Meeting Minutes from InspireSeattle Social on June 18, 2011

Social Justice Issues in the Northwest

1st Speaker –

Zeke Spier

Zeke is the Executive Director at Social Justice Fund (, where he has worked for 4.5 years.  Over that time, he has engaged hundreds of people as donors and helped to move millions of dollars to grassroots organizing in the Northwest.  Zeke has experience both as a manager in the corporate sector and as a community organizer, working on issues from the just reconstruction of New Orleans to criminal justice issues in Philadelphia.  He is currently sits on the Steering Committee of the Seattle chapter of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy and is a member of the leadership team of the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites.  Zeke was born in Portland, Oregon, and enjoys reminiscing about his cross-country bicycle trip on his 2-mile ride to work.


Social Justice Fund Northwest is a foundation working at the frontlines of social change. They leverage the resources of our members to foster significant, long-term social justice solutions throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.


For the last three decades, their members have been delivering profound social change by investing in grantees that address the root causes of injustice. Their members build community and make grants through Giving Projects, helping create a new, more engaged culture of social justice philanthropists.


SJF’s vision is of a world that is just, equitable, and environmentally sustainable for all. This multicultural world celebrates and supports diversity, community, intergenerational collaboration, and self-empowerment. Their image of success is a region with a thriving network of community-based organizations and coalitions and an increasingly equitable distribution and sharing of power and wealth.


SJF societal values:

  • Social change activism – SJF believes in grassroots leadership and community organizing as a vehicle for social change.
  • Empowerment – SJF values efforts to strengthen the voices of disenfranchised communities to promote human dignity and a more just society.
  • Undoing systems of oppression – SJF supports the empowerment of disenfranchised communities and the dismantling all systems of oppression that erode human dignity.
  • Hope and optimism – SJF believes that we will achieve our vision through social change.
  • Equity and fairness – SJF believes that resources should be equally available to everyone in society, and that human rights are more important than property rights.


Zeke discussed how all foundations are effectively “government supported” in that the donors receive tax breaks.  Annually, over $40 billion are donated in the US from foundations.  Surprisingly, only 20% of these donations go to people of need, I.E., lower income people.  Strikingly, only 7% goes towards people of color.  The bulk of the $40 billion goes towards private schools, the arts, etc., I.E. important causes and organizations, but often people express how people in need should be and are helped by foundations, which is not really the case.


SJF supports organizations that work towards social justice.  SJF broadly defines social justice as combining social actions with work towards civil rights.  Nationally, only 1.5% of foundation donations go towards social justice issues/groups.  Putting this limited funding into perspective, one can look at what government spends vs philanthropy.  What United Way raises in one full year is spent in two days by the government on social issues in our state.  In other words, there is a huge opportunity to improve social services by working on the government funding process.


There are two key questions commonly asked around philanthropy.  First is “where is the money going?”  Second is “how is the money given?”


The SJF works to ensure the monies they provide is used as efficiently as possible, and provides a very high return on investment.  A recent study showed that for every $1 given, over $150 in benefit was gained.  SJF is very proud of this high return on investment.


SJF has recently revamped their giving process and for 2011 is sponsoring five different Giving Projects.  Through these projects, SJF members join grassroots organizers, philanthropists and donor activists in a larger movement for social change.  SJF members actually own and lead the grant making process through the Giving Projects.  Through a democratic process, a Giving Project group makes grants to some of the most amazing organizations in our region. 


This year’s five Giving Projects are:

1.  The Next Generation Giving Project

2.  Environmental Justice

3.  LGBTQ Issues

4.  A Civic Action giving project

5.  A special project in Montana. 

There are over 100 people at SJF engaged in this year’s Giving Projects.  Membership grows each year through word of mouth.  Applications for grants are increasing annually.  SJF’s staff of four works hard to ensure members and supported organizations represent our community’s diversity. 


2nd Speaker –

Tony Lee

Tony is Policy Director with Statewide Poverty Action Network.  SPAN, is a community-based organization that is working to end the causes of poverty in Washington State.  They lobby for sound policy on state and local levels, educate and mobilize community members to take action on critical justice issues, and create opportunities for all people to prosper. Tony oversees Solid Ground’s advocacy programs:  the Statewide Poverty Action Network; Family Assistance, which provides free legal representation to low-income people on public assistance, Medicaid and child care issues; the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, which provides advocacy on behalf of long-term care residents.   He also coordinates Solid Ground’s advocacy work with local government on issues related to funding and human service policies.   Tony was a founding member of Poverty Action in 1996, playing an essential role in its development and direction. Tony has more than 20 years of experience working on legal justice and legislative issues, including work as a Public Benefits Attorney at Evergreen Legal Services and as the legislative director at the WA Association of Churches. He is the past chair of the Governor’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs and is a founding member of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of King County. 


Tony opened his talk by telling a story about how FDR was lobbied in the 1930s to support helping the masses of impoverished people.  FDR told the lobbyists “I agree with everything you said – now make me do it!”  Tony’s point was that it takes more than a good story around obvious need to win government action.  It takes continued determination and effort around grassroots organizing.  The Rightwing learned long ago to not fund their Rightwing organizations with multiple “strings attached”, but rather just fund them for general purposes and then let them go to work.  This approach has been very effective for them.


Tony described the devastating effects Republican legislation over the past 20 years has had on the poor, especially certain elements of the poor, such as women and immigrants.  Since SPAN was formed in 1996, they have been working to mobilize low income people, to better use media, to extensively lobby the middle class and to mobilize a large base of allies of the poor. 


About 7 years ago, SPAN branched out their work to a broader spectrum of issues.  These include:

  • Payday loans – SPAN was behind the creation of new laws that forced payday loan companies to offer installment payment options, to limit the number of loans offered to 8 per year, and other rule changes that added up to saving the poor that use these types of high interest loans more than $120 million a year.  Payday loans commonly charge borrowers almost 400% interest, and these exorbitant rates make repayment of the loans often impossible. 
  • The creation of individual development accounts, which are effectively savings accounts for the poor
  • A new earned income tax credit for the poor, which encourages work and provides monies to the poor to help meet basic needs.

Many people don’t realize there is an extremely high cost to being poor.  Groceries in poor neighborhood are typically less nutritious and sold at a much higher cost.  Insurance cost is higher for poor people, and insurance companies typically use credit score ratings as a measure of charges, I.E., a low credit score increases one’s insurance cost.  SPAN is now working towards changing this, believing one’s driving record should be what drives their insurance costs.


We ended the evening with a lengthy group discussion on what it takes to create social change.  Our evening was very educational, as well as inspiring!  Thanks to all that participated.



Previous meeting minutes


Previous IAN Events


Zeke Spier

Tony Lee





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