JFN: Funding social change

Kafi D. Blumenfield delivered these remarks to the Jewish Funders Network International conference on March 18, 2013 in Beverly Hills.

As the CEO of a public foundation, a woman married to a Jewish man, raising our kids in the reform tradition and member of a social justice-oriented temple that welcomes interfaith families like mine, I was asked to share my thoughts on why funding social change is so important.

I grew-up in a politically engaged family in DC where social-economic injustices were clear.  If you had power, you were part of the political fabric of the city, if you weren’t — you were poor or a recent immigrant for example — the political establishment barely recognized you.

My school was the first integrated school in the City.   The school’s values and teachings were deeply informed by Jewish families and others who cared about social justice. I came to California for college because I heard that politics was being done differently here.  That there were movements to engage diverse people and hear their voices … lessons to be learned for governance and building governing coalitions.

It took me years to make the connection — that many of the strong nonprofits that I was first exposed to in college and later in law school were first funded by Liberty Hill and its community of individual and institutional donors.

Liberty Hill, like Los Angeles, is made up of many types of people with many different backgrounds.  Some of our most steadfast support has come from our community of Jewish donor-activists.  Whether deeply faithful or deeply uncomfortable with faith but tied to Jewish culture, many of our donor-activists see Liberty Hill as a critical institution that helps in their efforts to repair the world.

The area of work that we fund, organizing, is all about hope and garnering strength in the pursuit of justice.  Many of L.A.’s strongest community organizers often have a deep spiritual force that propels them regardless of their religious beliefs.

A few short years ago, hundreds of us in the social justice community — organizers and donor activists — were gathered in a temple south of here to remember a fierce champion of justice and a dear friend of Liberty Hill who passed away — Wally Marks.

As I left the service, I ran into a rabbi friend.  We talked for a moment and she said “Kafi, maybe Wally was one of the Lamed Vov.” The Talmud says there are 36 people on the planet at any one time who feel the world’s suffering and have the potential to save the world.

Nobody knows who they are. They don’t know who they are. They could be doctors, waiters, homeless people, moviemakers, moms.

Wally, like many of the members of Liberty Hill’s donor-activist community, didn’t ever go to bed hungry but he felt other people’s hunger as if it was his own. And it motivated him to use every resource at his disposal to bring about change.

As I left the service, the rabbi pointed to my two month old who I was holding in my arms and said, “Kafi maybe your son is one of them.”  Well — I thought — if there was a grand coming-out party for members of the Lamed Vov, my son’s Bris, would certainly have fit the bill — there were so many wonderful advocates for change there!

I love the idea of a few chosen heroes — especially on days when I’m feeling particularly challenged by the injustices before us.  But as we all know well, feeling the world’s pain can’t just be the burden of 36. It can’t just be the burden of those of us on the bus today. It has to include the 10 million people in Los Angeles, the 315 million in the country, the 7 billion in the world. All of us have to carry that responsibility in one way or another.

In LA, we often hear how challenging it is for national funders to understand this city and where to invest.  They avoid it, we hear, because LA’s big and complicated.  The crazy freeways and unfortunate traffic!  92 languages spoken in our school system. The city rarely seems to fit into national political strategies.

I see something else. LA’s a global region that has been experiencing, learning from, and responding to demographic shifts that the rest of the country is beginning to understand. We have lessons to be shared — you may have learned some today.

20 years ago, as the inequality between the wealthy and the poor grew wider and wider in Los Angeles, Liberty Hill began seeding and strengthening organizations that could raise wages and improve working conditions for poverty-wage workers. Today many of those organizations are anchor organizations acting as hubs for newer organizations to connect to and build off of:

  • We seed funded the LA organization that won living wages for security guards, janitors, parking attendants and food service employees.
  • In Koreatown, we supported better wages for stockers and cashiers who worked 10, even 20 years in the same grocery store without a raise or benefits.
  • Restaurant workers doing back-breaking work in hot kitchens clocking 80 hours per week, making $4 an hour.
  • We supported legal actions by garment workers whose employers would simply shutter their sweatshops, owing thousands of dollars in back wages.

In total, these combined efforts raised wages for well over a million Californians. 

We have a lot more to do.  When manufacturing disappeared from Los Angeles more than a generation ago, middle class families by the thousands plummeted into poverty. Schools, businesses, and banks shut down or moved. Communities collapsed. For many of these people, they were already struggling when the recession hit.  As a result of it, many more people joined their plight.

The future strength of our nation — its economic vitality, social strength and political power depends on our ability to restore these communities.  This isn’t just an LA Story.  It can’t be.  With so many people in LA and California and so much often overlooked political power in this region, it’s a national story.

One of Liberty Hill’s Leaders to Watch is a 20-something organizer with the wonderful group, InnerCity Struggle.  She lives in Boyle Heights.  She and her mother and sister are undocumented.  And like thousands of other undocumented young people she approached her adulthood with extreme stress because she knew that however hard she worked in school she had no future here.

This young woman and other Dreamers like her didn’t want to be forgotten when the immigration reform barriers seemed insurmountable.  They organized, joined with other organizations to march, lobby and door-knock and made their cause our own.  The president’s executive order last fall is testimony to these efforts — local experiences informed and built regional movements that amounted to a shared victory for national change.

We know we won’t succeed by going at it alone.  We need each other.  In repairing the world we must come together in community — true communion.  That’s what this work is all about. This is what my husband, Bob, and I teach our two young kids every day and especially at Passover.  When communion is done well, for justice, not only are we able to bring out a spark of light within individuals, or a group of people who are part of an organization, but in the larger community so that we can realize positive change.