Calling into Question: W.K. Kellogg’s Accountability With Grantees

Update:  The W. K. Kellogg Foundation issued a press release regarding CDI’s story in which they do not take ownership of their actions, actions which resulted in the laying off of CDI staff members. The foundation also did not detail how they will adopt new best practices for future modifications or termination of funding for grantees. Suggestions for best practices by foundations for these situations can be found on #DisruptPhilanthropyNow!’s blog

The #DisruptPhilanthropyNow! Campaign urges the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to reflect on its grant-making practices and make the necessary changes to address the harm done to CDI and the Battle Creek community and prevent it from occurring again.  

Note: The W.K. Kellogg Foundation decided to significantly shift and lessen their funding of the Center for Diversity and Innovation (CDI) without warning this spring. This resulted in all staff members losing their jobs except for CDI's executive director. This letter is an act of courage by four members of CDI's former staff who name W.K. Kellogg Foundation's harmful actions, provide an analysis of how this harm has impacted the community, and hold W.K. Kellogg Foundation accountable. The #DisruptPhilanthropyNOW! campaign stands in solidarity with them. 

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"Your silence will not protect you." —Audre Lorde 

Dear Community,

The Center for Diversity and Innovation’s (CDI) mission has been to build the capacity of individuals and institutions to implement effective racial equity practices. We have always sought to be professionals and human beings who live that mission more than we teach/facilitate it—because we know at the end of the day, that’s what gives integrity to our work. Truth telling about power, privilege, and the (conscious and unconscious) misuse of resources to the detriment of marginalized groups is an effective racial equity practice. We write this letter in hopes of practicing what we teach/facilitate in this community. We are not writing as KCC. We are not writing as CDI. We are writing as four community members who used to be internal and are now external to KCC/CDI. It is our intent to stand in the gap of information and tell the story of what has happened at CDI, to the best of our knowledge and through the lens of our experience. We are writing because there has been no official statement from any of the aforementioned institutions. We do this because we believe in transparency and that we have a responsibility to you, our beloved community—particularly our institutional partners—to tell the truth.

Before we begin telling our story, we want to address something at the outset that we anticipate in response to this statement. Yes, the four of us have lost our jobs and part of the energy in this letter is about that loss. We are certainly in pain about what’s happened to us individually and as colleagues in our professional lives and at CDI. And what we hope to address is bigger than us; it is a dynamic that transcends individuals and particular institutions. In short: we aren’t just whining about being unemployed; we are attempting to reckon with a structural reality of inequity beyond us in light of what’s happened to us. Finally, we know CDI was not perfect by any means, that it—like all social institutions—was comprised of fallible human beings. We did good work, not perfect work, but good work. We stand in the truth of this. 

In 2014, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation gave Kellogg Community College a three-year grant to create the CDI, an organization founded to embed racial equity practices in local institutions and community organizations. The community response to CDI’s effort of institutional transformation was overwhelming—in a good way. The need for additional staff was evident, and WKKF granted the CDI a one-year extension in 2017 as a way to hire additional staff while working on a new three-year grant proposal. Four staff were hired during the summer of 2017, and the organization began gaining traction and depth in its reach in the community as a result. Suddenly, in spring 2018, with less than two months before the grant proposal due date, WKKF informed CDI that WKKF did not want to fund two different major grants to KCC, one for workforce development and one for community racial equity practices. WKKF told CDI they would provide funding to draw CDI’s work under the workforce development umbrella. It goes without saying but we need to point out: a workforce development program within a community college (KCC) and the work of building the capacity of individuals and institutions to implement effective racial equity practices (CDI) are not the same work. It was immediately clear that the community would lose tools and learning that directly impacts marginalized groups at the service level, in local classrooms, etc.

Over the next four weeks, the entire CDI staff were told we were not losing our jobs, then half of us were losing our jobs, then we were getting an extension for a month, then WKKF would not be funding us until September as a result of their fiscal year, and finally, we were all losing our jobs, with the exception of our executive Director. It was a ridiculous and completely unnecessary rollercoaster.

When we learned about the first round of cuts, Meredith Stravers, Tha Par and Emily Joye were of one mind about speaking up and out at the community level about the harm this institutional decision caused to our colleagues and to the community. We were swiftly encouraged by KCC leadership to remain quiet and that all communication to the community about our services would need to be monitored prior to being sent (in order to secure the next grant cycle). We regret listening to that advice. On Tuesday, June 12, at 2:30 p.m. at a staff meeting, we asked about the security of our own jobs and were told our jobs would be fine. The next day, Wednesday, June 13, at 10:00 a.m., Meredith, Tha, and EJ were let go because “KCC couldn’t afford to keep us.” June 29 would be our last day. 

We have tried, amidst a whirlwind of factors, to understand causation. We have not been in certain closed-door conversations with our funder or host institution. And it remains that we are deeply disappointed in WKKF’s lack of sustaining support for an organization that they commissioned as a response to community demand for local racial equity work. We are also deeply disappointed in KCC’s willingness to collude with outside forces over allyship with CDI. We also recognize KCC has been put in a position by its funder to choose silence about injustice in order to receive money, which perpetuates a long standing pattern in this community. 

The community lost an organization, staffed by local people with knowledge of and vested interest in the future of this community, that offered impactful and necessary support for organizations and institutions seeking to become more racially equitable. In addition, individuals in this community lost access to learning opportunities through CDI’s community events, lunch and learns, and trainings including Orientation to the Work, Weaving a New Tapestry, Leading for Transformation, White Men & Allies Learning Labs, Coaching Essentials for Equity, and more. People will no longer have financial support to attend Doing Our Own Work or coaching certification programs through Leadership That Works. CDI also sponsored a youth retreat for three years that this past year grew into a year-round program. While youth will see a final retreat in 2018, the year-round program will end completely this August, leaving its participants with a void. CDI’s ability to support and collaborate with community organizations’ awareness events and celebrations is also gone. The impact of this loss cannot be articulated in words. 

At this point we want to note, because of CDI’s role in this community and who we are as individuals, that there are patterns of inequity rampant in all of this. First: it feels like this has been done to us without any input from us. Second: there is a lack of accountability between massively resourced funders and their local constituents in this city. More specifically: there is a historical, local pattern of marginalized groups not being offered resources at all, being offered resources that are not accessible or do not meet the actual need, or being offered financial and programmatic support only later to have it removed. This has resulted in an us-and-them dynamic between the haves and have nots locally, which results in mistrust. A social environment filled with mistrust does not lend itself to authentic relationship building, sustainability or equity. All of this reflects white supremacy culture. 

This leaves us asking the question: what does local accountability look like for funders in Battle Creek, especially to communities who have been marginalized? This question is top of mind for us writing this letter because of recent happenings, but we are just the latest in a long line of organizations and communities seeking an answer to this question. It is not our work to answer this question, because we are not funders; and we ask that all of our local funders ask themselves this question if they care about their impacts in this city. We also ask local grantees of local funders to examine what it would look like to practice solidarity over collusion with this dynamic, given that it eventually will come for us all. We are also left asking: why do funding priorities seem so fickle here? Are we capable of seeing through a commitment/movement, despite changes in personnel, personalities in leadership, and the necessity of being responsive to new needs/research? Does workforce development mean annihilating the work force that already exists? 

It feels imperative to clarify one last thing before addressing the future. This last fall, when Starbucks came under national scrutiny for its lack of racial equity practices as an institution, it became clear to us how little knowledge there is out there about what it *actually* takes to transform institutions for racial equity. 500 years of legalized racial discrimination is baked into and has been culturally perpetuated by the institutions in this country. The kinds of institutional processes necessary to undo that 500 year trajectory of white supremacy don’t happen in half a day (or six months or even a year) of implicit bias training. Anyone who has done institutional racial equity training will be familiar with Bailey Jackson and Rita Hardiman’s “Continuum on becoming an anti-racist, multicultural organization.” It is a standard assessment tool used by racial equity consultants and organizations seeking to do racial equity change at the institutional level. Veteran equity facilitators have suggested that it takes upwards of 20 years to move on that continuum, to make sustainable change within predominantly white institutions. Organizations who have actually attempted or started the internal work can attest to why that is. Some might think 20 years is too long, but when we consider the 500 year trajectory we’re up against, 20 years is actually quite fast. We were given three and a half years to do that work locally.

We are not interested in reviving the old form of CDI. We are, however, wanting to contribute to and support local movements for accountability and justice. In that spirit we ask you not to squelch your outrage at inequity, to be strategic and coordinated in your resistance and liberation efforts, and to work toward a community where racial equity is the lived experience for all. These are the things we were about in the beginning. This is what we are about now. This is who we will remain moving forward.

Speaking of moving forward: we have asked that funders and fundees ask themselves some very clear and intentional questions around their motives, agendas, and collusion with keeping inequitable systems in place (consciously or unconsciously). We also have an ask of our community.

For those of you who are in positions of leadership/power: What are you willing to do to resist? How are you willing to leverage your power and privilege collectively in order to hold funders accountable to their actions that result in the continued elimination of programs that actually impact our community? How are you willing to hold funders accountable when they spend millions of dollars on initiatives that result in very little or no community impact, bring the same 15 people to the table, and never truly engage marginalized communities, but rather *appear* to be a community effort—an effort that is only successful in patting the backs of the people who are at the table, congratulating the most superficial forms of activism, and calling it “racial equity work?” Are you willing to back and support fundees who continuously find themselves grappling with how to uphold their ethics and do what they know is right while being forced to dance to the financial drum of funders who are asking them to do things that counteract their work?

For those of you who are community, maybe not in leadership: What are you willing to do? How will you use your voice? How will you let funders know how their decisions are impacting you? How will you share your stories? Are you willing to connect with each other and the above leadership/power to be strategic in your resistance? How will you organize, mobilize, and say NO MORE? What are you willing to risk in order to demand that things are done differently and communities get what they need?

We love this community. We believe in all of our potential to make and create change. We believe that our community can become a place that serves all people, not just those who have power, money, and privilege. We have learned from our marginalized communities that when we start centering our focus on those who need the most, *everyone* will have access to what is needed. We ask that you come together to fight for accountability and disruption of funding systems that continue to dismantle the community we love.

In the love of solidarity and in solidarity with love, 

Meredith Stravers, Tha Par, Sara Johnson, Emily Joye (ej)

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We encourage you to send an accountability letter to any foundation that is using inequitable practices or misusing its power and share the impact. We encourage you to meet with them and discuss changes in practices and develop accountability structures. And we invite you tell your story. We must work collectively to share our stories to lessen the consequences on every organization. Keeping our voice unheard leads to the conclusion there is no urgency for the philanthropic sector to be transformed. We must disrupt philanthropy, intervene against inequitable practices, and transform the sector by redistributing wealth so we collectively end racism within our lifetime

What can you do NOW…

  • TELL YOUR STORY: If you are an organization that has experienced racially inequitable practices with a foundation, and you are interested in sharing it - please use this google form and someone will contact you. And we also now have an encrypted email address: DisruptPhilanthropy@protonmail.com. Your information will be confidential until you are ready to share your story. You may choose to share your story anonymously. 

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  • Here is some information on changing funding practices and resources.

  • In future blog posts and on this site, we will share with you some of the work already happening to transform philanthropy. Please share your examples and ideas with us, along with stories of effective racial equitable grant making at info@withinourlifetime.net