Finding a Way, Blazing a Trail: A Foundation Learning How to Build and Share Power

Photo used with permission from The California Endowment

This guest blog, written by Tia Martinez, Forward Change, offers reflections related to a recent CSSP Learning, Equity, and Power (LEaP) session, “A Foundation’s Path to Power Building and Health Equity: Lessons from The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities Initiative.” Learn more about LEaP here and watch a recording of the session here.

Over 10 years beginning in 2010, The California Endowment (TCE) invested $1.75 billion, and partnered with 14 communities across California as well as many state-level organizations and alliances, on Building Healthy Communities (BHC), an innovative initiative to achieve more equitable health outcomes. BHC began as a traditional place-based initiative with foundation-defined results and outcomes, a focus on programming and service delivery, and a planning table that brought together residents, providers, and system leaders.  The table was tasked with creating community-level strategies to achieve four main goals: 1) Provide a health home for all children; 2) Reverse the childhood obesity epidemic; 3) Increase school attendance; and 4) Reduce youth violence. Over the course of a decade, this traditional place-based initiative evolved into something new and very different: a neighborhood-level change strategy centered around grassroots power building, policy change, and racial justice. In response to the voices of grantees and communities, TCE moved away from traditional strategies that typically characterize place-based initiatives, with an emphasis on service saturation and systems coordination, to instead embrace what they termed “people power.” In so doing, TCE and its community partners flipped the script to deprioritize “grasstops” organizations and funder leadership and to assert the primacy of grassroots power building for racial justice.

The decade long BHC journey is marked by five key lessons for the field to reflect on:

1. Moving from Resident Input to People Power

makers would hear their input and respond with policies, programming, and services that met the community’s needs. Hence, TCE funded grantees to bring large numbers of residents to testify in front of elected and appointed officials in an attempt to bolster public debate and influence policy decisions. Additionally, they invited multiple stakeholders—decision makers, system leaders, and residents—to plan together at foundation-created tables. In doing so, TCE approached power as the amalgamation of individual voices and the change process as one of increasing decision makers’ knowledge and awareness of community challenges. 

Almost immediately, however, grantees began to push back, explaining that in order to win policy changes, residents needed to do much more than voice their individual opinions. They also needed to become a powerful, organized constituency. Decision makers’ inability to craft policies and programs that met their constituents’ needs did not only reflect mere ignorance of community members’ experience; it also reflected entrenched opposing interests. If residents were going to change systems, policies, and the flow of public dollars, they needed to counter these interests by organizing community members to identify their most pressing problems, understand root causes, create alternative proposals, and strategize to win over allies and neutralize opponents. To do this they needed organizations devoted to recruiting, training, and developing powerful community leaders who could carry out this work. In short, TCE needed to fund grassroots organizers and the institutions they had built.  

In response to this feedback, TCE pivoted from their earlier faith in “resident input” as a key driver of change towards a notion of “people power.” Under this notion, community members collaborate to shape demands for changes in systems and launch strategic campaigns that force policymakers and system leaders to respond. As part of this shift, TCE began to fund fewer service organizations, public systems, and professional advocates and shifted the money to community organizing shops. In addition, they moved away from the traditional foundation table where they set outcomes in advance and conditioned grant dollars on addressing those issues. As TCE began to acknowledge a misalignment between their “four big results” and community members’ actual needs, they started to allow community organizers to control the tables and community priorities to lead the way. Increasingly, the BHC tables became a node for resident-led organizations to connect, build relationships, access resources to grow, and collaboratively shape and launch campaigns and initiatives around community defined priorities.

2. Building power requires more than strong organizations—it requires an ecosystem

The Foundation’s shifting understanding of the importance of funding grassroots organizing was accompanied by the harsh reality that these grassroots groups on their own could not build enough power to counter entrenched interests. In order to build adequate power, they were going to need to join in coalition with one another and muster the support of allies from diverse disciplines.   In the words of USC’s Equity Research Institute, “organizing and base building alone are insufficient to influence those who have the authority, resources, and power to make the kinds of decisions that will improve the lives of historically excluded people and reduce inequities.”  What is needed, instead, is “a broader ecosystem of organizations with diverse capacities, skills, and expertise—and with reach from the local to regional to the state levels—…to get to the big goal of health and justice for all.” [1]

ERI created a visual of this power-building ecosystem termed the “power-flower.” The power flower depicts the power-building ecosystem with organizing and base-building groups placed at the center, supported by allies and partners from diverse disciplines including policy and advocacy, research and legal assistance, communications and narrative change, and leadership and organizational development. This group of professional advocates, lawyers, and capacity builders have worked with organizing groups for decades. The uniqueness of the power flower stems from the placement of the grassroots organizing groups. Traditionally, the petals—the professional advocates and lawyers—led change efforts, with grassroots groups entering relatively late in the game to offer testimony and sway decision makers’ hearts and minds. TCE’s approach during the initial years of BHC reflected this model.  “During the first half of BHC,” explained ERI, “an emphasis has been on achieving health equity through professional advocacy and communications efforts bolstered by community voice and mobilization.” ERI strongly recommended that TCE flip the script. “The health equity equation should lead with community organizing, leadership development, and grassroots advocacy—and then bolster those efforts with professional advocacy and communications.” TCE embraced this approach, prioritizing grants to “petal partners” that demonstrated the ability to follow the leadership of and work in close and productive collaboration with grassroots organizing groups.  

3. Healing plays a crucial role in movement work

Communities embraced this ecosystem approach but added another essential component—supports for healing and personal transformation. At the core of BHC’s and TCE’s evolution was a growing understanding that those closest to the problems are also the closest to the solutions. Deep, sustainable social change can only be made by organizing the most impacted communities and individuals into a powerful constituency capable of engaging in collective action to demand systems change and hold decision makers accountable. However, those closest to the problem are also the most scarred and traumatized by the very oppressive systems that they are organizing to change. Healing-centered movement building enables the people most impacted—and hence most hurt—by oppressive systems to fully participate as advocates and leaders by proactively addressing their past and current internal wounds, while simultaneously building critical consciousness so they may interpret the world and act to transform it. In short, healing-centered movement building posits the need to make external shifts in systems and structures while simultaneously healing from the internal wounds that those systems inflict.

Those involved with BHC came to understand that while structural change through power building is always imperative, removing or reforming harmful structures will not automatically undo the psychological, spiritual, and physical damage done to the bodies, souls, and minds of people who have been historically marginalized for generations. It will not address how these communities and individuals are wounded internally by systems, history, and each other. Without attention to healing, organizers, advocates, and community members can turn on one another or turn on themselves and self-destruct. Rage can motivate us, but it can also destroy us and if turned on our colleagues and allies, it can undermine a movement. 

What is needed is a range of culturally rooted healing modalities connected and integrated into our shared political traditions. This type of politicized healing disrupts the status quo of treating people as a problem and refocuses our efforts on dismantling the systems that harm people. The harms are named and acknowledged, creating space for reparation and community care. The process is individual, organizational, and collective. Often it involves returning to cultural teachings and practices that were deliberately disrupted and displaced through colonization and ongoing oppression.

4. Put narrative change in service of grassroots power-building to “shape common sense” [2]

BHC’s innovative communications strategies changed how policymakers and the public thought about critical issues of health equity and racial justice. Here again, the BHC experience prompted TCE’s thinking and role to evolve. Initially, TCE relied on a transactional patchwork of communications consultants, most from the for-profit sector, and foundation staff assumed the lead thinking role in the design and roll out of public awareness campaigns. The result was inconsistent. In some places the work resulted in bold and welcomed rapid response efforts that leveraged sophisticated communications capacity usually reserved for corporations and large, well-funded non-profits. In other places, the communication work felt top-down and undercut or conflicted with messages from community partners. In sum, the work lacked formal mechanisms for engaging community partners and a clear definition or criteria for what it means to provide effective supports.

Through multiple rounds of feedback from partners, TCE began to see the changes they needed to make. These included insuring that narrative work is led by community partners and grounded in power-building goals, creating synergy between narrative change and organizing work, and establishing a shared language and vision with grassroots organizing partners. To this end, TCE and its partners are now building a social justice communications field that recruits, trains, and develops a network of communications and narrative change professionals who are rooted in communities that have been historically marginalized and have knowledge and experience in working with grassroots organizers.

5. Rethink the funder role

Over the course of BHC, TCE learned to let the movement lead. This required finding new ways of defining success, relating to grantees, and thinking about core competencies of program managers. Foundation leadership had to make a shift in what they viewed as success. This meant no longer encouraging connections with elite, political insiders as the path to victory, or rewarding program managers and grantees for “shiny,” quick policy wins, but being willing to invest in long-term power building efforts that strengthen leadership among the communities most impacted—even when that involves a policy loss in the short term. New definitions of success meant supporting a push to do more than simply reform systems to minimize harm—but instead to thoroughly transform those systems to empower communities and expand opportunities. These changes enabled foundation staff to shift away from the traditional top-down relationship with grantees in which the foundation designed and branded campaigns and relied on grantees to execute their plans. They moved toward relationships built on sharing power with grantees, not wielding power over them. Program managers’ practice had to shift as well. In the early years, program managers would focus on strengthening their favorite individual organizations one grant at a time, which in essence was a “king making” practice. Now they needed a new set of skills to support and cultivate a robust movement ecosystem through carrying a portfolio of grants to organizations that were committed to working together. 

Tia Martinez is the CEO at Forward Change.

1 The nature and characteristics of a power-building ecosystem have been explored and described by The USC Equity Research Institute (ERI), for example, in the report, California Health and Justice for All Power-Building Landscape: An Assessment (October 2019).
2 See the Three Faces of Power from the Grassroots Policy Project found at