Bread and Roses: A Radical Vision for Philanthropy

Posted by PHENND on November 27, 2017

By: Victoria Durand, PHENND Fellow

PHENND was proud to host a recent leadership dinner with Aarati Kasturirangan of the Bread and Roses Community Fund. Aarati has been the director of programs with Bread and Roses since 2015. Since she came on board, she has overseen a massive expansion of the fund thanks in part to an initiative called The Giving Project. Aarati calls the Bread and Roses Community Fund a venture in “non-traditional philanthropy.”

Bread and Roses has existed since 1971 when it was established by a group of Kensington residents as The People’s Fund. As young white people in Philadelphia, the founders of The People’s Fund wanted a way to support the struggles of their POC neighbors. The fund was conceived as a way for community members to come together and support their communities through organization and change. As a membership fund, anyone who contributed voted on which causes the money would go to. Beholden only to its members, The People’s Fund was able to fund more radical causes than other philanthropists that need to please corporate donors and other powerful stakeholders.

Legend has it that The People’s Fund had to change its name after a member submitted a 501(c)3 application where the stated purpose of the organization was to “other throw the US government.” The organization was only able to later gain 501(c)3 nonprofit status under a different name, The Bread and Roses Community Fund in 1977. This name is a reference to a textile strike slogan- “the worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.”  The Community Fund has acquired full time employees and an EO board, but it retains its radical roots. All donations still come from individuals, representing Philadelphia’s diverse community. Bread and Roses has put down deep roots in the city, often funding groups for decades, because they know how long real change can take. Today, it funds a variety of groups, all fighting oppression on multiple axes. The fund has historically been focused on causes that sit at the intersection of racial and economic justice. 2017 grantees work for causes from women’s empowerment, to community gardening, to Fight for 15.

Several years ago, Bread and Roses undertook a massive evaluation of their efforts, hoping to determine whether their work was still valuable in the community. They concluded that it was, but that they needed to increase the size and duration of their grants somehow. After much research, the fund decided to emulate the efforts of an initiative called The Giving Project, which started in Seattle. The Giving Project centers around a diverse group of about 20 people. Each person begins by committing to a personal donation that is a financial stretch for them, anything from $65 to $15,000. Over the course of several months, each giving project member focuses on fundraising in their personal networks, encouraging their friends and families to give at a stretch as well.

The Giving Project has been an effective way for Bread and Roses to maintain its philanthropic values while increasing its ability to give. By having people fundraise in their own networks, it works to break down the taboo around talking about money and donations. By having low income people work right alongside the wealthy, it hopes to break down the class divisions in Philanthropy. It pulls wealth back into the communities that helped to build it, serving as “micro-reparations.” The program has been a resounding success, exceeding its donation targets and bringing in around $270,000. In light of this success, Bread and Roses will now be recruiting for 3 giving projects each year.

With a background in community organizing, Aarati Kasturirangan has been able to bring her unique experiences to community giving. She began her career fighting sexual violence, working as a rape crisis counselor while she earned her PhD in community psychology at the University of Chicago. Her research addressed mental health from a systems perspective, considering the role of oppression in domestic violence. She also organized with the Campus Violence Prevention Center. Her work led her, after a stint as a stay at home mother, to the American Friends’ Services Center, and subsequently to Bread and Roses.

Kasturirangan’s experience with Bread and Roses has given her an interesting perspective on activism and change. She says that working with such different people, a group that includes everyone from struggling single mothers to trust fund kids, can be challenging. Tensions have run high, particularly when discussing issues like race, but ultimately she sees the diversity of the giving project group as an invaluable strength. She sees The Giving Project as a way of disrupting the narrative around class in America. She proposes a “no blame, no shame, no credit” way of looking at class, that acknowledges that class is often given at birth but focuses on moving forward toward equality. She acknowledges that “wealth privilege means getting to choose how your wealth is redistributed” but hopes to be able to use wealth as a community good.

Since its inception, the Bread and Roses Community Fund has been a valuable part of the Philadelphia community. Funneling its wealth toward systems change rather than direct service, the Community Fund hopes to create sustainable, long term change. Its nontraditional philanthropy eschews corporate donations or endowments in favor of individual donations of wildly varying sizes. This way, community members, regardless of their resources, play a part in deciding what causes will be funded, a little part of how their community will be built. The Bread and Roses Community fund provides a more democratic vision of fundraising that could work toward breaking down barriers of class and race in philanthropy.

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