Healing Justice: What Is Philanthropy’s Role?

By Rhea Bailey

Movement work can be affirming, invigorating, validating, and nourishing. But for leaders in the struggle, the work can also be rife with internal and and external conflict, isolation, overwork, and oppression. In the midst of the current political landscape, many of our grantees are grappling with the ways they have been personally impacted by trauma and oppression even as they battle the same struggles in their communities. At GSF, we’ve been exploring how we, as funders, can support movements in creating ample space within their organizations to cultivate resilience, wholeness, vulnerability and strength. We spent the past few months talking with funders, organizers, and practitioners who are thinking deeply about how to  develop and expand healing and transformation resources in our movements to learn about how we might engage.

For generations, individuals and collectives have been engaged in practices such as song, dance, storytelling, laughter, and prayer as pathways to liberation.  These healing practices are rooted in the context of community and relationship and have served as an essential component of successful social change and power building efforts. More recently, “healing justice” has been developed as a movement strategy by queer and trans movement leaders of color who saw a need to center their wholeness and collective wellness in response to the wounds caused by the cumulative effects of racism, homophobia, and systemic oppression. They assert that our collective liberation is tied to the healing of trauma, both past and present. In fact, some would say that healing work is the most essential component of the pursuit of justice. As Cara Page of the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective has said, “our movements themselves have to be healing, or there is no point to them.”

Healing justice is about honoring the sacred fabric that binds us all as one. It is about re-imagining our movement organizations to be simultaneously spaces of power-building and healing. It is about measuring the success of our movements not just in campaign wins and losses, but also in how well we take care of each other, the quality of our relationships, and the ability of our teams to bring their whole selves to the work. The goal is to create a global society free of oppression, isolation, inequity — and to embody those values within our own organizations and networks.

Lessons for Philanthropy

As GSF begins to explore how to meaningfully contribute to the healing of communities whose well-being has historically been overlooked and undervalued, we’ve identified key lessons from our philanthropic colleagues, grantees, and practitioners that will guide our strategy.

  1. Dedicated Resources.  For many movement leaders, restorative practices have long been an integral part of their organizing practice. Unfortunately, that work has often gone unfunded. In some cases, organizations have been told by funders that healing justice isn’t the “real work,” and that greater emphasis should be placed on outcomes and productivity. When philanthropy prioritizes funding strategies that focus on connection and relationship, it not only contributes needed monetary support, but the funding sends a message to the field that this work matters. It honors the humanity of our grantees, and legitimizes the work as an essential part of social justice movements.
  2. Fund Healers of Color.  Communities of color possess a unique understanding of how colonization and institutionalized racism have harmed those with the least amount of power. They have performed healing practices for centuries in the face of such systemic oppression. Because of their deep knowledge of this complex history,  healers of color are equipped to hold space to process the trauma and grief, as well as the joy and love, that inherently flow through social justice movements.
  3. “What about Self-Care?” Many funders, practitioners and leaders agree that healing justice is not the same as self-care. They offer that self-care is about individual comfort, as opposed to caring for the whole. Many agree that healing can only be transformative if it’s within the context of community. We must go beyond simply helping individuals cope with oppressive conditions; we must also transform the social ecosystem so that it becomes a place of restoration rather than depletion. However, self-care plays an important role on the journey to liberation. It often serves as an opening to collective care — a path to integration and connection.
  4. This IS Organizing. Healing is not separate from organizing and organizing is not separate from healing. They are one. It is the same work rooted in relationship, deep listening, care and accountability. Movements must intentionally develop practices to express and process grief, confusion, sadness; while simultaneously creating space for joy, celebration, laughter and rest. This way of being must be woven into the fabric of organizational culture, as opposed to something that sits apart from the movement and is relegated to certain times and circumstances.
  5. Sustainability. We are beginning to understand how healing practices within an organization can be  an indicator of sustainability. Functioning on overdrive for a long time can result in anxiety, depression, disillusionment, guilt, and isolation that not only affects the individuals in an organization but the entire ecosystem. When people feel safe, understood, and have practices to work through their trauma, they experience less burnout and are more connected to a common purpose.
  6. How We Fund Matters. As we think about our role as funders in this transformative space at this vulnerable time, it is worth noting that it is not for funders to decide the definition of healing justice, nor the practices. That is for the organizers and healers to decide, as they know best the traumas most impacting  their communities and the solutions needed to address them. Funders must allow for the definition and practice of healing justice to change as awareness grows and needs shift. Giving our grantees the space to truly embark on a transformative journey requires sustained, patient, and flexible funding. We need to be agile and steadfast in our commitment to the end goal, which is the liberation of heart, body and spirit for all peoples. And we must remember that funding practices can either dismantle the lopsided power dynamics that exist between funders and grantees, or they can reinforce those inequities.

The field is still learning and exploring healing within the context of movement building and social change. Funders such as the Groundswell Fund, Ford, the Third Wave Fund and others have paved the way to supporting this work. Various tables are being convened to share current funder practices and to strategize about future directions. At GSF, we’ve begun to develop short and long-term strategies to contribute to the healing of movement builders, and ultimately the effectiveness and sustainability of the movements themselves. We also see our investment in healing justice as a way to further our commitment to improving the leadership capacity of our grantees. We look forward to continued learning from  organizers, healing practitioners, and funder colleagues as we endeavor to understand how best to contribute to the overall wellness and resiliency of those who are on the frontlines fighting for justice. If you are a funder supporting or considering support of this work, please reach out — we would love to learn together.