History, Democracy, and Justice: Reflecting on a Trustee Trip to the American South

  • Four people wearing headphones sit at a museum exhibition, looking at images and listening to sound from its historic archive.
    At the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, RBF staff and trustees experienced the soundscape of a civil rights-era lunch counter sit-in.

By Michael Quattrone

In 2019—four hundred years after the founding of the first self-governing, democratic body in North America and the arrival of the first vessel of enslaved African people to reach colonial shores—the Rockefeller Brothers Fund conducted a learning journey to the southern United States. Our purpose was to hear from the foundation’s partners working to advance a vital and inclusive democracy in the United States.

The RBF’s Democratic Practice–U.S. program has long supported organizations working toward this goal by addressing money in politics and elections and voting rights. In 2018, the program added support to organizations using movement-building strategies for systemic reform of democratic institutions to advance economic and racial justice.

During the busy week of events, panel discussions, and cultural tours in Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama, our trustees and staff were confronted with the shameful and enduring legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, which adversely impact and unfairly exclude communities of color to this day.

The systemic oppression of Americans with black and brown skin persists through disproportionate mass incarceration, felon disenfranchisement, and cash bail; suppression of voting rights, prejudicial redistricting, and other electoral abuses—as well as restricted access to adequate housing, healthcare, living wages, public education, financial services, and the internet.

It was a privilege for us to learn from the many dynamic leaders working to remedy these injustices though litigation, strategic advocacy, and movement building.

For example, Tram Nguyen (New Virginia Majority) emphasized that the successful movement building she has achieved requires patient capital. Grassroots campaigns must adapt to changing circumstances as they grow, embrace unexpected allies along the way, and may take 12 years to bear fruit.

Doran Schrantz (ISAIAH) noted that "relationships move at the speed of trust, and movements grow at the speed of relationships." She and Andrea Mercado (New Florida Majority), along with Art Reyes (We The People), modeled for us what it means to show up transparently to earn trust and build bridges, and to ensure that demanding work remains personally sustainable.

The annual budgets of many of the organizers we encountered tend to double in election years, with the most of the funding from out of state. Although cash infusions are necessary, this “sandcastle” funding—resources that rush in for an election, but recede in odd numbered years—can inhibit the winning, long-term strategy of steadily deepening relationships.

Election Day challenges persist. Nse Ufot (New Georgia Project) reminded us that, despite the growing plurality in her state, “demographics is not destiny” when those in power abuse their position to remain there. Her experiences registering new voters and monitoring polling locations underscored the need for eleventh-hour mobilization of legal advocacy, as well as comfort (including pizza, blankets, and Mariachi bands), to protect the rights and buoy the spirits of determined voters.

Collectively, the insights of these leaders and others from groups including Blackbird, Black Futures Lab, Color of Change, Demos, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and the Southern Partners Fund were a heartfelt and data-driven call to invest in a forty-year, strategic vision of a post-patriarchal, pluralistic democracy—one that includes empowered and engaged communities of color, who are especially well positioned to contribute to the goals of economic, racial, and environmental justice.

The trip confirmed my belief that shared experiences are essential for their power to touch and move us in ways that aggregated data cannot. There is no replacement for hearing directly from Christopher, a formerly incarcerated man who is now a lead organizer at New Virginia Majority. Christopher credits that organization with transforming his life by offering him a sense of shared purpose and a job that provides the opportunity to contribute to others.

Our party wept together at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta where an exhibit invites visitors to sit at a recreated lunch counter. There, through the power of immersive sound, we experienced a small piece of the violence and terror Freedom Riders endured. One trustee found a picture of his father among the photos of those brave activists.

As we walked the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, we could witness the complex DNA of that place, where the inauguration of Jefferson Davis and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s freedom march from Selma are commemorated side by side, not far from the old riverside slave warehouses, where another sign acknowledges the pre-existence of an indigenous Muscogee settlement.

We will never forget the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which embodies Bryan Stevenson’s research to count and remember the unacknowledged victims and overwhelming scale of post-reconstruction terrorism by lynching. The memorial and accompanying Legacy Museum demonstrate how art, research, and design unite to acknowledge the past, update the present, and help us embody a more just future.

That was where we ended our journey, reflecting on the problematic nature of philanthropy as an institution that maintains wealth by tax benefit to the mostly-white few more than it disaggregates it. I was grateful to my colleagues at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund who were willing to ask the difficult questions. In an interdependent world, it matters how we show up.

There were few easy answers on this trip, but I was inspired by the many partners who brought embodied joy to the cause of our collective liberation.