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Working for Justice

Interview with Sharon Gary-Smith

headshot of Sharon Gary-Smith
Sharon Gary-Smith is the Executive Director of MRG Foundation.

When I sit down and listen to the stories of Black women and Black men—not out of defensiveness—but actually open up my heart and really hear what their experiences are, I start to get a glimpse of how fractured this country really is. Sharon Gary-Smith is an agitator and leader for social justice. She is the Executive Director of MRG Foundation, which funds grassroots organizations that are dismantling structures that hold people back. She envisions an Oregon where everyone has a seat at the table, where everyone has a voice and the power to use it. Indeed, we cannot build a prosperous world if any one of us is missing. Here is Sharon’s story...


I was born and raised in Portland. I’m a native Oregonian. And I’m an African American Oregonian. Looking at me and understanding what Oregon was and isn’t, people have a hard time reconciling that. “You were actually born and raised there? How many black people live there? Like, six?”

So much of who I am comes from my parents. My father was a Tuskegee man from Virginia. He knew what it meant to be educated in a historically black college and a university of real reputation. He came West when he graduated. He and his colleagues, with their newly-minted degrees, assumed the world was waiting for them. They got here and discovered it wasn’t.

My mother was from Kansas City. She had an adventurous spirit. She decided to come West to attend business college, figuring she’d be participating in a place outside the big metropolitan areas that so many of her friends went to “up North…” Allegedly there was opportunity, but in reality many discovered only crowded cities, belching smokestacks and menial work. That wasn’t for either one of my parents. They met up here in Oregon and began to practice resistance, if you will, questioning what was not okay.

My father was a quiet education activist. He really believed in the power of education. And education outside of the classroom was equally important. My mother was an agitator—a resistor, agitator and leader. She taught her daughters to resist the restrictions that others might place on us, based on their assumptions about who we were.

You agitate for the change that you believe needs to happen in systems, to better serve all of us. And you also lead others to recognize that you have inherent talents, skills.

My mother was an organizer. She was out in the streets. She was a stay-at-home mom who didn’t stay at home. And so I learned that you go after what should be different. You have to participate in change. You have to participate in the struggle for what is just and right. That is, freedom to make choices. Freedom as a young woman to challenge the mythology around what it means to be a woman. And because we were Black, my mother used to say, “Since you’re already different, those rules don’t apply to you. You have a right to ask questions. To expect answers. To believe in access as your right. To have the freedom to make choices and to move freely.”

I think what it taught me, was how to create space for me to be able to move freely and to not harm others. And in response to a legitimate anger and a disappointment at how society has been constructed, particularly around whiteness as a default, to understand how that’s been played out and how we are all harmed. It takes a lot of energy to be compassionate in a society where it’s been determined you don’t matter, that you’re less than. And to know all that has been constructed: it’s a system built to entitle some and to separate all of us.

I look at things like gentrification: the snatching of ground and culture in communities. I was in Harlem recently and now there are brownstones. There are people who would never before venture into Harlem: it was considered kind of a reckless, dicey thing to do. Now, in the heart of Harlem, there are young, white professionals lining the streets, in sidewalk cafes, walking dogs. There are 24-hour grocery stores. Before there were only bodegas, where you got a few groceries for a day or two. It’s all very unnerving. But it’s part of the transformation and the gentrification that’s occurring everywhere. So I look at these issues and who is harmed and who has the ability, the agency, to name the change they want to see and to organize around it. To bring voice in the same way that others have access.

MRG Foundation

MRG Foundation is Oregon’s leading social justice funder—40 years in 2016. We fund the grassroots, the groups that are organizing for change. Social justice has to do with transformation: the dismantling of systems of inequity. Why wouldn’t we want to fund a state where we elevate the health and well-being of everyone? Where we support everyone to be able to thrive at whatever level they want. It’s not the same level for everyone. That’s the difference between equal rights and equity.  I’m a short person, so I might need a bigger platform to step up on to be even with someone who’s taller and has a higher reach.

For us, it’s funding those groups who are on the ground, working in communities, whether it’s rural and isolated, or urban and under-resourced. They have a lot in common. They share a certain distance from power—whether that’s physical distance, in the case of rural groups, or social distance, in the case of groups based in communities of color, low income communities, LGBTQ communities. They share common barriers to accessing resources. We really believe in the power of those who are on the ground, those who are most impacted by injustice to name the gaps. They have answers. They have solutions. They have credibility in the community. And they’re able to translate the problems and speak with representative force to what can be different.

MRG Foundation is a perfect learning lab: we listen, we learn and we lead.

  • We listen to those who are most impacted because they have expertise. The people who are doing the work have voice. They have validity. We listen to what they say the problem is.

  • Then we learn from that exchange. It’s not just that we’re the ones who have the ability to give you money or not. It’s also what you give us: more knowledge, more understanding of the landscape of Oregon.

  • And then we lead among our colleagues. We translate, we talk about going deeper. We talk about the power of community voice. If we want to transform Oregon for the common good, who defines who’s included in that common good? So we have an activist-led grantmaking process. That makes us unique. Most foundations have trustees, people who have operated in a corporate or business world. They may be far removed from the problems. Our grantmaking committee is made up of activists themselves, those who are closest to the work and to the problems we’re working to solve.

Having me here, having somebody who looks like me, heading up a foundation in Oregon… that isn’t Black-community focused, some people were taken aback. “Is that…?” Even well-meaning, well-intentioned people. I knew that my face, heading this foundation, is often the only one standing out in a room full of people, whether it’s the City Club, or the MAC Club… And then how to use that startler, or as my mother used to say, the “Oh! She’s here!” factor to my advantage. How to use that to actually speak words of truth, to speak values and principles of justice to power.

I talk to people about equity and diversity and they say, “Well, we want to get it perfect.” Or “We want to wait until we figure it out.” My mother would say, “If you’re going to fall, stumble, make a mistake, fall forward. Because you’ll be farther than you probably would have been just walking.” Sometimes the testing is in learning what didn’t work. So why would equity—and allowing others to be around the table or be part of the decision-making—be any different? Why do you have to study that and get it all perfect? For me that’s like hesitation or resistance. Why don’t you just dive in?

Funding Social Justice

We’re a working foundation. We do have an endowment, but each year we raise the money we give out. Historically, we’ve given out about half a million dollars a year. This year we’ll be giving out over $800,000. When the recession hit and a lot of foundations, including the very large ones, retrenched… we didn’t. We’d made commitments and not only did we keep those commitments, we actually increased grantmaking during the recession. You have to hold your line and be accountable to the grantees and those community members who are working in groups.

We fund groups like Causa Oregon. We were their first funder; MRG supported their work when they were an all-volunteer effort, when most funders wouldn’t get anywhere near funding immigrant organizing. And they’ve grown into a powerful organization, a national model for Latino and immigrant rights work at the state level. They’re a leader in the local movement, helping smaller immigrant-rights groups grow and get their footing. We’re proud to be Causa’s first funder and I’m constantly impressed by all that they’ve done.

The Center for Intercultural Organizing is another group we fund. It emerged because of the attacks on Muslims after 9/11. Their children, young girls, were having their hijabs snatched off their heads. It was the kind of fear that spread out of ignorance and a scarcity mindset. The Center just celebrated its first decade. We were the first funder to fund the organizing of newly-arrived immigrants and refugees who were being attacked or who faced the possibility of harm. People who were able to articulate why they’re here, like anyone who comes here looking for a better place. And how this country is big enough, wide enough to accommodate all of us. To examine where those values and principles of our forefathers never got realized.

Capacity Building Initiative

As a funder, none of us would ever have all the money to solve the critical problems. But you can’t be paralyzed because you can’t get it done in 24 hours. Oftentimes, funders say the issues of injustice are so big… Well, if we start today, we’ll probably have done a little bit of chipping away by tomorrow. And imagine if we pooled our resources: those who have so much and those who have less than, but who have really good ideas about where it could be used. And so we wanted to re-source the grassroots, on the ground, organizing for justice in Oregon.

We understand how people like identifying with something big like the arts or education or hospitals, and having their name out there. And we also understand that justice is not necessarily going to get people a whole lot of attention. But it’s going to get us a lot farther to a just, good, thriving society and economy. We wanted more resources on the ground to fund those grassroots groups that are advocating for change. So we went to Meyer Memorial Trust. They’re huge.

We talked with Meyer about our mission, our vision of justice. We talked about these small groups. They may have one staff. They may have a lot of volunteers. They maintain themselves. They create incredible campaigns, they change policy, and make a big difference. Often they’re not sophisticated in the ways that funders would like them to be. Some of them might handwrite their application on paper. Others might not have access to formal financial management training or resources.

We started to talk with Meyer’s leadership, “What if we created a cohort where we can look at the needs of these groups that are doing really effective on-the-ground work, but haven’t been able to grow or access more traditional funders? We want you to come in with us so we can share how we do grantmaking. So you can see what activist grantmaking is. It’s not suits and ties. We want you to see that the ability to make decisions around where money goes is quite clearly informed by people who are grassroots, as well as corporate leaders and icons.”

There’s a deliberateness to people who understand the ground. They have the facility to be flexible. They are tied to their constituents in ways that people who are sitting behind the doors, aren’t. And they have expertise. They know what doesn’t work. And what they are willing to try. Like any good investment, you do your research and you determine if they have the ability to make the change.

That money is for a capacity-building initiative. Out of grantees past, we selected ten groups. They will get general support money, because we believe the groups know what they need the money for. We trust them to know how best to use it.

This partnership with Meyer is a new kind of collaborative approach. Not “you gave us money”, like we are a grantee, but rather “Together, what do we learn?” What kind of research, what kind of best practices can come out of this?

So for the next three years we’ll be working with these ten groups. They will not only get guaranteed general support for three years, which builds your infrastructure, strengthens your base, but they’ll also identify what their needs are. Is it leadership development? Is it board development? Is it hiring a full-time staff person? Is it media, communications? Is it understanding the power of a website to deliver the message? Then we will have consultants work with them in the areas they identified as critical. Our expectation and our hope, is that at the end of that time, not only will we have rich research about what does and doesn’t work to build and sustain grassroots organizations, but we’ll have the voices of those who are the practitioners informing us how the community works and doesn’t work with certain issues.

So when you bring these groups together and provide opportunities for learning cohorts, you strengthen the movement. You build cross-sector alliance. We make sure people understand the intersection between issues, whether it’s racism, sexism, ableism, etc. If homophobia prevents people from finding opportunity for good work and good alliance… If people think that whites can’t be allies to people of color… And then we make sure they know that being allies is not always telling people what to do. We help people understand what it is to engage in leadership by followership.

And so we’re so excited and Meyer’s excited. It’s a new model of collaboration. This $1.2 million is leverage. What does it say in philanthropy to try and be as innovative as we want grantees to be?

What is Your Most Valuable Lesson?

How to harness my impatience in ways that are actually instructive to me and give space to others to teach me. To learn and to pass it on. That I have a sense of what justice looks like for me.

We really could do this faster. We could have more of us going deeper. If we accepted and admitted that there is change that needs to happen. Change is inevitable. So I get impatient with, not so much the person, but that we know a lot about what’s not okay. We know a lot about what racism looks like. How many killings does it take…? I’ve had people say, “I never realized this was a big deal until seeing it almost every day for a while.” And I thought… what a privilege to not have to pay attention. I’m a Black professional woman who has been accosted and questioned by police, asked all kinds of things that I know are not standard practice or shouldn’t be. So I’m impatient sometimes around what I know to be true.

We have so much knowledge and ability to move toward a more just society. I always want to run ahead and see what the future’s going to be.  And yet you can’t move faster than a movement. And now we actually have movements for justice. Movements that are visible. And so I think really learning to quell my impatience. To find a pace where people stretch a little and I lean back a little.

What is Prosperity?

The whole idea of prosperity… many think it’s tied to how much capital you have, how much ability you have to acquire, to get more of… A sense of prosperity, to me, means a community looks whole. It looks well-cared for. People are thought about. People have inherent value. This disparity in prosperity in Oregon, and across this country, means that we lose so much human capital and value. We could be so much farther ahead. My mother called it “Making the road you walk on.” You’re responsible for participating in the society you want.

Prosperity is a joyfulness about “I get to choose. I get to embrace a society that includes me and so do you.” And I don’t dictate to you what it’s supposed to look like. Nor do I marginalize your ability to access it. There really is enough. Scarcity’s the other side of prosperity. Scarcity of mind. Assuming you’re going to lose if I win. I believe we both win.

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