Supporting Frontline Communities: A Partner Conversation

Supporting Frontline Communities: A Partner Conversation - Proteus Fund

Q&A With Laleh Ispahani 

Open Society Foundations (OSF) has played a pivotal role in this call to action on behalf of BAMEMSA* communities. We spoke to Laleh Ispahani, Co-Director, Open Society-Us, about the significance of this joint investment by philanthropy.

OSF has supported the building of agency and power in Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities for over ten years now, longer, and more consistently than any other larger funder. Why? What motivates OSF to do so?

In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. government began sustained efforts against people of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian descent. We saw the rise of Islamophobia, government spying, detention, and other restrictions. Unfortunately, everyday Americans picked up on the tacit, and sometimes explicit, call by the government to be suspicious of Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and anyone seen as “other”.

In response, the Open Society Foundations established a National Security and Human Rights campaign to combat human rights violations that flowed from U.S. policy decisions. We began funding existing groups serving MASA communities, as well as new organizations that began to prop up in response to the crisis. While Open Society Foundations supported several traditional human rights and civil liberties groups, we realized that it was important to fund those most directly affected and bolster their voice and engagement. This commitment reflects our conviction that real progress requires sustained support over many years, and that impacted communities should have the agency to shape their own path forward.

This sustained commitment has paid off. After the initial urgent response to the crisis, these community groups eventually began to be more proactive, winning policy reforms that limited the overreach of the state into their lives. They also led efforts to build bridges with other civil rights organizations, and to join their quest for racial justice, away from a fear-based approach to threats. Today, 20 years after 9/11, Open Society continues to support these organizations, as they build their power, and work to increase civic and civil participation within their communities.

The full inclusion of these groups in the United States is a measure of how truly open our society is, and we will strive with them to reach that benchmark.

20 years after 9/11, how do you believe philanthropy can most be if service of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities in the US?

Social movements transform history, but their successes are never linear. “Black Lives Matter” first entered American public discourse in 2014, only to be deemed “dead” by the Economist early in 2020. Today, that phrase has been embraced by most Americans, including some of the most powerful corporate brands and social influencers in the world. This work has shown us that real progress requires sustained support over many years and cannot be achieved overnight. Organizations need to be given the freedom to dream, experiment, fail righteously, and build power. Philanthropy is at its best when it gives organizations scaled, flexible, resources to secure their own rights and freedoms. We hope that long-term unrestricted grants to these groups create conditions for enhanced unity, while harnessing community power. Philanthropy also needs to continue to be of service to frontline advocacy and litigation, as well as organizing and defensive work. Finally, philanthropy is an effective partner in strengthening solidarity networks across BIPOC communities in the United States.

OSF’s leadership in crafting a call to action for philanthropy to help raise $50 million over 5 years to support Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities is deeply appreciated. How is OSF making good on the call to action?

The MASA population is one of the fastest growing in the country, jumping from 4.2 million to 7.9 million between 2000 and 2018–an increase of 88.5%. To serve this growing population, OSF is making five-year grants to eight MASA community-led and accountable organizations that will work together to increase the social, cultural, and political power of MASA communities in the United States. We will also continue to use our own voice to advocate for partners on issues and campaigns that impact them.

What kind of impact do you think an investment of this kind from philanthropy can have on the future of these communities?

This investment builds on what we have learned over the years: leaders in the movement know what they need, that inter- and intra-movement coordination is essential, and that long-term support can be game-changing. It transfers to the organizations the trust of making consequential decisions about their futures. We hope these multi-year grants free groups from worrying about next year’s funding and really allow them to dream. This investment can help them build inclusive, pro-democracy, movements year-round.

Over the past 20 years, MASA communities and their allies have fought hard against the tide of islamophobia, with mostly rapid response style funding from across philanthropy. We’re deeply grateful to groups like Rise Together Fund, and colleague MASA funders, that have continued to push philanthropy to support MASA communities in more sustainable ways; ways that make genuine innovation and progress possible.

*BAMEMSA is an acronym for Black, Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian to describe communities we support that have been acutely impacted by post 9/11 discrimination. While Arab Middle Eastern Muslim South Asian (AMEMSA) is a common term in philanthropy, because Black communities are often excluded in both community and philanthropic spaces, we felt it was important to be explicit about our commitment to fund Black leadership.

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