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Democratizing Grantmaking To Support Climate, Health and Equity

Pakou Hang arrived in the U.S. when she was 15 days old. Her parents, Hmong political refugees fleeing the Ban Vinai Camp in northeast Thailand, carried little else with them.

But they arrived with a talent: they knew how to bring good food from the ground.

men, women, and children standing and smiling.
Pakou Hang (second from left) with her family. Her parents were Hmong political refugees fleeing from northeast Thailand. (Photo courtesy of Pakou Hang)

“The Hmong are geniuses as farmers,” Ms. Hang says. “Agriculture is woven through our lives. It’s how we orient our memory—occasions are recalled by when they occurred in the planting season. It’s how we organize our lifestyles. How we reinforce our kinship and village ties. How we provide for our futures.”

Selling their produce at a farmers’ market in St. Paul, Minnesota, allowed Ms. Hang’s parents to invest in her education, which took her to Yale and then the University of Minnesota Twin Cities for her Master’s. She founded the Hmong American Farmers Association in 2012.

One of Pakou Hang’s family’s farm tables at the St. Paul Farmers Market this October. (Photo courtesy of Pakou Hang)

Last summer, Ms. Hang, 46, now Director of the New American Majority Fund – Democracy Alliance, participated in creating Growing Justice, a newly launched effort aimed at transforming and democratizing grantmaking.

Food systems practitioners from diverse communities developed Growing Justice and will oversee it together with The Rockefeller Foundation, Native American Agriculture Fund, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

It will support racial equity by funding only BIPOC-led and -allied organizations, and will support climate-friendly agriculture and healthy food by increasing the role of community organizations in good food procurement, which aims to shift billions of food purchasing dollars spent by schools, hospitals and other institutions to nourishing, sustainable, local and equitably sourced food.

An Inclusive Process Rooted in Equity

“What’s really exciting about this fund is how it shifts the power to make resource decisions,” says Noah Cohen-Cline, the Foundation’s Food Initiative Director. “The work will be best if it is shaped by those closest to it, and this is a push toward more inclusive practices that give communities agency over their own development plans. It also gets resources to smaller, BIPOC-led, community-oriented organizations that have long been excluded.”

man standing holding lettuce in his arm
Erika Allen of Urban Growers Collective, which operates eight urban farms, primarily on Chicago’s South Side. Ms. Allen co-designed Growing Justice and sits on its Advisory Committee. (Photo Courtesy of Urban Growers Collective)

“This isn’t how philanthropy often works,” says Cohen-Cline, “including here at The Rockefeller Foundation. But there are an increasing number of practitioner- and community-led funds inviting foundations to join them. I know that everyone involved in creating Growing Justice hopes it will serve as one model for greater equity in philanthropy.”

  • We are often told ‘you are good enough to work 18-hour days growing those tomatoes, but not good enough to be at the table and contribute to decisions about who should get support.' The work on this fund recognized our intellectual capital and our humanity. It says, ‘this is your space too.’'
    Pakou Hang
    Director, New American Majority Fund, Democracy Alliance

“In creating Growing Justice through an affirming, inclusive process, we fertilized the ground. Through the criteria we set up, rooted in equity, we planted the seeds,” Ms. Hang says. “So, I think it will not only bloom, but bear fruit, and be plentiful.”

Across developed markets, the dominant food system has often exploited farm workers, kept minority groups from accessing land and agricultural financing, excluded low-income and minority communities from healthy food access, and polluted the water and air in rural communities.

In the U.S. between 1900 and 2017, the percent of farmers who identify as white increased from 87 percent to 96 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the proportion of Black farmers declined from 13 percent to 1.4 percent. Some 6.3 percent of farmers identify as Latino, 1.1 percent as Asian, and .6 percent as Indigenous.

This is why it is critically important that the Growing Justice fund center its work on BIPOC-led organizations, says Erika Allen, co-founder & CEO, Strategic Development and Programs for Urban Growers Collective, which operates eight urban farms, primarily on Chicago’s South Side.

“Huge amounts of wealth were generated from enslavement and related policies that inhibited BIPOC farmers and businesses from equal access to capital, as well as exploitation of the environment,” says Ms. Allen, who is a member of the Growing Justice inaugural Advisory Committee. “This was horrific and created historic trauma. We cannot fix the underlying problems without addressing the root cause of injustice.”

Climate Change as A Focus

Another key goal of the fund is to support farmers using sustainable and regenerative practice to fight climate change.

Kari Jo Lawrence grew up on a North Dakota cattle ranch, a member of the Hidatsa tribe. One of her first memories, at about age three, is of standing on the seat of her family’s pickup truck and steering it on a low gear through the fields while her dad stood in the truck’s bed throwing feed to the cows, and her baby brother sat next to her in a car seat.

sunflower field
Flowers Outside the South Chicago Urban Growers Collective Growing Dome. (Photo Courtesy of Urban Growers Collective)

She continues that steady steering now as the Executive Director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council after 20 years of working for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. She served on the committee that helped design Growing Justice and believes the fund offers an opportunity to help both the Earth itself and Indigenous communities like hers heal.

“We cannot separate humans from the Earth,” she says. “They are holistically joined. We have to support community farming that also prioritizes protecting the environment and the soil.”

Ms. Allen agrees, and notes this will cause a shift in mindset. “Creating sustainability through these practices requires that we change our perspective about what is valuable,” says Allen. “We also have to understand the responsibility of accumulated wealth to repair and restore some of these systems.”

Ms. Hang noted the fund has the potential to help those most exposed to climate change chaos. “We don’t have a word in our language for climate change, but we understand the concept and know it is real,” she says. “Immigrant farmers are especially vulnerable to climate change, because if a rainstorm takes out four acres, that can be 40 percent of their business gone. And they have no safety nets. A fund like this tries to equalize the playing field.”

The Importance of Connection

Angel Mendez, 45, like Allen a member of the Growing Justice Advisory Committee, grew up in inner city Boston with a single mother living under the poverty line. His personal farming experience is limited to a home garden and chickens, but the Executive Director of Red Tomato, a Northeast food distribution nonprofit, is motivated by the goal of improving resilience for family farms and increasing food equity.

He was, in fact, moved to tears by what happened after he connected Connecticut growers to community food distributors in March 2020 in a pilot program to reimagine procurement processes.

  • Not only had the distributors overlooked local growers in favor of larger retailers, but the growers themselves had lost knowledge of where their food goes. To know what they grow is making an impact was really important to them.
    Angel Mendez
    Executive Director, Red Tomato

Mendez, who served as Red Tomato’s Director of Operations before being named Executive Director in 2019, is deeply committed to the value of equity. “I think my role in this movement is to bridge the work into underserved communities,” he says. “If we are going to change the food system, we have to change it for everyone.”

In Memory of a Mother

For Ms. Hang, the birth of the Growing Justice fund comes at a poignant moment. In July, as her parents headed home after a day farming, her mother was killed when someone driving a stolen car slammed into her parents’ vehicle.

“So much that I know about justice and dignity of work, I learned from my parents, and from seeing what they were denied,” Ms. Hang says. “On the last day of her life, my mother was farming.”

woman holding a child on her lap
Pkou Hang’s late mother Phoua Thao Hang with her nephew Chufue. (Photo Courtesy of Pakou Hang)

“I feel vulnerable without her in a way I never have. But I try to meet this loss through thinking about the seasons, and the farming. All the things she grew, I am eating now. In the spring, my mother planted herbs when she found out my younger sister was pregnant, and we are starting to harvest those herbs now. My mother was about the power of farming and community and dreams and working together. So, for me, continuing this work is a way to honor her.”