Grassroots Organizing vs. Research: A False Dichotomy in Philanthropy

By Anne Price, President

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“We do research that resonates with the people. At the end of the day we are sociologists and our job, especially as Black sociologists, is to unveil the experiences of those who are alienated, dispossessed, and exploited. We represent their voice because fundamentally we want to make this world a better place for all of our people.”

– Anthony Jackson, Ph.D. Candidate at Howard University

Since the November 2016 election, one of the key questions circulating in the philanthropic community interested in working on racial justice has been, “How can we support resistance efforts?”

Funders responded to the election with rapid response funds for movement building efforts and, for many, a renewed focus on long-term support for grassroots organizing. While these efforts are commendable and absolutely important, we are witnessing an unintended consequence — a hesitancy to support research within the field of racial justice funding.

It is important to understand that this perspective comes from thinking about research from an “ivory tower” frame, and does a huge disservice to researchers of color who see their work as integral to organizing efforts and the larger movement to racial justice.

Anthony Jackson, quoted above, represents a number of scholar activists who are grounded in the understanding and perspectives of communities most affected by racial injustice. They connect their research to social justice efforts aimed at making systemic change. For many scholars, particularly scholars of color focused on racial justice, activism emerges from a deep emotional response to an unjust world. These scholars call on us to imagine new ways of addressing this current struggle.

The late Dr. Cedric Robinson noted that “scholarship is not dispassionate, but is deliberate and systematic in the way it reconstructs an event.” Native American scholar Jace Weaver, who coined the term “communitism,” draws on the sense of community as both a starting point and a lens, and he points to loyalty to the community as one the highest values in Native American culture.

It is divisive and unfair to separate research from grassroots organizing for communities of color. Researchers of color don’t know how to leave our struggles, our community’s needs, “at the door” in our work. For us, it is all connected.

To realize our collective goal of ending structural racism, we need community members, grassroots organizers, researchers, writers, and artists thinking and acting together. Investment in the day-to-day efforts of community organizing or base-building and philanthropic support for broader racial justice efforts is still scant, as, according to a recent infographic by Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE), foundation giving focused on reaching people of color has never exceeded 8.5% since they first began tracking this measure in 2005–2006, and most funding goes to direct service work and not racial justice.

Funders must gain a more nuanced understanding of how intellectual engagement and innovative scholarship supports progress toward racial justice and contributes to transformative thinking and action. This means that we must begin to see how scholarly activism is inextricably tied to movement building, and is not necessarily separate or less important.

In this month’s Hidden Truths podcast, we feature two scholar-activists — Dr. Zoe Spencer and Anthony Jackson — who illustrate how state-sponsored violence is produced and reproduced. They passionately speak to how their research is inextricable from organizing efforts around police brutality. From them we can clearly see how important scholar activism is.

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The Insight Center for Community Economic Development’s mission is to help people and communities become, and remain, economically secure.

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