Investing in the Mission to Address Racial Economic Inequality in America’s First Suburb
By Tonya Thomas, The Long Island Community Foundation
The month of January signifies a new beginning and brings the annual opportunity to spend a day celebrating the life and legacy of the civil rights activist, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In one of Dr. King’s lesser-known speeches, delivered at the Fourth Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO in December 1961, he spoke of “A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed.” Dr. King spoke of “the day when we shall bring into full realization the dream…yet unfulfilled.”
This year has brought with it social and political upheavals the likes of which this country has not seen in a very long time. The culmination of recent events has shown that our nation continues to wrestle with many of the same issues of equity and racism that Dr. King sought to address and there still exist strong forces that are committed to denying that equity of opportunity that he was striving for. Long Island is not immune to that struggle and fortunately there is work being done by community and philanthropic leaders to ameliorate the injustices experienced by many Long Islanders. At least one-third of the families on Long Island are eligible for public assistance and unfortunately, state and federal agencies do not provide enough resources in the communities that need it most. Because of systemic racism and the resulting segregation that has shaped Long Island, Black families have found it particularly difficult to succeed economically.
The Long Island Community Foundation (LICF) has long taken on the role as a local broker to take the lead on these issues, to build the capacity of nonprofits, and bring community, financial and intellectual resources to the table. Since 1978, the Foundation has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of groups working on racial equity issues connected to financial security and has provided critical seed funding for several Black-led organizations.
In response to the need for increased investment in Black-led organizations and racial justice initiatives on the Island, LICF has been working with the Urban League of Long Island and the State of Black Long Island (SOBLI) — a council of Blacks with ties to Long Island that was developed to secure economic, political and social equity for Black Long Islanders.
LICF and donor partner Citi, saw the need to validate SOBLI’s work with reliable data. For that reason, they approached PolicyLink, which conducted a study, “An Equity Profile of Long Island,” which found that the region — Nassau and Suffolk Counties, that had a combined annual economy of $120 billion, was losing $24 billion a year as a result of racial economic disparities. The report also stated that the financial loss would only continue growing without intervention that would create equity for Black residents. This report and a subsequent report, released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, highlighted two major challenges — lack of access to credit and financial exclusion for Black Long Islanders. SOBLI and other local community organizations have endeavored to address these realities through research-informed policies and programs that will improve the economic wellbeing of Black Long Islanders.
To further support SOBLI’s agenda and other similar social justice work on Long Island, LICF established the Long Island Racial Equity Donor Collaborative in 2018. Representatives from member institutions — Apple Bank, BankUnited, BNB Bank, Capital One, Citi, JPMorgan Chase, The Long Island Community Foundation, Long Island Unitarian Universalist Fund, M&T Bank, Nassau Financial Federal Credit Union, Santander Bank, Surdna Foundation, and William E. & Maude S. Pritchard Charitable Trust) — have been pooling their resources to support strategies to address systemic racial inequities impacting the economic health of Black Long Islanders.
LICF and the collaborative members adopted a place-based funding approach in effort to work with the community for change. What followed was many meetings with community members, a landscape study conducted by Urban Institute and funded by donor partner JPMorgan Chase, the launch of a region-wide request for proposals, and seven grants to provide the critical tools to aid leaders in understanding the racial economic equity landscape and develop plans that will increase the number of living-wage jobs available and/or improve credit access. Additional grants will be awarded to support the development of comprehensive strategies for greatest regional impact.
The Long Island Racial Equity Donor Collaborative is fostering a call for change in our community. Its work will serve as a test case in what is often called America’s first suburb and once proven successful, can be used as a model for systems change and public and private investment elsewhere. In alignment with Dr. King’s legacy of empowering and uplifting the voices of everyday people in the fight for social and economic equity, the work of the Collaborative is not only designed to improve the performance of nonprofits on Long Island, but also to amplify local community voices to launch systemic change.