Ceding Power: NewSchools Shifts Grantmaking Power to Parents, Students, and Education Innovators

September 28, 2021

NewSchools Venture Fund

In April, NewSchools launched a new funding opportunity to provide dream capital to innovators of color with bold ideas to advance racial equity in education. This investment area combines a broad focus with a new approach to grantmaking: Ceding decision-making power to a council of parents, students, and education innovators. The council is deciding how to allocate $1.5 million in funds, not us. 

Community and grassroots leaders have long called for changes in philanthropy. The growing movement for racial justice has amplified those calls for funders to shift traditional practices and share decision-making power with the communities they serve. Participatory grantmaking does this by elevating the voices and experiences of people who are most affected by funding decisions and gives them authority in the selection process. 

It is heartening to see more donors and foundations include community voice in their decision making. Our organization is still in the early stages of piloting participatory grantmaking, but already we see how those closest to the realities on the ground can be effective co-creators and agents of change, not simply passive beneficiaries of funding. 

Our Racial Equity Council is diverse by design; the council members are diverse in age, race, ethnicity, education, and where they live. All of them have brought their lived experiences to bear in shaping almost every aspect of the  grantmaking process. Our staff play a supporting role, but the council members are the ones driving it. They have been meeting regularly over Zoom since May to develop selection criteria, review applications, and calibrate on who to move forward in the process and why.

Reflections from the Racial Equity Council

We asked the council members to tell us how their lived experiences are informing the decision-making process and why participatory grantmaking matters. This is what they shared with us:  

“As a student who spends upward of 40 hours a week in a classroom, the experiences that I’m bringing are meaningful and valuable. I felt deeply invested in the work of the council, and I think my insights and experiences definitely shaped the decisions about who we ended up moving forward.” Pragya Upreti, high school student, Lexington, Kentucky 

“I’ve been helping families navigate a system where Black children are not getting the education they deserve. They are not graduating from high school and those who graduate are not ready for college.” Being a participatory grantmaker “is the most amazing thing I have ever done! I am still a little uncomfortable in this space, but it is a good-uncomfortable feeling.” Renee Smith, great-grandmother and parent advocate with The Memphis Lift, Memphis, Tennessee

“When I think about participatory grantmaking, I think about redirecting the flow of love and power. The bigger those coffers get and the more our students, our parents, and educators are redirecting the flow of that power, the more hope I have that our education system will change for the better.” —Wisdom Amouzou, co-founder and executive director of Empower Community High School in Aurora, Colorado. 

As an entrepreneur of color, I have been on the other end, and I wish I had more conversations with funders who could acknowledge their privilege, power dynamics, and the role that systemic racism plays in philanthropy.  This level of humility doesn’t make you less of an expert, but it shows that you are willing to learn and evolve to level the playing field.” —Yulkendy Valdez, co-founder and CEO of Forefront, a consultancy that helps clients develop pipelines for Black and Latinx youth to enter the workforce, New York

Advice to applicants: “Don’t just stuff your proposal with big words. I’m looking for you to be real and genuine. I’m looking for you to give me an example of how this is really going to help students. Another thing that’s important to me is how you are budgeting. Even though we are giving you this money, do you know how to spend it wisely?”Crystal Gray, parent and community leader, Washington, D.C

“I’ve never been on this side of grantmaking. I’ve always been on the recipient’s side. This was an opportunity to do something innovative that’s rooted in racial equity, so I just knew I had to be a part of this. Everyone in my group was brilliant and motivated intrinsically to do the right thing for communities of color.” —Dr. Dwight Rhodes, education leader and CEO of Rhodes2Equity, a consultancy that supports school districts in improving student outcomes, Atlanta 

“The whole process has been a wonderful learning experience. As a woman of color working hand-in-hand with the community, it was a fascinating shift to now look at the work with a funding lens. What was really helpful was the support NewSchools offered. They took care of the details so that I could show up genuinely as myself.” —Elizabeth Casillas, parent and community organizer with RISE Colorado, Aurora, Colorado

“Philanthropy is sort of at the top of the food chain. The funders get to call the shots and everyone else has to jump through all these hoops to get the money. I think that experience impacted our decisions on the council. We certainly had a bias for groups that did not have other funding sources.” —Kentaro Iwasaki, educator and nonprofit leader, San Francisco

View the council members bios

Disrupting Racial Bias in Education

We’re excited to see what the council decides to fund and how those investments will improve outcomes for students of color across the country. Participatory grantmaking is not without challenges. But at every juncture, the Racial Equity council has shown deep care for advancing ideas that will meet real needs in communities, not band-aid solutions.

The council members are looking for evidence that solutions are created in partnership with communities and that these ideas will truly disrupt patterns of racial inequities in education. This experience and their feedback is already pushing us to think differently about how to continue to use participatory grantmaking in the future so that our relationships with the communities we partner with are stronger and our impact is more far-reaching.

Check back to learn about the selected grantees and what their ideas are for advancing racial equity.