Here are remarks made by Vincent Jones, Liberty Hill’s Deputy Director of Common Agenda, at today’s Grantmakers for Children, Youth and Families Annual Conference in El Paso, where he received that groups’ first-ever Emerging Leader in Philanthropy award, given in recognition of significant contribution and potential for leadership in children, youth and family philanthropy.
Twenty years ago, Los Angeles was on fire.
Four cops accused of beating Rodney King were found not guilty and set free. Within hours, a long-simmering anger boiled over into civil unrest. People who were angered—not just by the acquittals, but also by a system that seemed to minimize opportunities for them, their families, and their children—gathered. They wanted answers. They were frustrated. You could see the frustration in their furrowed brows. You could hear the frustration in the tone of their voices.
LAPD retreated and was not seen for the first twelve hours. Fires were set. Smoke filled the sky and smoldering buildings dotted the city as firetrucks sped by. Stores were looted. Images of Angelenos carrying appliances were on TV screens around the country. Lives were lost. Unspoken truths were spoken. Divisions became clear. Hope slipped away.
Twenty years ago, I was 16, somewhat shy, very bookish, and living in a nearby area some call the Inland Empire. Like many families in Los Angeles, my mother and her new husband had fled the city in search of affordable housing, decent jobs, and a better education for my new older brother and me. Many families didn’t have the ability to leave like we did. Some preferred to stay where they were comfortable. Those of us that did move left behind extended family, church communities, and more.
So I was not surprised when talks of walkouts spread across my high school the morning after the verdict. Despite our distance from the civil unrest in Los Angeles, many of us were in close proximity to the issues that gave rise to it. Eager to avoid any conflicts, our principal pulled together a few student leaders early that morning to craft a plan to keep the peace. I was chosen to be one of those students because I helped to start a diversity club on campus that year. Yet, I still didn’t understand why I was in the room. Like I said before, I was 16, shy, bookish. I wasn’t one of the popular kids. I thought: Who would listen to me?
Nevertheless, in the meeting, I spoke up. I shared ideas. I made suggestions to improve others. By the middle of the meeting, the principal recognized my contributions and decided I should be in charge of the keep-the-peace effort. By lunchtime, the tension began to dissipate. By the end of the school day, it became clear that we had averted a crisis and maybe even made our campus community stronger.
On the school bus ride home, I knew I was changed. I understood why I was in that room. I grew to understand the power of my voice.
Since then, I have been on a path to build and strengthen communities and help others to realize the power of their own voice. The fact that that path led me to the Liberty Hill Foundation is akin to fate.
Twenty years ago, many foundations didn’t understand Liberty Hill. Some didn’t value our approach to investing in grassroots organizing in low-income communities. But the civil unrest made many in the philanthropic community give Liberty Hill’s approach a second look. A group of large foundations invited us to sit at the table with them to devise a collective philanthropic response to the civil unrest. We shared our belief that Los Angeles needed greater investment in grassroots leaders organizing in low income and communities of color to advance community-driven solutions to skyrocketing housing costs, disappearing jobs, police misconduct, declining public schools, environmental injustice, and a growing distrust of public institutions. They listened. And they invested in Liberty Hill, which allowed us to intensify our investment in grassroots community leadership in a more focused and meaningful way.
Today, Los Angeles is no longer on fire. The city has a vibrant network of community organizations building power in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, and it has advanced and continues to advance policy change that is expanding opportunity and equality for more and more Angelenos. More work is needed, but much progress has occurred.
Liberty Hill is proud to have partnered with amazing leaders at the grassroots and within the philanthropic sector to catalyze some of this positive change.
I share this story to underscore how deeply appreciative and humbled I am to be the first-ever recipient of the Emerging Leader in Philanthropy award from Grantmakers for Children, Youth and Families for the work of my Liberty Hill colleagues and me to invest in organizers who help people not much different than the shy, bookish sixteen-year-old kid I once was to realize the power of their voices.
With this Emerging Leader in Philanthropy award, not only does Grantmakers for Children, Youth, and Families honor me but it also honors the belief that people impacted by injustice can overcome the odds if foundations provide tools, resources, and space to advance community-driven solutions through grassroots organizing. At Liberty Hill Foundation, we call this community-centered philanthropy.
In my work at the Foundation, community-centered philanthropy manifests in several ways. It manifests in our Brothers, Sons, Selves campaign that I manage where Black, Latino, and Southeast Asian young men and boys work alongside staff organizers of community-based organizations to promote positive alternatives to policies that push boys and men of color out of school and into a pipeline to prison. It manifests in the grantmaking and training programs I developed to strengthen institutions led by LGBT people of color with a unique approach that emphasizes peer learning, coalition building and the development of strategic partnerships between LGBT leaders and economic justice organizers. It also manifests in our annual Uplifting Change Summit that I developed where we mobilize Black donors to increase their strategic social change impact so that they, in turn, strengthen community institutions and all of Los Angeles.
Today, I am a confident thirty-something and I guess you can say I’m on fire. And receiving this emerging leader award is adding more fuel so that the fire can grow larger, and larger, and larger.