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‘We are going to do big things because of it.’ New racial equity fund gives out first $1m to nonprofits

Elevated Thought youth artists (from left) Celeste Cruz, Mariana Perez, and Leida Mane.
Elevated Thought youth artists (from left) Celeste Cruz, Mariana Perez, and Leida Mane.Elevated Thought

Elevated Thought, a Lawrence nonprofit that uses art to drive social justice, will finally be able to hire a youth organizer. Brockton Interfaith Community can now afford to bring on another staffer, while Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services can offset the cost of running a remote learning center for low-income families in Springfield.

These organizations, all led by people of color, are among the first to receive grants from the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund — launched in July by Black and brown business executives to fight systemic racism after the killing of George Floyd. The group is handing out $1 million — $50,000 each to 20 organizations across the state.

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For some of the grantees, the money is a game changer.

“That’s everything,” said William Dickerson II, executive director of Brockton Interfaith Community, which builds leaders through community organizing. “We are going to do big things because of it.”

The New Commonwealth fund is groundbreaking for its mission to change philanthropic and corporate giving by creating a more equitable funding process and steering more money to nonprofits helmed by Black and brown leaders. Studies have shown that Black- and brown-led charitable organizations are chronically underfunded, compared to white-led counterparts.

Recipients range from grass-roots groups like Elevated Thought and Brockton Interfaith to prominent organizations such as the Chelsea Collaborative, Lawyers for Civil Rights, and the NAACP Boston branch.

The fund aims to support nonprofits working on policing and criminal justice reform, health care equity, economic empowerment, and youth education and civic engagement. The first batch of funding aims to support organizations focused on addressing the impact of COVID-19 in Black and brown communities, which have been disproportionately hurt by the virus.

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Last week, the 19 Black and brown executives who launched the New Commonwealth fund met on Zoom with leaders from the 20 organizations to tell them they would be receiving grants.

“It was the best Zoom call I have had,” recalled Dr. Myechia Minter-Jordan, a cofounder of the New Commonwealth fund and chief executive of DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement. “It was such a different dynamic. There was no hierarchy. They are the ones who are going to lead us.”

So far the fund has raised about $25 million in seed money and pledges with major donations from Eastern Bank, State Street, DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation. Many of the Black and brown executives who launched the fund work at these companies. Starting in 2021, the fund plans to award money in two cycles per year.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has also launched a fund to address racial inequities, and some members of the New Commonwealth fund are serving on the city steering committee to coordinate efforts.

Activity and creation at the Elevated Thought headquarters in Lawrence.
Activity and creation at the Elevated Thought headquarters in Lawrence. Elevated Thought

Even in the first round of giving, the New Commonwealth fund sought to do things differently. Some of the grantees had never heard of the New Commonwealth fund. Instead the fund reached out to organizations to apply for money.

That, said Marquis Victor, founding executive director of Elevated Thought, is a rarity in the nonprofit world and a welcome change. He attended a Zoom call in October arranged by the fund’s consultant, Jocelyn Sargent, and a founding fund member, Fidelity Investments executive Pamela Everhart.

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It was a chance for Victor to explain how Elevated Thought works with youth ages 12 to 24, using art as a form of activism for social change. For its “What is Education?” campaign, participants created a short film, wrote a book, painted public murals, and organized listening sessions across Lawrence.

For small nonprofit such as his — he has only one other staffer — Victor also appreciated the ease of the funding process. “We had a conversation, and we provided really basic documents,” said Victor. “It was wonderful. I couldn’t believe it.”

Victor will use the $50,000 to hire a youth organizer, which he had planned to do in 2021 but had yet to identify funding.

“It was going to work out somehow,” Victor said. “Now I can take a breath.”

Ronn Johnson, chief executive of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield, had heard about the New Commonwealth fund and was eager to apply for money. He also marveled at the ease of what he described as a “trust-based” grant-making process that puts more onus on the funder to do due diligence.

MLK Family, with about three dozen staffers and a budget of $1.7 million, provides services to about 750 people every week, from food distribution to crisis support.

The nonprofit normally runs an after-school program, as well, but with Springfield K-12 schools going remote-only this fall, it redeployed staff to set up a remote learning center for about 40 children from first through seventh grades. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., children are supervised as they take classes online.

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Johnson said he knew MLK families would need affordable child care because many parents are essential workers, from nursing assistants to security guards, who cannot work from home and watch their children.

But the learning center has been running a huge loss because MLK is heavily subsidizing the child care. Johnson said a family, on average, pays only $50 to $100 a week, a fraction of the market rate.

The New Commonwealth grant will help offset the loss, as well as allow the Springfield nonprofit to hire a consultant to refine fund-raising strategies.

“Many times we don’t get that look from Boston-based foundations here in the city of Springfield,” Johnson said, but “we have many of the same issues [as] in other urban settings across the state.”



Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.