At the Campaign for Southern Equality, we’ve been saying for a long time that grassroots leaders have the potential to transform the South – but they need the funding and support to sustain and amplify their efforts. Indeed, that belief is foundational to why we created our Southern Equality Fund.
Grassroots organizers are doing great work – but too often when they seek funding, they are turned away because they don’t have 501(c)(3) status. The current system of funding just isn’t designed to support power-building at the grassroots level, and while limited funding hasn’t stopped queer grassroots organizers, imagine what might be possible if we could remove this structural barrier to funding for those on the frontlines of this work.
That’s why in early July, the Campaign for Southern Equality and the Southern Vision Alliance, with support from the Out in the South Fund, united for an in-person convening of the Southern Movement Infrastructure Exchange, a new collaborative initiative dedicated to growing and strengthening a network of responsive, values-aligned fiscal sponsors and other intermediaries to grow, connect, and leverage their resources to fuel grassroots-led movements.
The convening took place from July 11-14 at the Highlander Center in New Market, TN. We asked several of the attendees and organizers – Chloe Stuber and Wynston Sanders of the Campaign for Southern Equality and Loan Tran of the Southern Vision Alliance – to debrief the convening and share what they learned. Take a look!
Q: Can you share some of the background on the Southern Movement Infrastructure Exchange, responsible and values-aligned fiscal sponsorship, and how this convening came to fruition?
CHLOE STUBER: The SMIE has been brewing for a little over two years, and for CSE it emerged through work from the Southern Equality Fund. Grassroots partners were sharing with us that they had been successful in being in touch with funders and being invited to apply for larger grants – but they were then confronted with this barrier of not having access to fiscal sponsorship or 501(c)(3) status. Navigating this with partners and trying to connect them with fiscal sponsors has been a messy and frustrating process – just to get the funding to them that they deserve.
The Southern Vision Alliance has also been focused on building grassroots power, and one of the things that they do is provide fiscal sponsorship and supportive services, which carries the administrative burden and removes that barrier for grassroots leaders, especially youth leaders and communities of color and queer and trans leaders. We started talking about what would it look like for there to be more support for grassroots leaders from fiscal sponsors, intermediaries, and anyone who has power and resources that they can leverage to support work being done at the grassroots level, without making grassroots leaders jump through all of these hoops.
The current reality is that a lot of leaders on the front lines – they’re paying for the work out of pocket, and they’re often having to work more than full time in other jobs to support not only themselves but also the work that they’re doing. This is a project that confronts that reality and acknowledges that that is not sustainable and that there are better ways to support folks doing this work.
We were given a planning grant from the Out in the South Fund to research this question further, and that ultimately is what ended up being the SMIE, where we’re looking at not only what it would look like to have more values-aligned fiscal sponsorship in the South, but also what is a better system that centers grassroots leaders and builds power at the grassroots level and which may take place outside of the 501(c)(3) structure.
The SMIE is all about figuring out how we meet grassroots leaders where they are and help resource them to do what they do best.
Q: How does this project connect to the Southern Equality Fund and the work going on there to build grassroots power and leadership?
WYNSTON SANDERS: Grassroots leaders who want to apply to the Southern Equality Fund don’t need 501(c)(3) status to apply, which can be a big help to local groups. Even though the funds distributed through SEF are low, they help out and don’t require the need for fiscal sponsorship. At the same time, there are some grassroots groups that are pursuing larger grants – and often, the foundations that are giving out these bigger grants or that are rooted in traditional philanthropy require 501(c)(3) status to even be considered for a grant. The SMIE fits into the Southern Equality Fund model because we’re helping to brainstorm ways that grassroots leaders can take that next step with larger grants.
Q: Tell us more about the convening in early July 2019. What went on in these conversations about fiscal sponsorship and redirecting resources and power to grassroots partners?
CHLOE: Over 13 groups and organizations were represented, with the majority of those being grassroots leaders. We also had folks there from outside of the South that are working on a national level. There were established nonprofits like CSE and SVA, what we termed “resource leveragers,” or folks who are leveraging their power to resource the grassroots. And we also had funders in the room.
There was a lot of scheming and dreaming to paint this vision – what does a better movement infrastructure mean? Where are the gaps? Where does it fail? And what is the work going forward? What are we going to do about it, and how? And who’s going to be with us? That’s the gist of what the convening was for, and we left with an action plan that looks at the wildest dream scenarios. We explored what’s the long-term vision was that we’re working toward, what the current reality is, what the current barriers are, and also what the current assets are. That’s one of the things that was really inspiring at the convening – discussing and realizing that the South has a lot among ourselves, maybe not necessarily in funding, but other types of resources, like the strength of our relationships and the resources that exist outside of money.
There was a lot of scheming and dreaming to paint this vision – what does a better movement infrastructure mean? Where are the gaps? Where does it fail? And what is the work going forward? What are we going to do about it, and how? And who’s going to be with us?” – Chloe Stuber
The plan forward is to look at what the questions are that we need to answer, who else we need to bring into this work to engage, what we need to create, and what we need to provide.
WYNSTON: One of my favorite parts of the convening was that we brought in Cenzontle to provide translation and interpretation throughout the convening. This rethinking around economic justice for grassroots groups was happening in action with the Language Justice work that we have been focused on at CSE, too. To be able to remove the communications barrier for Spanish speakers seemed like a step in the right direction. It was another good way of looking at how to do things different.
Q: What were some of the most inspiring moments of the Convening for you?
WYNSTON: For me, it was being able to connect with folks who I had heard of or not, and having time to be in community with them and build relationships. In the South, grassroots organizers don’t frequently get the time to connect and spend time in the way you’d think – the states look small on a map, but it’s not as easy to get together.
We did a superhero activity among all of the organizations that were there – what are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What are your allies? What is your kryptonite? We did breakout sessions on what is fiscal sponsorship and what happens when we stop asking for money? It was cool to see the conversation about how deeply ideas of capitalism are rooted in our society, and then to throw in some ideas for combating that. We brainstormed everything from what is super ideal to what is super practical, and we saw that there are different ways to stop asking for money and instead connect it with folks who need it.
CHLOE: Like Wynston said, we of course talked about the very immediate needs and realities, and that’s that people need money. That is a fact, and that is still the case. But we also want to push outside of the box that we’ve been given – 501(c)(3) structure, philanthropy, and the nonprofit industrial complex. The idea to “stop asking for money” is about a shift in belief in terms of who is deserving of money and who grants access to those funds. It’s about a return of resources to where they shouldn’t have been taken from in the first place.
So much of what happened at the convening felt like the hard work of continuing to transform our relationships to each other in service of a different, beautifully queer world, outside of the scripts given to us.” – Loan Tran
LOAN: I feel like we had some pretty revelatory moments about the different roles we play and about how we can work together to build solidarity for each other’s roles instead of assigning value judgements. We recognize that there so many barriers to the power building efforts our communities take on – especially LGBTQ folks of color. These barriers can be really discouraging, but if we can remain grounded and clear about the future we want for our people, especially in the South – housing, healthcare, joy, livelihood, just to name a few – we can flip these barriers on their head by creating more and more opportunities to connect with each other in authentic ways. So much of what happened at the convening felt like the hard work of continuing to transform our relationships to each other in service of a different, beautifully queer world, outside of the scripts given to us. The power dynamics are still there, there’s no doubt about that. But I felt like we made some true attempts of stepping into a different kind of power, which is the power of the collective, of all of us leveraging what we’ve got and figuring out how to give each other what we need.
Q: The convening was held at the Highlander Center, which has a pretty iconic history in terms of mobilizing forward-thinking leaders in the social justice space. What was it like to host this type of conversation there?
WYNSTON: Amazing is the word that comes, but I can’t really put into words what it was like for me especially. This is the first time I was at the Highlander – I had only heard of it until right before it was the subject of a tragic attack and fire a few months ago. But knowing that I was on sacred ground of ancestors before me and knowing a bit of the history of it, that MLK and Rosa Parks and other badass folks that shook the system were there prior to me getting there, that was amazing. It was even more amazing being with these awesome grassroots organizers that are willing to do the same thing. I really hold that as special, as a person who has been in the grassroots organizing space.
Knowing that I was on sacred ground of ancestors before me … that MLK and Rosa Parks and other badass folks that shook the system were there, that was amazing. It was even more amazing being with these awesome grassroots organizers that are willing to do the same thing.” – Wynston Sanders
CHLOE: We often say we’re at the start of something – but nothing is really new, truly. We’re always building off of a legacy. The Highlander Center has for a long time been modeling what else is possible, and so it was inspiring to have this conversation there, in such a sacred place.
LOAN: It’s always wonderful being able to have these conversations at Highlander. The physical space and land itself, the ability to look out into the rolling miles of the Blue Ridge mountains and Appalachia feels like the perfect kind of symbolism. Highlander allows more and more of us to really take the leap to look far ahead into the future and fight for that future.
CSE: Chloe, you recently started a job with the City of Charleston as a city planner. How is what you’ve learned from this Southern Movement Infrastructure Exchange work going to inform your new work?
CHLOE: One of the things that came up a lot is that in this movement infrastructure – the aspirational one that is better and more effective and centers grassroots leadership – there are so many different roles. We don’t just need what you think of as a grassroots organizer or a campaign/field organizer or what have you. We need movement lawyers, we need movement accountants, we need movement lifeguards! We need movement planners, which is what I’m doing now, for the City of Charleston. We need everyone to be plugged in, and formal roles or titles aside, at the bottom of the core of everything is our relationship with each other. I see myself as very much a part of this movement infrastructure that we’re hoping to support and grow, and I’m excited that it has room for so many different roles and needs.
Q: So what’s next for the Southern Movement Infrastructure Exchange?
CHLOE: We are now in the process of confirming a working group that will work together over the next six months to answer some of these questions that have come up at this convening, and engage some of the groups that weren’t there. It will culminate in a report of some sort, some concrete resources and tools that can be shared, and a plan of action moving forward. We’ll be looking at who and in what way will carry this forward.
WYNSTON: There was a really strong group of folks who participated in this who deeply care about their community, and they don’t just care about their immediate community; they care about everyone in this fight, especially at the grassroots level. It’s amazing that these folks don’t want to see anyone left behind, and they truly mean that. You don’t necessarily see that a lot, and for me personally, that was really great to witness. It was like this whole idea of, ‘Let’s figure out how we get to eat, and also how everyone else gets to eat, all at once.” We have to figure out how everyone’s going to eat.
LOAN: The process of building toward SMIE has been really rooted in allowing ourselves to be curious about what else is possible. So when I think about what’s next for SMIE, I just feel really excited that we’re giving ourselves a chance to continue to be curious with each other.
CHLOE: One way folks can immediately engage is that – whatever you’re doing to move resources to the grassroots – we want to know what are your strategies and tools are for getting resources to the grassroots level. To share, please take this survey to share your thoughts and to be kept in the loop as this project develops.
Q: Any last thoughts?
CHLOE: I can share a mantra that we came up with at last year’s Resource Mobilization Team retreat that feels central to what we’re doing with SMIE. “What do we need? Each other. We are all that we need.”