Brooklyn Magazine: Fighting For Racial Justice One Grant At A Time
You may not have heard of the Brooklyn Community Foundation but the impact the grant-making organization has had in borough is immeasurable. Well, almost immeasurable: Since its founding in 2009 the foundation has helped provide more than $90 million in grants to exclusively Brooklyn nonprofits.
Which is important because, according to data collected by Baruch College, Brooklyn is home to nearly 30 percent of the nonprofits in New York city, but its share of philanthropic giving is only 7.6 percent.
Jocelynne Rainey, the president and CEO of the Brooklyn Community since November of 2021, is working to change that, with an emphasis on issues around racial and economic justice. Rainey, along with the foundation, just announced the recipients of the foundation’s annual Spark prize. All five of them — Arab American Family Support Center, Kings Against Violence Initiative, Mixteca Organization, STEM From Dance and Workers Justice Project — will receive $100,000 in no-strings-attached, game-changing grants as non profits addressing critical challenges and opportunities in Kings County.
Rainey, who grew up in Flatbush, bought her first home in Park Slope and currently lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, knows Brooklyn. She knows how it’s changed, how it continues to change and where its underserved communities needs help. It is, she says on this week’s episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” a continuous learning process. We’ll talk about her background and upbringing, the work that the Brooklyn Community Foundation does and her previous gigs, including as Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer for the Navy Yard Development Corporation.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity. You can listen to it in its entirety in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
Let’s start with what you guys are all about at the Brooklyn Community Foundation, the foundation operates at the intersection of racial justice and Brooklyn and philanthropy, supporting small nonprofits. One of the only, if not the only to exclusively focus on grant-making in Brooklyn. Is that correct?
You’re absolutely right. I talk about it just that way, the intersection between racial justice, philanthropy, and Brooklyn, all the things that I feel most passionate about. The foundation has been around since 2009. We’ve given over $90 million to local nonprofits.
It’s up to $90 million? The old number was $75 million.
The old number was $75 million. It’s funny. I was double-checking that number last week. We have given over $90 million and we are the only community foundation focused on Brooklyn. It’s just really exciting work. We do work with primarily small nonprofits, who don’t often get their fair share of funding. We do work over a myriad of issues across Brooklyn, so our funding is for Brooklyn. If a large nonprofit is doing something that’s really innovative and working towards dismantling racism, then we’ll also think about how we can support them as well.
If there was a sort of shared DNA or commonality among the nonprofits that the foundation ends up supporting, what would that be? How would you describe that?
It’s Brooklyn and, unapologetically, it’s around racial justice. I’ve been using those words, so we can be really strong in that.The commonality is that these are nonprofits that understand that their work — whether it is direct services, which I think are really important, making sure that people have housing and food and they have books and they have the things that they need in order to thrive in a borough like Brooklyn, and also organizing and advocacy work as well, and all the work that nonprofits do — but we also want to make sure that they’re really clear that their work is working towards racial justice.
The Brooklyn element has always been at the core. Has the racial justice component always been at the foundation of BCF or is that something that you specifically brought in? My understanding is it’s the latter but correct me if I’m wrong. How do you see racial and social justice tied to your vision of philanthropy?
I will say that, no, the foundation has not always been solely focused on racial justice. That was actually work that was brought in when my predecessor was running the foundation and after they did what they call “insights” and talking to communities in Brooklyn to really understand what communities needed, what was going on in Brooklyn, that work was really important, to understand who needs the support and the resources that the foundation has.
I’m a Black woman. I know the data. I know that there has been true damage done to my community through structural racism, but I also want to make sure that we’re not ignoring other communities. For me, it was really about getting out into community, talking to our nonprofits and not just nonprofits in our communities — talking to religious leaders, other stakeholders in communities, educators, parents. What’s going on in your community? What do you need? I heard a lot of different needs and it was across a lot of different demographics. There was a lot of need in the Latinx community, a lot of need in Sunset Park where there is a strong Asian community, and then there was a lot of need in many of the communities that are in northern Brooklyn, as well.
How do you define racial justice?
To me, racial justice means really making sure that we’re we’re leveling the playing field and knowing that leveling the playing field is not just good for those people and those communities, that it’s also good for New York. It’s good for Brooklyn, it is good for our country to be able to support people. When we’re stabilizing families, we’re stabilizing people, when we’re giving them opportunities to be able to move into the labor market or live the American Dream, contribute in ways that they may not be able to, if there weren’t nonprofits focused on this work.
There’s a video on the foundation website I think that shows you talking, you’re explaining this. You describe this as your dream job. What is it about this work that makes it a dream job for you?
What makes it a dream job is that intersection that we talked about. I’ve been in Brooklyn all of my life, went to elementary school in Flatbush, bought my first house in Park Slope. My family and I moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant and bought a home there. My sons, who are 24 and 29, they were raised in Brooklyn, they went to Brooklyn public schools.
I believe that Brooklyn is an amazing, amazing borough. There’s a lot of opportunity, a lot of wealth but there’s also a lot of need. Being able to focus on that and having seen it through my eyes in different periods of my life, made me think that this is work that’s really important. So, goes Brooklyn, I believe, so goes the world. If we’re able to create opportunities here, then we’re going to be able to create opportunities throughout.
The other thing is that I believe that philanthropy is for everybody. I believe that everyone can be philanthropic. I want to be a model of that. I sit on a few boards. I don’t have a whole lot of money but I have a lot of other treasures and gifts to offer and that’s really important. I want to be a model for philanthropy and I want to make sure that folks when they see me, they see that people who look like me can be philanthropic as well, and that philanthropy, it’s a lot about having resources and dollars to support but it’s also about being a part of the community, your time, your expertise as well.
And, finally, racial justice. I believe that structural racism has done a lot of damage to this country. I believe that people have been marginalized and have been kept out of the economic system in ways that have made it, so that we’re not able to achieve the American Dream. I want to be a voice around that, when I think about Brooklyn, in particular, I think about the fact that having worked at the Navy Yard but understanding that the Navy Yard was a place where there were tons of jobs and there were people who were in the Navy, who lived in what is now NYCHA’s Farragut Housing Complexes and when there was redlining, the white officers were able to move out and buy homes, and with their GI Bill and the Black officers were not.
Of course, you see all of that still playing out. Just this week, there were two headlines, one in the New York Times and one in the Commercial Observer. The New York Times has a big piece on why Black families are leaving New York and what it means for the city. The Commercial Observer’s headline was developers have “rediscovered” Bedford-Stuyvesant, can it sustain the boom? Then the conversations I’ve been having, the historic legacy residents of neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy are really angry and they’re scared and they’re losing the place that was a safe place for them, that they no longer recognize just in the past decade to 20 years. It’s really remarkable. You, yourself, having grown up in Flatbush, living in Bed-Stuy now, can you talk about the changes you’ve seen in the borough over the course of, if not even your career, your life or both?
It’s funny. One of the reasons why I felt these listening tours were so important is because I think about growing up in Flatbush and what Flatbush was. When I was living there, Flatbush was a very racially divided area. There was a lot of racial tension. It was a really interesting place to live where I remember there being like fights that were between races. Looking now, Flatbush is this rich, amazing community, a lot of people with West Indian heritage, like myself, who own homes. It’s like that community is a completely different community than what it was when I was growing up. The idea that communities change is something that I understand.
Then I look at Park Slope, I couldn’t buy my house in Park Slope now. I couldn’t buy my house there. I used to see my friends in the restaurants there. When I go there, I don’t see people who look like me a lot. Brooklyn can sometimes feel a little segregated. It’s important for us to be honest about that, and look at that and now if I go to park, my kids went to elementary school there, one went to middle school there, and I can’t park over there anymore. It’s like a completely different neighborhood.
I call it Park Nope.
When I was there, there was parking. I used to park every day. It’s so odd and going over there and just seeing, for me, through the years, seeing the skyline change. It’s a different borough and we need to recognize it and talk about it and when I moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant into my home, I was like, “Oh my God. I’m on this beautiful tree-lined block.” There were no destination restaurant. I live on a block where I say, “This could be the story of gentrification.”
On my corner, there’s a bodega. I go there all the time, because I believe in supporting small businesses. There is a bodega where young men I’ve seen grow up, they hang out there. They’re friends. Then across the street, there’s Peaches Hot House, a destination restaurant. People waiting outside. Next door to that, there’s a nice coffee shop. People in there on their computers. Across the street, there’s a bar, Lover’s Rock, and people are there and you can feel the tension. I mean, I’ve been there over 20 years. I don’t think I’m new but I am new.
I have neighbors who live in the houses their parents bought, and they’re beautiful homes. These are professional people that lived through the darkest days of Bed-Stuy. They feel like their community is no longer their community. My kids, they couldn’t buy a house … I couldn’t buy my house in Bed-Stuy now. I’m a professional woman, my husband is a school principal. We’re professional. We could not buy our home in Bed-Stuy and there’s something wrong with that, that people who lived in a community, kept the community together, made it the reason why people want to live there, right? There’s so many beautiful single old family homes, and now people are being pushed out of Bed-Stuy into Brownsville. You’re starting to see gentrification. Where are they going to go?
It’s why I felt listening tours were so important, because I think you think you know but you don’t know. You need to be able to address what the issues are today, not what the issues are that you believe that they are.
Let’s talk about the Spark Prize. You have just announced recipients of the foundation’s annual award. This is $100,000 in grants to five nonprofits that you guys have identified working in Brooklyn. What’s the criteria? Can you just shout out one or two of these nonprofits and why you thought they were worthy of this prize?
The criteria is that you have to be a nonprofit, born in Brooklyn, whether you’re still in Brooklyn or not, primarily working with Brooklyn residents, clear about your work being focused on racial justice.
One of the things I do want to just call out is that what I love most about all of our grant-making is that these are unrestricted dollars, and having run a nonprofit myself, I realize how important it is to give a nonprofit funding that they can use, and I always use this term, to dream.
Right. No strings attached, right?
No strings attached. Right. They can just do whatever they want to do with it. The thing is that you don’t always know what a nonprofit needs. They know what they need. They might want to bring in new programming. They might just need to pay a staff member in order to maintain their programming. Whatever they need to do, they could do with this $100,000.
We end up with 20 finalists. 15 of them who are not chosen as the five winners, do get a $5000 match that they get through our Brooklyn Gives program. The five finalists receive that $100,000. This year, we’re really excited that the Arab American Family Support Center. They do amazing work to support that community, and making sure that they have the support that they need.
One of our other winners is Mixteca is an organization that is focused on the Latinx community doing great work right now with the migrants coming into New York City, supporting them but also has done a lot of wonderful work around just regular direct services but also around workforce development and those kinds of things and advocating for deliveristas and folks who need that support.
I’m also really proud that we were supporting STEM For Dance. It’s amazing. I had an opportunity to go in and see these young people merging and connecting science and dance. Those are just three of the nonprofits that will be receiving the Spark Prize this year. As you can see, they’re doing amazing work in Brooklyn.
Where does your money come from? That right there is $500,000 plus $5000 for each of the non-finalists. That’s not a small amount of money. How do you guys generate your both working revenue and capital and what you actually distribute?
We have an endowed fund from when the foundation was founded by Independence Bank, but what I will say is that most of our funding comes from Brooklynites just like you and me, people who care about Brooklyn. I think one of the things that just makes Brooklyn really special is that it is full of generous people who know that a fair and just Brooklyn means that it’s going to be a better Brooklyn for us, for future generations, and understand that supporting people who live in your community is important and not just important to do it out of being nice. It’s really important in order to make sure that we have the talent that we need for New York City, that our education system is where it’s supposed to be, they’re willing to put their money where their mouth is.
Your professional background, though, is in human resources. Is that where your career started? What is it about human resources that you sort of apply to what you do now? Because it is obviously you’re working with people at a very real level.
I didn’t start out in human resources. I started my career working in nonprofits. I started out working in organizations that worked with people who had developmental disabilities, adults, group homes across Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. While I was there, I grew in my positions from running group homes to overseeing several group homes that, at one point, because of the era, I was able to get my feet wet in training and human resources and so I ended up being the head of human resources at that organization. I love human resources. I love working with people. I think that it is so key to every organization.
I left there to work in the for-profit sector, Home Depot, Boar’s Head, and finally at Agatha and Valentina. I will say what kept me up at night, Brian, was when I was interviewing someone who looked like me or my son or my husband, and would go to a hiring manager and, frankly, they would say things like, “Oh, she seems like she had an attitude” or, “He feels like he wouldn’t be a good fit.” Or I would see that there were skills that they were lacking, that if they just had that last mile training, that they would be able to get this role, if they just had somebody invested in them, if they just had more social capital or more workplace experience.
When you’re in human resources, you’re the gatekeeper. You can’t just move someone forward, or else someone would say, “Jocelynne, what were you thinking? Why did you move this person forward who wouldn’t be a good fit?”
I wanted to go back to nonprofit work, something that was more mission-driven, and went over to the Navy Yard as the head of human resources.
That’s at the Development Corporation?
Yup. The Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, 300-acre industrial park. Went over there and was working in human resources and found out about this department that they had called workforce development, and I was like, “Wow. I could use my human resources skills to help connect people to work?”
I asked the then-CEO of the Navy Yard, Andrew Kimball, “Can I run workforce development too while I’m running HR?” He allowed me to do that. I think that was when I realized that it was using my skills that I had in regards to helping people, I would be able to use my HR skills to help people connect to work. It was really something that I just felt really passionate about, and so while I was there, we were able to grow our workforce development program, our internship program, just really using my every day HR sensibilities, in order to inform my team, in order to get people into jobs there.
In a previous lifetime, I covered the advertising and media, marketing industries and they’ve been talking about diversity for years, diversity in hiring, a more diverse workforce. The first problem they had was they would always say, “We can’t find people,” which is crazy, and then once they made a deliberate effort to increase percentage of people in color in their places of work, there was no pipeline for growth, there was no training. And ultimately, even when they would make these hires, they would end up leaving the industry, because there was no path forward once they got there. This is a sort of problem across multiple industries.
Brian, you are so right about that. You know what? A lot of it again is social capital. I did my dissertation research on the under- and unemployment of African American college graduates, and the impact of social skills. Even in my research, what I discovered is that folks want to hire people they feel comfortable with. It’s not a race thing but it’s like, “We have things in common, I’m the same way.”
We all have implicit biases but we don’t all have power. The majority of people who sit in power don’t look like me, and so it’s important that we create internal policies and practices that help to support people. I have to say, we did a really great job at that at the Navy Yard around creating those internal policies and practices that really let us look at what was the experience of our maintenance people versus our executive folks, not looking at it like holistically and saying, “Oh, 90 percent of our employees love it here.” It was like, “What is that 10 percent and who is in that 10 percent?”
You’re absolutely right: It’s not about just getting in the door. It’s about that B, when they talk about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, it’s that’s the one that I really think is most important is that people need to feel like, “I belong here as my whole self,” not just to check that box that you got someone who is diverse, and so having that conversation is truly important. And, yeah, you’re right, so many people don’t survive, because there’s no supports within the organization, there’s no mentorship.
I could talk forever about how I do or really don’t believe in mentorship. It’s important to understand, “Hey, I might not have grown up doing the same things that you do and that we value the differences equally and that we’re doing that.”
You’re not a big believer in mentorship? Is that what you were saying?
Yeah. I’m not a big believer in mentorship.
It’s a huge commitment and not everybody can make that commitment.
It’s tough to scale.
What’s more important is sponsorship. Again, it’s the like “me” thing is true. People want to be around people who are like them, and that is not a race thing. I think that that’s the other piece, trying to look at it from both sides. If I get a resume that resume it says that these people are a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority incorporated, that’s my sorority. I’m going to tell you dollars to donuts, I’m going to call that person in no matter what it says on their resume to, at least, have a conversation with them. I have my own implicit biases.
But then we have to be honest about who actually has the power, so their implicit biases are going to outrank my implicit biases, and so that’s why you need strong policies, practices. Right now, I hear, our HR department is blacking out names, they are blacking out addresses, and they’re blacking out where you got your degree from because those biases exist and that’s not race. But the truth is: Who is going to elite universities, who can go to those schools? So if you black it out and you’re just saying, “This person has a BS in whatever that area is that you actually were recruiting for, you’re going to look at these things differently.”
I try, I did it at the Navy Yard, I’m doing it here, is to put in place policies and practices that make sure that we’re living our values internally, the same way that we live them externally.
What else is going on at the foundation?
We’re working on our strategic plan right now, so folks should be on the lookout for our strategic plan and see what direction we’re going, how we’re thinking about our grant making, and we’re doing that through conversations with our staff, our board, external stakeholders, our grantee partners. I’m going to continue these listening tours. I thought the listening tours were going to be a one-off, my first year in, but I was just amazed at the things that I don’t know. We’re going to do listening tours all year.
What does that look like? Are you physically going into neighborhoods and talking to people?
Physically going into the neighborhoods, going to small businesses. We know that Brooklyn is the borough of small businesses. New York is a city of small businesses too, and we need to support small businesses. We have these meetings in small businesses and communities and neighborhoods. We pay them for food and their time. We bring in and we invite stakeholders across that community to come in and, again, it’s not just nonprofits. We try to make sure that it’s primarily people who can tell us what’s going on with the kids, what do their schools need?
The most interesting thing is that, one, is that communities feel like they have what they need in their community, they have the passion and the folks in their community, but they need a lot more of the infrastructure and support in order to be able to really support their communities more. They need better communication technology and they need to have more social media platforms that they can talk cross to each other.
What we find too is that they need more space. It’s hard for small nonprofits to do the work they do without space, even if it’s hosting people to talk about their work. A lot of times, they don’t know what’s going on within their community. There’s a high school in East New York that takes their young people to Broadway shows every year, and they need support with that, and that came out of this meeting. They’re doing it on their own but there were people in the room who were like, “I’d love to support you, a small nonprofit.” A woman who was running a nonprofit for young people in Canarsie said she was doing it out of her pocket, and a larger nonprofit said, “I’ll be your fiscal sponsor.”
Are there neighborhoods or are there pockets of the borough that you’ve been to recently that you were maybe not completely unfamiliar with but was who like new to you, that you’re like, “Look, there’s a whole new world over in this corner?”
Every neighborhood felt more new to me than I expected it to. There’s a ton of need throughout Brooklyn and even in areas where you think there’s a lot of concentrated wealth, there’s need there.
When I went to Sunset Park, that was a really interesting community to be in, and to hear about the issues that they’re dealing with around some of their older residents having their EBT cards stolen from, and what that means to them and the language barrier in order to get the services that they need from the city, and the nonprofits that are actually helping them to navigate that system is amazing. That neighborhood was one that I really think about a lot and think about how can we support them and also Sunset Park has a really strong Latinx community and a really strong Asian community and thinking about how these two communities come together.
The other neighborhood that I was really surprised at and it was very new to me was Bay Ridge. When I grew up, Bay Ridge was Bay Ridge. I never went to Bay Ridge and Bay Ridge now has a really strong South Asian community that is doing a lot of work around food insecurity and some work around housing instability. That neighborhood was a neighborhood that really, I was like, “Wow.” They’re talking about the number of smoke shops that are going up in Bay Ridge and what that means for their children, that they feel like it makes their children unsafe.
The interesting thing that I found out as well is that there’s a lot of nonprofits that just don’t have the bandwidth to be able to solicit and get out there and ask for or do the applications and the work that it takes to get a grant, even if they do meet the threshold of a budget. I have a lot to think about, about how we make sure that we’re really doing this work, and the good thing is that I don’t get to think alone. I have an amazing board and an awesome staff. We’re really trying to think about how we do more in Brooklyn.