Spotlight Exclusives

Southern Workers Opportunity Fund Looks to Boost Worker Power

Jennifer Epps Jennifer Epps, posted on

In 2021, the LIFT Fund launched the Southern Workers Opportunity (SWO) Fund with the goal of raising $20 million to invest in the ecosystems that increase worker power and improve the economic livelihoods and social conditions for workers across the South. In 2022, the SWO Fund will invest in Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to strengthen their existing worker power coalition–building efforts, expand innovative organizing tactics, and further develop each state’s sectoral strategy for civic engagement. Spotlight spoke recently with the LIFT Fund’s executive director, Jennifer Epps, about the new workers fund and what it hopes to accomplish. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I’d love to hear a little bit more about this idea of the Southern Worker’s Opportunity Fund, how that got started and why is the right moment for it?

The LIFT Fund launched the Southern Workers Opportunity Fund in 2021 as a way to invest in multi-racial coalitions and ecosystems of organizations that work to increase workers’ voice and power in the South. We want to support leaders and organizations that strive to improve the economic livelihoods and social conditions for workers in and across the South. As to why we felt it was needed, well, there’s been a generational disinvestment in the South that has deepened racial disparities and consistently decreased the quality of life and work for people in low-wage jobs and their families. We know that in the last Census, the South remained one of the poorest regions in the nation. Even though there’s been an influx of job creation and companies moving into the region, wages and working conditions have not met that growth opportunity.

We know that in particular, the inequities that these economies create are worse for women, people of color and low-income households. The idea behind this fund is that we know that there’s now an opportunity for Black and Brown workers, who have been historically left out of economic prosperity, to benefit equally from this moment of economic recovery that we’re in. We also know that we can’t improve economic indicators without thinking about the related social conditions that surround them. When we talk about investing in a strong worker movement and a healthy economy, we need to also be talking about education, healthcare, childcare, the environment, and ultimately democracy and civic life. If we’re really going to take steps to invest in the South in a new, bold way, then we need to think about what it’s going to take to lift folks out of poverty.

I know you’re just at the point of doing some of your initial grants, but how would this work on the ground?

I’d emphasize a few things. First, we want to invest in places where there is a growing ecosystem of local, grassroots organization but maybe the investment needed to reach sustainability and scale hasn’t been there so far. When I think about Jackson, MS., a place where we are seeing a lot of active, promising organizations, what would it take to get them to the next level of resources so that they could continue their work and even expand it, so that they can have real impact?

The second part is adopting a state strategy: where are the statewide coalitions that are being built? We see some in Tennessee, where there are coalitions that intersect across issues. They talk about workplace health and safety, they talk about education and childcare, and they have really been thinking about how to move the conversation both in their cities and in their rural areas to be able to effect change.

The third pillar is supporting specific organizing campaigns. Here we’re talking about workers in a sector, whether that’s tire manufacturing or poultry processing, and how we can support the organizations, the nonprofits and the community groups that are organizing and bolstering those workers so they can improve various conditions in their workplaces.

Finally, there is another piece that is equally important; as we think about building these multi-racial coalitions and supporting leaders, particularly Black and Brown leaders, we want to be intentional about investing in leadership development in a meaningful way. We want to support a pipeline of young folks and folks who have not typically been able to professionally organize but want to create change so they can step up and become leaders in their communities.

And what would that leadership development piece look like?

With the organizations we’re working with, we want to take a comprehensive approach, meaning not just providing funding, but also by listening to their needs and supporting their long-term organizational development and capacity growth as well. We don’t just want to support the programs – though that’s very important, too – but also work to support the sustainability of the organization. This looks like bringing new people into the work, training those that are new to the work, and supporting the long-term sustainability so that organizers can stay in the work for the long haul.

And for some of those industries—I’m thinking of poultry in particular—is there a regional strategy where you’re trying to help organizations in various states come together to leverage their power and what they’re learning?

Absolutely. I think that is a key component and something that LIFT has learned is very valuable to folks throughout its 10-plus-year history. We see our role as facilitating a community of practice and learning and we invest resources accordingly to bring people together. Each year we hold a Learning Day to bring folks together from different regions, sectors, or around a specific topic of concern to the community. We want to use our resources to leverage those vital conversations and relationship building that needs to happen to make change in this region.

I also wanted to give you time to talk about LIFT in general and how this project feeds into its overall goals.

LIFT stands for Labor Innovations for the 21st Century and it was the first-of-its-kind funder collaborative that supported new forms of organizing workers. I think what makes LIFT really special is that it brings labor, organizers, philanthropy, movement leaders, and academics working together to try to figure out what this new era for work looks like and how to make sure it’s inclusive, equitable and innovative. I think SWO is an expansion of LIFT’s work and learnings about what it takes to really see gains for workers and how to have different communities work together to actually change policy and win certain rights on the job and in the community. LIFT has seen what muscles to build in order to do that and SWO builds on those learnings to focus specifically on the South.

You mentioned the RFP process—where are you in that and how close are you to actually doing some granting?

We are so close! We’ve launched our RFP and hope to get money out the door this fall.

And I know this was hoped to be a $20 million effort. Where are you in terms of overall fundraising?

We’re getting closer—we’ve hit about $15 million. We are looking for that additional $5 million to be able to do this for three years. But the work doesn’t stop there. That $20 million will get us to an initial proof of concept but it takes a lot more than that to rebuild what was lost after years of disinvestment, racism and oppression. We are excited by exploring what lies ahead and doing so by joining forces with other funders interested in this work.

And these are mostly national funders? Or a combination of national and regional?

Mostly national. We have two local funders, and we have some individual donors as well. Our hope is to expand partnerships with local funders who know the needs and opportunities best and who have relationships with folks on the ground doing this work.

We’re particularly interested in the state of Mississippi, and you mentioned Jackson—could you talk specifically about what this could mean there?

We have made sure that Mississippi is a priority state and to understand why, just look at the statistics—70 percent of women of color are earning under the living wage, and then there’s the overall health indicators and percentage of folks who are living in poverty.

As I mentioned, we’d like to have a presence – and hopefully a positive impact – in Jackson and some of the larger hubs, but also in the Mississippi Delta, where there are organizing opportunities for farmworkers as well as a concentrated number of Black workers. One of the things that SWO has set out to do is to make sure we are focusing on centering Black and Brown workers and leadership in those places. There’s also the education work that’s happening in Mississippi, improving standards and wages for educators. And finally, there is the work with casino workers and organizations that are trying to move the needle on improving wages and working conditions for workers in the casino industry.

Mississippi can be a challenging place to move causes that help workers. Is there a specific “secret sauce” that SWO hopes can move the needle?

I think that there are people in Mississippi who are super organized and committed to justice but who need significant additional resources. I think we are going to be in a trusting space in terms of learning from the experiences of the folks who are doing this work every day and letting them help us think about how we do it differently and how we can use every single opportunity, whether it’s ballot initiatives or organizing campaigns. I believe in the next generation of leaders and in their ideas on how to make things better.

I also wanted to give you an opportunity to respond to some questions that have been raised about whether SWO is too partisan for an effort backed by philanthropy.

I appreciate you doing that. So, a couple of things. The Southern Workers Opportunity Fund is only giving funding to 501c3 organizations, according to the IRS standards. These are community-based organizations that lift people out of poverty by supporting workers’ rights and by building coalitions that center racial, gender, and economic justice. We’re clear that this is about improving people’s quality of life and their ability to provide for their families. And we know one of the biggest ways to have that kind of impact is when folks can trust their employer and are able to enjoy the kind of job quality that we are all seeking. Having good jobs and good corporate partners in a community is something that we all seek. LIFT is here to help working people make this a reality.


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