The Pittsburgh Foundation

Priming the pump for social changeThe Foundation's new Social Justice Fund brings community voice to the forefront.

Monica Ruiz is a community organizer with Casa San Jose in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood, which is home to most of the city’s Latino population. Ruiz helps residents access services and empowers them to push for social change.

Ryan Rydzewski

Ryan Rydzewski, a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.

THE FIRST THING TO KNOW about Monica Ruiz and her career as a public policy advocate for Pittsburgh’s Latino community is that her workday to-do list can change in an instant.

“I might be meeting with families on a school lunch issue, then I’ll get a phone call and I am running to the ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] office because they’ve detained 10 people,” says Ruiz, the community organizer for Casa San Jose. “Every day is different.”

In this period of tense political and social divisiveness over immigration, she’s busier than ever. Amid the uncertainty (and at times, outright hostility) experienced by the people she serves, there’s critical work to do. Whether it’s finding food for hungry children or mobilizing young people to push for a policy change, it’s part of Ruiz’s mission to make Pittsburgh a more livable, welcoming place for Latinos.

But improving life circumstances requires hands-on attention and money. Both are in short supply in the current climate — especially for social justice advocates, who often work at society’s margins. “I always say, you can find money for little Chihuahuas left on the street corner,” says Ruiz, “because everyone loves Chihuahuas. But when it comes to undocumented people, it’s a lot more difficult to find help.”

She knows she’s not alone: “Pittsburgh has some great organizers working directly with communities,” she says, “but they often have a hard time securing funding.”

A new fund at The Pittsburgh Foundation aims to change that. Seeded in November 2017 with a $250,000 pool for grantmaking, the Social Justice Fund will support organizing and advocacy efforts addressing critical issues such as affordable housing, criminal justice reform and the impact of racism on people of color. Developed over several months in partnership with local activists and organizers, “the Social Justice Fund acts on what we’ve learned — that when you give those who are closest to the issues the ability to organize, advocate and build awareness, the community is more focused on the root causes of inequality in systems and institutions,” says Maxwell King, the Foundation’s president and CEO.

The idea emerged last year, as the Foundation’s team of program officers sought “to better understand how we could realize our values of racial equity, voice and courage,” says Michelle McMurray, senior program officer for Health and Human Services. “Community-led activism and organizing was receiving national attention that made us curious about what is happening in Pittsburgh. What types of organizations are doing activism work? And what roles are foundations playing?”

When you give those who are closest to the issues the ability to organize, advocate and build awareness, the community is more focused on the root causes of inequality in systems and institutions.

-- Maxwell King, president & ceo of the pittsburgh foundation

To find out, the program officers held a half-day learning session with 10 local organizers, including Ruiz, and eventually formed the committee that helped the Foundation design the Social Justice Fund. McMurray says the group has helped Foundation staff “understand the ways in which typical grant-making programs are incompatible with the on-the-ground reality of how social justice work happens.”

For instance, because a community’s needs can change so quickly, social justice organizations can’t always afford to wait for foundation grants, many of which are made after a multi-month evaluation process. Moreover, most foundation grants are limited to project support — that is, dollars for a specific project or initiative. Funds for general operating support are less common.

“Operating support grants are hard to come by for any organization,” McMurray says, “but they’re really challenging for organizations doing social justice work. As a result, those organizations tend to have lean infrastructures. If you don't have money for basic things like paid staff, keeping the lights on and a dedicated space to work and convene, it becomes much more difficult to plan for long-term change.”

Together, Foundation staff and the committee of activists and organizers designed a grant-seeking process that is simpler and more agile than the formal process that governs large grant requests. Recognizing that such work requires both flexibility to respond to emerging issues and longer-term investments in organizational infrastructure, the Social Justice Fund will offer two types of grants when funding begins later this summer.

Rapid response grants of up to $2,500 will be fast-tracked, allowing decisions to be made and funding to be disbursed within two weeks. Nonprofits with a history of successful organizing and advocacy efforts will be eligible for operating support grants of up to $20,000. The Foundation will also sponsor quarterly convenings for grant awardees and others, providing space and assistance for social justice advocates and activists to learn together, build relationships and strengthen collaborations. The Fund’s implementation is being informed by a five-person advisory board made up of additional activists, organizers and advocates.

To organizers such as Ruiz, the Social Justice Fund is a welcome development. “I think it’s amazing,” she says. “I especially appreciate that the Foundation designed the fund in tandem with people doing tough, on-the-ground work. It is a hopeful sign for the future.”

To McMurray, it’s an authentic expression of the Foundation’s 100 Percent Pittsburgh values, including voice. “When we say we’re supporting the people most impacted by an issue, that means we should also be accountable to those people,” she says. “That’s what the Social Justice Fund is all about.”

Original story appeared in Forum Quarterly - Spring/Summer 2018