From Social Movement to Social Change: Philanthropy and School Discipline Reform

What role does philanthropy play in social movements? It’s an interesting question, and there’s a long history of funder involvement in different movements—from civil rights in the 1960s to LGBT rights in the past decade. Just last week, I wrote about the role of small funders—and Meg Gage in particular—in advancing the peace movement of the 1980s.

What’s tricky here, though, is figuring out what impact funders have in these situations, and why. Can philanthropy actually foster social movements? Or does it just play catch-up once activist citizens have gotten things going? And when funders do get behind a social movement, what’s the best way to do that and how much can their support make a difference?

Anyone interested in these questions would be wise to take a close look at a meaty report published this past summer by Atlantic Philanthropies, “Tilling the Field: Lessons About Philanthropy’s Role in School Discipline Reform,” which was written by Leila Fiester.

No funder has spent more to change school discipline policies than Atlantic, which made $47 million in grants between 2010 and 2014 aimed at dismantling an insidious “school-to-prison pipeline.” And few, thankfully, have a bigger appetite for dissecting their own work. (Other notable funders in this fight have included the Open Society Foundations, the Kellogg, Schott, Hazen, and Raikes foundations, and the California Endowment. Here, I focus on Atlantic.)

I missed “Tilling the Field,” which runs over 50 pages, when it came out, but I’m glad I didn’t miss it altogether, because it illuminates a great case study of how philanthropy amplified a contemporary social movement.

Recently, I talked with Kavitha Mediratta, who led Atlantic’s grantmaking in this area to hear more about the foundation’s work on school discipline reform—particularly as it relates to broader questions around movements and philanthropy.

Atlantic embraced this issue in late 2009 amid internal discussions on where it could have significant impact as it moved to wind down grantmaking by 2016. The director of Atlantic’s Children and Youth program, Donna Lawrence, convinced the foundation to challenge the harsh “zero tolerance” policies that had become widespread in schools as part of a broader crackdown on crime and disorder in the U.S. Lawrence pointed to evidence going back years that such policies were particularly damaging to kids of color—who were suspended, expelled, or arrested on school grounds at disportionately high rates. These kids often ended up falling behind in school, and even worse, were being funneled at early ages into the criminal justice system.

Concerns about such policies dated back at least to 1975, when the Children’s Defense Fund published a reported on the harmful consequences of high suspension rates for black students. Efforts to challenge these policies grew during the late 1990s. But this issue—which intersected with a bunch of concerns over poverty, education inequities and criminal justice—had never received top-tier attention from the foundation world. Meanwhile, the situation had steadily grown worse. Research would find that African-American students were three times more likely to be suspended than white students during the 2009-2010 school year, typically for the kind of disruptive and disrespectful—yet nonviolent—behavior that is totally common in schools. Lawrence argued that changing discipline policies could be a powerful intervention point with bigger payoffs that “could change the trajectory of kids’ lives” as Mediratta would put it.

Mediratta was hired at Atlantic in 2010 because of her work with grassroots youth and community groups around the country to reform school discipline practices. While this issue may have flown under the radar at the national level, it was very much on the minds of local community activists, and particularly young people, who saw first-hand the destructiveness of the school-to-prison pipeline. By 2010, lots of organizing was taking place on this issue.

In other words, a social movement to challenge zero tolerance was very much underway when Atlantic came aboard. The foundation sought to put that movement at the center of its new push for reform, using various strategies to amplify its impact.

“We knew there were grassroots groups all around the country that were working on this issue and hadn’t been resourced,” says Mediratta. Atlantic saw these groups as the engine driving change, but had to find a way to get money to them, which was not easy, since they were small and there were so many of them scattered around the country. To undertake that task, the foundation turned to Public Interest Projects, now NEO Philanthropy, an intermediary with a long history of helping funders move their money to the front lines of social change. (See my recent article on this outfit.)

As this grant money began to flow, fueling “bottom-up” pressures for reform in school districts, Atlantic looked for ways to accelerate change with “top-down” efforts at the federal level. This work “was about building networks and coalitions that could knit together these grassroots groups from around the country to exert pressure on the feds,” says Mediratta. The goal was get the federal government to put out more data on this issue and use mandates and incentives to get school districts to change their disciplinary practices. Money for the federal level work went to national groups—organizations like the Dignity in Schools Campaign, Advancement Project, and Alliance for Educational Justice. Atlantic also funded research to better document the negative effects of school discipline policies, as well as to explore viable alternatives to zero tolerance. “You need to show what works,” Mediratta says. “You need to articulate an alternative.”

All this work was well timed, coming in the early years of the Obama presidency. Both new research and events on the ground, including the shooting of Trayvon Martin, elevated calls for change. The Department of Education and the Department of Justice started to pay attention and make changes. A key victory came in January 2014, when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a new joint guidance from their department designed to push school districts and states to change their policies.

Today, five years after Atlantic began its grantmaking, school discipline policies have been reformed in numerous school districts and states. Mediratta says that “this issue has come from being completely invisible, to now being on the radar. There is a growing awareness about it, at all levels of government.” The battle isn’t won, by any means, and much will depend on how well new policies are implemented. But the debate over school discipline is light years from where it was in 2010. The results, in concrete terms, are that fewer kids will have their educations or lives derailed by excessive punishment for misbehaving in school, with big gains for society in terms of more productive lives and less incarceration.

That’s a pretty impressive return on Atlantic’s $47 million in grants, as well as the money other foundations put into this battle. And it underscores the leverage that can come from investing in advocacy and policy, a point we press often at Inside Philanthropy.

But what are the particular lessons when it comes to philanthropy and social movements? Well, you should really read Leila Fiester’s full report on this grantmaking, since I’ve offered a very abbreviated version of a four-year effort with a lot of moving parts and different turning points.

But Mediratta offered a few takeaways in regard to movement building. The biggest one, which is stressed in Fiester’s report, is that foundations with activist approaches can, indeed, make a big difference in advancing social movements. “Most foundations completely under-leverage what they bring to the table,” Mediratta says. While it may be hard for funders to invent social movements, philanthropy can play a decisive role in supporting groups already in the field and—even more so—help create the top-down pressures and linkages needed to foster a policy environment receptive to change. Fiester writes that funders can serve as the “connective tissue” between sectors and play a key role on strategy and relationship building.

Yet Mediratta notes that funder involvement in social movements can be tricky. She says that funders need to be super-clear about their role vis-a-vis social movements. They need to stay firmly on the grantmaking side of the fence and not try to speak for those working in the trenches. The role of funders is to “build the space for others to speak.”

Foundations also need to be careful about how they oblige groups to work together. You can’t make partnership happen that aren’t authentic, even with deep pockets. “It’s another hubris in philanthropy to think you can do this,” Mediratta says. She thinks Atlantic and the other funders involved did a good job of avoiding that mistake. “Collaboration and partnerships were really at the core of this, but they weren’t forced marriages.” Such genuine bonds are especially important if the long-range goal is creating a sustainable infrastructure to work for change.

Finally, Mediratta says that funders need to be comfortable with the messiness of social movements. The array of actors in such movements rarely operate in “lockstep,” she says. “People are not necessarily in 100 percent agreement on things, and that’s OK.” Advocates may have clarity about their goals, but have different paths to get there, and even different political perspectives. "Getting everyone on the exact same page is not a prerequisite for success,” says Mediratta. In fact, funders “need to understand that you need to have a range of perspectives in any movement, and that’s an asset.”

This is a great point, and historically, successful social movements have often included both hard-hitting activists and establishment players. That’s certainly been the case on school discipline reform, where those advocating for change have included passionate grassroots activists of color as well as buttoned-down judges and academics.

All these people managed to push the ball in the same direction. And while it’s not over the goal line yet, it’s moved pretty far in the right direction—with a crucial assist from some very smart money.

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