Taking on race – Focus on law, politics

By Todd Cohen    

Helping community groups and lawyers make better use of law and politics to fight racial discrimination is the focus of a new initiative spearheaded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

The foundation has teamed up with the Ford Foundation and Open Society Institute to raise up to $25 million over five years to fund local efforts to break down racial and ethnic barriers.

“The goal is not just to focus on the individual being hurt but on systemic change that affects a broader group of people,” says Michele Lord, a consultant advising the project.

The effort grew out of a March 2001 report commissioned by Rockefeller that looked at ways lawyers work with community groups for social justice.

“The role of lawyers has changed,” says Lord.

Instead of simply handling court cases, she says, civil rights lawyers are getting more involved in “transactional” activities such as community organizing, public-relations campaigns and efforts to change administrative rules.

Rockefeller, Ford and Open Society, all in New York, hope to raise $4 million on the project in its first year.

The national funders, to launch the initiative in April 2002, are challenging local funders to team up to raise money – and promising to invest $1 for every $2 they raise.

The idea is to support local efforts to help community groups and lawyers better understand legal and political strategies to take on discrimination, says Dayna Cunningham, associate director for Rockefeller’s domestic policy division, known as Working Communities.

“We are going to not just stop at the courthouse door, but we are going to make sure the whole community is involved in the discussion about this,” she says. “We are going to insist that our government be accountable for it, that other citizens are in conversations about it.”

The national foundations, which have courted local funders in California, North Carolina and Chicago and will make their pitch in other regions, will solicit proposals in 2002.

The project aims to spur community-based initiatives that focus on racial exclusion, involve lawyers and community groups, and address issues of democracy and governance, says Cunningham, a voting-rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund before joining Rockefeller five years ago.

She said attacking racial barriers is critical because race often can be a window into larger social problems.

The Rockefeller study, for example, cited a city-wide campaign in  Greensboro, N.C., on behalf of black workers at a heavily black Kmart distribution center. The effort led to a living-wage ordinance and union contract giving black workers and their white co-workers higher wages on a par with those at mainly white Kmart centers.

“People are starting to think about race in new ways,” Cunningham says. “While racial minorities were the first ones affected by racial inequity, the problems were larger and people beyond racial minorities were being hurt.”

The goal, she says, is to change “the way public rules are set and resources are allocated.”

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