Inside the Growing Funder Push to Accelerate Social Change for Young Women of Color  

Prosperity Together Leaders with Patricia Arquette (Center). From Left to Right: Jeanne Jackson, Elizabeth Barajas-Roman, Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat, Cathy Schreiber, Surina Khan, Ruby Bright, Patricia Arquette, Lee Roper-Batker, Ana Oliveira, and Teresa YoungerIn the spring of 2015, a group of community activists in New York City approached the City Council with an ambitious goal: They wanted to drill down on the issues faced by young women and girls of color, and quicken the pace of social change, advancing equality and opportunity for this population. The group spoke to Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaker of the New York City Council, and the first Latina woman to hold citywide office, who responded positively to the idea. In May 2015, the City Council announced the Young Women’s Initiative (YWI), a historic effort to tackle the health, safety, education, and economic disadvantages that confront young women of color.

Initial funding for the Young Women’s Initiative came in February of 2016, with a grant of $10 million from the New York City Council. That same month, the Philanthropic Table for Girls and Young Women of Color matched the City Council's $10 million with another $10 million and set a new high for public women’s foundations dedicating funds specifically to young women and trans/gender fluid youth of color. Big donors to the Philanthropic Table include the New York Women's Foundation and the Novo Foundation. 

This is a striking public-private partnership, and New York City is a fitting focus. With close to a half-million Black and Latina girls in the city ages 12 to 24 (411,339 in 2013) representing just over 20 percent of the city’s population, New York has a huge stake in providing advancement opportunities for young women and girls of color. Right now, rates of poverty are significantly higher in the city among women and girls of color, and so is unemployment: Eighteen percent of women and girls of color are out of work or out of school, compared to 12 percent of white women and girls. 

But New York is definitely not alone in addressing the particular difficulties faced by women and girls of color. As announced at the Obama Administration’s United State of Women Summit, the Young Women’s Initiative is expanding further. Seven women’s funds have committed to carrying out the multifaceted agenda of YWI in their own communities. The newly added foundations announced at the June 2016 Summit, which span several regions of the country, are the Women's Foundation of Minnesota, the California Women's Foundation, Washington Area Women’s Foundation, the Dallas Women's Foundation, the Women's Fund of Greater Birmingham, the Women’s Foundation for Greater Memphis, and the Women's Fund of Western Massachusetts.

Related: Obama Summit Delivers Good News on Gender, and Women's Funds Step Up Again

Ana Oliveira, President and CEO of the New York Women’s Foundation, is one of the guiding forces of the Young Women’s Initiative in New York City. Now she's thrilled to see the effort go national. 

“It was really a very powerful moment for public women’s foundations,” she said of the Obama administration’s gathering, and the announcement of the new coalition of seven women’s funds investing in YWI. “There are many private foundations that invest in women and girls, but public women’s foundations have unique value. We are very close to the ground. Because we are public, we can do the convening and the grassroots work. We know how to navigate the realities and partner with other forms of philanthropy.”

Oliveira also stressed the importance of inclusion, and of creating safe places in our communities for young women to talk about the multiple forms of discrimination they face, in order to move toward solutions that address their complex realities.

“The trans community is really breaking gender norms, and the binary approach to gender,” she said. “As a Latina, I am very familiar with how gender discrimination occurs. YWI is going to support the creation of different narratives that talk about gender, race, ethnicities, immigration status.”

Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat, President of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, is conducting listening tours in the Washington region this summer, and with a creative twist—the young women in the first listening session shaped their stories into poems and plays that they performed. After the performances, they had a spirited discussion facilitated by the Director Goldie Patrick of F.R.E.S.H.H. Inc. Empower DC, a nonprofit focused on enhancing self-advocacy in marginalized communities, helped create the performance piece. 

Related: How This Women's Foundation Plans to Amp Things Up

Lockwood-Shabat sees the listening tours as only the beginning of this work. “We are taking the time to listen really deeply, but you have to, at some point, move into action. If you don’t move into action, you see people get disheartened.” She stressed the importance of having community buy-in to carry out the action needed to implement the recommendations.

What that action will look like for YWI will likely vary, depending on the unique needs of the women and girls of each community. Being a year ahead of the new joiners, the Young Women’s Initiative in New York City has already developed extensive and wide-ranging recommendations for policymakers and philanthropists, which include increasing access to health care for this population, expanding summer youth employment opportunities, and providing professional development across schools, police, and city offices, to increase awareness about the unequal treatment of women of girls of color, and develop more opportunities for advancement for this population.  

One of the regional foundations joining the YWI expansion is the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota—one of the largest women’s funds in the country, which has been headed since 2001 by Lee Roper-Batker. With an endowment of $24 million, the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota makes grants of $2.5 to $3 million a year, with additional support provided in program-related investments.

Roper-Batker hopes to build on the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota’s $4 million starting commitment to the Young Women’s Initiative. The foundation will be hosting a conference next March to bring together stakeholders in philanthropy, business, and government, as well as young women and girls in the community —to build the local Young Women’s Initiative in that state. Roper-Batker intends to make big requests from donors to support this work. “We need to ask for what we need, and negotiate,” she said.

Under Roper-Batker’s leadership, the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota has made some bold moves, particularly by supporting new legislation aimed at equality and opportunity for women and girls. In 2014, Minnesota passed the Women’s Economic Security Act, which was largely based on research provided to the legislature by the Women’s Foundation. The legislation calls for increased job training for women as well as expanded workplace and community protection for women and girls. Roper-Batker knew that more advocacy was needed in order to get this legislation passed. Within a day, she came up with the funds to hire a top-notch lobbyist to engage the cause.

 “As a community foundation that has donor-advised funds, I was able to pick up the phone and call about six of our donor fund advisors, and let them know about this extraordinary opportunity,” said Roper-Bakter. “Within a couple of hours, we had it fully funded. And in fact, one of our donor advisors wrote to me afterward and said, ‘Thank you for letting me help with that legislation. I feel like I was part of making history.’”

So while listening is key to the transformational approach of the Young Women’s Initiative, action is very much on the agenda. We look forward to learning about the Young Women’s Initiatives, as it hears from more young women and girls, and expands and develops its reach in different parts of the country.