This is a story about a relationship between a legal advocacy organization (ArchCity Defenders) and a philanthropic funder (the Amplify Fund) that is grounded in mutual trust. We came together around a campaign to close a jail and to redirect its resources back into the hands of the community it’s harming. Our story is about small moments gone right against a backdrop of problematic relationships and power dynamics between funders and the organizations they purport to support. We’ve found that it is in the mundane, everyday moments where we most frequently have the capacity to choose: the violence of the status quo, or the transformative possibility of trying something new. We share our practices for funders and grantees pursuing equity in and through their implementation relationships.

Blake Strode: I am the executive director of ArchCity Defenders (ACD), based in St. Louis, Missouri. ACD engages in direct representation, civil litigation, media, and public engagement, and close partnerships with organizers across the St. Louis region. We take a holistic approach, meaning that we provide a range of legal and nonlegal supports to our clients, and we engage in individual and systemic advocacy that is varied and multifaceted. We work with people seeking to rebuild their lives after being targeted and punished by a criminal legal system of police, courts, and jails in communities struggling to overcome decades of neglect, disinvestment, state violence, and exploitation. Our client relationships are the most important part of our work and are a model for the relationships we pursue with colleagues, partner organizations, funders, and the greater St. Louis community.

I come to this work as a proud native son of St. Louis, a queer Black man, and a former athlete-turned-litigator-turned-executive director, an attorney by profession, and an advocate by vocation. My life was forever changed by the 2014 uprising in Ferguson. Just a few days after Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by police, and left lying on the hot August pavement for the world to see, I was set to depart St. Louis for my final year of law school. Like so many others, I watched the uprising in my hometown with a bevy of emotions: fury at the all-too-familiar sight of white supremacy and racist violence; deep distrust of the institutions marshaling to justify and rationalize the injustice; and growing pride in the brave young people calling an entire nation to account. At that moment I knew, contrary to my earlier intentions, that I aspired to return to St. Louis and be a part of the fight for justice.

Read the full article about centering equity in funding relationships by Blake Strode and Amy Morris at Stanford Social Innovation Review.