At the apex of last year’s crisis points—the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, police violence against Black citizens—a circle of brilliant minds in Santa Cruz County were brought together to try to change the system from within. The group consists of leaders across the gender spectrum, spanning five decades in age. They encompass Black, Latinx, Indigenous and mixed races as well as allies. They’re working together to create anti-racist policy through grant funding, representation, and equity locally.
They are Rise Together, and while this didn’t start out as a movement, over the past year it has become one. And they’re just getting started.
The initial push that started off a domino effect came from the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County. The Foundation, which matches donors to local projects and causes that align with their visions, allows those seeking to take positive action to put money where it matters, whether it’s “to have a strong arts community, support pregnant moms, send kids to college,” says Community Foundation CEO Susan True.
True defines the work as aiming for “incredible action being taken,” with tangible, demonstrable results. “We are bound by the geography of this community,” she says. “This community’s leaders are even more crucial to anything we do being successful.”
However, as True explains, white-led philanthropy mirrors wealth inequality. Just 7% of philanthropic dollars across our country are given to organizations led by and for people of color. That mirroring means that “incredible people with incredible ability to make social impact have been left outside of the ability to direct those dollars, and often those dollars have not been directed to their efforts.” So when the opportunity arose to distribute $350,000 in funding in support of BILPOC (Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and People of Color)-led organizations benefiting BILPOC communities of Santa Cruz County to provide relief during the Covid-19 pandemic, True and her team decided to seek input from BILPOC community leaders to make collaborative decisions about how best to distribute the funds.
Though the Community Foundation has a decades-long history of supplying funding to organizations led by and serving people of color, such as a low-interest loan program supporting access to capital among entrepreneurs of color, it was an important time to start sharing governance of the community’s resources.
The money was to be used to ensure essential services were delivered, as well as address barriers and improve well-being for people of color in light of renewed racial reckonings: working conditions of migrant farmworkers during Covid and the fires, for instance, and police violence against Black people, which was brought to the forefront of national consciousness by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
For True, the national tragedy hit particularly close to home. “I’m from South Minneapolis,” she says. “George Floyd was murdered a few blocks from my high school. I have activist friends who were there and were on the streets. My parents’ pastor was with the [Floyd] family for days and days. I was wrapped up in what’s actually happening.”
True and Community Foundation staff including Engagement Officer Stacey Marie Garcia reached out to 17 Santa Cruz County BILPOC leaders and emerging leaders and asked them for two Zoom meetings to decide how the funds would best be spent, from the people who best understood their organizations and communities’ needs.
A Call to Action
Garcia, formerly of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, brought in several of the leaders through pre-existing relationships. “We invited strong, loving leaders that we and many people of color in our community respected, trusted, and admired,” Garcia explains on the process of identifying who to reach out to. “We wanted leaders who had a strong history of relationship building, collaborating effectively and openly, taking action to make change, and have a bold vision for a more just and equitable Santa Cruz County.”
Some of these leaders had pre-existing relationships—to one another, the Community Foundation, or both—while others did not. “We were intentional about inviting leaders working in different parts of the county, from different cultures, across sectors, and from different generations,” Garcia says.
During that first online meeting, something remarkable happened—the group’s perspectives revealed much deeper and wider purposes for coming together, an opportunity that the original purpose of distributing funds couldn’t have encompassed on its own.
“Group members had radically different perspectives,” True says. “There were perspectives around, ‘We just need our voices elevated,’ there were perspectives around, ‘We need seats of power and representation,’ there were voices that were all around essential basic needs like food, rent. There was such a desire to learn, grow, and leverage each other’s knowledge. It was pretty amazing.”
It rapidly became clear that while distributing the $350,000 in funding was part of the project, it wasn’t enough. The real anti-racist work that could be done, as gathered leaders posed, was to give the powerful group the Community Foundation had assembled a long-term seat at the table.
But they weren’t just given a seat. They were given the table.
Two meetings turned into two meetings per month on an ongoing basis. The group was recently able to have their first in-person gathering.
“To have transcended the limits of tech and to form heart connections with people I’ve never met in person says something about the spirit of this work,” says member MariaElena de la Garza, Executive Director of the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County (CAB), which works to eliminate poverty and create social change. “It shows where we are as a community. I know them, trust them, love them, and feel connected to them—that’s huge. And I know they have my back. They have my back like I have theirs.”
Defining a Movement
Rise Together’s structure—bringing BILPOC leaders together, and ensuring their voices were not only present, but had primary decision-making power and influence—could be a model for reenvisioning how philanthropy is done, how decisions for funding particular communities can be led by members of the communities they serve.
Building trust amongst all members of the circle was of the essence to ensure an equal and fair playing field. “Continuously cultivating trust amongst all 21 of us was essential for us to create shared goals, and will continue to be as we take action together,” Garcia says. Together, they identified five goals to guide their ongoing work around racial equity:
- Increase upward economic mobility and sustainable local career pathways for current and next generation leaders of color and community networks.
- Amplify, value, celebrate, and preserve people of color’s stories, arts, culture, and community events.
- Change policies, structures, and systems at the root level with people of color-led solutions, representation, and power to increase equity and anti-racist policy.
- Deliver essential services, address barriers, and build community capacity to fight racial disparities to improve well-being for people of color to prosper.
- Continuously give and grow sustained funding for communities of color.
With their purpose articulated, Rise Together grew into a powerhouse of an initiative. “The experience of building Rise Together allowed for new things,” de la Garza says. “Opportunities many of us had never had before. The space was safe enough to talk about discomfort, hesitation and excitement about being given a new opportunity no one had ever given me before. There’s beauty in that.”
A New Kind of Space
Some of “the circle,” as they call it, are locally famous names: former Santa Cruz mayor Justin Cummings, Cat Willis of the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center and Black Health Matters, Jacob Martinez of Digital NEST. Others are emerging leaders, including Ashlyn N. Adams, who serves on the Justice And Gender county commission, and is Interim Co-Director and Youth Program Coordinator at the Diversity Center of Santa Cruz County; and Helen Aldana, President of Senderos and Outreach Coordinator at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.
“Stacey was very welcoming,” says Aldana, who received a grant to fund Senderos, a nonprofit to create pathways to success for the Latinx community. “She welcomed me into the group, even as I was having doubts, like, ‘Am I a leader?’ She said, ‘Yes, you are, join the group.’ By them making the space for us to do that was a lot, because the initial email was a funding opportunity to invest in community-led solutions.”
Aldana recalls the moment when things shifted from the original vision of distributing a set amount of funds. “The whole cohort, the whole group just responded, saying this needs to be a long-term relationship, a long-term investment. We can’t just distribute $350,000 in two meetings. That’s been the problem to begin with—acting in urgent ways when there are urgent matters. We need to address impacts of Covid and racism by doing anti-racist work, and that’s investing time and energy into these organizations and people. That shifted the tone of the meeting, and a year and three months later we’re still talking and building these steps: What can people do to make these changes? How can the Community Foundation invest in this type of work and the things we do?”
Aldana was impressed that the Community Foundation was immediately onboard.
“They had agency to say, ‘No we are not gonna do that.’ They could easily have said no. And they said, ‘Okay, we’ll keep going.’”
Rise Together members collaboratively created a safe space to “focus on what leaders of colors were experiencing,” says de la Garza. Rise Together seeks to address the “impact of the pandemic on organizations being led by and that service people of color, bringing us together in action around issues of equity,” de la Garza says. She also points to another layer—“the subtle layer,” as she calls it. “The Community Foundation created a space where leaders of color were seen and heard in ways that had not been available to us.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by several leaders in the circle. Ruby Vasquez, founder of the Watsonville Campesino Appreciation Caravan, Assistant Director of Mexican folkloric dance group Estrellas del Valle, and the founder of the kids’ folkloric dance group Estrellas de Esperanza, recalls the experience of being invited in.
“I went to the first meeting and it was a great group of people [the Community Foundation] brought together,” she says. “I was born and raised in Watsonville, and never had the opportunity to be involved with a group primarily made of people of color. As an educator and in other things I am involved with, folks of color tend to be not present, not invited to the table. It was awesome to be in that virtual space with Black leaders in our county I had never met before. We’ve grown together as a group and gotten to know each other and the passion we all have to support the community.”
Putting the Fun in Funding
With a shared decision-making process, Rise Together’s members weren’t beholden to traditional paperwork-heavy, impersonal grant-writing. Organizations could submit video, slides, a presentation—a process validating to nonprofits that don’t have the staff and resources to engage in complex, institutional grant-writing processes. Members shared their proposals with the group, and funding decisions were made together. Ultimately, each proposal got the requested amount, with $27,000 left over to invest in future grants.
Vasquez was surprised and impressed in how applications for funding were approached. “When I read the application could be a writeup—a paragraph, a page—or a video or slide presentation about what you want and what you’d do with it, I thought, ‘It’d be dumb not to apply for this money!’ I applied for the Campesino Appreciation Caravan and children’s dance group Estrellas de Esperanza. Both got funded. It was so validating. Somebody finally was validating and recognizing that in order to do [most grant applications] you need a person dedicating their time to doing it. So many participating in Rise Together don’t have that.”
The Community Foundation received new contributions that allowed for a total of $423,000 combined in grants and toward continued sustained funding.
“It’s amazing,” says Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center founder Cat Willis. “This is historic because, as we know, on a national scale community-based organizations have been chronically under-resourced. That’s been part of the system of how white supremacy works. For all of us, coming into the same room and sharing stories, and the Community Foundation to be in the circle with us and privy to our stories—it’s historic in my eyes. We are really shifting here. It’s a different model, a different conversation. You can write a million grants, but it isn’t the same thing when you walk into an organization on a Saturday afternoon and to see what an organization is. That level of understanding, that’s been significant.”
Over a year since its inception, the Rise Together group is official, with the newly launched website risetogetherscc.org encapsulating their mission, telling their stories, and offering ways to take action and donate. The “Team” page features Rise Together’s members’ portraits by local photographer Devi Pride along with bios that don’t merely list accomplishments but properly narrate their stories and visions.
While for some of the leaders, having a headshot and bio was de rigueur, for others, such as de la Garza, it was a first.
“I’ve never been given the opportunity and investment to write my bio,” she says. “For someone else what may have been normal business, business as usual…that’s investment in our leadership.”
Along with de la Garza, Vasquez notes how what could be hegemonically perceived as seemingly minor details make a large difference and represent the way everything in Rise Together is conducted.
“It just so happens I have the logo in front of me because they gave us stickers the other day,” she says during our call, in response to a question about how the circle operates. “Even the logo was a group effort. It wasn’t someone at the foundation saying, ‘there’s the logo.’ Everybody had input. We got the first draft and said, ‘No it’s not conveying what the group is about.’ They got more input and it’s what we have now. It’s things like that. People may think it’s a little thing, but as a member, I want to really identify with that logo. Something as little as that was huge.”
Whether creating a logo or engaging the process of giving grants to fellow members’ organizations, everything Rise Together does results from collaboration, elevated to a level of visible systemic change.
If the work sounds serious and challenging, it is also approached joyfully. Anti-racist work, as Rise Together demonstrates, doesn’t mean it can’t also be done in that spirit, True points out. “There is such a joy about supporting each other and dreaming of this community. That is super special given how hard these conversations are. People are afraid to have these conversations. But what if we deeply connect? What if change and growth is through relationship? What if trust creates the foundation for us to do better? Humans grow in relationship.”
The underlying themes of trust and relationship-building emerge again and again in the Rise Together story. Reflecting on the journey so far and his own participation, Justin Cummings appreciates the group being able to take the time to get to know one another, and “that the foundation wasn’t only like, ‘We are gonna give you money’ but rather, ‘How can we get better about giving?’ We set trust with one another. People doing this work came from families in which they were instilled with values around helping your community. That’s why all of us so strongly came together to support communities that are disadvantaged in our county.”
As Rise Together celebrates its official launch, first round of grants awarded, and accomplishments with an event featuring performances by Estrellas de Esperanza and the TWDCC at the Community Foundation’s Aptos headquarters the evening of Friday, July 23rd, a new stage of the initiative is only just beginning. The collaborative effort has come so much farther than founding members could have imagined going in. It’s become a movement, and, if it catches on nationally, could even become a model.
“The commitment to emerging leaders of color means it doesn’t end with us,” de la Garza says. “The ripple gets bigger and bigger. To me, that’s legacy work. That’s systemic change and legacy work that will impact the children of the children of the children of the people that we serve.”
Read the full list and stories of Rise Together members and find out how to contribute at https://www.risetogetherscc.org.