Lulete Mola, president and co-founder of the Philanthropic Collective to Combat Anti-Blackness and Realize Racial Justice, poses for a portrait in St. Paul. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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The day after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, Lulete Mola called her friends Chanda Smith Baker and Repa Mekha. The three work in Minnesota’s philanthropic and nonprofit sector, Mola for the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, Smith Baker for the Minneapolis Foundation, and Mekha as the leader of Nexus Community Partners. 

“I said, ‘I don’t know what we need to do but we need to do something,” Mola recalled. 

The three knew the local philanthropy scene; as Black people in Minnesota, they also knew the communities that were hurting the most in the moment. They saw an opportunity for philanthropy to do more, and to support the Black community directly while helping advance Black leaders and organizations. 

So they launched a new organization, the Philanthropic Collective to Combat Anti-Blackness and Realize Racial Justice. In July 2020, the collective issued a bold statement, signed by most of the largest players in Minnesota’s philanthropic field, acknowledging that the organizations hadn’t done enough to combat racism.

They announced a goal to raise $25 million to do just that. In the 16 months since, the three have built up the collective on a volunteer basis and raised $3.6 million. In November, the group announced Mola as its first full-time president. 

Mola immigrated to the United States from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with her family when she was six years old. She’s always had a knack for nonprofit advocacy work. As a student at St. Paul’s Central High School, Mola launched “She,” a women’s power and leadership group that expanded to two other schools. She continued working on the project as an undergrad at the University of Minnesota.  After school, she landed a job at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, where she spent eight years, and most recently served as the chief strategy and innovation officer. 

Mola spoke with Sahan Journal about the collective, its future, and how it hopes to deliver a different, more effective form of philanthropy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The collective emerged in response to the murder of George Floyd. Can you tell me a bit more about how the group came together, what you were talking about at the time, and what the initial goals of the collective were?

I co-founded the collective with Chanda Smith Baker and Repa Mekha. We cross three generations and we have varied and yet shared experiences about what it means to be Black in Minnesota. We work in the sector of philanthropy but are also very much rooted in community. 

The system we were closest to was institutional philanthropy. In the course of our careers, we witnessed this sector with so much potential to do good doing the minimum. So while the intention was good, I go back to the Martin Luther King Jr. line, “Philanthropy is commendable, but the philanthropist should not overlook the economic conditions that require philanthropy to exist”. 

There was a real opportunity for philanthropy to go deeper. You may feel bad that this man has been killed, but what are all of us doing as individuals and institutions to interrogate our relationship with racism and anti-Blackness? How much power are we putting behind the changes we want to seek? 

That’s how we came to be. 

How is the collective structured? Is your goal to become an independent organization or to continue to be a group of related organizations?

We’re currently still at Nexus Community Partners, but the goal is to become an independent philanthropic institution that centers Black dignity and works with a collective of philanthropy and community partners. We are in the process of becoming a nonprofit organization. 

There are various foundations focused on different issues and groups of people. We want to become an institution that uses philanthropy as a power for change, centering Black dignity full time. I think that is the gap we’re truly prepared to fill. 

Can you tell me about your strategic planning process and what you learned from it? What will it take to create a Black-led philanthropic organization focusing on racial justice? 

We did a strategic planning process that involved us talking to Black community members, nonprofit organizations, and activists. 

There is a bit of skepticism from folks who signed on. There’s the idea of philanthropy making a lot of promises but not keeping them. People want to know what we’re going to do differently. 

In this sector, you’re either in the community or you’re a funder. What we really want to do is break down that wall, the hierarchy that exists between funder and grantee, to create a space where folks can come in and recognize the genius of a community. Community knows what it wants and where it wants to go. It just needs to be resourced properly. That’s the norm we want to promote. 

We heard there is a real need for a fund to understand the nuances of Black movement-building, the nuances of how multicultural Black people are, how issues exist at the intersection and solutions need to, too. We need a fund that doesn’t see funding Black people as risky but rather as a real opportunity. Time and again, we’ve seen Black movements in this country benefit not just Black people but all oppressed people—and, I would argue, all people. 

Lastly, they asked us to do three things. I have these written on my laptop and I look at them every day. 

  1. Be clear about your strategy and goals. 
  2. Create infrastructure and put a leader in place. 
  3. Be transparent with community 

We don’t have everything figured out. We are truly building. And yet, we feel—and I feel—so deeply in what we’re doing. 

You have a goal of raising $25 million. How is that fundraising going, and are you thinking about how you’ll distribute and invest that money?

We’ve raised $3.6 million. A lot of that was raised as we were doing this without any staff. I have faith that once we’re at capacity we can make our goals. 

We don’t want tragedy to be the center of our work, because that’s really not who Black folks are. That’s what they experience, but that’s not an identity. 

We want to build an institution that will outlast any of us. While we are formed in response to tragedy, we are building with a vision that centers freedom, dignity and abundance. We don’t want tragedy to be the center of our work, because that’s really not who Black folks are. That’s what they experience, but that’s not an identity. 

We are going to make grants. I’m hoping we have those ready by spring 2022. We will be using a participatory grantmaking process, meaning we’re inviting what I call community builders who have experienced injustice, but have a different vision for living in this community. We want them to help us make funding decisions and focus where the funding will go. They will help us evaluate how well we did. That’s a way to get community ownership and buy-in of what we’re building. 

Really, what we want is to build philanthropic power. We want to make the way we do things the norm in the sector.

We’ve raised $3.6 million. Let’s say we give out $1 million really well. That’s great. But if you’re not influencing other institutions to give in a more just manner, at the end of the day you only gave out $1 million. Maybe more foundations could have a portfolio that funds Black movements and leaders. The possibilities are endless.  

Let’s say we give out $1 million really well. That’s great. But if you’re not influencing other institutions to give in a more just manner, at the end of the day you only gave out $1 million. Maybe more foundations could have a portfolio that funds Black movements and leaders.

Sometimes philanthropy can be associated with wealthy people telling poor people what to do to get better. How are you going to ensure that everyday people in Minnesota’s Black community have a seat at the table? How will those voices be incorporated? 

If we’re doing this right, the people you described will have the majority of seats at the table, if not all. It starts with us being those people. Going home, not clocking out at 5 p.m., because we are coming home to our community members who are experiencing the issues we are trying to solve. 

In the strategic planning process, people were asking for proximity. If you’re not next to issues you’re trying to solve, you don’t have the sense of urgency. And if you’re not feeling urgent about the harm of racism, what you will do to eliminate it is not as strong as if you feel like the lives of your parents, children, and neighbors depend on it. 

We want Black folks not just in the programming side, but in the giving and governing side.

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Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...