This month for our Member Spotlight series, we are highlighting longtime FCCP and new Advisory Board member Ethan Frey. Ethan currently serves as Program Officer on the Cities and States team at the Ford Foundation.
Q: For those who don’t know you, tell us a little about your journey into philanthropy. What drew you to enter into this space professionally?
I grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania — a small city in northeast Pennsylvania that made its name in coal. But the mines closed before World War II and so I grew up only knowing an area in economic decline. It’s pretty white and pretty segregated (like the rest of our country — the segregated part), but over the past few decades immigrant families have been repopulating and revitalizing a lot of downtowns in eastern Pennsylvania — in places like Allentown, Scranton, Hazelton, Wilkes-Barre. Reactionary politicians preyed on white fear to get elected and I remember this starting to happen in a real way growing up. But my family life was very different: I grew up in a family that valued interfaith and interracial community spaces, and my parents put a lot of effort into creating community and building relationships between people and then moving those communities and relationship into action. They were most active in our church, the local NAACP chapter, and the Interfaith Resource Center for Peace & Justice. This led me to fall into student organizing in college, and then I worked on a series of political and labor campaigns (as well as a brief stint in welfare advocacy when first moving to New York) before stumbling into philanthropy.
Q: Can you tell us more about your work at the Ford Foundation?
I started my work at the Ford Foundation in 2013 on the Civic Engagement and Government team. It was a period of transition for Ford, so I worked on a lot of democracy-related programs — voting rights, electoral engagement, census, redistricting, community organizing, tax and budget policy. I learned a lot working with folks like Surina Khan, Jee Kim, and Rakesh Rajani, and one of the major things I realized is that Ford’s approach to social change is very top-down and we rely heavily on advocacy and litigation strategies. More broadly, it also seemed like many funders treated grantees as vendors for their strategy — particularly in the electoral engagement space. After the 2016 elections, a group of program officers got together and proposed a State Power-Building Strategy that centered constituency-based organizations and provided groups with five-year general operating and capacity building grants. The goal is to produce better outcomes over the long-term by strengthening progressive infrastructure — particularly the way in which people come together to make change. We are centering organizing groups led by people of color, women, and low-income folks. We support aligned groups of organizations working together around a shared vision and theory of change for their state. And we’re working in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, New York, Michigan, and Minnesota.
Q: How has your work at the Ford Foundation, and in philanthropy generally, prepared you for your work on FCCP’s Advisory Board?
FCCP has changed a lot and grown a lot since I first started. It’s a much bigger network operating in a different social and political environment. The constant refrain of “longer-term grants!” and “more general operating support!” won’t cut it (although these are very important refrains!). Funders have agency, and we need to understand our role in philanthropy and within our institutions in particular, and we should welcome and expect greater scrutiny especially around the frameworks — implicit and explicit — we use to justify and evaluate programs. We should also expect greater scrutiny around how we wield our power — this includes not only the grants we make but also the agendas we set in philanthropy.
I’m excited to join FCCP’s Advisory Board to help advance the network’s goals around facilitating learning and building and deepening relationships amongst its members.
Q: Even with all this critical work, you have still found time to help us plan May’s First Monday Discussion. What can we expect for this webinar?
As many of you may know, I’ve been critical of the ‘efficiency will lead us to the outcomes we want’ mindset that underlies a lot of our civic engagement work. I think it has really undermined the deep cultural work that is at the core of organizing. I think it also hampers our ability to get to scale and build momentum. It confuses efficient for effective. The webinar will first disabuse us of the idea that relational organizing is new — we know it’s not. What we’re trying to call attention to with organizing work is the importance of relationships, how important they are to realizing the power potential of the organization, and how detrimental we feel like these efficiency frameworks have become.
Thanks so much for your time and service, Ethan! We look forward to joining you during May’s First Monday Discussion.