From Crisis to Capacity: 20 Years of Philanthropy after 9/11

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In the decade following the September 11th attacks, I ran a national nonprofit organization that advocated for the rights of South Asians in the United States. Many of those early years are a blur. Looking back, I can see how our staff, board members, and volunteers were attempting to meet two nearly impossible objectives at once: responding to the backlash facing South Asian communities after 9/11 while simultaneously building the infrastructure and foundations of a new organization in the wake of a generational crisis. This meant that we were often responding to a community concern around hate violence or an impending deportation while identifying staff and partnerships to attend to these needs in real time.

I wasn’t the only executive director in this predicament. Aparna Bhattacharyya, the director of Raksha, noted in a reflection on the 20-year anniversary of September 11th, “In the immediate days following 9/11, calls from survivors of gender-based violence dropped severely because of special registration and the constant fear of being targeted by government systems. There were no organizations working on these issues in the South.”

Organizations such as Raksha in Atlanta struggled to respond to community needs in the wake of 9/11, as did many others. After 9/11, new organizations formed while others had to shift their programs and services in response to emerging needs in the Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities. In New York City, direct service providers supported restaurant workers and cab drivers who had lost jobs and benefits. Sikh and Muslim organizations around the country fielded complaints of profiling at airports, hate violence, school bullying, and workplace discrimination. In the Bay Area, groups like the Alliance for South Asians Taking Action participated in antiwar protests and teach-ins. Local organizers at groups such as Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) in New York City mobilized communities who were targeted by surveillance, detention, and deportation. By the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, the work of these groups had expanded to include multiple strategies beyond rapid response, such as advocacy and grassroots mobilization. Despite the growth in strategy, organizations were still addressing a range of unmet needs in their communities with inadequate resources and staff and leaders who were new to managing nonprofit organizations.

My organization and others turned to the philanthropic sector over the past two decades for support and stability. In the immediate days and weeks after 9/11, mainstream and corporate foundations consolidated funds for recovery and relief efforts. A 2003 analysis by the Foundation Center notes that corporate and public foundations provided $1.1 billion to organizations in the arts and culture, human resources, education, and community development sectors through the September 11th Fund, the Twin Towers Fund, and many others. To access disaster relief, organizations working with AMEMSA communities had to demonstrate the need for supporting people targeted by bigotry, or for areas like Coney Island Avenue in New York City, where small businesses closed down because law enforcement began to detain and incarcerate South Asian and Muslim immigrants who owned or worked in restaurants and stores. Family members were separated through deportation, jobs were lost, and mental health concerns increased among young people growing up in the shadow of 9/11. In New York City, the New York Police Department conducted surveillance of Muslim schools, South Asian restaurants, mosques, and public parks where community members played cricket and soccer.

Yet issues such as surveillance and deportation were perceived by many funders as being tangential to the immediate crisis of 9/11. Funders were wary of what were perceived to be national security and immigration policy concerns that went beyond immediate social service and crisis response. South Asian, Arab, and Muslim organizations had to keep making the connection between the economic recovery and backlash that happened right after 9/11 with the ongoing consequences of the War on Terror that affected the same communities.

The Stages of Post-9/11 Philanthropy

The initial phase of disaster relief funds after 9/11 supported organizations responding to the many crises following the attacks—addressing economic needs, mental health support, and backlash and bigotry.

The second phase of post-9/11 philanthropy began around the 10th anniversary of the attacks and lasted through 2016. It included strategic investments in narrative change and advocacy, with the realization that the War on Terror continued to affect communities through national security and immigration policies. In 2009, the Rise Together Fund became the first national donor collaborative to support AMEMSA communities dealing with post-9/11 issues. The Pillars Fund, created in 2010, has distributed over $6 million in grants to Muslim organizations and leaders, with an emphasis on narrative change.

The third phase of philanthropic support occurred in response to the 2016 presidential elections and the Muslim ban. The Just and Inclusive Society program at the Democracy Fund, for example, committed to supporting Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and immigrant communities whose civil rights and safety were particularly endangered in this political climate.

These investments have brought about significant changes in the growth and capacity of the AMEMSA field. For example, there’s now a network of local and national organizations that engages in a range of strategies from organizing Muslim students on college campuses, to advocating for humane laws, to representing Sikh community members facing discrimination. This network works together in a coordinated fashion through RISE Organizing, a rapid response formation that was supported by the Rise Together Fund in the wake of the 2016 election. In addition, philanthropic investments in ally groups have helped flank and support the AMEMSA field, from the Brennan Center for Justice that provides policy analyses, to the CLEAR project at the CUNY School of Law that takes on litigation and documentation, to Veterans Against Islamophobia and interfaith groups like Shoulder to Shoulder that educate non-Muslims about Islam. Through projects like the Pillars Fund’s Muslim Narrative Change Cohort (in collaboration with the Pop Culture Collaborative and Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art), Muslim artists, academics, and thinkers have the capacity to share Muslim stories with wider audiences.

These are important interventions, and they have been the impetus for a strong and vibrant AMEMSA field that is engaged in every aspect of social and civic life—service provision and advocacy, organizing and culture change, leadership development and political participation. It’s important to note that many of these strategic investments through philanthropic institutions have occurred because of the vision and advocacy of program officers who identify as Muslim, Arab, South Asian, or Sikh and feel a sense of responsibility to their communities.

Of course, there remains room to grow. In order to ensure more foundations support AMEMSA communities, there are a variety of misperceptions and biases that philanthropy must dismantle. One is the view that AMEMSA communities are frozen in time and only deal with post-9/11 issues. In dispelling this notion, philanthropy can move to support the swath of issues AMEMSA communities face beyond immigration, racial backlash, and Islamophobia—such as housing, jobs, gender equity, elder care, and more. Another is the perception that AMEMSA communities are wealthy and thus capable of funding our own organizations without the assistance of organized philanthropy.

A third misconception is the belief that AMEMSA organizations, particularly those that work with Muslim communities, are “risky” investments—a reflection of Islamophobia within philanthropy. (Watch here as Shireen Zaman, former director of the Rise Together Fund, in conversation with Darakshan Raja, co-director of the Justice for Muslims Collective, addresses Islamophobia in the philanthropic sector in BMP’s Move the Money series on social movements.)

Lastly, there’s the idea that AMEMSA organizations can survive on rapid response funding without organizational infrastructure that is at scale to support our communities. One of the consequences of providing resources in times of rapid response is that it forces organizations to operate on a cycle of boom or bust. To prevent this cycle from continuing, philanthropy must provide sustained, multi-year funding, even during times of relative stability.

Beyond dismantling these misperceptions, the philanthropic sector must also make a deep and long-term commitment to building the infrastructure of an ecosystem of local and national organizations that can both support their own communities during times of crisis and beyond while also participating in broader movements for justice, equity, and liberation. That means engaging in the following practices:

Supporting local grassroots organizations that are mobilizing AMEMSA communities around the country, including in areas that are seeing demographic growth
Investing in movement infrastructure by providing multi-year, unrestricted funding to an ecosystem of local and national groups with various strategies, including social services, organizing, advocacy, civic engagement, and narrative change
Supporting movement leadership, from healthy leadership transitions to leadership development for new leaders entering the nonprofit sector and the AMEMSA field
Ensuring that organizations on the front lines of rapid response have the necessary funding to support communities dealing with the pandemic, political polarization, climate change, and other pressing issues
Investing in healing and wellness of AMEMSA staff and leaders who have been carrying the weight of direct and vicarious trauma for 20 years
Supporting solidarity-based partnerships with broader movements for social change so that AMEMSA groups have the capacity to participate in coalitions, campaigns, and networks
Educating funders about how Islamophobia shows up in decision making, the War on Terror’s ongoing consequences, and the links between post-9/11 policies and today’s crises
Making it easier for new AMEMSA organizations to learn about, apply for, and obtain funding
Encouraging and providing incentives for non-AMEMSA grantees to collaborate with AMEMSA organizations

The philanthropic sector can transform the AMEMSA field with strategic and long-term investments that reflect the current moment with a nuanced understanding of the trajectory that has brought us to the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In fact, current funders of the AMEMSA field recognized the importance of this time by releasing a call to action for philanthropy in September 2021. They write:

“As philanthropies and philanthropic serving organizations who support Black, African, Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (BAMEMSA) communities deeply impacted by the response of the United States to 9/11, we want to reaffirm our commitment. They have been on the front lines of creating a just, multiracial democracy in the United States. We ask funders to join in our commitment to supporting BAMEMSA communities during this important year and beyond.”

The lead signatories (Democracy Fund, Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and The RISE Together Fund) are committing to raising $50 million over the next five years to support communities.

The next decade should usher in a different experience than mine for AMEMSA leaders building their organizations. I hope that the next round of executive directors will feel nourished and supported in their work, have the space to make mistakes and course-correct, and receive funding without being asked to perform and make their case time and again. More than anything, new directors and staff should have the time and space to imagine bold visions for our futures—and to make them a reality.

Deepa Iyer is a South Asian American writer, lawyer, and activist. She is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Building Movement Project, where she curates a project called Solidarity Is, which provides trainings and narratives to build deep and lasting multiracial solidarity. Deepa was the former executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) for a decade, and has held positions at Race Forward, the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, and the Asian American Justice Center. Deepa’s first book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (The New Press 2015), received a 2016 American Book Award.

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