Backed By Diverse Funders, Liberation Ventures Is Pushing for Reparations and a "Culture of Repair"

Photo courtesy Stephen Melkisethian, Creative Commons License

When we talked with Liberation Ventures in January of last year as part of our overview of philanthropic support for the slavery reparations movement, it was a new name on the scene with a lot of big ideas and just over $2 million to its name.

Last month, Liberation Ventures formally launched those ideas with a new website, a detailed, 25-year plan and “A Dream In Our Name,” a nearly 90-page “framework for channeling aspirations for racial healing into a discipline that can build a culture of repair.” The organization also has substantially more money to move toward its goals. Roughly $6 million — an additional $4 million since we last connected with them — may not sound like much in the grand scheme of things, but the fact remains that the organization’s bottom line has increased substantially in just 13 months. That bottom line, and money yet to be raised and spent, will be directed toward a singular goal: reparations for Black Americans for the harms done by centuries of chattel slavery and the over 150 years of racist policies and practices that have followed in its stead.

As we noted last year, Liberation Ventures is part of, if not a trend, at least some movement on the part of philanthropy toward supporting reparations work. Both the MacArthur and William T. Grant foundations have funded different approaches to the effort, and Liberated Capital, a fund created by Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth Project, made its second round of reparations-related grants last year through its #Case4Reparations Fund. But Liberation Ventures has been a focal point for this support, as its growth attests.

Strange bedfellows, assemble!

A look at the advisors and funders that have signed on to Liberation Ventures so far reveals representatives from both academia and philanthropy. Its 2023 Advisory Group, for example, is helmed in part by representation from the Bridgespan Group, the University of Washington and PolicyLink, which also serves as Liberation Ventures’ fiscal sponsor. Funders include PolicyLink, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Omidyar Network. But Liberation Ventures has also attracted support from the world of finance — not typically known for its progressive stances — and one if its donors, and advisors, is also a member of the board of Resource Generation, an organization founded by young heirs seeking to redistribute their wealth. 

Liberation Ventures’ cofounder and managing director Aria Florant said that this diverse and seemingly incongruous mix of individuals and organizations is a feature, not a bug. Florant, who, prior to helming LV, held roles in academia, finance and philanthropy, said that serving as a “bridging organization” to all of these sectors is in her organization’s DNA. The work of Liberation Ventures, she said, is “to imbue the reparations movement with the resources, skills, network and talent that it needs to grow, sustain and win. And in order to do that, you’ve got to really reach a lot of different audiences.”

A holistic approach

The careful outlook that led Liberation Ventures to recruit support from so many sectors is also revealed in its ambitious, step-by-step plan to eventually pass a “comprehensive reparations program” at the federal level that includes a public apology, money to close the racial wealth gap, and what LV calls “truth-telling across institutions” about the legacy of slavery and systemic racism. The plan is broken into three multiyear phases, each with its own set of specific goals, activities and benchmarks. The plan isn’t, however, strictly linear; instead, Liberation Ventures’ organizers have accounted for the ways that progress at one phase may feed progress in the phases before and after it.

Liberation Ventures’ approach is also holistic. Rather than targeting all of its efforts at the movement for federal reparations reform, LV moved $1 million in February of 2022 to groups working on things like research and advocacy, diversity in media, and organizing college students. Florant declined to give specifics about her organization’s next round of grants, which will be announced later this month, but did say that the new grantees are working on issues like redress for segregation and redlining, supporting survivors of the country’s war on drugs and working on racial equity for Black veterans.

By funding reparations on a local level while working toward the goal of reparations on a national level, Liberation Ventures’ approach also bridges the gap between those who believe that reparations must be federal and those who are pushing for reparations at all levels of American society. Still other groups and individuals are taking an international approach, seeking reparations for the descendants of the global African diaspora created by the slave trade.

Florant said the groups Liberation Ventures supports tie the reparation movement’s threads together. “We always talk about the fact that reparations is for the harm of chattel slavery,” she said, “but also the trauma of its legacy.”

Liberation Ventures’ holistic approach isn’t limited to what it supports, but also extends to how it funds its partners. Florant mentioned grantmaking approaches that put her organization ahead of much of the pack, including “entering into relationship” with “a meaningful percentage” of the organizations it supports before moving money to them, and providing an additional $2,500 wellness stipend to the nonprofits in its forthcoming second round of grants. “There’s no burden on it, there’s no reporting, there’s no proposal, we get to know your work,” she said. Most grants are unrestricted, she added, because “we would never tell a movement partner that they must have a certain strategy or goal to receive funding.” 

Florant and her organization are also aware of how the power dynamics between funders and grantees played out in the “movement capture” of the civil rights era, including funders’ moves to discourage the early NAACP from pushing anti-lynching bills through Congress, instead steering the organization’s efforts toward education and economic opportunity. Dr. Megan Ming Francis, author of a 2019 paper on movement capture, is a member of Liberation Ventures’ 2023 Advisory Committee.

As a funding intermediary, Florant said, “I think one of the most fundamental and important questions is, how do you keep yourself accountable to the right things and to the right people?” To avoid wielding its power in ways that might stunt the movement, Florant said her organization has created a culture of feedback and transparency through practices like an open-door policy and annual feedback conversations. “Movement partners always have the opportunity to give us feedback on how we can show up in ways that best support the movement,” Florant said. 

In it for the long term

It’s obvious that Florant and the rest of the Liberation Ventures team put a lot of forethought, planning and relationship-building into the organization’s launch. Yet it still faces a steep uphill climb amidst a right-wing movement to muzzle accurate education about Black history and systemic racism, everywhere from elementary schools to college classrooms. It will be hard to argue for reparations if young people are falsely taught that there are no harms to redress. 

For her part, Florant sees the overall work of the reparations movement as a sort of antidote to the racist policy fires being set by the right wing across the country. “Just like any investment strategy, you have to care about the short-term fires, you have to put the fires out, but you also have to find ways to seed the ground so that those fires stop happening,” she said. As for the overall backlash against so-called “woke” ideology, Florant sees it as evidence that the movement to combat systemic racism is winning. “I try not to get bogged down in the stuff happening in Florida, etc.,” she said. “I think it’s really critical to name and put a stop to, but I don’t let it cause me despair.”

Liberation Ventures’ initial $6 million may seem like little money in the face of such a pervasive and frequently vicious movement. On the other hand, in 2022, Pew found that 45% of all adults under 30 support reparations, while support for reparations among white people overall remains low at 16%, but has increased by 10 points in the past 20 years.

Still, the reparations movement has its work cut out for it, particularly in an environment where such groups may increasingly have to take on the extra burden of countering inaccurate narratives that downplay the impact of slavery and systemic racism. Like too many other issues in this country, the biggest hope for reparations may well lie in succeeding generations. With its 25-year plan and multisector supporters, Liberation Ventures is at least positioning itself for the long haul. 

Correction: This article originally misstated the amount of money Liberation Ventures has on hand — the organization has raised a total of $6 million so far, but does not have that amount at this time. Further, Holly Fetter, a member of Resource Generation’s board, is an LV donor and advisor, but Resource Generation isn’t involved on the organizational level.