Coalition-building with Intentionality: Reflections on PCN 2015

Participating in the PolicyLink Equity Summit 2015 through the People of Color Network of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) brought so many of my worlds together, and I am forever thankful for the opportunity. I originally learned about the conference a few months before first learning about EPIP, and I was drawn to the fact that so many activists, academics and leaders dedicating their lives to uplifting communities across the country would be under one roof. Not only was I intrigued by the idea of exchanging ideas and best practices with visionaries working in education, health, gender equity, community development, and in other fields, but I was also impressed by PolicyLink’s larger commitment, which served to anchor us all for three October days in Los Angeles: “…PolicyLink has focused attention on people and communities, boldly and effectively using local, state, and national policy to improve conditions in low-income communities and communities of color and empowering residents to engage and provide insight and leadership.” I knew I could walk away from this collaborative space with practical tools to apply to my evolving professional environment back in New York.

When I initially learned about EPIP, I did not have any previous foundation experience. Philanthropy was a field I was considering moving into after five years of expanding high-quality education options for young people from historically underserved communities. I wanted to learn about the ways issues I care about are traditionally funded by foundations in the U.S., as well as the opportunities one could dive into to bust these traditions wide open. My curiosity about the “why?” behind social issues that get overlooked and the “how?” behind where foundation dollars could potentially be shifted to in the future drove me to seek a resource network.  Even if philanthropy wasn’t going to be part of my own professional next step, I at least understood its undeniable imprint on the equity work I pursued. After digging a bit deeper and coming across the People of Color Network under the EPIP umbrella, I recognized this forum as one where I could both get an introduction to the field and do so alongside experienced peers who shared social justice as the core driver of their work and who were unafraid to have open and at times, uncomfortable, conversations about power, oppression and privilege. It was a fitting time then, literally and figuratively, to join the PCN delegation of EPIP-affiliated individuals dedicated to advancing racial and social equity to the PolicyLink Equity Summit.

Upon arriving at the Summit, I made a point of seeking out workshops that covered topics I wasn’t completely familiar with yet. I attended sessions that covered issues including: advocating for policy change, eliminating the racial wealth gap, expanding opportunities for girls and women of color, the BlackLivesMatter movement, and utilizing social media campaigns for social good. I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the sessions I attended were packed to the brim with participants who were either new to the sub-field, or who were more versed and held a desire to exchange best practices with peers. Beyond the workshop content itself, I was consistently amazed by the diversity in each room across lines of gender, race, age and geography.

However, as excited and fired up as I was to learn what change-makers were doing on the ground, I couldn’t help but think about the internal barriers that hold our collective and individual efforts back (and this inner dialogue honestly happens during any large gathering dedicated to matters of social justice and equity). Of course there are the obvious enemies we identify in the nation’s conservative leaders and policymakers, but what about the more insidious ways folks, some of whom are even at the proverbial table, detract from us bringing an equitable society into existence? Can I assume that I want the same for my community as the person sitting next to me, or that we would even agree on how to achieve that vision? Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in my thinking. Panelists in the closing plenary, “Building a Multiracial, Multigenerational Equity Movement,” shed light on these very questions.

Of the eight or so panelists on stage for the final session, Linda Sarsour, from the Arab American Association of New York and Nick Tilsen, from the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, particularly struck me with their no holds-barred reflections on coalition-building across lines of difference. Linda observed that some of the most prominent threats to movement building “…can be folks who look like us.” Later on in the panel discussion, Nick poignantly shared that “partnership moves at the speed of trust.” While I did not come away from that session with concrete answers to removing barriers in whatever ‘movement’ space I occupy, I also realized I didn’t need to. The larger message for me was to always employ intentionality to build and strengthen connections, and not to take a shared mission or shared membership for granted. There is beauty in working towards a socially and racially just society alongside or on behalf of people from different backgrounds. However, this intersectionality becomes counter-productive if differences in identity, in mindset or in approach, are not openly discussed or challenged. This intentionality (a re-framing of sorts compared to how I have worked in the past) is a tool I plan to incorporate into my fieldwork supporting communities of color moving forward; the stakes are too high not to!

|Lucia Mattox