We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. – Freedom’s Journal, 1827
In April 2022, Democracy Fund announced our new organizational strategy with a commitment to investing in the power and leadership of communities of color to strengthen and expand the pro-democracy movement and undermine those who threaten the ideals of our inclusive, multiracial democracy. It’s a bold, ambitious plan that will steadily guide us as we navigate both known and unforeseen challenges affecting our democracy.
The digital media platforms and systems that now comprise so much of today’s civic engagement and community life have become essential for staying informed and connected. But many of the platforms that people turn to have also been weaponized by hate groups, authoritarians, and other bad actors to suppress and depress voter turnout, harass women and people of color, spread divisive disinformation, and violate civil rights laws. The power to control conversations and filter information lies with just a handful of private companies.
With this in mind, our Public Square program has revised its Digital Democracy strategies in line with our new organizational strategy to better meet the moment we are in. We envision a society where Black, Indigenous, and people of color fully and equitably create, access, and enjoy media and technology that represents their needs, concerns, and dreams. As a result, America’s public square becomes more inclusive and contributes to a thriving pro-democracy movement.
Our new five-year strategies are the result of many thoughtful conversations with our grantees and lessons from the field. We cannot overstate how much we appreciate the expertise, passion, and creativity of these organizations, whose staff are working on the frontlines of these issues. Our grantees are always one step ahead, and their pivots have often preceded the challenges other researchers and analysts have eventually spotted. We look forward to continuing our collaborative approach with our grantees, as we aim for transformative impact together.
The strategies below are focused on our Digital Democracy work, which makes up half of our Public Square team’s grantmaking. In addition to the Digital Democracy strategy updates, you can find updates about our Equitable Journalism work here. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on what elements excite you, and we know we have a tremendous responsibility to help make these ideas a reality.
Building power for an inclusive, multiracial democracy through the digital public square
Our Digital Democracy strategy is working toward an inclusive, multiracial democracy in the United States where civil and human rights online are respected and grounded in an equitable civic infrastructure that is open, just, resilient, and trustworthy. To get there, we believe we need a more comprehensive policy analysis and movement-building agenda for how we will support the media and digital systems we need beyond traditional commercial markets. At every step, the movement will be led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color, who have experienced disproportionately low levels of digital ownership and creation opportunities and disproportionately high levels of harm on digital platforms.
In support of this future, our Public Square program will be funding digital democracy efforts through two areas of focus:
- Our Equitable Civic Infrastructure initiative will fund organizations that build public pressure to change media and telecommunication policy at the state and federal levels. This work will create the equitable access to the news and information Americans need to thrive.
- Our Civil & Human Rights Online initiative will fund organizations that are reigning in the systems and structures that make online spaces so toxic and dangerous. By applying principles like antidiscrimination, public accommodations, and equal protection under the law, they are transforming how we experience the internet.
These areas of focus build on our learnings from the last five years, especially informed by our conversations with our grantees about how philanthropy needs to meet this moment in our democracy, the longtime harms media has perpetuated that got us here, and the role of philanthropy in exacerbating these challenges. We have collected some of that learning in a recent evaluation ORS Impact produced. We were also guided by an advisory group including Alicia Bell of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, Courtney Lewis of the Institute for Nonprofit News, Jessica Gonzáles of Free Press, Lizzy Hazeltine of the NC Local News Lab Fund, and Chenjerai Kumanyika of New York University.
Some changes you will see in our digital democracy funding
In the next five years, we are focusing our support on the leaders and organizations that can combat the inequitable systems that have limited internet access, stymied local journalism, and led to widespread discrimination online. To advance our goals, we need race-conscious equitable government intervention into our tech and media systems, and we must invest in state and local base building. And at every step, establishing civil and human rights online is imperative to support the communities facing harms caused by these platforms, while working to address the underlying causes. This intentional shift from reactionary pivots to a long-term vision will allow for hopeful, future-focused movement-building led by BIPOC voices.
A few of the key shifts include:
- Our new strategy includes a focus on platforms but expands beyond that to the full suite of infrastructure that constitutes our digital public square; and our tactics have homed in on the role of enforceable rules through the courts and government agencies.
- We now recognize the important role of organizing, both to impact outcomes at the local level where early legislative wins can scale up, and to better connect national issues with the last-mile impact on communities. There can be no lasting change without a movement of people supporting it.
- We understand that civil and human rights laws are the best opportunity to enforce the equitable treatment people need in online spaces to fully participate in our digital public square, and we will invest accordingly in enforcing these laws.
As we begin implementing our new strategies, we’re motivated by the opportunities for learning and growth, and we will be transparent, accessible, and accountable along the way. We are excited to invest in organizations that demonstrate excellence in building and executing programs aligned with our strategic priorities; exhibit a solid racial justice analysis; employ BIPOC in senior leadership roles; and work in concert with aligned efforts to build the power of marginalized communities.
Moving into the next five years
There is no doubt that the threats we face online are affecting civic participation, not to mention people’s physical and mental health. But there is a swell of support building to shift our relationship with digital media, with a particular emphasis on holding tech companies accountable. All across the United States, we see people recognizing the power they have over tech companies and imagining what a more transparent and less polarized future could look like in this digital age. As a philanthropic organization, we have a responsibility to help build a healthier digital media ecosystem, where people’s rights are protected and the civic information people receive is accurate and dependable. A key part of our new strategies will also be continuing to partner with other funders to meet this moment.
There are still many decisions left about who and how we will fund to make this vision a reality. We’ll be sharing more information, updating our website, and considering new grantees in 2023 and we welcome your partnership and accountability along this journey. If you have questions about our new strategy, don’t hesitate to reach out. We are grateful for your partnership and energized for our collective future.