Rising together for justice and racial equity

Rise Together has a unique, shared leadership model. Its circle of leaders work closely together to set goals and priorities for funding allocations. Many of its leaders are also beneficiaries of Rise Together grants. 

Last spring, George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis led to a wave of activism around the world, with protests against police violence and unequal treatment, and an increase in philanthropic initiatives aimed at helping communities of color. 

Now, five high-profile UC Santa Cruz alumni are using their talents to boost a philanthropic social justice initiative called Rise Together, a movement that harnesses the passions and talents of 17 leaders of color.

Community Foundation Santa Cruz County convened this group last year to support the vision and action needed to build a more just and equitable county. Rise Together recently made $423,000 in  grants to support work on racial equity initiatives in Santa Cruz County and is currently fundraising to support future grants. 

Building awareness and trust

Susan True (Oakes '95, community studies), CEO of Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, spoke about the need for an initiative that builds awareness and trust in communities of color, addresses the root causes of racism, and invests in programs that support them. 

“Rise Together hopes to increase economic mobility and preserve stories, arts, and culture for communities of color,” True said. “While the Community Foundation’s grantmaking has worked to address inequities for decades, I knew we needed to do more.”

“We can’t accelerate solutions if the people most harmed by our county’s most pressing problems are not trusted and welcomed to create the answers,” True continued. “The people most affected by injustice need to be the ones driving the solutions that will work best for them.”

Rise Together has a unique, shared leadership model. Its circle of leaders work closely together to set goals and priorities for funding allocations. Many of its leaders are also beneficiaries of Rise Together grants. 

“That’s what makes this work so unusual in the philanthropic sector,” True said. 

The Community Foundation pairs donors with local projects that exemplify their values. “Funding decisions are being made by the grantees themselves." 

The list of UCSC alumni participants reads like a "who’s who" guide to well-known activists and socially conscious leaders affiliated with the campus. 

 Aside from True, those alumni are: 

  • Justin Cummings (Ph.D. '13, ecology and evolutionary biology), former Santa Cruz mayor and current city council member. 
  • Jacob Martinez (Oakes '04, evolutionary biology), founder of Digital NEST, a technology workforce development hub providing youth in rural communities with valuable technology skills.
  • Ruby Vasquez (Merrill '87, American studies/Chicano studies and Multiple Subject/Bilingual Credential) an educator in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, a traditional dance instructor for the Mexican folkloric dance group Estrellas de Esperanza for children and youth and assistant director for Esperanza del Valle, a dance company for adults, and organizer for the Watsonville Campesino Appreciation Caravan.
  • Helen Aldana (Kresge '13, art and philosophy), outreach and inclusion manager for the Museum of Art and History in downtown Santa Cruz; also board president for Senderos.
  • Ashyln Adams ('09, film and literature), chair of the California Film And Cultural Center.

A circle of justice

The Santa Cruz community is full of imaginative, ambitious, and socially conscious people who are seeking funds for their projects, but leaders often find themselves hampered by bureaucracies and paperwork, Ruby Vasquez said. 

Vasquez’s nonprofits are truly grassroots organizations, with no paid staff and, thus, no grant writers. Vasquez pointed out that grant applications have been a huge barrier for small, volunteer-led nonprofits.

“Applying for grants can be such a headache,’’ she said. “It takes a lot of work. There are organizations with grant writers and people who dedicate their time to that.”

This year, Vasquez applied for a Rise Together grant to help bring an esteemed traditional dance instructor from the Costa Chica Region of Oaxaca, Mexico, to work with her student folk dance group in Watsonville. 

She found that the process was straightforward, unintimidating, local, and personal. Vasquez did not have to mail off application forms to staff members of philanthropic organizations she will never meet. Instead, the process was intimate and participatory every step of the way. Instead of meeting with grant writers, the Rise Together group made presentations to each other about the funding they needed for their projects. Then the group made collective decisions about each proposal. 

Vasquez was thrilled when Rise Together decided to fund her project. The dance instructor will teach her students the “"Danza de los Diablos" - the dance of the devils— and Sones de Artesa, which are part of the Afro-Mexican tradition of Oaxaca. Vasquez hopes the students will learn this intricate dance in time for Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead, which will be November 1. 

“This dance class is a great way to celebrate the African lineage in Mexican heritage, while preserving and publicizing traditional dance,” Vasquez said. “I am really proud to be able to expose our students to this because it shows there are strong cross-cultural connections, even within our own ethnic group.” 

Vasquez will use the Rise Together funds to cover the instructor’s travel expenses, lodging, and meals, as well as a stipend for his teaching. 

Vasquez, who comes from a family of strawberry growers, also received funds for the Watsonville Campesino Appreciation Caravan (WCAC), a volunteer initiative that honors California’s essential farmworkers, with drivers stopping their cars and waving "thank you" placards. The appreciation caravan has also handed out food as well as information on medical resources and staying safe during the pandemic.

Since April, WCAC has been visiting one or two agricultural work sites per week offering a burrito lunch during a half-hour presentation about COVID safety and  information from local community  resources. Rise Together funds allow the purchase of lunch and the distribution of gift cards.

Removing bureaucracy, increasing impacts

By making the grant application process less forbidding and putting fundraising initiatives into local hands, members of the Rise Together circle are addressing the institutional racial bias in philanthropy, said Jacob Martinez, referring to research from the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equality, which found that only 8% of philanthropy goes to organizations led by people of color. 

“Resources don’t trickle down to programs led by people of color,” Martinez said. “Historically, in this county, philanthropic organizations have underinvested in communities of color. Look at Watsonville, and at the Beach Flats community in Santa Cruz. They need a lot of support, and their community programs are the most impacted by cost-of-living changes.

How do we support those programs so they are not pushed out? How do we support jobs, housing, mental health, and education?" he continued. "Rise Together focuses on bringing in new leaders and working with the Community Foundation, and asking, ‘How do we change the narrative?’’’

Those who wish to learn more about Rise Together initiatives may visit their websitewhich includes an “equity in action” page with practical ideas and resources for how to get involved in advancing racial equity locally. The Community Foundation also started the Rise Together Fund for Racial Equity to continue the work.