Asa Johnson: Why I Give

I’ve seen grassroots organizing in action. North Star Fund is a foundation that ‘gets it.’ North Star is always thinking creatively and thoughtfully about how to do the best job supporting grassroots activism.

Just out of college, I worked for the Howard Dean campaign in New York State. We organized with groups like the Working Families Party.  Through them, the Campaign connected with smaller groups and local organizing efforts that brought more people into voting and electoral work.  I saw that people were out there organizing “the smaller fish,” and I began to see how effective the smaller fish could be when they got together.

After Howard Dean withdrew from the race, I started to work with a group of people from the Dean campaign on a political action committee called Downtown for Democracy.  We applied a grassroots focus to New York City’s neighborhoods. We were a handful of like-minded people that pulled together $20,000 to open an office in Brooklyn and actually have some positive impact. It showed me how far a dollar could go and what a small group of people could potentially accomplish.

My grandfather started the Johnson Family Foundation and I was a trustee pretty much from the get-go. One of the advisors we had during the creation process introduced me to Hugh Hogan, the executive director of North Star Fund. Together we laid out two areas of work where I wanted to direct some resources: (1) groups that integrate community organizing and get-out-the vote campaigns and (2) community media —both are necessary to a functioning grassroots participatory democracy.

Hugh and I started off by developing proposals in these two areas for the other foundation trustees. He suggested organizations that fit with my areas of interest and the Johnson Family Foundation’s mission and priorities.  As our donor advised fund partnership with North Star developed, we have also provided general operating support to help build North Star Fund’s capacity and support the activist-led grantmaking programs spearheaded by the Community Funding Committee.

Two grantees that North Star brought to my attention were People’s Production House (PPH), and the New York Vote Coalition of Jobs with Justice.

PPH does media training programs in marginalized neighborhoods. Even if the students don’t become journalists, PPH is still helping them to develop writing and critical thinking skills—making them more effective advocates within their communities.

And I admired how the groups that led the NY Vote Coalition—Make the Road NY, Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, the New York City AIDS Housing Coalition (now called VOCAL) among them—worked from within a community to set up a voter registration drives and voter awareness campaigns. One of the mistakes I learned on the Dean campaign was that you can’t send a thousand college kids wearing red hats into a community and expect them to build sustainable relationships and a commitment to exercising the vote. Instead, the NY Vote Coalition developed community leaders and organizers. The community-based partners trained people so that instead of trying to just get a bump for a specific election, you were building a much more sustainable framework that could work before, during and after a single election season.

I’ve been working with North Star Fund for six years at this point, and I’ve grown to hold the entire organization in great esteem. A one-on-one working relationship with Hugh has grown to a relationship with the broader North Star leadership.

At North Star, I get to realize my own version of the Warren Buffett/Bill Gates/Bloomberg Giving Pledge for billionaires. Concentrating huge amounts of wealth in single individuals is just not a very effective way to make the world better.  How many pairs of shoes can you wear each day? How many different buildings can you live in? Why not use your wealth to empower other people?

We need a better distribution of wealth. Social justice involves making people aware of what they can do to participate in the world around them and create change. North Star’s role in affecting my view of social change comes from the fact that they work so hard with groups that are very dedicated to their communities. North Star doesn’t go into communities and say, “Hey people, let’s organize.”  Instead, it’s a foundation that has a knack for finding the people who are already motivated and active, and then gives them the resources they need to go from being disenfranchised, afraid or angry, to being an effective  group of leaders who stand up to ensure that all communities have access to opportunities and resources for a better life.


tags: Donor Voices
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