Breaking the “Fourth Wall” of Philanthropy

Imani Franklin is a recent graduate of Stanford University and a Tom Ford Fellow in Philanthropy at the Ford Foundation. Imani joined us on our fall Food Justice Van Tour.

I lived in Black Atlanta growing up, and when the only grocery store in my zip code shut down, I started to understand what “food justice” meant. I understood that there were single mothers down the street who worked multiple low-wage jobs and, in a city with an embarrassingly ineffective public transportation system, would have only Popeyes and McDonalds as accessible options for daily meals. What I did not understand was whether anything was being done to address this crisis of public health and mass dependence on low-quality corporate chains for sustenance.

I recently moved to New York to begin working with a social justice foundation. Reading grant proposals from behind a computer screen, I often feel detached from local movements for social change and the people who fuel them. I’ve been wanting to get a better sense of what work is being done in this city around food justice and other issues I care deeply about. 

North Star Fund’s Food Justice Van Tour allowed me to break through the “fourth wall,” penetrating the boundaries traditionally set up in philanthropy in order to engage face-to-face with the activists and community leaders who remind me why I’m doing this work in the first place. I learned for the first time that food justice is about more than equitable access to food across income levels. It’s concerned with the sustainability of the food industry as a system, given rising population growth and falling democratization in food production. It’s concerned with the rights of workers in the food system, as 6 of the 10 lowest paying jobs in the U.S. are in the restaurant industry, with nearly 1 in 12 private sector workers working in the industry.

Most importantly, what I gained from this van tour was a shift in perspective. I often find myself falling into the patronizing logic of, “Oh, the poor black and brown people and their lack of the most basic resources that mainstream white America takes for granted. They need help.” The van tour reminded me to understand such communities as active agents with the capacity to instigate their own change. I heard from a man who was formerly incarcerated and now co-runs the organization Milk Not Jails, simultaneously helping strengthen economic opportunity for rural dairy farmers and disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline in his working class Brooklyn neighborhood. I was inspired by a mom who helped build a community farm in a previously empty lot outside her child’s school, and pushed for the school to supply healthy lunches for students from the garden’s crops.

I realized that my vocabulary of “marginalized” and “disempowered” for describing low-income communities of color must be expanded. Members of these communities are, in equal part, central and powerful in progressing social change from the ground up. What they do need, however, is funding to leverage and scale their strategies for change, and that is where many of us have an important role to play.

To learn more about North Star Fund’s donor program, click here.


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