Change the narrative; change the world

Dear Partners:

As 2018 draws to a close, I am filled with hope. Despite headlines that offer a daily reminder that our democratic institutions and values are under attack, there is a rising tide of courageous leaders fighting voter suppression to achieve representation that reflects what our country actually looks like. Women of color running and winning in political races, from city council to the U.S. Congress, are at an all-time high. We see people from every walk of life, from students to faith leaders to restaurant workers, standing up and speaking out.

As a long-time democracy funder, we know these are extraordinary times. There is a struggle underway in America and around the world as a battle between opposing worldviews unfolds daily. On one side is an emerging nation of incredible diversity and vitality. On the other, a white nationalist social movement that preys on the fears and anxieties of white people, who believe that prosperity is a finite resource that can’t be shared; that their identities, their culture, and their rights are at risk.

At the root of this is a narrative—that imagines a brutal fight over limited resources and a growing belief that “for my people to win, other people have to lose.” It’s no wonder that a recent Democracy Project poll showed that 68 percent of Americans believe democracy is getting weaker, and this lack of confidence in democratic governments is a global phenomenon experienced in the U.S., Israel, and around the world.

With democracy under siege, its defenders are mobilizing at unprecedented levels. Our partners are calling out corruption, fighting for an end to unjust actions like separating families at the border, and putting forward visionary solutions like the Green New Deal.

As a social justice funder, we keep a close eye on the forces undermining democracy like the unchecked concentration of corporations. Our partners, like Open Markets Institute, are standing up to monopoly power and the damaging impacts it is having on everything from growing inequality, stagnating wages, and worker rights to the decline of journalism, spread of hate speech and disinformation, and the rise of political division. It is clear from Facebook’s recent efforts to publicly smear critics like Color Of Change and Freedom from Facebook, which Open Markets co-founded, that they are surfacing issues that giant companies like Google and Facebook would rather have go unnoticed. Our partners are rejecting the story that these monopolies are the only way to have prosperity when, in fact, it is these monopolies that keep prosperity from so many.

Other forces threaten to undermine democracy. At our November board meeting, we reviewed the disturbing history of white supremacy and how it strategically works to weaken black and brown power. Our board member Tricia Rose, chancellor’s professor of Africana studies and the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University, offered a close reading of Lee Atwater’s infamous 1981 “Southern Strategy” interview. She reminded us that white supremacist ideologies are deeply rooted narratives in our history and our systems, and are at the very heart of our nation’s power struggle. President Trump is not the exception, but rather an extension of a 50-year project to make the fabric of American culture rife with racial animus and to weaponize our political systems against marginalized communities to deny their political participation, and to criminalize and oppress them. We must challenge these narratives.

Tricia Rose guides a close reading of Lee Atwater’s infamous ‘Southern Strategy’ interview. 

If we want to change the world, we need to change the narrative. Narratives are how we make sense of the world. They give us meaning. They shape the conversations, show the contours of what is possible and focus our attention, dictating which problems are addressed and which solutions are on the table for consideration.

To make meaningful progress, we have to be clear about what we are up against, as well as have the courage to critique both outside forces and problematic impulses in our own communities to cultivate critical thinking. We need to join forces at unprecedented levels — deepening our practice of radical solidarity to stand strong against the forces of oppression. And, we need a narrative, a compelling story about our values that gives us motivation. This is how we make democracy durable.

NCF has long believed that narrative and culture change precede policy change, and we focused on the concept and power of narrative change at our recent board meeting. We heard from our partners and leaders in the field, who are pushing back against nationalist narratives here and in Israel, about how culture can be used as a tool for positive narrative change. Ashley Clark, a film programmer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), added to our understanding of the damaging narratives we are trying to transform through an analysis of one of the first blockbuster films The Birth of a Nation (1915), which created the blueprint for stereotypes about black people that are still in circulation 100 years later. He emphasized the need for critics, curators, and the people who invest in media to ensure that contemporary discourse around image-making is informed by history and done with rigor to hold those in power accountable and challenge the seductive power of problematic pop culture.

We explored how celebrating the building of black and brown power is a direct challenge to toxic narratives. Cristina Tzintzún, executive director of Jolt, explained how the organization builds the political power and influence of young Latinas and Latinos in Texas by engaging them through a culture they know and love, making the milestone of quinceañeras not only coming-of-age rituals but also a sign of coming into their political strength. The stunning images of young women in their quinceañera dresses protesting on the steps of the Texas Capitol and making their voices heard epitomizes the power of narrative, both verbal and visual.

Rahwa Ghirmatzion (from left), Mickey Gitzen, Ashley Clark, and Cristina Tzintzun discuss how culture can be used as a tool for positive narrative change. 

We had a moving and provocative conversation with our board about the white nationalist terror attack in Pittsburgh and the threat that the growing white nationalist movement is posing to building a multiracial democracy. We heard from partners who are exposing how anti-Semitism and racism are intertwined in these ideologies and talked about the necessity of building deeper solidarity across targeted communities.

Executive Director of the Western States Center Eric Ward emphasized the importance of leaders of all backgrounds drawing clear, moral barriers against anti-Semitism, racism, and all forms of oppression. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which has a legacy in the Jewish community of responding to hate and violence against all people, discussed the rise of hate crimes. Dove Kent, former executive director for Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, who was on the ground in Pittsburgh supporting the community to mourn, heal, and organize a collective response, spoke about the need for an interlocking strategy of challenging white nationalism’s targeting of Jewish Americans and challenging the way some members of the Jewish community hold up white supremacy.

Another speaker was Tarso Ramos, executive director of Political Research Associates, a research and training organization that has studied white nationalist social movements for decades and offers trainings and convenings to progressive activists to deepen our movement’s collective analysis. All of these approaches came together to powerfully remind us that anti-Semitism is a very real problem, and, for many, it was an awakening to the ways it intersects with other forms of oppression and how we can fight back together.

Jonathan Greenblatt (from left), Eric Ward, Dove Kent, and Tarso Ramos joined us to discuss the growing threat of white nationalism and their work to fight all forms of oppression.

We are using our moral voice to stand up to damaging narratives and to seed ones that unify rather than divide. I recently spoke in Pittsburgh at the Heinz Endowments’ “Nonprofits and the Call to Moral Leadership: The Courage to Act” gathering, where I talked about how we can show up and stand up for one another, in radical solidarity. As I said then, “To build a just and democratic society, we have to take the long view. We don’t jump from election cycle to election cycle or headline to headline. We fund efforts to shape narratives, not just react to them. We invest in the poets and prophets, faith leaders, cultural strategists and artists who shape how we view the world, who articulate our shared values and humanity, and who can change hearts and minds.”

You can see this in action by reviewing our recently approved grants. In November, we approved 51 grants, totaling $16 million in multiyear funding for this year and next across our integrated framework. You can learn more at our new website about what our partners will do to ignite social movements and push narrative evolution at the intersection of faith, politics, culture, and justice.

At NCF, we are committed to use all our tools to support the work of our partners, including our voice to stand up for our values and our influence to bring more resources to the field. This new website will give us a more powerful way to share what we are learning and highlight the impact of our partners’ work. We want to be clear about the issues we’re advancing, the people who are leading this work, and the future we’re building together.

We also made important decisions about the future of our work in Israel. Today, Israel is facing many of the same threats to democracy we see here. For decades, our work there has advanced progressive values of religious pluralism, nurtured social and economic equality, strengthened the environmental field, built prospects for peace and shared society, and advanced women’s leadership. Our board affirmed that defending democracy in Israel is central to our identity as a progressive funder, and we see the potential for deeper integration and shared learning between our work in the U.S. and in Israel. We’ll have more details about how we’ll move forward with our work there early in 2019.

Our board’s resolve and alignment across generations has never been stronger. At our most recent meeting, we voted to elect our first fourth-generation leader, Jaimie Mayer, to be our next chair of the board beginning in April. Jaimie will succeed Ruth Cummings, who has led the board for the last three years and has made significant contributions to our work. Under Ruth’s leadership, the board approved the integrated framework for our program focus areas and acted to align 100 percent of NCF’s endowment with our mission for greater impact in using all of the tools at our disposal. Multigenerational leadership — as reflected by passing the torch from Ruth to Jaimie — is recognized as one of our greatest assets, particularly as we know that the work we fund takes time and as we balance the urgency of now with the long-term changes our partners are fighting for.

As we head into 2019, the struggle continues. Now more than ever, funders need to show up – with every resource available – to protect democracy. We need to use all of our voices to drown out the damaging and destructive narratives, and turn up the volume on the stories that will show us the way forward. Rest assured that we at NCF are standing right beside you.

On behalf of everyone at NCF, I extend our deepest appreciation for the important work you do every single day. And in this holiday season, as the new year approaches, we hope you each find time for rest, reflection, joy, and rejuvenation with the ones you love and those we are fighting for.

With gratitude,

Sharon Alpert
President & CEO
Nathan Cummings Foundation