Paying History Forward
By Nwamaka Agbo, CEO of the Kataly Foundation
For the moral arc of the universe to bend toward justice, it needs a historical anchor and a trajectory of dignity and equity for all. Amidst the racial injustices in our society, the destruction of our planet, and the threats to our democracy, it’s sometimes hard to find an anchor, to feel rooted in history while dreaming of a liberatory future.
From my current vantage point as the CEO of the Kataly Foundation, I see how social movements, in particular work led by Black and Indigenous people and all people of color, face underfunding and redlining by philanthropy. And yet, the grassroots organizations and people who make up these movements build power and fight for their communities despite being under-resourced. It is this resilience and persistence that provides me with hope.
One of many organizations that has led with resilience and persistence is the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, where I began my journey as an organizer. EBC is an organization based in Oakland, California that organizes with Black, brown, and low-income people to build power and prosperity in communities. It was at this organization that I found what has both galvanized and comforted me for many years: a sense of community and purpose. EBC modeled what a leaderful organization could look like, in the spirit of their namesake Ella Baker, who was one of the less-sung organizers of the civil rights movement and, in the 1960s, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Ella Baker was a deeply revered civil rights leader who helped pioneer a style of leadership focused on the possibility and power of ordinary people to organize, inspire others, and collectively take nonviolent action to instigate societal change.
I joined EBC in 2007 as a Campaign Associate and was a direct beneficiary of this legacy. It was the first place I worked that truly supported my leadership as a young, Black, immigrant woman and organizer. I felt seen and valued for what I brought to the organization, and therefore to the communities that we served.
This year, the Ella Baker Center is celebrating its 25th anniversary. As any grassroots organizer knows, the pathway to liberation does not lie within the confines of the nonprofit industrial complex. Finding a political home at an organization can be rare. And yet EBC has been that political home to so many people, particularly Black and brown people who have been directly impacted by prisons and policing.
Long before debates about police and prison abolition were the stuff of daily protest and media punditry, EBC was organizing in Black, brown, and poor communities for books, not bars. We were campaigning for green jobs and supporting civic engagement and youth leadership. Twenty five years later, the organization is operating on new terrain: there are opinion pieces in the New York Times about police abolition, members of Congress have championed a Green New Deal, and young people are leading social justice movements across the country. In California, the Governor announced in 2020 that the state would close its remaining 3 youth prisons, a victory EBC and its allies have fought for over the past 20 years.
Part of what has made the organization sustain itself over the course of decades has been its ability to evolve its approach to meet the moment and to embrace all of the tools needed to win structural change, while remaining true to its values and ideals. For any person working in philanthropy who has come up in social movements, we know how that lesson carries over.
My work at Kataly is guided by a desire to embody an approach that is both radical and strategic. That balance is often difficult to achieve in progressive spaces, but it was my time at EBC that taught me the value of occupying that position even when it becomes uncomfortable. At the Kataly Foundation, relationships guide our work — relationships with the people and organizations we fund, and with our partners who we organize with to change practices in philanthropy. That focus on relationships was something I cultivated through leading campaigns and organizing at EBC. I learned not only from my supervisors and my peers, but also from the families we organized with. I learned to celebrate our wins, to be accountable for our mistakes, and rely on the people most impacted by the problem to lead the way forward on the solution.
It was through EBC that I learned the rigor and discipline it takes to be solutions oriented. When EBC asked me to help them to manage the creation of Restore Oakland, it felt like fulfillment of the organization’s long-standing commitment to do the work and put its values into practice, even when that work is complicated and challenging. Restore Oakland has built upon our earlier efforts to create new economic models that could be bolstered through policy and actualized through specific projects in Black and brown communities. It was an opportunity to test what community-led economic development can and should look like through a lens of equity.
Part of what I always valued about the Ella Baker Center was its mixture of spirit and strategy, and its ability to evolve with changing times, to both acknowledge history, and make it. I’m honored to be able to serve as the current board chair of Restore Oakland, Inc., and to have been a part of a project in which those people and communities who are most directly impacted are able to come together with the resources, the skills, the expertise, and the knowledge to start to actively build the type of futures that we know we need and deserve.
As the CEO of a foundation, I occupy a very different position than when I started out at EBC. Many of my former colleagues are also working in new fields: healthcare, media, and government, to name a few. I am grateful for having had a place where I could be supported to lead, pushed to do better, and learn from an incredible team. Now, I am able to wield the power I hold as a funder with integrity, accountability, and transparency, and resource organizations like the Ella Baker Center to continue winning the just and free world where we all want to live.
Nwamaka Agbo is the CEO of the Kataly Foundation and Managing Director of the Restorative Economies Fund. Nwamaka is deeply committed to supporting projects that build resilient, healthy and self-determined communities rooted in shared prosperity. Kataly moves resources to support the economic, political, and cultural power of Black & Indigenous communities, & all communities of color.