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Seeds of Transformation

The feeling of many forecasters is that 2016 will be a year in which fear and anxiety compete with vitality and innovation as the dominant trends. Will suspicion and distrust, fear of new migrants and the securitization of policy and laws gain the upper hand, or will the development of imaginative solutions, the influx of new money to grantmaking and an atmosphere of possibility in a fluid and linked world win out?

– Ariadne 2016 Forecast for Funders

This statement was in the back of my mind as I reviewed a new report on the Rise of American Authoritarianism. Author Amanda Taub reports on a series of recent studies that reveal that much of the division affecting the country and polarizing our political discourse might not be due to money in politics or political gerrymandering, but to the rise of a surprisingly large block of voters: authoritarians. Authoritarians tend to prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control in a chaotic world. Challenge to, and breakdown of, the social order are experienced as personally threatening because they up end the status quo. The studies Taub reports on conclude that the GOP, by positioning itself as the party of traditional values and law and order, has unknowingly attracted what could turn out to be a vast population of Americans with authoritarian tendencies.

Taub suggests that this authoritarian trend has accelerated in recent years due to demographic and economic changes that have “activated” authoritarian tendencies, leading many Americans to seek out a strong leader who will preserve a social and economic system they feel is under threat and who can impose order on a world they perceive as increasingly alien. The classic authoritarian leadership style is simple, powerful, and punitive.

As we witness an increasingly distressing presidential campaign, Taub’s words resonate with me and cause us to consider how this development might challenge—or confirm—our approach as a Foundation. Throughout the history of the Compton Foundation, from inception to the present day, this institution has been dedicated to promoting a different vision, one that embraces tolerance, justice, equality, sustainability, and peace. In our most recent mission statement reaffirmation (in 2011), we embraced a belief that a new leadership approach—one that is the polar opposite of an authoritarian approach— is a critical element of the social change necessary to advance justice and sustainability. We also committed to the celebration of creativity and diversity to address the need to tell new stories of what is possible in the world.

So, do we have evidence at this point in our institutional evolution that we are contributing to the vitality, innovation, and imaginative solutions that the Ariadne forecast identifies as counterforces to fear and anxiety?

Just shy of five years of operating with our new approach, I think it is fair to say that we are seeing glimmers of light and progress that affirm our grantmaking strategies. At the Supreme Court in March, when oral arguments were held on a critical Texas abortion access case, reproductive rights and justice groups coordinated their grassroots campaigns to highlight what was happening, shared messaging, and highlighted speakers, many of whom shared their abortion stories, who reflected the diversity of the movement in all of its manifestations. This might seem like a small change, but it is huge, and reflects the hard work of building a movement network. Many of our grantees had a big role to play in ensuring this outcome. Trapped, an important film about the battle to keep abortion safe and legal from the Chicken and Egg Reproductive Justice cohort, was also released just as the court began its deliberations.

After 40 years of conflict Colombia is engaging in talks to end its civil war, and Compton grantee the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT) has a key seat at the table. With IFIT’s help, the post conflict process will be one that is inclusive and integrates all military, civil society, development, and aid actors and sectors. This will be a global first!

Bernie Sanders’ campaign has made money in politics a key talking point, and across the country, from Seattle to Maine to Maryland and Montana, momentum is growing for ballot initiatives that put in place public financing schemes. In addition, states like Oregon and California have initiated automatic voter registration programs. Our long time support of the Piper Fund and Every Voice has contributed to this growing success. Democracy organizations like Demos have begun to explore how to best engage on climate change, and environmental organizations like and Greenpeace have continued to expand and deepen their work on money in politics, building bigger, stronger movements on both issues. New organizations like the Climate Justice Alliance have not only united grassroots community organizations into a national network, but have also joined forces with civic engagement groups like National People’s Action, and mainstream green groups like the Sierra Club, to push for strong carbon pollution regulation and support for environmental justice, in the EPA’s Clean Power Plan rules. Early Compton Foundation funding has been essential to making these developments a reality.

We know that we are engaged in a long and challenging struggle for transformation in all corners of the world in which we live. We can, however, take heart that transformative progressive organizations are taking up the challenge, are infusing our world with new ways of working that combat fear and anxiety with love and community. We need more of it, and more time, but the seeds of a positive future are being sown and cultivated, and some are even beginning to sprout.

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