With the End Near, Atlantic Makes a Big Move on Racial Justice

Race has been getting a lot of attention from funders lately, but Atlantic Philanthropies has been a leader in this area for a number of years. In 2008, back when Gara LaMarche was leading the foundation, he gave a much-discussed speech on race and philanthropy in which he said that attacking structural racism had to be an imperative for funders.

Atlantic's longstanding commitment in this area has played out in a number of ways, both in the U.S. and overseas. For example, Atlantic invested over $100 million in a network of schools and school-based health centers to improve opportunities for low-income middle school kids of color, and has been closely involved in the My Brother's Keeper initiative. A racial justice lens also framed Atlantic's pathbreaking work to dismantle harsh school discipline policies, which we covered last year.

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

Now, as the foundation winds up its final year of grantmaking, it's underwriting a big new initiative on race. 

Atlantic Philanthropies and Columbia University recently unveiled a fellowship program that aims to “dismantle anti-black racism in the U.S. and South Africa.” A 10-year, $60 million program called the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, this program aims to develop “courageous and creative leaders dedicated to dismantling anti-black racism.”

These new fellows will be trained and empowered as emerging leaders in addressing racial disparities in the U.S. and South Africa, at a time when real headway on these issues seems possible.

The fellowships will be part of a larger effort undertaken by the sunsetting foundationthe Atlantic Fellowswhich brings together leaders to work across disciplines on issues of equity, health, and inclusiveness. We reported earlier this year on that ambitious initiative.

Related: Atlantic's $200 Million New Thing Is Big and Bold. But Will It Actually Work?

Atlantic Philanthropies is making this commitment with a number of founding partners, including Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD), Center for Community Change, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Nelson Mandela Foundation, and Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at University of California, Berkeley.

With Columbia serving as a hub, the non-residential program will back 350 fellows over its 10-year lifespan, annually supporting up to 35 fellows from the U.S. and South Africa. It aims to unite the grassroots, civil rights advocates and scholars working in diverse disciplines, as well as individuals working within government, the media, arts and elsewhere to promote learning and collaboration across fields, sectors and geographies.

The focus both on human capital and on interdisciplinary, cross-sector work is key. When we talked earlier this year to Atlantic’s president and CEO, Christopher G. Oechsli, about the Atlantic Fellows, he stressed those larger themes. “This is not just about developing individuals,” he said. “It’s about helping individuals recognize that they are most effective when they collaborate with others.”

Atlantic’s ultimate goal is to create, over time, a cohesive network of change agents who can impact the areas Atlantic has long cared about, racial justice among them. With this new fellows program, the foundation is putting another key piece into place of this long term strategyextending its potential influence well into the future, not to mention its brand identity. With Atlantic fellows making waves for at least a decade to come, Chuck Feeney's foundation is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon.  

Kavitha Mediratta, who has served as chief strategy advisor for equity initiatives and human capital development at Atlantic Philanthropies, will be the founding executive director of the new Fellows for Racial Equity program. Mediratta helped pilot Atlantic's school discipline work to notable success, with a strategy that adroitly fused both bottom-up organizing and top-down policy work in a national push that included a wide range of partnerships. 

The first cohort of Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity will be announced in 2017.

Another important piece of Atlantic's endgame is its $50 million gift last year to the Civic Participation Action Fund, a 501(c)4 organization working to increase "participation in elections and the democratic process, particularly among people of color."

Funds from CPAF have gone for activities as varied as campaigns to increase the minimum wage and efforts to reduce incarceration. More recently, it made donations to super PAC’s, including a $1.5 million gift aimed at mobilizing the immigrant vote for Hillary Clinton.  

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