New Orleans, Louisiana
Good morning! I’m Marnie Thompson, Co-Managing Director of the Fund for Democratic Communities in Greensboro, North Carolina. We’re known for three things: First is our commitment to our region, the U.S. South. Second is our obsession with building broad, democratic ownership of productive assets as a key part of transformative change. And third, we’re known for making a bigger difference than our small size would suggest. That may be because we’re smart, but more likely it’s due to our decision to spend our resources as fast as we can find useful ways to deploy them.
Our efforts at systems change require us to work within three nested levels:
- At the most local level, we’re the champions, advisors, and funders for about a thousand people in our town who worked together to build a community-owned grocery store – The Renaissance Community Coop, or RCC – in a long-time food desert. Some 35,000 working class mostly Black folks now have access to fresh affordable food, 16 people have good jobs, and the community is starting to take charge of its economic destiny. This local work is key to our foundation’s identity, learning, and credibility about everything else we do.
- That brings us to the next level – the regional level. Helping to bring that grocery store into existence forced us to confront the need for community-owned capital. This led us to work with other Southern partners to establish a regional loan fund called the Southern Reparations Loan Fund, or SRLF. SRLF makes loans to projects like the RCC – businesses led by African American, immigrant and poor white people that are about rebuilding broken economies in the most marginalized Southern places.
- But finance is global now, so the Southern Reparations Loan Fund can’t work to repair the South’s broken places in isolation. That leads us to work on the third level – the national level – where we’re helping to build something called the Financial Cooperative. The Financial Cooperative is a decentralized network of cooperating loan funds, all anchored in their particular places, all trying to make non-extractive finance available to the people and places that have suffered the most under the extractive economy. In the last two years, the Financial Cooperative made over $1 million in loans available to 13 projects in 8 places. That’s cool and useful, but the real power of the financial cooperative is that it’s the infrastructure for a new, democratically controlled financial commons. A financial commons that puts the wealth piled up from the stolen lives, land, and labor of the people back under the people’s control, rather than under the control of Wall Street.
Here are some of the lessons F4DC has learned about doing this kind of nested grassroots work:
- At this stage of systems change nothing comes easy. It takes more time, money, and work than we ever thought. And even so, it is still worth doing.
- Collaboration at multiple levels is key. One example of how we’re collaborating is that we leveraged relationships we started at EDGE to form a loose alliance of funders and movement partners called Shake the Foundations. Shake’s participants are all committed to moving grants and investments to building this decentralized financial commons, from the grassroots level to the national infrastructure.
- If we’re serious about systems change, we, as foundations, should seriously consider putting ourselves out of business. But before we do, we need to find someone to take up where we leave off.
- F4DC is sunsetting; we have less than three years to go.
- We’ve been able to make an outsized difference because of our structure, small-ness, and accountability relationships. Our nimbleness and discretion over what we do with our resources has gotten joined up with great ideas coming from the grassroots.
- F4DC’s experience shows that there is an important role in transformative movements for small, scrappy foundations that are willing to spend down quickly and to do so in relationship with people on the ground. We small fry funds can’t do it by ourselves but we can be experimenters and agitators that grease the skids for folks on the ground and pave the way for the larger foundations like Libra and our other Shake partners.
- Ed Whitfield and I are specifically looking to identify a cohort of small, nimble foundations that want to explore a similar role. If you’re with a small foundation and this idea appeals to you, please email me or grab me so we can talk!