Perched at the top of Jonathan Jayes-Green’s professional biography on the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s website, there sits a small quote from Lucille Clifton, former Maryland Poet Laureate, which reads: “come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.”
It’s not your typical professional first impression — especially for a top leader at an organization that disperses millions of dollars in grants a year. But then again, Marguerite Casey Foundation is far from your typical grantmaking foundation, the sort that tend to be progressive in their desire for change but conservative in their attempts to actually enact it; the sort whose fundraising efforts correctly identify the urgent, life-or-death stakes facing our society’s most marginalized, only to end up grantmaking through the traditional, risk-averse methods that predate their new rhetoric.
Marguerite Casey Foundation actually walks the walk, and a new wave of top leaders like Jayes-Green, its Vice President of Programs, are a big part of how the foundation is making good on its commitment to “support leaders, scholars and initiatives focused on shifting the balance of power in society — building power for communities that continue to be excluded from shaping how society works and from sharing in its rewards and freedoms.”
For Jayes-Green, that commitment spans their entire career. An activist, strategist, and organization builder, in 2016, they founded the UndocuBlack Network, a “multi-generational network of currently and formerly undocumented Black people that fosters community, facilitates access to resources, and advocates to transform the realities of [Black] people.” Its services to its community include support with applying for DACA, the establishment of a mental health initiative “to underscore and address the trauma that [the undocumented Black] community experiences,” and creating local meetups as “safe spaces for attendees to develop kinship amongst other Black undocumented immigrants.” In 2019, Senator Elizabeth Warren hired Jayes-Green to be the Director of Latinx Outreach for her presidential campaign.
Throughout their career, Jayes-Green has seen some of the biggest problems affecting our most marginalized communities up close and personal. In a Zoom interview, they tell me that one of the biggest challenges they face as an activist and a philanthropic organization leader is the deluge of money the activist right pours into fighting national battles across multiple local fronts.
“We in the progressive movement are not that clear about the role of money in the fights that we’re fighting,” Jayes-Green said. “When it comes to radical organizing, the resources are just not there. And then you look at the right, and the amount of resources the right has, and the amount of institutional power the right has — it’s just not a fair fight.”
Jayes-Green hopes that Marguerite Casey Foundation can be the model for a new and urgently needed era of philanthropy, a bold approach that uses smart systems-building — which Jayes-Greens calls “the radical act of process building” — to counter the activist right’s deep pockets.
“Philanthropies and foundations spend the bulk of their time focused on due diligence,” Jayes-Green explains, “but what the f*ck is a safe investment in a crumbling system within a crumbling global economy?”
“Our job at Marguerite Casey Foundation is to give our grantees the freedom, power, and space to lead,” they say. “We can be thought partners to them. But it’s also asking ourselves, how do we encourage the rest of our field to operate the way we operate?”
One key way Jayes-Green helps to encourage their foundation — and by extension, their field — to operate: funding leaders in traditionally underfunded fields with life-changing, no strings attached grants. Such was the case with the foundation’s Freedom Scholars, twelve experts who received $250,000 to pursue their radical ideas.
“Freedom Scholars reflect the commitment of Marguerite Casey Foundation and Group Health Foundation to work as partners in service of these scholars and their work — to help these leaders be freer,” Marguerite Casey Foundation and its partner said in a joint statement. “We know if these scholars have resources and support, they will shift the balance of power in this country toward economic and social justice. The awards honor the long arc of freedom organizing by and for Black, Indigenous, queer and poor people, migrants and all People of Color.”
That last part is personal for Jayes-Green, a queer undocumented Black leader in a position to push for paradigm shift.
“We can have a country and a world where people have their human rights respected and their basic needs met,” Jayes-Green affirms. “My message to other funders is to stick it out. Double down on investing in communities of color, in work that’s more clearly ideological. There is no economic justice without racial justice, without trans liberation. We can track, record, envision, and transform what democracy actually looks like.”