Since taking the helm at the Rosenberg Foundation in 2008 — after having served as chief of policy in the San Francisco District Attorney's Office — Timothy P. Silard has worked to deepen the advancement of statewide and national criminal justice reform, immigrants' rights, and racial justice as areas of focus for the foundation. The foundation has joined other funders, for example, to create two affinity groups focused on criminal justice reform, Funders for Safety and Justice in California and the national Criminal Justice Funders Forum; supported efforts to end mass incarceration and dismantle barriers to opportunity and restore the rights of formerly incarcerated people; and is supporting reform at the intersection of criminal justice and immigrants' rights.
In 2016, in partnership with the Hellman Foundation, Rosenberg launched the $2 million Leading Edge Fund to seed, incubate, and accelerate bold ideas from the next generation of progressive movement leaders in California. Eight fellows working to address inequity and injustice in the areas of criminal justice, immigrant rights, and racial justice were selected to receive $247,500 each over three years, as well as technical assistance in the areas of strategy, program design, fundraising, and communications.
As the grant period for the first group of Leading Edge fellows nears its close and the foundation prepares for the next group, which will start in January 2019, PND spoke with Silard about how Rosenberg and its partners plan to support progressive leaders who are shaping the future of criminal and racial justice reform in California and across the United States.
Philanthropy News Digest: The Leading Edge Fund was launched in early 2016, which seems almost prescient in hindsight. What was the impetus for creating a fund specifically designed to support "bold ideas from the next generation of progressive movement leaders in California"?
Tim Silard: Lateefah Simon was program director at Rosenberg at the time and the genius behind the Leading Edge Fund. She and I were talking about how there was tremendous "movement energy" going on. There was the #BlackLivesMatter movement that had been sparked specifically around the killings of unarmed mostly black young men and broadened from there; new leadership around gender and gender identity; and, certainly here in California, an increasingly muscular immigrant rights movement. And our sense was that unrestricted support for movement leaders — because movements depend upon leaders — could have enormous value. Not in any way to replace the important grantmaking that philanthropy does for organizations and coalitions, but on top of that, unrestricted support to give movement leaders the space to innovate, dream, and play the long game.
Philanthropy is one of the few sectors with the ability to fund work that may take decades, but as a field we need to do that much more. Our feeling was that there was a need to invest in ideas that the world may not be ready for and may never be ready for. We thought about who funded the handful of lawyers in the 1980s who were fighting for marriage equality before even most people in the LGBT community thought that was an achievable goal. Those kinds of ideas, those kinds of innovative approaches to social justice and equity that may take a long time to come to fruition, ought to be funded.
And in California, while our population has changed so dramatically, the policies and the vision don't yet reflect the values of a non-white-majority state, a fundamentally progressive state, a state with an incredible richness of communities of color, so we also have the opportunity to go far. Playing that long game made sense here in California.
PND: What was the most important criteria in selecting the first cohort of fellows, and what are some of the highlights in their accomplishments over the last two and a half years?
TS: We have three primary criteria. One is what we call leadership skills but has to do with the depth of their engagement and connection with the community they're serving — some refer to that as "servant-leadership." A second is whether they have a compelling, innovative idea for change. Many wonderful leaders are, understandably, very focused on the nuts and bolts of running an organization and may not have the space yet to articulate such an idea for change. And a third is whether they're deeply personally committed to focusing on trying to advance that idea, or set of ideas, over the next few years — whether they have that space to really focus on their dream.
We're most of the way through the selection process for the next "formation" of fellows — we stopped calling them "cohorts" because it sounds like a scientific study — and it's definitely more art than science. This time we started with a large group of about a hundred and fifty nominees and we asked each of them for a one-pager describing their work and their "big ideas." After we've narrowed it down to about twenty semi-finalists, we ask for a five- to seven-page description of their vision for the broader work, their connection with the community, and the longer-term goals they want to achieve. We do a lot of calls and site visits, and we also talk with folks in their community and their colleagues in the field to learn more about the nominees.
As for highlights, all the fellows are doing important work, and I'll just mention a few. Raj Jayadev, who founded an organization called Silicon Valley De-Bug, is thinking very creatively about how to upend and change the courtroom process and bring organizing and activism and community voice into criminal courtrooms. He spearheaded something called "participatory defense" — which enables families and communities to impact the outcome of cases — in Santa Clara County, where we first funded him. He's now built nine other participatory defense hubs in major jurisdictions in California and fifteen outside the state, with other major cities like Las Vegas and Chicago coming online in September. So that's been amazing to watch — the rapid growth and replication of Raj's vision. And now he's bringing the participatory defense model into bail reform, engaging and bringing community members into the courtroom to push back against and provide alternatives to money bail and pretrial detention in jail.
Raha Jorjani, who is with the public defender's office in Alameda County, launched the first immigration practice at the county level, which has been incredible during this time of federal hostility toward immigrants. So many folks are caught up in both the immigration deportation system and the criminal justice system at the same time, with all the complicated legal implications of that. And of course, you have no right to an attorney in the immigration system, so her work is really bringing, in real time, the right to an attorney into that system — and an attorney who is coordinating with your defense attorney in your criminal case. That model has now been replicated in eight other California jurisdictions. So that's really catching fire. Also, last year she organized the first-ever major legal symposium on prosecutorial misconduct across both of those systems.
Patrisse Cullors, who co-founded #BlackLivesMatter, has written a best-selling book, created rapid-response networks in Los Angeles and other counties across California to eliminate state violence against people of color, and also launched a new initiative called JusticeLA. That group is organizing and advocating in L.A., which is an enormous county — almost a third of the population of the state lives in and around L.A. County — to divest from incarceration and corrections spending and instead invest that money on long-term safety solutions for communities most impacted by incarceration and violence.
Another example is Sam Sinyangwe, who co-founded an organization called WeTheProtesters with DeRay Mckesson and others. He's built an online platform for advocating and organizing against police violence and for police reform; he's built an incredible database; he's done extensive research on the hundred largest cities and their policing policies and practices and published tons of reports; and he's helped other advocates engage directly in a number of cities to get new policies and practices adopted.
PND: Lateefah Simon wrote in a commentary when the Leading Edge Fund was launched that it "aims to disrupt the notion that philanthropy can't, or won't, take real risks." Do you think in 2018 more foundations are willing to take risks in supporting progressive leaders?
TS: Certainly many in the social justice philanthropy field have stepped up to this moment of federal hostility toward civil rights, immigrant rights, workers' rights, criminal justice reform, and a whole variety of things across the board. Many of the areas of work that philanthropy has worked hard to support over the years — environmental protection, health access, etc. — are under assault. I certainly give enormous credit to my colleagues in philanthropy for having stepped up and increased support or pushed back on those issues.
In general, I think philanthropy as a field remains fairly risk-averse. And we continue to feel the impact of the so-called "strategic philanthropy" movement, which is a direction for philanthropy that can be explicitly contrary to what we're talking about. It's often about insisting on quantifiable, measurable deliverables — and, in its worst forms, can treat grantees like contractors that fulfill a vision and strategy that the foundation has come up with — as opposed to seeing philanthropy as a support system for the visions and ideas and strategies of folks in the field. I'm greatly oversimplifying, of course, but that approach also has moved some in philanthropy to be even more risk-averse and less trusting, and led some to award fewer multiyear grants and overly focus on project-specific grants with specific deliverables and measurable outcomes.
With the Leading Edge Fund, not only the selection process but the work itself is more art than science. When Lateefah speaks about this approach in front of philanthropic audiences, she sometimes asks: "Would we have asked Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth to provide their 'theory of change', their three-year deliverables, or a strategic plan?" To provide completely unrestricted general support to visionary leaders — this kind of funding requires a leap of faith. I wish we could support these fellows for five, ten, twenty years — as a small foundation, we don't have the resources to do that — to really give them the time and space to experiment, try new ideas, fail, and get up again.
That's one of the tests I put to our foundation: If the vast majority of the work we're supporting is succeeding and meeting its objectives as it goes forward, doesn't that indicate we're not taking enough risk? At Rosenberg, I try to celebrate risk and failures along the way. With Leading Edge, we try to support the fellows so they have the connections and the assistance they need to march on and try something else, but if you don't have the freedom to experiment and to fail, you're less likely to be able to achieve really deep, long-term change. We've found that it can take some time for fellows to figure out how they want to proceed; it's important to provide that time and space upfront for a lot of reflection and thinking and talking to others in the field. It's long-term work; it's not necessarily "shovel-ready" on the first day, and we encourage the fellows to take all the time they need.
I do think philanthropy is responding to the moment and more folks in philanthropy are beginning to understand the importance of organizing and advocacy. We are excited that the California Wellness Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation have partnered with us in this work. I hope more foundations will take a similar approach: start with the basic premise that movements are critical, organizing and advocacy are critical, and direct, unrestricted, multiyear support to enable leaders to dream is critical.
PND: The need for innovative solutions to address mass incarceration, strengthen immigrants' rights, advance racial justice and equity, and address the intersectionality of these issues has only grown since the 2016 elections. How do you envision the Leading Edge Fund continuing to support work in these areas? What are your hopes for the second group of Leading Edge fellows?
TS: I've never seen, in my lifetime, another moment of such open hostility toward immigrants and communities of color and the issues that most concern them. At the same time, I've been really impressed by the growth and creativity of the folks on the progressive side of the issues who are not only pushing back against attacks but moving in an affirmative direction. In California, there's a pretty broad consensus across multiple sectors on support for labor and immigrant rights, and people are thinking creatively about ways to move beyond the day-to-day work of pushing back against Trump administration policies.
As for the next formation of fellows, the pool of nominees is incredibly strong, and it's going to be very difficult to select the final eight. One deliberate decision Lateefah and I made was not to worry about geographic diversity or issue diversity but to select the people who rise to the very top of the selection criteria. In both cycles, it's been really interesting to see the synergy and overlap — many of these leaders are working in closely related areas. For instance, in the first group, seven of the eight fellows are working in one way or another around juvenile justice or criminal justice issues, and this time many of the nominees are working at the intersection of criminal justice and immigrant rights, where Raha is engaged. It's just the reality of the time and of the struggles that folks are engaged in, and opportunities for real change draw some of the most talented and committed leaders.
So given the synergy in their areas of work and strategies, for the next group our plan is to encourage the fellows not necessarily to do a joint project in a formal way but to use the retreats to build collective power and explore with them a "collaboratory" where they can support each other in their experimentation. And if they want to take on joint projects together or in subgroups, we'll provide connectivity and technical assistance and communications assistance to help them do that.
PND: The fund's focus is on policy change and movement building, rather than grants for specific time-limited projects. How has the policy development work you did at the San Francisco District Attorney's Office informed your view of what progressive foundations need to fund?
TS: As I said earlier, only philanthropy has the luxury of taking the risk of playing the really long game; it's rare in government or business to be able to support an approach that takes thirty years to come to fruition. Also, from my experience working in progressive government administrations, when progressives are elected sometimes the silence from the left can be deafening. It's important to have muscular and innovative advocacy work going on, not only to challenge and hold government accountable but also to enable those progressive officials to move in even bolder directions. As President Obama used to say, quoting Franklin Roosevelt: "You've convinced me. Now go out and make me do it." That's another reason why supporting leaders of movements is critical.
And I'd add that because government is ill suited to dreaming long term, that's where Leading Edge and other initiatives like it can bring that long-term lens to government through advocacy. So advocacy efforts don't have to be limited to specific legislation or policy you're trying to get enacted this year; they can also focus on getting the public sector to think boldly and long term.
— Kyoko Uchida