students march for gun reform in los angeles. Karl_Sonnenberg/shutterstock
Support for advocacy was front and center in a recent group of grants from the California Wellness Foundation. Many of the $13.4 million in grants went to support youth activism and preventing gun violence. The foundation said the efforts of young people to push for gun control following the Parkland shooting inspired the gifts.
Advocacy may seem like an odd focus for a public health funder, but Cal Wellness’ CEO Judy Belk argues that’s a misconception.
“Wellness requires having some measure of control, some way to influence the policy decisions that affect your health, and the health of your family and community,” Belk said. “We have deep respect for the voices of the people whose lives are at the center of every health policy—the ones who will be living with the effects of those policy decisions day after day. We are committed to supporting them through our grantmaking and by lifting our voice alongside them in advocating for equity and justice.”
As part of its commitment to advocacy, Cal Wellness made donations to support underrepresented groups learn leadership and policy advocacy skills to improve health in their communities. Those grants went to the East Bay Community Foundation in Oakland, Inland Empowerment in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, Korean Resource Center and Southeast Asian Community Alliance in Los Angeles, and Engage San Diego. And subcontracted tech workers in Silicon Valley will fight for portable benefits with a grant made to Working Partnerships USA.
Those gifts are in keeping with the foundation’s past focus on reaching the marginalized, unheard members of society. Earlier this spring, Cal Wellness devoted $13 million to bettering health outcomes for women of color. The grants focused on prison reform, and awareness and treatment for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. The two spaces aren’t strangers to philanthropic support, but women of color are often forgotten for other communities more visibly affected.
The more interesting grants though, are the ones inspired by the student activism that’s come out of the Parkland shooting. The grants are the latest sign that student activists that have taken up gun control in the wake of Parkland have captured and held the national attention in a way that hasn’t happened following other mass shootings.
The Cal Wellness grants hope to capitalize the momentum coming out of Parkland’s student activism. Some of the grants are going to organizations that support gun reform, but others will go to organization promoting youth advocacy around other issues, like Mobilize the Immigrant Vote, California Youth Connection and SchoolHouse Connection. The latter two will work with homeless kids and those in foster care to communicate their health and education needs to policymakers.
The gifts to prevent gun violence went to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. Everytown, of course, has strong philanthropic ties—Michael Bloomberg started the organization.
Cal Wellness was also among the funders that last year launched a new effort to curb gun violence in California, the Hope and Heal Fund. Three other health grantmakers also contributed to the fund—Blue Shield of California Foundation, the California Endowment, and Sierra Health Foundation—along with several other funders, including the Heising-Simons Foundation.
In an interview with Inside Philanthropy, Brian Malte, who leads the Hope and Heal Fund, said that gains could be made against gun violence by backing proven interventions at the local level—for example, by enforcing laws that restrict access to guns by domestic abusers. Malte said: “there are a lot of really good and promising community strategies that are combating gun violence. But those strategies aren’t being lifted up."
Cal Wellness sees its grants in this area—which it frames as gun violence prevention, rather than gun control or reform—as natural fits for its public health mission. “Gun violence is a public health issue, and it can be prevented,” said Sande Smith, the foundation’s communications director.
“At our core, we are a public health foundation tackling issues which impact a broad segment of families and communities—especially those who are most vulnerable,” Smith said. “Like other public health issues, gun violence can be addressed with public education, behavior changes and human will, and sensible public policy.”
Gun safety has been the focus of a small, but growing group of funders for some time. The major players are the Joyce Foundation—which has funded the work since 1993—the David Bohett Foundation, better known for its work championing LGBTQ rights, the Kendeda Fund, the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Much of the national work tends to focus on research. In that way, foundations fill the void left by the federal government, which banned stopped funding research on gun violence in the 1990s. A recent gift from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation fits this bill. The funder pledged $20 million to research, with the hope that other philanthropists will join the collaborative and provide an additional $30 million.
Even as new national funders like Arnold come to the table, gun violence has also drawn in more local foundations who see practical ways to make progress on this issue that don’t hinge on overcoming the intense political polarization around guns in Washington, D.C. Beyond the work underway in California, funders are behind initiatives in different cities to reduce the carnage from guns.
Most notably, a spike in violence in Chicago in recent years prompted several foundations based in the city, including the Joyce Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, to form the Chicago Fund for Safe and Peaceful Communities.
The rise of student activism in the wake of the Parkland shooting has injected new energy into gun reform efforts, especially around advocacy efforts. A goal of Cal Wellness recent grants is to help young activists reach policymakers and hopefully spur legislative change, specifically on the state level.
The foundation’s focus on state-level gains is in line with the broader strategy of gun reform activists. Congress has proven unwilling to take action on modest reforms, so groups eager for policy wins have turned their attentions to state legislatures. Gun safety activists, like those Cal Wellness is backing, have a sympathetic ear in California’s state government. The state bans assault weapons and in 2014 passed a law that allows concerned family members and law enforcement to work with courts to temporarily take guns from someone determined to be a risk to themselves or others.
In March, hundreds of thousands of Californians turned for the March of Lives, which took place in many cities around the state in parallel with the national march in Washington, D.C.