Mekaelia Davis, Program Director, Inclusive Economies, Surdna Foundation
“We believe in an inclusive economy, where people of color, especially Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities have economic power — from having access to a quality job with a livable wage and humane conditions, to having a voice in the conditions and terms of work, to owning enterprises and employing and investing in people.”
What is the mission of your foundation, and how does addressing economic equity and opportunity fit?
The Surdna Foundation seeks to foster sustainable communities in the United States — communities guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, inclusive economies, and thriving cultures.
To advance our mission, we work to increase democratic participation, wealth creation, and public and private accountability. In our Inclusive Economies portfolio, this means building inclusive and equitable economies where people of color can maximize their potential as leaders, creators, and innovators across sectors.
How has COVID-19 and the current public outcry for racial justice and structural racism reforms impacted your grant-making? How are you shifting your strategies to meet this moment?
For years, Surdna has supported solutions to dismantling the policies, behaviors, and cultural drivers that have produced racial injustices over generations. In 2018, Surdna explicitly focused its grant-making strategies on addressing structural racism. This focus informed our grant-making decisions during COVID, beginning with recognizing the challenges our processes created for grantee-partners. In response, we streamlined our grant operations to reduce burdensome administrative demands for our partners.
We continuously work to get as proximate to folks most impacted by structural racism and, in our efforts to do so, changed our multi-year grant policy from three to six years to recognize the time it takes to build power and grow movements that are led by impacted communities.
Finally, our Board authorized an increase to our grant-making budget through 2023 to give grantee-partners breathing room to respond to this moment. This decision focused on supporting the work of existing partners – organizations that have been leading the way for years on racial equity and social justice.
What do you see as the big barriers you’re trying to overcome in your work?
Over the last year, there’s been more truth-telling and problem framing, which is essential in ensuring we focus on issues that have been ignored. Collectively, we face a higher volume of more nuanced problems. The speed and intensity of new framing and ideas are competing for attention in a field of practitioners operating with limited bandwidth, capacity, and resources.
Managing the volume and while also holding the urgency that all these issues bring is challenging for all of us. Often, a speedy response isn’t prioritized in the academic approach that we (philanthropy) often use to address these problems. I witness and experience urgency in my community. I get frustrated by theoretical conversations that miss what’s happening on the ground.
I’ve thought a lot about Critical Race Theory (CRT), for example. For years, funders watched the Obama Administration face backlash on efforts that centered race, which were often met with organized retaliation and disinformation. Why couldn’t we preemptively prepare for and address backlash against CRT?
The growth of funded and well-organized hate groups spreading all over the world is another significant barrier. We are not just dealing with the inherent challenges of changing complex systems; we are also navigating a cultural and ideological battlefield saturated with misinformation fueling social mistrust.
Lastly, there’s the notion that we need to respond to all that is happening by creating something brand new. While there are certainly instances where we need new tools, we have a lot to build on. I wish we could incorporate more of what exists, specifically, solutions that impacted communities have been evolving for years.
As you think through your portfolio/foundation’s work, what has been some of the work that you have been most proud of?
There are so many great efforts across our portfolio that we are proud of. We are excited about the momentum we’re seeing with our grantee-partners, who are driving change in capital markets – aligning investor behavior with more equitable and inclusive outcomes.
Activest, is working on ‘accounting for the unaccounted’ in capital markets by creating transparency around the impact of the racial injustices perpetrated by US cities. The organization is building new models to assess investment risk in municipalities by centering the actual cost of their social outcomes. The organization is blending economic modeling, financial analysis, and social policy research to advance racial justice in municipal finance and engage investors and cities into using “fiscal justice” as a tool for racial equity.
Similarly, we are excited about a multi-part series produced by Transform Finance focused on Grassroots Community-Engaged Investment models. These models highlight economic development investment processes that have embedded equity in their design and placed the ownership and decision-making power in the hands of grassroots stakeholders.
We also see progress as institutional investors exploring support for diverse fund managers. These fund managers perform at or above their peer group and face significant bias in private capital markets. Research demonstrates that fund managers of color have real expertise in developing investment strategies that close capital gaps in communities of color. The Racial Equity Asset Lab (REAL) has built a racial equity investing framework and connects institutional investors with fund managers of color.
For many years Common Future has led philanthropic organizations on a journey to embed racial equity in decision-making processes. The organization’s most recent iteration of this work focuses on democratizing investments to accelerate the use of community-led and controlled investment structures. These new models demonstrate different forms of leadership that are critical to better employment practices.
Finally, Just Capital and PolicyLink‘s efforts align corporate performance in the marketplace with racial equity insights so stakeholders can act on that knowledge. Their work helps advance transparency and accountability— in tracking how corporate behavior aligns with values—so that our measurement of corporate success extends beyond profit.
How does being a member of EOF help you achieve your goals?
I became involved with EOF just before the pandemic, so my experience has been primarily virtual. I have valued being connected to and learning about what other funders are doing on webinars. It’s been a great place to learn about labor quickly.
Do you have any questions/issues on which you’d like to engage your funder colleagues? What keeps you up at night?
I’d love to explore where funders are making intersectional investments on policy issues. In the arena of labor policy, how are other funders approaching issues around preemption and the tensions between state versus local policy challenges?
I’m also curious how other funders are resourcing power and movement building grantee-partners. How are funders thinking about strategies or helping counter the growing tide of misinformation?
Any useful resources to share with your colleagues?
- Transform Finance
- Common Future’s Capital Initiative
- ICC Black Paper
- Partnership for Working Families report, A Path to Collective Liberation: Our Long Term Agenda
Thank you so much Mekaelia for your time and participation in our network! If you’d like to reach out to Mekaelia directly to learn more, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.