Relentless pursuit of an equitable world

The Optimist

Woman speaking to diverse group

Using authentic voices and stories to upend views on poverty and race

In the past several months, millions of Americans have become painfully aware that things completely out of their control can ruin them financially. But the 40 million Americans who live in poverty knew this long before anybody had heard of COVID-19.

Separately, in the past several months, millions of Americans have witnessed heart-breaking reminders that justice isn’t a given. But the 40 million Americans who are Black knew this long before anybody had heard of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery.

The pandemic and the protests may have seemed like different events, but the connection between the two is clear; the people who are most likely to lose their jobs because of the COVID-19 recession are also the people who are most likely to die from COVID-19. They are also the people who are most likely to be murdered by law enforcement. This is how the United States is structured and we must keep reaching for the levers to pull to restructure it.

At this moment a group of eight philanthropies is ready to award 28 grants to participants in the Voices for Economic Opportunity Grand Challenge. The recipient organizations, from around the country, will be receiving grants of $100,000 each to work on projects that take direct account of the experiences and voices of people who are facing poverty and marginalization in our country, through film, video, the written word, art, experiential projects, and more.

Among the groups chosen to participate in the program are:

  • The Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) of San Antonio, which will run a multimedia public awareness campaign, titled “Why Can’t They Just…,” featuring videos of days in the lives of women of color working in hospitality, caregiving, and food service industries in the city. These videos will be used as a platform to answer the questions often posed by those who misunderstand the causes of poverty, such as “Why can’t they just get a job?”

  • The Institute for Policy Studies, which will work with the Poor People’s Campaign to build on a project that translates the stories of individuals who live on low incomes into compelling op-eds that bring the public’s and policymakers’ attention to the structural and historical barriers to economic mobility and which demand policy action to confront those barriers.

  • UNC Greensboro, along with a visual artist and educator, and a community action coalition in Baltimore, will work together to tell the stories of traumatic loss, resilience, and quests for economic mobility of young Black men in Baltimore, as well as confronting stereotypes and false narratives and chronicling their lives as human beings deserving of dignity and investment.

We started this work nine months ago. It is not a response to recent events. However, it is important work in its small way, designed to help all Americans engage each other with dignity, humility, and respect. The Grand Challenge’s goal is to help move us away from prevailing stories rooted in misconceptions and stereotypes to ones rooted in shared values, history, and systemic solutions. It is designed to help us see through confusion and prejudice to one another’s basic humanity. This is not in itself a solution, but a starting point. And so, we make this announcement today from a place of hope and resolve.

Part of the goal of these 28 organizations will be to build a bridge between people who right now feel as if their experiences are quite distinct, separate, and often at odds with each other. They will aim to empower people to cross those divides by telling stories that help us to see each other more clearly, to find commonalities, and to discover our place in something bigger together.

We don’t think that this work is going to solve the problems of racism or poverty in America. It is not going to help fulfill the daily needs of those fighting for their lives right now. But it might catalyze systems change by causing the people who perpetuate those systems to see things with more humanity and insight. It is just a single part of a complex, multi-funder project, but it is a step towards the future that we need so desperately to build together.