With the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in early 2021, the US federal government committed to the largest influx funding into local US governments since the New Deal of 1934. With the this bill comes a rare opportunity to secure this influx for community-controlled efforts led by community members and grassroots groups who live the closest to the challenges and dreams within our communities.
Just as importantly, this moment also offers a chance to redress history by resourcing the ideas, collective efforts, and leadership of black, indigenous and people of color previously shut out of the New Deal through restrictions rooted in racial bias such as redlining, Jim Crow laws, and myriad other policies and initiatives.
How might local communities access these funds to support their ground-level work, already rich with their own wisdom, expertise, talent, and collaboration?
SpiritHouse and the Back in the Black Coalition in Durham, NC have been working intensively for several months now to answer this question. Last month, they shared their story and organizing plan to secure community control of ARPA funds In a recent Skill Share gathering hosted by Southern Movement Assembly. Significantly, Durham is home of the historic Black Wall Street — a thriving hub of black-owned businesses and economic thriving that gained national recognition in the early 1900’s.
About the presenters:
In their own words, SpiritHouse is “a multigenerational Black women- led cultural organizing tribe with a rich legacy of using art, culture and media to support the empowerment and transformation of communities most impacted by racism, poverty, gender inequity, criminalization and incarceration. Since 1999, we have worked from our home base in Durham, North Carolina, to uncover and uproot the systemic barriers that prevent our communities from gaining the resources, leverage and capacity necessary for long-term self-sufficiency.
We are Black, cash poor, disabled, queer, formerly incarcerated, grassroots organizers, artists, alchemists, strategists, healers and ritualists. We are multi-generational, valuing the genius of Black youth and the lived experience and wisdom of our elders. We prioritize the leadership of the people at the center of the issue who are most impacted by systemic racism and oppression.
We say tribe because our embodied, liberatory practices preserve customs and rituals necessary to sustain our everyday lives. We share these culturally rooted practices in all of our community and collaborative spaces. Our greatest assets come from our lived experiences. As Black people in America, we have inherited both ancestral trauma and freedom. It’s in our DNA. We therefore prioritize our need and our ability to give and receive deep, transformative, collective healing, rooted in our customs, rituals, resilience, radical imagination and true historical analysis.”
- Context: “Since COVID began, we’ve watched billions and trillions of public dollars our dollars move without any real accountability or transparency. Where did the money go? How much went to community informed public health infrastructure versus pharmaceutical companies? How could these dollars be better used to shore up our preparation, our response and our recovery to climate disasters? Like we’re witnessing with either hurricane Ida in Louisiana and Mississippi? Or how could we create harm free zones that spirit house has been leading and training and facilitating for years now, that could reduce the number of people getting locked up by police, by ice and other law enforcement.”
- What is the American Rescue Plan Act? “the American Rescue Plan Act is a 1.7 trillion stimulus bill that was passed in March of 2021. It has given $300 billion for states, counties, tribal governments and municipalities to mitigate economic harm from COVID-19. And the use of funds is extremely broad. It can be used to aid households, it can be used for small businesses, for nonprofits, and for specific industries… The first distribution of funds was in May, so your municipality may already have these these funds, and the second distribution will be next week. All of these funds must be allocated by 2024. And they must all be spent by ’26.”
- How SpiritHouse & Back in the Black’s work began: “A couple of people who are familiar with the process of applying to apply for funds to local government, and including one of our county commissioners alerted some folks that this was happening. And then we created a very broad coalition to just start looking at what our buffers were. So after we did that, we realized that we probably needed a coalition and we made our coalition extremely broad… We started the coalition in the middle of July, and the deadline was July 31, to submit our proposal. So we had a very, very, very small window of time to build a very mighty coalition. It was about two weeks. That’s all we had.”
- The importance of building a broad coalition: “Our building tactics again were to make sure that we had a very broad coalition. Durham is a relatively progressive city, but we still have some bricks if you will, where even though folks are voting, I think like 80% democratic or something like that there are still some divisive divisions. And so what we tried to do is we tried to make sure that we reached out really far, and why one of the things that we talked about was just making sure that we framed our proposal to be extremely broad to catch everyone who could qualify for these funds. Because the reality is that the bill was written extremely broad, so there was no reason for us to go small with this. So we just tried to make sure you know, who would normally be on the opposite ends of an issue and tried to go really, really broad and build a coalition.”
- The importance of research and data-gathering: “We broke up our process into two separate processes. We did a lot of research first. And it was the research that informed the proposal. We made sure that we did a lot of research and pulled a lot of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from information around reparations. And we made sure that we cited primary resources to back up everything that we were asking. So we cited the bill itself, not necessarily what the city’s interpretation of the bill was. We cited quantitative and qualitative research that that we saw, that was documented in order to make our proposal, we also ask for data accountability. And so what that means is that we know that data can be used against us. And so we made sure that we asked for data collection to happen and that that collection be had to be done by data scientists and firms and groups that are black-LED, or black-owned.”
- Highlighting the need for equitable distribution of funding: “the equitable, equitable distribution of the funding is the thing that is most important to us. And it is essential that this money is allocated and distributed in a particular way. Why? Because at the end of the day, what we want to make sure of is that we are not on the wrong side of history. Right? His historically, what we see is that there are these inequities. And what then happens is that it’s not until after these things happen, do we then come back with sort of the historical analysis and data and all their stuff that supports what we already know is happening, which is that inequities exist and persist.”
- Advice on how to begin: “We, the organization was contacted by a local politician in our area to come apply for some of this money. But overall, a lot of people didn’t know this money even existed that we had access to, and that we can even apply. So the first thing we’re asking folks to do is just contact your local city, and county, your city council and your county commissioners and ask them, send them an email, go find out their information and send them an email. What are we doing with these ARPA funds? Have you all made decisions about them? You know, how are we are you all engaging in a process that includes collective planning and, you know, collective action? Are you interested or what what, how are you proposing to work with local agencies and organizations in order to distribute this money? And just ask them, what are they planning on doing?”
- Knowing your local history: “It is also really important to understand and know your local history. And who were the players during the last funding? What happened to the money? Who received it? How does redlining impact your community? Who are the folks who do get government and grant funding in your community? And what are they doing for the marginalized folks in your community? What impact has government funding and grants had in your community? who’s running those funds? Are the people who are writing the funds part of those communities? Or are they folks who aren’t part of the communities coming in and telling the community what to do?”
- Request transparency: “I would suggest that you interface with your local politicians in your city and county and ask them what they’re doing with their ARPA funds, what their plans are, and get a broad base with your local organizations to challenge them if they’re not being transparent about their process.”
- Looking for misunderstandings about who qualifies: “I think that we were one of the first groups of folks who, because we read the primary source documents, pushed back to say that this broad was actually much broader than what the city was articulating to us. And so that’s what we want to make sure that you understand, the bill is very broad. The guidance that has been given to a lot of municipalities has been to make sure that they approach this funding from a broad perspective, and to fund transformational projects, and to make sure that folks who don’t normally get government funding get the funding. So there may be a disconnect there, as far as a process or an administrative disconnect that involves making sure that people who don’t normally get funding still get it. And that might be where your work lies is in that place.”
- What will happen if we don’t ensure broad access: “Your work, really, in this moment, is to find out what this what your city or county has decided to do. Because in Durham, they created a set of guidelines that did not come from the federal government, they created their own guidelines, which were much stricter. And so some of what we have done and are doing is challenging them on that, you know, why are you using a stricter set of guidelines, then what the federal government has actually outlined. And that may be the first thing that you need to do. But a lot of folks are just taking the money and applying it to already existing programs, or it’s for boosting like police in their communities. And that is not what this money was meant for. And if you don’t challenge them, that’s what’s going to happen.”
- Do you have to have be fiscally sponsored or nonprofit? “The answer is no. harbor funds are for individuals, organizations and businesses. So if you’re an individual, so I know, there are some folks that are in our coalition who aren’t like, like organizations, there are individuals who want to do programming in the community. They don’t even have a financial structure yet, but they’re still applying and have made it to the final stages.”
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