Skip to content
PEAK Grantmaking

Social Justice: Guidepost On The Journey To Equity

The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF) has social justice programmed into our DNA and equity in our future. In 2008, WRF embarked in a new strategic direction with its Moving the Needle strategy. Our mission was to improve the lives of all Arkansans in three interrelated areas: education; economic development; and economic, racial, and social justice. We set bold goals: to increase prosperity, increase educational attainment, strengthen communities, and build the nonprofit infrastructure in Arkansas. A decade later, we have reflected on what we achieved, where we failed, and what we learned along the way. In the past two years, we have examined what it took to be a catalyst for social justice in our state, and ultimately embraced an equitable Arkansas as our new guiding star.

Over the past 10 years, we have learned more about “what it takes” for a funder to support the creation of more just systems and equitable outcomes. We offer what follows as a humble reflection that may be useful to others in the field.

Economic Justice – Equity in Opportunity, Income, and Wealth

God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty.

-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love, 1963

Economic systems must be set up to ensure everyone—especially individuals who have historically been barred from success because of background and circumstance—have no barriers in front of them, receive the support they need, and can access the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in careers that provide for their families and build inter-generational wealth. Put another way by the Center for Economic and Social Justice, “Economic justice, which touches the individual person as well as the social order, encompasses the moral principles which guide us in designing our economic institutions.”

Philanthropy is able to use its changemaking tools—grants, program- and mission- related investments, technical assistance, networking, and convenings—to drive progress to ensure every individual has the education and skills to support vibrant businesses and earn family-supporting wages

What economic justice philanthropy has looked like for Arkansas: During Moving the Needle, WRF established the Expect More Arkansas initiative. Research outlined in the foundation’s Expect More Arkansas: Our Jobs, Our Future report, showed that 70 percent of Arkansas jobs required a high school diploma or less, and the majority of jobs did not pay a family-supporting wage. With these data, we set out to learn what educators, community and business leaders, and policymakers were doing to increase the number of individuals with the skills and knowledge employers needed. We saw first-hand how Arkansans were taking actions to demand, create, and form partnerships to change the workforce development system. We then began to build out these community-led strategies to make what’s working the norm.

Educational Justice – Equity in Opportunity, Resources, and Achievement

I believe that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. And if you care about promoting opportunity and reducing inequality, the classroom is the place to start. Great teaching is about so much more than education; it is a daily fight for social justice.
Secretary Arne Duncan, October 9, 2009

Young people must be prepared with the skills and education to succeed, regardless of what family members that preceded them accomplished. Every person is capable of infinite achievements, and it is our shared onus to ensure that infinite possibility becomes true opportunity. When we invest in the educational success of students, we invest in the resilience of families, what is possible in communities, and what economic systems will accomplish in the future.

Philanthropy is able to bring people together—students, families, educators, employers, and policymakers—to identify gaps, resources, and opportunities that exist in educational systems as well as how to fill gaps, more effectively use resources, and seize opportunities to radically transform the future. Philanthropy also has the opportunity to identify, invest in, and scale what works to improve the educational outcomes of all students.

What educational justice philanthropy looked like for Arkansas: In 2014, WRF was determined to do its part to prepare every Arkansas student to graduate high school prepared to succeed in college and the workplace. And so WRF partnered with the Walton Family Foundation and the Arkansas State Board of Education to establish ForwARd Arkansas. The ForwARd partnership engaged more than 8,500 Arkansas residents to craft a new bipartisan vision for education in the state and outlined steps communities and the state could take to make that vision a reality. ForwARd’s vision—Arkansas will become a national leader in education and close the state’s achievement gap within a generation—set a higher bar for our communities and educational system. In the past four years, we have made significant progress toward achieving ForwARd’s 95 recommendations, and we have supported five communities to serve as demonstration sites for what is possible when residents take collective action to make public education an engine for economic opportunity.

Social and Racial Justice – Equity in Opportunity, Quality of Life, and Life Outcomes

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8

We create a socially and racially just society when all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, immigration status, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, age, geographic location, education, or income, are able to achieve their greatest potential. Racial justice is defined by Race Forward as “the systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all.” At WRF, we made racial justice explicit because structural racism and implicit bias have permeated the history of our state.

Philanthropy should fund research that shows when individuals who are prevented from succeeding because of differences in background and circumstance do succeed, there are more qualified employees and a larger tax base to leverage resources from to invest in future economic returns. Funders are also able to bring organizations together to build capacity, share resources, change the narrative surrounding marginalized individuals, and become a catalyst for community change

What social and racial justice philanthropy has looked like for Arkansas: WRF conducted research on the economic impact of immigrants in the state, which is summarized in the Foundation’s three-volume A Profile of Immigrants in Arkansas report. We found that for every dollar invested in immigrant integration, the state had a $7 return. What’s more, immigrants had a $3.4 billion net economic impact on the state. With this research, WRF and our partners have been able to inform policy and advocate for employers and educators to take action to increase immigrant integration statewide.

What It Takes

Throughout Moving the Needle, economic, educational, social, and racial justice have been a part of the calculus for every decision WRF has made. But keeping justice in mind was never enough. Here are some of the lessons we have taken with us from the past decade:

  • Believe in people and communities. We had to push Arkansas toward a vision of justice, and we along with our partners had to be specific and compelling enough to drive toward the transformation of our communities and state.
  • Tell stories. We used WRF’s voice effectively to shape attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors to ensure state and local leaders saw, celebrated, and did their part to scale what works.
  • Embrace failure. We pushed ourselves to not just accept failure but celebrate it as well because the “facepalm” moments—times when things “went off the rails” and did not go according to plan—are the greatest opportunities for funders to learn.
  • Support the sector. WRF invested in advocates, activists, and ambassadors for policies that advanced justice for working families and their children. We also had to build relationships with unlikely partners and create new initiatives and organizations to drive change.
  • Measure impact to learn. The foundation learned with partners and acknowledged that voices from partners and the communities they served helped WRF track progress to change lives and the state.
  • Be curious when faced with the unexpected. Change was not a linear path, and some of our greatest lessons arose from unintended outcomes that resulted from investing in transforming systems.
  • Invest in operations and innovation rather than programs. WRF provided organizational and back-office support so partners could sustain impact, develop innovative approaches, and learn because we knew programs would not be enough to transform systems.
  • Be comprehensive and ready to play the long game. We needed to build all-encompassing, long-term campaigns with Arkansans to drive an agenda through public will-building, policy change, and partnership with community; and we had to be prepared to invest over the course of a generation.
  • Attract additional resources. The Foundation leveraged relationships with funders across the U.S. to build a thriving and prosperous state that would benefit all
What’s Next

So what’s next for WRF? Our Board has just approved our new six-year strategic direction. It’s too early to say much about it until 2019, but what I can share is our new mission statement, which builds upon all that we’ve learned from the past decade of differences:

To relentlessly pursue economic, educational, social, ethnic, and racial equity for all Arkansans.

In short, stay tuned for equity in Arkansas’s future.