By funding in the South, donors can help repair damage done by extraction of Southern wealth

Written by: Iimay Ho

Date: February 06, 2018

I was born and raised in North Carolina, and Southern values of community, hospitality and mutual aid run deep for me. Even though I no longer live in the South, its ways of being infuses my organizing.

I first learned what community organizing is through my internship with Southerners on New Ground (SONG) in 2008. SONG is a home for LGBTQ liberation across all lines of race, class, abilities, age, culture, gender and sexuality in the South.

After being steeped in Southern organizing, I was disappointed when I moved to Washington, D.C., and experienced firsthand many national advocacy organizations either ignoring the South entirely or only wanting to parachute in to push short-term, top-down campaigns that undermined the place-based, relationship-based organizing that already existed.

I experienced time and again people who identify as liberal and progressive disparaging the South, expressing contempt by using classist slurs like “rednecks and hillbillies,” dismissing any potential for transformation or power-building or writing off the entire region as a “lost cause” because of entrenched Republican control.

My stomach always twists in anger whenever I hear this rhetoric, which is rooted in racism and classism, and erases the power of Southern movement organizing – from the Civil Rights Movement to successful Alabama voter mobilization.

Unfortunately, this dismissal of the South is replicated in too many philanthropic spaces. That is why I was thrilled to see the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) and Grantmakers for Southern Progress issue their in-depth As the South Grows reports, making the case for why it so important for funders to make long-term investments in grassroots organizations in the South.

As they say in the introductory letter to the As the South Grows series: “Our new national reality of unified, reactionary antidemocratic government has been a reality for Southerners off and on for more than a generation. Therefore, national and non-Southern organizations have much to learn from their Southern counterparts.”

Many families’ wealth is tied to the legacy of the Southern slave economy, or to extractive fossil fuel industries that have devastated the South’s natural resources and harmed its communities.

A national community of progressive young people with wealth, my organization, Resource Generation, has an important role to play as proactive and just partners to Southern grassroots organizations on the frontlines of struggles for racial and economic justice today.

Funding in the South is one way to start to repair the harm caused through extracting wealth from the South, and, as individuals, we have more flexibility to give multi-year funding to support long-term capacity building.

The country’s largest foundations gave the equivalent of $41 funding per person in the Alabama Black Belt and Mississippi Delta – the Deep South – from 2010-2014. Compare this to the national funding rate of $451. Source: Foundation Center.

We can be part of reversing institutional philanthropy’s systemic disinvestment from the South. As this chart demonstrates, the South, and especially the Deep South, receive pennies to the dollar in charitable contributions when compared to funding in the North. 

One of our members, Olivia Woollam, is part of a family foundation that has been giving in the South for almost 80 years. Her great-grandfather moved to Louisiana and took advantage of the legacy of the plantation and slave economy in the 1900s that made sugar the backbone of the Louisiana economy.

Although he wasn’t from a planter background, as a white man he benefited from the existing sugar industry infrastructure to create one of the largest Coca-Cola franchises in the country. Olivia’s ancestor created the Rosamary Foundation because he recognized the importance of philanthropy staying in the South.

Today the Rosamary Foundation’s endowment is $52 million, and it grants $2-$3 million annually. The only requirement the foundation has on its giving is that it goes to organizations in the greater New Orleans area.

The foundation has established relationships and is able to fund local organizational leaders who represent and have the trust of the people they serve (which is one of the core “do’s” from NCRP’s recommendations of do’s and don’ts for funding in the South).

However, because of the lack of money coming into the South, especially now that the money that poured in to New Orleans post-Katrina is drying out, “there’s a sense of tenuousness and that we have to be really careful,” Olivia said. “That doesn’t lead to risk-taking in funding which is very in vogue with big foundations – funding early-stage visionary leaders.” 

Olivia also emphasized how, because there are no rules for philanthropy besides tax rules (unless they are restricted by the charter), every philanthropic institution is a site for potential organizing and change. Those who don’t fund in the South “are making a decision not to,” she said.

I’m proud to be a monthly donor for SONG, and I’d like to respond to Olivia’s call to action by increasing my giving to the Southern organizing I hold dear. Will you join me in incorporating a lens around solidarity with the South in your giving plan this year? NCRP’s list of resources and partners is a great place to start. 

Southern grassroots leaders have been making do with what they have and leading in innovative organizing – from bailouts to Moral Mondays to creating co-ops and alternative economic systems – for decades. They have shifted culture, consciousness and power on shoestring budgets.

I can only imagine the impact they would have if leaders had the resources to reach their full potential. I hope to be a part of a fundamental shift towards robustly funding Southern social justice organizing, because as the South transforms, so do we all.   

Iimay Ho is executive director of Resource Generation. Follow @iimayho and @ResourceGen on Twitter. Resource Generation has two chapters in the South: Raleigh-Durham and New Orleans. Reach out to their organizers (Yahya Alazrak and Kirin Kanakkanatt, respectively) if you’d like to get involved.

Photo by Jloranger, used under Creative Commons license.