CCF Board Member Spotlight: Vanessa Daniel

For the last four years, the Common Counsel Foundation has been privileged to have the leadership of Vanessa Daniel as part of our board. A longtime activist, organizer, and funder of social movements, read on to hear Vanessa’s story and her perspectives on CCF’s journey.

For the last four years, the Common Counsel Foundation has been privileged to have the leadership of Vanessa Daniel as part of our board. A longtime activist, organizer, and funder of social movements, read on to hear Vanessa’s story and her perspectives on CCF’s journey.

Vanessa Daniel, CCF Board Member

Please share a bit about you, your movement and philanthropy history? 

Vanessa: I’ve been working in social justice movements for 25 years. I started in student and campus organizing, and joined campaigns against police brutality and the killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999, the WTO protests, and fighting against sweatshops. In college, I was an ethnic studies major, specifically focusing on race and in the United States. My senior thesis was on Black power and the Cuban revolution. Hearing the stories of the Black Power movement and other People of Color movements throughout history, inspired me in 2000 to move to Oakland, CA – the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, and near to where AIM (the American Indian Movement), Cesar Chavez, and other powerful leaders and movements once organized. 

I came out to the Bay Area to become a journalist in support of social justice movements. I ended up working for the Applied Research Center (now known as Race Forward) doing research and writing work supporting mothers on welfare and exposing the flaws in Clinton’s proposed welfare reform legislation. Through this process, I realized that to be an effective writer in support of grassroots movements – I needed to better understand organizing. 

This realization led me to the Movement Activist Apprenticeship Program at the Center Third World Organizing – where I learned to become an organizer. It was an amazing experience for me. I became involved with the living wage campaign at the Port of Oakland; and engaged in a campaign for immigrant rights. This introduction led me to enter the labor movement, where I joined SEIU to organize homecare and public sector workers. While I was helping to make change, I burnt out from this work, and I started to see the challenges of our labor, organizing and movement infrastructure.

This brought you to philanthropy? 

Yes, after my direct organizing experience I came across a two-year fellowship working for a public foundation. Given the excess privilege and philosophical contradictions within philanthropy generally, I never thought I would stay in this sector. But after two years, I realized I had a knack for inspiring people with a lot of wealth to see and value the leadership of  people of color organizing to build grassroots power.

I realized one of the ways I could support the movements I loved so much was to help people build solidarity through sharing resources and power across lines of race, class and gender.

Later, I founded Groundswell Fund – which became one of the largest funders of women of color-led organizing in the United States and of the Reproductive Justice Movement. Rooted in a belief in the power of organizing at the intersection of race, class and gender, over the course of 17 years, the Groundswell Fund team moved over $100 million to grassroots organizing groups fighting for social justice across the country. Our community included over 250 grant partners, 40 foundation supporters, and more than 2000 individual donors. I’m particularly proud that we built an organization with supermajorities of people of color and transgender folks on our board and staff. This allowed everyone in the Groundswell community to live into a core value around shifting power and resources into the hands of grassroots leaders who are deeply trusted by the historically marginalized communities they serve. 

What are some of the values or beliefs that underpin why you got into this work?

Grassroots organizing is the engine of social change. That is when the people most directly impacted by a problem gain the abilities to use collective action to impact the policies and systems that impact their lives. Together they can create beautifully imagined systems that can save the planet, realize full democracy, and enable humanity to evolve. 

I deeply value intersectionality – telling the whole truth. Too many on the left will tell the truth about climate change but lie about the existence of white supremacy. They will tell the truth about immigrant rights while sweeping homophobia and transphobia under the carpet. Or tell the truth about capitalism while neglecting to talk about patriarchy. 

We liberate ourselves and everyone by telling the whole truth. I firmly believe that not all but many of the people living at the sharpest crosshairs of different types of oppression understand most clearly the path for freedom for everyone. Many of these people are leading in social justice movements today. We should follow their lead.

Why did you decide to join Common Counsel Foundation’s Board?

It was a no-brainer for me when they asked. Common Counsel Foundation has been a critical and important pillar for progressive movements in the United States. The organization has been on the vanguard of funding cutting edge social change for more than 30 years. The community of individuals involved in CCF over the decades, include some of the highest integrity people in movement with a track record of organizing and accountability to grassroots communities.  

CCF is a tried and true partner in movement work. Its team has a track record through the years of unwavering clarity in funding grassroots power. I trust CCF to move money to the organizations best positioned to advance social change. 

Tell us about how CCF has changed since you joined the Board. What are your hopes and aspirations?

CCF was funding the most cutting edge organizing and racial justice work across movements decades before it was popular to do so. They have stayed steady and clear in their integrity about this work for so many years. We’re now at a time in history where society and philanthropy is waking up to the power of the type of grassroots organizing that CCF has been funding for decades.

Indeed, our society experienced a wave of uprisings at the turn of the decade – which prompted a tidal wave of interest in organizing from the philanthropic sector. Having existing expertise, CCF was able to scale up its organizing support exponentially to meet the growing demand that accompanies this awakening, and to offer donors and foundations a trusted partner in advancing social change and racial equity.

I was proud to be on the board that supported CCF to become the fiscal sponsor for the Movement For Black Lives (M4BL). M4BL led the largest protest movement in United States history, helping galvanize 30 million people into the streets across the globe in 2020. For more than a decade, CCF has also been a national philanthropic leader ensuring that Native communities are resources to do critical work. 

My aspiration is that CCF continues to do this work – and take advantage of this narrow window of time humanity has to turn the tide on the erosion of democracy and climate change. 

What’s one thing that keeps you up at night regarding philanthropy or movement work?

We in philanthropy are challenged by two things: First, there’s a gentrification of the concept of funding organizing, racial justice and social movements. These have become a catch-phrases that have lost their meaning. Instead of funding grassroots organizing groups that are structured to be led by and accountable to real people in historically marginalized communities, we are seeing these terms used like a tagline. Most philanthropy continues to be led or staffed by people who neither understand, or have any relationship or accountability to grassroots social justice movements and the communities they serve.

My advice to funders and donors is: don’t reinvent the wheel, work with CCF and other trusted intermediaries that have a track record of working arm-in-arm with social and racial justice movements.

Second and related, there’s white-lash in philanthropy following the wake of the racial justice uprising and progress that led to some systems change. We are seeing the repackaging of old ideas as new ones, such as “it’s more strategic to work exclusively within existing systems and structures rather than challenging them to transform”, instead of evolving to recognize the importance of both inside and outside strategies focused on transforming what doesn’t work. There has never been a time in the U.S. that there was progress towards women’s rights, racial justice, etc., that wasn’t followed by backlash. We need to be savvy enough to recognize it and not play into that. 

What’s one thing that gives you hope? 

We have an embarrassment of riches in terms of good hearted leaders of organizations that are building grassroots power. Their leadership is high integrity, visionary and clear. With the right resources and support – they know the way and can lead us all towards freedom. It gives me so much hope each and every day when I talk to these leaders and they share their hopes and vision.