The Black Institute
Stories of Impact
In 2009, Bertha Lewis had been working at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) for 20 years. When the organization disbanded into state chapters late that year, Lewis knew she needed to go in a new direction, but she didn’t want to create something as simple as “ACORN 2.0.” Then, something dawned on her: “I had a realization that the country was going to very shortly be a ‘majority minority country’ in which people of color would be the numerical majority, and that we had to have a reckoning for that,” she recalled.
Lewis thought to herself, if there were to be a think tank that talked about policies most pertinent to society, then they must approach those issues through the lens of how they affected people of color – in other words, policy had to be considered through a racial justice lens.
The Black Institute (TBI), a Brooklyn-based “action-tank” that Lewis founded and leads, does exactly that: With four major issue buckets as its guide (public education, environment, immigration, and economics), TBI puts forth action-focused research that unapologetically centers the needs and perspectives of the city’s BIPOC communities. “Any issue that affects people of color or what we might determine to be some universal issue, we only look [at it] through a lens of color,” Lewis explained.
Part of The Black Institute’s core mission is to circulate their research beyond academic circles and to make sure that statistics and facts lead to tangible action. “Research needs to be accessible to the average person,” Lewis declared. “And for real change to come into effect, leadership has to be created to champion legislation around pressing issues.”
The work that TBI has done to further research grounded in racial justice has reaped many fruits: “We are very proud that over the years, our think tank has put out quarterly reports in our four buckets that have been very well received and respected,” Lewis said. Their most recent report, entitled “The Cannabis Chronicles,” is the first in a series about cannabis and race in New York, digging into the history of cannabis, the war against people of color’s use of it, and how it affects communities of color today.
TBI’s research has led to legislation that has also made big impacts on achieving environmental justice in BIPOC communities: there are now laws that prohibit the use of glyphosate and pesticides in NYC Parks, which are considered carcinogens that disproportionately affect the long term health of people of color.
Brooklyn Org’s funding meant, ‘You’ve proven yourself, you’ve survived, and we think you have a future.Bertha Lewis, Founder & President
But of all of these accomplishments, there is one thing The Black Institute cherishes the most: “We’re very proud that we’re still here [and that we’re] Black and woman led,” Lewis said. For the first six years of the organization’s tenure, TBI did not receive any external financial support. Lewis recalled having to play the tricky game of trying to convince foundations that her organization had what it takes to make a lasting impact in its communities.
This changed with the support of Brooklyn Org, whose multi-year funding confirmed two things for Lewis, and for The Black Institute at large: “[The funding meant], ‘You’ve proven yourself, you’ve survived, and we think you have a future.’” Lewis is particularly appreciative of Brooklyn Org’s capacity support, which has helped TBI think through what works, what doesn’t work, and how to move forward at different points in the think tank’s tenure. “It’s been wonderful to be a part of the BKO family,” Lewis said.
As The Black Institute continues to navigate a nonprofit landscape where funding isn’t always certain, its goals are set on capacity building and self-sufficiency. In growing both their board and staff, TBI is determined to build out their researching, organizing, and politics and policy departments, and hopes to raise $5M over the next 5 years. Reaching this critical mass means bringing in as many people as possible into the action-tank: “We would like to take all of our experience and build a real training academy that trains organizers – no matter what the issue is – on how to address it on political, community, and fundraising fronts,” Lewis said.
In terms of research, The Black Institute wants polls and census to actually reflect the racial realities of our city, and soon, our country. “There’s no recognition that [people of color] are the majority,” Lewis said. One solution that TBI dreams of is coming up with its own polling operation that specializes in polling BIPOC communities: “We want to take old school and new school [tools] and talk to people of color in their own language and actually get what they think about and what matters to them.”