How can we build power among Silicon Valley residents who don’t have it?

How can we build power among Silicon Valley residents who don’t have it?

Power – if you are lucky enough to have it, you might not actively think about it much. If you don’t have power, it may feel unlikely that you could ever have it. Power is a concept everyone is familiar with, but most people will struggle to describe it. The idea of power and how to build it for those who historically have not had it is becoming central to all of Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s grantmaking initiatives.  

To help explain what we mean and outline the change we hope to advance through our grantmaking, consider this real-life scenario: It’s late 2019. You and your family live in a crowded apartment in Daly City, and you struggle to afford the rent despite working multiple jobs. You are undocumented and speak only enough English to get by. One day, a letter from your landlord arrives and explains that you are going to be evicted from your apartment on December 31. You start to panic and wonder what you did wrong. You always pay your bills and have been a responsible tenant. You ask around the building and discover that many of your neighbors received the same letter. You begin to feel resigned to being evicted and displaced.

What happens next is a demonstration of the kinds of power shifts we hope to invest in over the next few years. In this real-life story in 2019, one of the tenants at this building in Daly City spoke to a community organizer at Faith in Action Bay Area (FIA), an SVCF grantee. After asking around, FIA organizers and their executive director, Lorena Melgarejo, were able to determine that landlords were purposely evicting tenants to avoid being bound by the rules of new legislation that would take effect in the new year. Under this new law, AB 1482, which SVCF supported, landlords are prohibited from evicting tenants without just cause (such as the failure to pay rent). The law also established limits on how much landlords can raise rents. As 2019 drew to a close, many landlords decided to evict their tenants before the law went into effect.

The FIA team realized quickly they needed elected officials to pass emergency eviction moratoriums to prevent this. They organized people, built coalitions and advocated for policy changes to protect the tenants in Daly City. Through hard work, FIA and their partners were soon bringing dozens of people to the meetings of the City Council. They engaged organizations in coalition, including Youth Leadership Institute, to broaden their reach. FIA and tenants met with members of the City Council to state their case. They also engaged with media outlets to put a face to the evictions and deliver a narrative about the injustice of evictions. After a few weeks, the City Council passed an eviction moratorium, and the tenants were able to stay in their homes without fear. That is power-building.  

Usually in these scenarios, those facing eviction are nearly powerless to change their circumstances. The reality of power in this country is that it is disproportionately held by small and unrepresentative groups of people. Those who hold power often wield it in unseen ways. They make substantial contributions to campaigns and get more access to elected officials. They lean on connections in the media to influence the way stories are told. They draft laws that benefit the corporations they invest in and the special interests they represent. 

One can’t talk about power in America without acknowledging that it is disproportionately held by white people. The disparities in our society between white people and people of color, which became even more evident last year, can be attributed directly to this power imbalance. We’re still living with the result of decades of policies and practices that denied people of color access to capital. Our healthcare system provides the best care only to those who can afford it. Our police forces continue to shoot unarmed Black and brown people at higher rates than white people. The rate at which change can happen is directly tied to how much power communities of color can build in the next few years. 

Our own data shows that in recent years SVCF has tended to invest discretionary grantmaking dollars in larger organizations that are not led by people from the communities they serve. Beginning with our first grants from the Community Catalyst Fund, issued last month, we will invest more in organizations headed by Black leaders, Indigenous leaders and people of color, and in allied organizations, that center racial justice in their missions. Our other collaborative efforts, such as the California Black Freedom Fund and the LatinXCEL Fund, will help us reinforce that commitment. 

FIA operates on a principle that people closest to the pain should be closest to the power. By investing in organizations that empower communities that are closest to the pain, we can shift power. At SVCF, we know that to build a Silicon Valley where all can live financially secure, safe and fulfilling lives, we need to ensure that communities of color can build and exercise their own power to help decide the future of our region.

In the next few months, SVCF will share updates as we continue to make new grants and open requests for proposals (RFPs). If you are a fundholder at SVCF, we invite you to invest in our new Movement-Building Fund at SVCF (donate here). For organizations doing the critical work to organize people, build coalitions and advocate for policy change, please reach out to set up a conversation with our team by emailing grants@siliconvalleycf.org.