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Blog: Energising community power is key to challenging a broken system of housing and homelessness, and creating the solutions that people want

Housing and Homelessness Programme / Blog

Photo courtesy of Community Voices Heard, New York

Written by Raji Hunjan, director, Housing and Homelessness Programme, September 2020

Building strategies to fight inequality

Over the last months many of us have been horrified at the extent to which Covid-19 has so acutely impacted people experiencing homelessness and housing problems. In both the US and the UK, this pandemic has so greatly harmed people living in overcrowded conditions, mainly Black communities and other Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups, on low income and doing frontline jobs with the least protection. In addition, world events have unfolded in front of us – particularly the killing of George Floyd, which has led to a wide public outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Against this backdrop, the Housing and Homeless Programme (HHP) at Oak, has begun its strategy thinking and as I engage with our grantee partners, I have become clearer about my responsibility to listen hard.

I am grateful those who have been candid with me by sharing their perspectives on housing in relation to race, intersectionality, and structural inequality. I hear the frustration that race justice, which people have long fought for, is only now becoming part of the mainstream. As one person said, did it really take the murder of George Floyd? I get it. I left philanthropy ten years ago, defeated. I have full respect for the people of colour who stayed or have entered philanthropy since then and have challenged the status quo. Maybe I should have too, but I found my strength leading small social justice charities, which also reignited my passion for building up the voices of people who are so often made to live powerlessly. I have always wanted to return to philanthropy, and I suppose I have been waiting for the moment when philanthropy might want me back. This has brought me to Oak Foundation.

Our approach at Oak

In many ways, Oak is a very unusual funder, certainly in the UK context. It is a family foundation, and whilst the family are highly engaged in leading the shape of our funding priorities, they want our grantee partners to be heard and do not seek a public profile themselves. Oak distributes approximately USD 250 million to over 300 not-for-profit partners annually. The foundation supports social and environmental issues across the globe and does so with a relatively lean staff base. To be able to manage the administrative process with a small team, we make larger grants, usually multi-year, to fewer organisations. In HHP, we have a budget of USD 30 million to spend annually and we are capped at funding 38 organisations in the UK and US. In addition, our grant-making is mainly by invitation only, so we are very aware of our responsibility to research and engage with the sector to be able to make informed funding choices and decisions. I know the barriers created for smaller organisations, particularly those who are less likely to have the fundraising capacity and are highly mission driven. This is on my mind as we work to develop our new strategy. Oak’s programme staff have all been recruited because of their knowledge and experience of working for NGOs and not-for-profit organisations. Although this knowledge and experience goes a long way, I know we need to constantly learn and unlearn, and can only do so if we continually improve our ability to listen and collaborate.

Supporting grassroots organisations

HHP has a history of funding race equity actions at a grassroots level and has a commitment to raising the voices of people who are most impacted negatively by social issues. In New York, HHP gives core funding to Community Voices Heard, a member-led organisation principally comprised of women of colour and low-income families who bring about social change through leadership training and activism. In Boston, we fund the Centre for Economic Democracy’s Ujima Project, which addresses neighbourhood inequality by providing loans to businesses owned by people of colour, to build a new, sustainable and more democratic economy. In London, we fund London Renters Union to develop its community organising and grassroots power. We also collaborate with other funders with whom we share the same strategic goals. For example, with the Trust for London, we have distributed USD 1 million to organisations protecting the rights of private renters. We are also part of a collaboration of funders who fund the Neighborhood Funds Foundation to support grassroots housing activism in New York.

Addressing community power in our strategy review

Energising and building community power to address housing injustice and to do so through the lens of racial justice must be rooted in our new strategy alongside other methods to influence policy makers. We will explore partnerships with organisations who are close to the grassroots and equipped in their culture and infrastructure to help distribute resources equitably to community organisations. We also know that not all the solutions to problems with housing sit within the housing sector, and we will continue to look widely at organisations that are addressing the structural inequalities that cause housing and homelessness problems. We also need to fully engage with the funding strategies of other funders, so we are confident our resources are directed to where funding is less available. All of this will inevitably mean exiting some of our longer-term grant partnerships. We will develop strategies to do this responsibly as we know this is an economically challenging time for many of the organisations we fund – regardless of their size and scale. We are currently in listening mode, before we come together as a team for our strategy days in November. We will continue to update as our thinking emerges and hope to be able to make a clear announcement in January 2021.

Social justice change

I am often reminded of my responsibility to challenge myself and my team in our assumptions and understanding of social change. I recently met with a community activist in Boston who has developed a collective form of casework, bringing together people who face eviction, with lawyers, to build their knowledge and ability to fight evictions as a group. From my own perspective of previously leading a legal charity, I wondered whether activism was an appropriate course of action while people who are frightened of losing their home, just need legal representation. Her view is that this approach equips people who feel powerless with the tools and knowledge to take charge of their own fight back. This exchange sits with me, because it reminds me that we all have a benevolent side to our understanding of achieving change, even those of us who are steeped in social justice. My motivation for questioning the collective casework model was my desire to put my arms around the problem and solve it on behalf of the person experiencing it. I believe in humanity and kindness, and as such I stand by that motivation. However, my social justice side knows that if we want systems to change, and structures built on racism and inequality to be broken down, then we also need to direct resources and power to communities and neighbourhoods.