Grassroots organizations in Alabama saved the day despite lack of foundation support

Written by: Ryan Schlegel

Date: December 14, 2017

Tuesday night Alabama voters accomplished something many political observers thought impossible. The historic outcome of this year’s special election for Alabama senator is a victory for progressive causes – the current Congress will have a harder time eviscerating the social safety net.

LaTosha Brown and Shun Sheffield on election day in Alabama. Used with permission of LaTosha Brown.

LaTosha Brown and Shun Sheffield on election day in Alabama. Used with permission of LaTosha Brown.

But it is also a victory for the black women-led voter registration and mobilization movement in Alabama that has been working against stiff headwinds for months – decades, really – to ensure democracy prevails in a state with some of the most onerous barriers to voting in the country, as noted in The New York Times and The Atlantic. And it is worth reflecting on, in the afterglow of an encouraging victory, why that movement and others like it across the South have struggled for decades to secure the philanthropic resources they need to thrive.

The results of the election warrant more analysis in the days and weeks to come, but one take-away that ought to dominate headlines is: Early data suggest that Black voter turnout for the Dec. 12 election may have exceeded that of the most recent presidential elections in Alabama, including in 2012 when a Black presidential candidate was on the ballot. This is despite well-documented, brazen, coordinated efforts by Alabama legislators to suppress Black electoral participation.

As eyes turn toward mid-term elections in 2018, and as reactionary politicians across the country continue to threaten universal franchise by assaulting the integrity of our democratic process, the philanthropic sector needs to wake up to the building momentum behind pro-democracy civic participation work across the country, especially those efforts led by communities of color and in the South. The time to invest in democracy is now, and Southern leadership is showing us the way.

A network of formal and informal organizations drove this trend at the grassroots level in Alabama – delivering historic electoral participation in their state and shifting the balance of power in very real ways at the national level. A mix of 501(c)3 and (c)4 organizations, these networks comprise a landscape of a pro-democracy civic participation movement that is unique to the South, as ABC News and AL.com reported.

Their collaboration is built on decades-old relationships between individual leaders and organizations alongside an array of new and emerging players. The network is built, in many places, on faith infrastructure. The network draws explicitly on tactics and messaging from the Civil Rights Movement that was born in the same communities 75 years ago. And the network is led predominantly by Black women leaders who are from Alabama.

Some of the key actors:

This network proved again the viability of its strategies and its leadership in this month’s election. And yet NCRP analysis of Foundation Center data suggests that these organizations and their peers across rural Alabama and the broader South receive pennies on every grantmaking dollar nationally.

Between 2010 and 2014, the Alabama Black Belt received $29 per capita in grantmaking dollars, compared to $451 per capita for the country at large. For every dollar per person foundations gave to benefit communities in New York City, they gave just over a penny per person for the Black Belt. And of the $29 per capita of funding that did make it to rural Alabama, just 17 cents, or 0.6 percent, of it was for work to expand democracy – that includes all 501(c)3 work to advance civic participation and voter registration.

Qualitative data collected as part of NCRP and Grantmakers for Southern Progress’s As the South Grows initiative indicate that foundations believe Southern communities lack infrastructure to build power – that they lack the capacity to succeed.

Southern leaders have long known that to be false. They have insisted it was false for years, they have demonstrated it is false by beating back regressive policies and politicians in their communities, but meager philanthropic investment in grassroots power-building and civic engagement in marginalized Southern communities has not changed. Why not?

As foundation leaders take heart in this week’s historic results in Alabama, they had better start taking a hard look at their own institutions to ask and answer that question.

Click here for information on Southern grassroots organizations who participated in the As the South Grows initiative.

Did we miss an organization who played a key role in this election? Comment and let us know!

Ryan Schlegel is NCRP’s senior research and policy associate. Follow @r_j_schlegel and @NCRP on Twitter.

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