In California, a New Effort to Give Progressive Leaders a Boost

These are exciting times for progressives. In the past five years, we've seen the emergence of Occupy, Black Lives Matter, a wave of new labor activism, and—in Bernie Sanders—a competitive run by a progressive candidate for president. While the left has often felt like an archipelago of different causes over recent decades, these days, it actually feels like a cohesive movement—and one that keeps gaining steam. 

But the question in catalytic moments like this is always whether the momentum can be sustained. Will all the new energy and activism of recent years translate into something that is truly transformative and lasting?

One way that funders have engaged this kind of challenge is through leadership development initiatives. We've seen that on the left, but also the right, as well as around specific issues. The basic idea to get behind top new leaders emerging in a movement and ensure they have the resources and skills to really go the distance. 

The latest example of such an effort is the Leading Edge Fund, which was created in partnership by the San Francisco-based Rosenberg Foundation and Hellman Foundation. It is designed to “seed, incubate, and accelerate the work of next-generation progressive movement leaders.”

This is a $2 million effort that’s supporting eight leaders in California. Each will receive $225,000 over three years to eliminate barriers to opportunity in the state. In addition to the cash, the fellows will also receive technical assistance on "strategy, program design, fundraising and communications." This second part of the equation is important, since it's one thing to be a successful activist and quite another to build a durable organization. Many activists need real help to navigate that transition. 

The first group of fellows are an interesting bunch, to say the least. #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Patrisse Cullors is one of them, as well as WeTheProtestors co-founder Samuel Sinyangwe. Other fellows specialize in civil rights, voting empowerment, and immigrant defense.

In case you don't know the Rosenberg Foundation, it's been a stalwart of progressive causes in California for many decades. It's not afraid of a fight, or to publicly tout its core values (in contrast to so many more politically cautious funders.) Additionally, Rosenberg understands the critical importance of supporting overall movement building, as opposed to more siloed grantmaking. As we've noted before, the conservative funders have generally done a much better job on this front than progressive ones, making large investments in leadership and networking institutions over decades. 

"We need to take a giant leap in order to put an end to business as usual and get rid of policies that have oppressed communities of color and low-income communities for decades," the Rosenberg Foundation's president, Timothy P. Silard, said in a press release announcing the Leading Edge Fund. "Justice, civil rights, and equity are issues that are of utmost importance for California's future. It is our privilege to support these incredible leaders to take risks and address these issues."

Through this effort, Rosenberg is heightening its involvement in pressing local issues that have national implications, such as racialized police violence, mass incarceration rates for people of color (including Native Americans), and representation for immigrants. This is a funder with one sole focus area: Economic Inclusion and Human Rights. However, there are three priorities within that: Justice and Public Safety, Immigrant Rights and Integration, and Justice for Farm Workers.

(You can learn more about the history and priorities of the Rosenberg Foundation in our profile, Rosenberg Foundation: Bay Area Grants.)

The Hellman Foundation is worth a closer look, as well. This is a Bay Area-specific funder that was established in 2011 and has awarded over $25 million in grants. Right now, Hellman has an emphasis on education and youth development, as well as health and basic needs programs, but it expects to expand its funding focus as the foundation grows and develops. Judging by this new initiative, Hellman looks like a funder that could be a key ally to progressive groups going forward.

The foundations are looking to these eight fellows for cutting-edge ideas to transform California and allow it to serve as a model for the rest of the U.S.  You can keep up with what this crew is doing and how the funders are supporting them by following the Leading Edge Blog and Fellows in the News.