The Pittsburgh Foundation

New Social Justice Fund to combat racial, economic inequity

Grant-making initiative awards $158,000 to social justice organizations

Pittsburgh, PA, Aug. 28, 2018 – A new fund to boost support for social justice activists and advocates working in Pittsburgh has been launched at The Pittsburgh Foundation and has made eight grants totaling $158,000 to local organizations. The goal of the fund is to reduce barriers to funding, increase engagement and influence of community members and challenge systems that perpetuate racial and economic inequity.

How the fund was created: Unlike traditional philanthropy, where nonprofits are asked to apply for grants from existing programs, the Social Justice Fund was created in partnership with social justice leaders who urged the Foundation to increase its support for social change efforts that are led by those who are closest to the community issues it seeks to address. In response, a committee comprised of nine social justice activists and advocates working on issues ranging from police accountability to immigration reform began working with Foundation staff in June 2017.  Justin Laing, of Hillombo, LLC,  was retained by the Foundation as a consultant to develop and facilitate the design process. The Foundation’s board established the fund with an initial grant of $250,000 in November. A five -person advisory board was established in March to guide the Fund’s implementation.

In announcing the fund and the new grants, Foundation President and CEO Maxwell King praised nonprofits such as food banks, community health centers and after-school program managers that work continuously on problems stemming from economic and racial inequality in the Pittsburgh region. “These organizations are doing heroic service in lessening the damage, and we owe it to them to provide advocacy power to address the sources of many of these problems,” King said. “The Social Justice Fund reflects our belief that when you give those closest to the issues tools and resources, they are the best equipped to tackle the root causes of poverty by dismantling systems and structures that have led to racial and economic inequality.”

Among the eight grants, all of which are for operating support, awarded in this inaugural round were $20,000 to the Alliance for Police Accountability, which advocates for criminal justice reform, and $18,000 to the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty, which works for affordable housing for East Liberty residents. A full list of recipients is below.

The Social Justice Fund ties directly to the Foundation’s 100 Percent Pittsburgh organizing principle, which invites groups in the 30 percent of the region’s population living at or near the poverty level to help develop opportunities that will give them access to the region’s new economy. The Social Justice Fund actualizes the Foundation’s commitment to supporting and amplifying the voices of people most affected by issues by including them in developing solutions.

A different kind of philanthropy: Last summer, activists and advocates began meeting formally with Michelle McMurray, the Foundation’s senior program officer for Health and Human Services, also who spearheads the Foundation’s Small and Mighty grant-making initiative to make sure that small, community-based nonprofits were receiving support to meet basic needs in their neighborhoods. After listening to the insights provided by activists and advocates, it was clear to Foundation staff that the needs of those doing social justice work resembled those of Small and Mighty organizations. A tailored grant-making initiative that offered simplified funding processes could make a significant difference for organizations fighting for social change in areas such as affordable housing, immigrant rights and racial justice. Working together, Foundation staff and the design committee examined funding models utilized in other cities as well as their own ideas of how the Foundation could be more responsive.

“Our partners helped us understand the ways in which typical grant-making programs are incompatible to the on-the-ground reality of how social justice work happens,” said McMurray. “Similar to what we learned from our Small and Mighty grantees, for smaller social justice organizations, applications are inaccessible, timelines for grant decisions are too long, and that providing only project-based support limits their ability to build sustainable infrastructure.”

Advocates also said that when foundations develop their grant-making programs in isolation from the people who will be most directly impacted, unintended consequences can result, including funding priorities that do not reflect those of the community they serve.

“The needs of Pittsburgh have changed,” says Monica Ruiz, executive director of Casa San Jose, a nonprofit resource center for the Latino community. “The Social Justice Fund is a hopeful sign for the future; Pittsburgh has some great organizers working directly with communities, but they often have a hard time securing funding.”

Here is the complete list of Social Justice Fund operating grants totaling $158,000 to eight organizations:

  • Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration – West: $20,000. This regional center of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration was established last fall to call for the end of life-without-parole sentences. Members of the Coalition include community organizers, incarcerated individuals and their family and friends. The organization has made headway locally and across Pennsylvania, with the goal of securing parole eligibility for those sentenced to life. The organization plans to hire a part-time community organizer whose responsibilities will include organizing around the 2019 county district attorney election and the cost of two outreach events in Pittsburgh.
  • Casa San Jose: $20,000. Founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Casa San Jose was incorporated in 2014 to offer much-needed advocacy and resources to Pittsburgh’s Latino community. Over the next year, Casa San Jose will expand its Jovenes con Proposito program, which provides advocacy skills to high school-aged immigrant youth in Beechview. It will conduct additional trainings for its Community-Based Response Project, which provides leadership trainings for Latino immigrants on immigration rights and policy. It will also launch a door-to-door campaign that seeks to train every person on immigrant rights and how to support neighbors subjected to racial profiling, hate crimes or ICE raids.
  • Hill District Consensus Group: $20,000. Since 1991, the Hill District Consensus Group has served residents of Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood by creating initiatives that push for economic and racial equity. These include the Bedford Dwellings Choice Neighborhood Initiative, a campaign for safe drinking water for residents, monthly renter’s rights workshops, and an affordable housing summit. Through the Consensus Group, the neighborhood has been able to fight for affordable housing, improved education, living-wage employment and family services. 
  • Council for Cultural Equity and Emancipated Education: $20,000. The Council for Cultural Equity and Emancipated Education, founded this February, has continued the decades-old work of community activists to ensure that African American students in Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) receive a quality education. The Council helps educators, artists and community organizers to push for more culturally appropriate student programs and curriculum in schools, particularly those that serve primarily African American populations. The Council plans to continue its efforts to have representatives speak at PPS public hearings, to strengthen families’ racial and cultural identities and allow students to engage with black psychologists for mental health support.
  • Black Femme Excellence Collective: $20,000. In response to the lack of intersectionality in Pittsburgh’s activist and feminist spaces, the Black Femme Excellence Collective was formed last January. The Collective aims to provide spaces for organizers and community members to express their identified intersections freely.  The organization plans to hold at least four events to bring awareness to the importance of intersectionality, create a website along and increase the organization’s social media presence.
  • Alliance for Police Accountability: $20,000. The Alliance for Police Accountability, a community-led organization, hosts local events and programming to advocate for the reform and reconstruction of the criminal justice system. Started in 2010, the organization has made legal education and assistance a priority for underserved communities in Pittsburgh. This organization is planning educational programs to help low-income and vulnerable people know their rights, register to vote and understand how elected officials create policy that affects people’s lives. Through a collaboration with the ACLU, the Alliance also seeks to end cash bail in Pennsylvania.
  • Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty, Inc.: $18,000. When the planned redevelopment of three major high-rise properties in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood began in 2000, the Coalition of Organized Residents of East Liberty was formed. Led volunteers and former residents of those high-rises, the Coalition’s mission is to ensure that all East Liberty residents can find an affordable place to live without being displaced. The Coalition is seeking a space where residents can reliably meet to organize their own residence councils. It also plans to collaborate with other grassroots advocacy groups working for affordable housing to produce newsletters and other informative materials about housing legislation and policies so that residents can advocate for themselves and their neighbors.
  • Coalition for Racial Justice in Media: $20,000. The Coalition for Racial Justice in Media was created in 2018 in response to the murder of LeRoy Powell after Powell was named in news reports as a witness in another murder. The Coalition’s core group –comprised of Shanon Williams, Letrell Crittenden and PublicSource, with support from such groups as Thomas Jefferson University, The Bridge Series, Braddock Youth Project and Hazelwood Youth Justice Project – equips black and brown communities with tools to advocate for accurate and responsible portrayals in the media and to hold media outlets accountable for unjust and racist portrayals of people of color.

Next steps: The General Support Grant Program of the Social Justice Fund will provide operating support for organizations engaged in advocacy, mobilization and healing work. In the future, a Rapid Response Program will be initiated, providing funding to organizations seeking to address an urgent or unanticipated community concern or challenge that requires an immediate response. The Foundation is also working to identify an organizational partner to help carry out the rapid response component of the grant – which will aim to make grant decisions in two weeks or less.

More information about how the fund was developed is available at