation, communications, and resources for addressing poverty. And populations tend to be less concentrated but more connected. I should mention, we are about 75% white and declining in that number, and increasing our Latinx, Native, and Asian populace. The Black population is still only about 1.7% here. We do fit the stereotype of being majority white, but our younger populations are rapidly gaining in BIPOC.
Native populations here are in the midst of a rich cultural revival despite the dominant culture’s unwillingness to acknowledge their history and accomplishments. Humboldt and Del Norte Counties are home to the largest California tribes, with the largest concentration of Natives in the State. Indigenous occupy a significant landbase in Northern, CA. about five hours by car north of the San Francisco Bay Area. Our region for the foundation goes all the way up to include Southern counties in Oregon. The native populations have traditionally been part of that whole area, as tribes traditionally aligned with the bioregion of rivers more than state boundaries. This native population is also the most recent survivors of white supremacy culture in its most developed and virulent genocidal form. It wasn’t until 1849, when the Gold Rush started, that these tribes actually had any significant first contact. Before that, though their numerous different cultures intermixed and cared for the land and Salmon, they were mostly isolated from white predation. Then White Supremacy’s settler colonialism landed on them with a vengeance. The state of California offered bounties on the heads and scalps of Native Americans. That’s how many white people actually accumulated enough money to buy land here in Arcata and Eureka. There are folks who have grandparents who still remember those days or stories from those days—and almost every Native person here has grandparents who suffered in the boarding school system, which sought to “save the man, by killing the Indian [in him]”. The practice of Indigenous religions was outlawed until the late 1960s. And so, literally, it was illegal for them to gather and practice their world renewal ceremonies. These ceremonies are about creating wholeness, not just for native peoples but for everybody in this land. Depriving them of religion was more than just one [white person]saying you can’t go to this church. It was depriving [native folks of that which kept their culture alive and allowed their people, the rivers, and land, to stay in balance and survive.
I’ve learned that as vital as it is to acknowledge this tragic period, we must also recognize it is one period in the millenia of Native history. Preceding first contact there were rich histories and sciences. And succeeding the present iterations of settler colonialism Northern California tribes are reviving languages, cultures, and Ceremonial practices. In that context, all the genocide and exploitation is a blip. The bigger story is how religiously, culturally, and linguistically diverse Indigenous populations managed and still manage to live in relative harmony with each other; and fight for, cultivate, and preserve one of the most beautiful, protein-rich, balanced and sustaining environments on the continent.
What are you learning about rural racial equity organizing?
Even though we’re geographically isolated behind the “Redwood Curtain”, there is only about one and a half degrees of separation between people and organizations here. That’s both a strength and a liability.
Most will want you to focus on the problem population of “resistors.” This is exactly the wrong approach. I’m a disciple of Everett Rogers and his tome, “The Diffusion of Innovation”. In it he basically suggests that once you capture 12% to 15% of those people who have influence and are respected in the community as strong, early adopters of a practice or idea, things will proceed upward on an S curve until you hit like 85%. And if you focus basically on building that core based on the willing 15%, then you’re going to be in good shape. And that’s been our strategy here.
I would say that we’ve definitely captured that 12% both in terms of general population and in terms of the institutions that we’ve worked with. So you know what I’ve learned is, as soon as you start this racial equity work, people want you to focus on that upper 15% of overt racists or skeptics that’s hard to reach and who will probably never adopt a racial equity lens. People want you to go after those folks who don’t show up at your trainings. That’s not the population that you need to go after. You need to go after the low-hanging fruit, and they will bring in the folks who are next in line. So we have 1-3% of early innovators as [Everett Rogers] calls them, and then the early adopters up to 12-15% of the population.
Likewise, we primarily focus on institutions because they have the largest impact on our populations and often have the resources to spread this knowledge once it’s gained. That’s paid off for us.
From your perspective as a funder, what do you think is philanthropy’s responsibility to support racial equity work in rural communities? What are the opportunities in the current moment? What is long-term work?
I think that after the martyrdom and global rebellion we are engaged in our new civil rights moment, a human rights moment, both domestically and globally. That became abundantly clear at HAF. We realized that now is the time to move closer to racial justice and racial healing, but also move more resources towards communities of color through grants but also by looking at our loan program and how we can support more BIPOC businesses and nonprofit startups, this complements our workshops for other white led institutions and agencies.
I think that philanthropy is at a moment where we could fail again to actually engage strongly with this moment, just like most foundations failed during the civil rights movement. The vast majority of that money for the struggle was individual donations, and it was only after it was safe (i.e. respectable) that philanthropy actually stepped in.
[Check out the Justice Funders Just Transition for Philanthropy to learn more about how philanthropy can lean into redistribution of power and wealth. See below in the “What We Read” section for link.]
Will we fail again and basically, after all the heavy lifting is done, begin to fund what seems safe? Or will we lean into this moment? For me, leaning into this moment means understanding that we need to both do the work internally within every foundation—that means our boards, our program and operations staff, in ongoing learning and training around racial justice and racial healing—and externally to make up for the historic disinvestments.
That means focusing on structural injustice. I think that philanthropy should also be able to use its voice with the “wealth industrial complex”. By that I mean everything in the financial, philanthropic and capital sectors that surround the management and keeping of wealth—that’s donors, financial, and philanthropic advisors, investment firms, tax lawyers, foundation boards—and we need to help them reorient their funding and their practices more towards racial justice and the building of BIPOC communities and BIPOC leadership.
We also need to help them understand that we need to transfer decision making as much as possible into the hands of those who are impacted.
And to me, the future of philanthropy really means we need to give up this idea of our donors and founders ruling from the grave. I think we need to forget about that in terms of donor advised funds, we need to forget about that in terms of established private foundations and family foundations. After a person dies, let’s give it three years. They need to figure out how to transition that to a community-run board and put those resources into community hands. That’s billions and billions of dollars that are locked up by folks who lived in another era.
We shouldn’t have to go begging for it when we created this wealth. It’s ours and we need to control it. That tends to make philanthropy really nervous, but if I could say anything to reassure them, it would be that whenever power has shifted to the hands of majority people of color, like after reconstruction, we did the most good for the most people. If it were up to us, we would’ve had—quoting the 1619 Project—the Black Nursing Association has been pushing for universal healthcare since the 1920s. And during Reconstruction we [BIPOC communities] enlarged the franchise to include everybody in the voting franchise. Likewise, we promoted education through publicly funded schools. We can handle this. I’m saying the BIPOC community can handle and do a much better job with philanthropic resources. That’s where I’d like to see philanthropy go.
What are the challenges facing rural communities and funding racial equity work?
Folks really do see rural areas as backwaters so there’s a sort of sense of you know ‘Why spend resources there? There aren’t that many people there, and who would want to move there, anyway?’
I’ve discovered that there are more allies here than we would think. The first time I held a meeting to even begin talking about bringing john powell here, I invited representatives from 12 organizations. And by the end, you know, we had about 34 different organizations represented, most who just heard about it and invited themselves! They actively engaged in all of the planning on how we were going to launch this initiative around racial equity.
So I think that there are more people, more allies than you would expect. And as long as you stay away from blame, shame, and guilt and focus on history, policies, and statistics, you’re going to capture a lot of attention. It starts probably larger than you think, but it very quickly spreads even more rapidly than anticipated. Suddenly people are actually talking about race everywhere here.
We will never have enough resources internally to actually do this work. We need external funders, but we need external funders who can respect our context, not tell us what to do. And trust us that we actually have on-the-ground feelers, which we do. We know how to move this money to where it’s most impactful. We need patient capital. Even though our numbers are small, we’re reaching into some of the most remote areas, like I said, and there is no cell phone service. You can only text from some places. I have colleagues whom I make phone calls to in some of these areas where they have to go to a specific point on the mountain. And that’s the only place that they can actually get text messages. So knowledge of this work travels more slowly to permeate those outer reaches. People are living remotely out there sometimes because they really don’t want to know every moment of change that’s happening in the big city of Arcata or Eureka.
We could definitely use more research and money for gathering data, for disaggregating data by race and gender. Money for doing research both historically and within our populations. We need money to spread this methodology. We’re focused pretty much in Humboldt County right now, but we also cover Trinity County and Del Norte counties and those counties are even more isolated and socially conservative.
What’s your vision for what the next 5-10 years look like at HAF?
The foundation has after the [murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd] redoubled its commitment to internal growth, and the board will be undergoing racial equity training and participating in professional development around racial equity and racial justice for the first time as a full board starting in December and moving into next year.
Anything else you’d like to share?
People should really come [visit]. I mean, they should let us know–plan on coming for at least a week and a half–you can work for three or four days and play the rest of the time.
It is a beautiful area with ocean and mountains and redwoods and hiking trails all over the place, if that’s your thing. Fishing and oyster beds and the most organic produce you will run into in a concentrated place.
And folks here just love to celebrate. So they had all kinds of festivals every weekend before the lockdown. Even some Ceremonies and Salmon festivals by the Wiyot and Hupa nations are open to the public.
And I think once folks sort of get introduced to our culture here, get introduced to some of the native populations, meet a lot of the next generation leaders of color: the Native leadership has always been abundant and highly skilled; the Latinx population despite being the newest survivors of structural injustice is growing in relational power; and the Asian community with its local history of vicious racist expulsion is now organizing itself into a force for social change through policy. And the Black community has had an explosion of new organizations that are Black-run and focused on youth and young adults. So I would say come, learn, hang out and celebrate, and support this unique place.
What We Read, Listened to, and Watched This Month.
Movement Capture and the Long Arc of the Black Freedom Struggle by Dr. Erica Kohl-Arenas and Dr. Megan Ming Francis. This article frames the 2020 movement moment within a historical grounding on the role that traditional philanthropy has chosen to play when funding racial justice movements. The article asks a series of important reflective questions for philanthropic professionals in this moment – namely around how philanthropy intends to show up for the movement for Black Lives. [15M read]
Why Rural America Is Joining the Movement for Black Lives. This Pew Trust article provides 2020 statistics on the rural context, including demographics, population growth and political leanings in these often misrepresented communities. [9M read]
Just Transition for Philanthropy, Justice Funders. Interested in bold moves for 2021? Excited to learn more about Ron’s frame of shifting out of the wealth industrial complex? This infographic tool from Justice Funders provides a spectrum view of philanthropic practices from extractive to regenerative, helping to outline the path to transformation and justice. [2 page infographic]