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May 21, 2022

Rise Together unites county leaders to alter outcomes

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—At the apex of last year’s crisis points—the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and the greater countrywide calls for social justice—several Santa Cruz County leaders were brought together to try to change the system from within.

The group consists of people across the gender spectrum, spanning five decades in age. They encompass Black, Latinx, Indigenous and mixed races as well as allies. They’re working together to create anti-racist policy through grant funding, representation and equity locally.

They are Rise Together, and while this didn’t start out as a movement, over the past year it has become one. 

The initial push that started off a domino effect came from the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County. The Foundation, which matches donors to local projects and causes that align with their visions, allows those seeking to take action to put money where it matters, whether it’s “to have a strong arts community, support pregnant moms, send kids to college,” said Community Foundation CEO Susan True.

True defines the work as aiming for “incredible action being taken,” with tangible, demonstrable results. 

“We are bound by the geography of this community,” she said. “This community’s leaders are even more crucial to anything we do being successful.” 

However, True said, white-led philanthropy mirrors wealth inequality. Just 7% of philanthropic dollars across the country are given to organizations led by and for people of color. That mirroring means that “incredible people with incredible ability to make social impact have been left outside of the ability to direct those dollars, and often those dollars have not been directed to their efforts,” she said. 

So when the opportunity arose to distribute $350,000 in funding in support of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and People of Color-led organizations benefiting those communities in Santa Cruz County during the pandemic, True and her team decided to seek input from BILPOC community leaders to make decisions about how best to distribute the funds.

The money was to be used to ensure essential services were delivered, as well as address barriers and improve well-being for people of color in light of renewed racial reckonings: working conditions of migrant farmworkers during Covid and last year’s wildfires, for instance.

True and Community Foundation staff reached out to 17 Santa Cruz County BILPOC leaders and emerging leaders and planned two Zoom meetings to decide how the funds would best be spent, from the people who best understood their organizations and communities’ needs.

During that first online meeting, the group’s perspectives revealed much deeper and wider purposes for coming together.

“Group members had radically different perspectives,” True said. “There were perspectives around, ‘We just need our voices elevated,’ there were perspectives around, ‘We need seats of power and representation,’ there were voices that were all around essential basic needs like food, rent. There was such a desire to learn, grow and leverage each other’s knowledge. It was pretty amazing.”

It rapidly became clear that while distributing the $350,000 in funding was part of the project, it wasn’t enough. The real anti-racist work that could be done, as gathered leaders posed, was to give the powerful group a long-term seat at the table. 

But they weren’t just given a seat. They were given the table. 

Two meetings turned into two meetings per month on an ongoing basis. The group was recently able to have its first in-person gathering. 

“To have transcended the limits of tech and to form heart connections with people I’ve never met in person says something about the spirit of this work,” said member Maria Elena de la Garza, executive director of the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County. “It shows where we are as a community. I know them, trust them, love them, and feel connected to them—that’s huge. And I know they have my back. They have my back like I have theirs.”

Together, they identified five goals to guide their ongoing work around racial equity:

  1. Increase upward economic mobility and sustainable local career pathways for current and next generation leaders of color and community networks.
  2. Amplify, value, celebrate, and preserve people of color’s stories, arts, culture, and community events.
  3. Change policies, structures, and systems at the root level with people of color-led solutions, representation, and power to increase equity and anti-racist policy.   
  4. Deliver essential services, address barriers, and build community capacity to fight racial disparities to improve well-being for people of color to prosper. 
  5. Continuously give and grow sustained funding for communities of color. 

Members include well-known county figures such as former Santa Cruz mayor Justin Cummings, Cat Willis of the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center and Black Health Matters and Jacob Martinez of Digital NEST. Others are emerging leaders, including Ashlyn N. Adams, who serves on the Justice And Gender county commission, and is Interim co-Director and Youth Program Coordinator at the Diversity Center of Santa Cruz County; and Helen Aldana, President of Senderos and Outreach Coordinator at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

Rise Together seeks to address the “impact of the pandemic on organizations being led by and that service people of color, bringing us together in action around issues of equity,” de la Garza said. She also points to another layer—“the subtle layer,” as she calls it. 

“The Community Foundation created a space where leaders of color were seen and heard in ways that had not been available to us,” she said.

With a shared decision-making process, Rise Together’s members weren’t beholden to traditional paperwork-heavy, impersonal grant-writing. Organizations could submit video, slides, a presentation—a process validating to nonprofits that don’t have the staff and resources to engage in complex, institutional grant-writing processes. Members shared their proposals with the group, and funding decisions were made together. Ultimately, each proposal got the requested amount, with $27,000 left over to invest in future grants.

The Community Foundation received new contributions that allowed for a total of $423,000 combined in grants and toward continued sustained funding.

Over a year since its inception, the Rise Together group is official, with the newly launched website risetogetherscc.org encapsulating their mission, telling their stories, and offering ways to take action and donate. The “Team” page features Rise Together’s members’ portraits with bios that don’t merely list accomplishments but properly narrate their stories and visions. 

Rise Together celebrated its official launch, the first round of grants awarded and accomplishments with an event featuring performances by Estrellas de Esperanza and the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center at the Community Foundation’s Aptos headquarters on July 23. 

The effort has come farther than founding members could have imagined going. It’s become a movement, and, if it catches on nationally, could even become a model, the members believe.

“The commitment to emerging leaders of color means it doesn’t end with us,” de la Garza said. “The ripple gets bigger and bigger. To me, that’s legacy work. That’s systemic change and legacy work that will impact the children of the children of the children of the people that we serve.”


Read the full list and stories of Rise Together members and find out how to contribute at risetogetherscc.org.

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