For the Moriah Fund, a New York City philanthropy started by brothers Robert and Clarence Efroymson in 1985, racial equity has always been a centerpiece of its multi-pronged work. The private foundation supports work in educational equity, human rights and reproductive rights, as well as work in Israel.
Moriah recently deepened its equity work by launching the new Black Voices for Black Justice Fund, created to directly support grassroots leaders in their efforts to build an anti-racist America and amplify the voices of Black luminaries across the country. The fund is co-chaired by some prominent leaders, including actress Kerry Washington and former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.
In the first round, 31 awardees received grants of $20,000 and $50,000 to tackle issues like education, criminal justice reform, environmental justice, voting rights and civic engagement. The fund is working to raise a total of $10 million to support additional leaders working to confront racism and promote meaningful change. Awardees come through nomination, rather than by applying.
But just how was the fund able to draw in such headlining names to lead it? And how does Moriah’s move to deepen its social justice work align with the larger philanthropic landscape, which still largely underfunds POC-led organizations and causes?
The history of a progressive Jewish funder
Jacob and Minnie Efroymson arrived in the United States as Jewish immigrants from Europe and settled in Indiana. They were among the first Jews to arrive in Indianapolis in the 1870s and build up the community. Their eldest son, Gustave, helped organize Jewish, African American and Catholic civic leaders in efforts to rid Indianapolis of the Klan in the 1920s. And in the 1930s and 1940s, he signed affidavits for Jews fleeing Germany, helping them find sanctuary in the United States.
Members of the Efroymson family have long been active in philanthropy, helping to create the Indianapolis Foundation and the Central Indiana Community Foundation, and operating another family fund housed at CICF.
When Robert and Clarence Efroymson started the Moriah Fund in 1985, they quickly tapped Robert’s daughter, Mary Ann Stein to serve as long-running president. “When her father and uncle started the foundation, she had a vision of what she wanted to do,” says Gideon Stein, current president of the Moriah Fund.
Continuing the legacy of her family before her, Mary Ann Stein also made equity work a driving force in her life. After graduating from Wellesley, she joined Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, helping register Black voters and living with a Black family in the belly of Jim Crow. At one point, she was even chased by the sheriff’s son in a car before finding refuge in a Black church. These early experiences in her 20s helped shape her worldview, and drove Moriah’s early work with pro-choice organizations, civil rights and civil society work in the West Bank with Palestinians, as well as economic justice work. “Even our environment work in the 1980s and 1990s had a social justice lens,” explains Gideon Stein, who took over the reins of the foundation last year from his mother.
Then the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black Americans by police sparked a surge of activism for racial justice, even in the midst of a pandemic. Moriah’s leadership knew they needed to do something different than what they’d been doing over the past three and a half decades, so Black Voices for Black Justice Fund was born.
“My mom has had a philosophy of giving… you should trust the activist or social entrepreneur to not only solve the problem, but also identify the problem in the first place,” Stein tells me, speaking to the broader social justice funding landscape and why he thinks this new fund is important and unique.
Moriah Fund seeded the Black Voices for Black Justice Fund with an initial six-figure sum—close to $350,000 by Stein’s count. The foundation has vowed to foot the bill for a lot of the early expenses of the fund, doing all the vetting of the nominees and administering the fund. They also built the website and hired a PR firm. “We wanted as close to 100% of the dollars in the hands of the recipients,” he says.
The young fund has now pulled in support from the likes of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation, and Galaxy Gives.
In order to move the needle in this sector, Stein emphasizes that rather than tell nonprofits and leaders what the problem is, foundations need to let these community leaders set the terms and operate with more freedom. Central to this is opening up grants beyond restricted program support. “A lot of big foundations like to fund using project or program support. They define what the project is going to look like, send out an RFP… But we prefer to fund general support,” he says.
The Black Voices for Black Justice Fund aims to identify the social entrepreneurs and activists that are doing grassroots work and empower them with unrestricted support. “For a lot of philanthropy, even big foundations, it would be good if they could find more ways of funding general support rather than having a guidance or threshold of just 15% going to general support. If anything, it seems to me they should flip the equation,” Stein says.
High-profile co-chairs and a promising initial cohort
The Black Voices for Black Justice Fund’s initial few dozen awardees were chosen by its co-chairs, national Black leaders from a range of sectors including Kerry Washington, star of the long-running Shonda Rhimes ABC political thriller “Scandal.” Deeply interested in grassroots power building in marginalized communities, Washington also co-chairs Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote campaign and is the founder of Influence Change 2020, an initiative that partners with nonprofit organizations to increase voter turnout.
One intriguing thing about Influence Change is its use of data-driven analytics to activate audiences for social change. As I’ve written about previously, celebrities and athletes are in uniquely powerful positions to reach large numbers of people through their social media platforms. Washington has some 5.4 million followers on her Twitter account alone.
Other fund leaders include Wes Moore, a Rhodes Scholar who now serves as CEO of Robin Hood Foundation (Moriah Fund supports the organization), Jean Desravines, CEO of New Leaders, and Tenicka Boyd, National Organizing Director of the ACLU.
Then there’s John B. King Jr., former secretary of education under President Barack Obama, who says he joined the Black Voices for Black Justice Fund because he loved its vision. “There are foundations and corporations who have made significant commitments to racial justice work. But for that to be successful, we have to cultivate phenomenal leaders in the Black community and this is the way to invest them. This is a way to turbocharge some of that,” he told me.
A longtime educator, the Harvard, Columbia and Yale Law graduate is currently CEO of Education Trust. Smith was drawn in particular to the work of several awardees in the realm of educational equity. He mentions 23-year-old A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, the youngest person ever elected to the Newark Board of Education. Murray-Thomas launched SHE Wins, a leadership and social action organization for middle and high school girls in Newark, New Jersey. Her motivations are deeply personal, as she lost her own father to gun violence.
King also points to Natasha Alford, VP of digital content and a senior correspondent for The Grio, whose work focuses on the Afro-Latino experience.“Being Black American and Puerto Rican myself, I’m excited that she’s part of the cohort. She’s written some great pieces on her own experience looking for representation in the media for Afro-Latina women and how social media has been a space for this. She also did a great piece on the role of race in Puerto Rico,” King tells me.
He’s excited about the intersectional and inter-sectoral way in which this initial cohort is tackling education, as well as other causes, which run the gamut. Those who stand out often have compelling personal stories that drive their current activist work. Consider Michael “Zaki” Smith, who spent a decade working with youth, eventually losing his job as a collateral consequence of his incarceration. Through the Fair Chance Project and the Next100, Smith works to dismantle laws and barriers that affect the lives of formerly incarcerated Americans, including barriers to voting. Though early in his work, Smith has the ambitious goal of striking down 44,000 laws and barriers that affect the lives of formerly incarcerated Americans.
“The history is that philanthropy has underinvested in organizations led by people of color. But it has also underinvested in the leaders of color themselves,” King says. “In the midst of the national effort to try to dismantle the legacy of 400 years of anti-Blackness, I hope this fund contributes to the broader effort for equity and amplifies a new set of voices in national conversations.”