Want to get your own copy in the mail? Sign up for our newsletter by clicking here and make sure to include your mailing address!
By Tim Little & Jill Ratner
A Rose by Any Other Name
Rose Ratner was a kick-ass activist, and a lot of it had to do with her roots. Before World War I, her parents fled Poland in search of safety and opportunity. Growing up in rough and tumble Chicago, Rose strongly believed in the America described in her textbooks, a country where government acted by the consent of the governed, where everyone was created equal, where rights were inalienable.
In the late 1960s, Rose threw herself into the movement to end the war in Vietnam. It was a scary time in America. Police violence against demonstrators exploded at the 1968 Democratic National Convention; a group of activists staying at Rose’s apartment returned covered with blood. Rose picked up her daughter Jill outside convention headquarters where she was gagging on tear gas. It made Rose mad.
Rose was fierce when she got mad, and stubborn to the point of relentlessness – traits that could be hard on family members, but also made her one hell of a kitchen table activist. She threw herself into door-to-door politics. During campaign season, her card files, one for every voter in the precinct, lived in shoeboxes on the table; they were pushed aside for meals.
By 1991, the shoeboxes were long gone from Rose’s tabletop and it was years since Rose had visited an elected official. On the same day we brought our daughter Allyson into the world, Rose went to the hospital 2,000 miles away. She died just days after Allyson Rose was born. So when we decided to strike out on our own to create a new organization, we named it the Rose Foundation. We both have a lot in common with Rose. We too are stubborn as hell.
Communities AND the Environment
Rose Foundation didn’t have an endowment at the start, or an office – we carved out the only space available, setting up a card table next to the laundry machine. This defined our daily routine – run a load of wash to warm up the office, then turn on the computer and settle into work. From these homespun beginnings, the Rose Foundation blended hands-on activism on local, state and national campaigns with strategic grantmaking. Our first campaign – and win – focused on transitioning Alameda’s closing naval air station to open space; today our New Voices Are Rising program is advocating for affordable transit in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.
Our first year’s budget was $12,000. This year, we expect to give away $3 million in grants – much of it from court-ordered polluter penalties and consumer protection settlements. Every time we receive one of these settlement awards, we acknowledge a huge debt of thanks to Mike Herz, founder of San Francisco Baykeeper, who gave us the inspiration for the program. The hard-won successes of watchdog groups like Baykeeper, Communities for a Better Environment, and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance allow us and our grantees to have a far greater impact than we could without them.
Growing the Grassroots
We believe in the power and passion of communities most affected by pollution to make a difference, whether preserving parks, growing local food or stopping unwise development. But these communities often lack the resources they need to spark change. That’s why we started the Grassroots Fund, to make small grants to kitchen-table activists, like Rose Ratner, who are making the world a better place. After granting $2 million dollars over 10 years, we’ve seen the success these groups can have with a little money and lots of support.
Take Oakland Food Connection. Their founder Jason Harvey had the passion when he applied to the Grassroots Fund, but he needed help finding the resources. He had a vision for his hometown, in which empty storefronts and crumbling infrastructure transformed into a vibrant community with gardens, farmer’s markets, and healthy food stores.
We were inspired by Jason’s vision, funding Oakland Food Connection through the Grassroots Fund and another three-year project. As a result, they have a more successful organization, recruiting dedicated staff and community board members, partnering with other nonprofits, and receiving larger grants.
The Grassroots Fund supported Jason’s vision of empowering people of color; now his organization is makingEast Oakland a healthier and more vibrant community.
Nurturing New Voices
Our New Voices Are Rising program cements Rose Ratner’s legacy, sharing what we’ve learned with a new generation of community leaders. Not everyone has such a fierce and stubbornly persistent advocate to show the way. We’ve filled that gap in young people’s lives in Oakland and Richmond high schools. We teach students why their vote matters, and recruit them to get their neighbors to vote. Our program builds the skills they need to succeed at school, at work, and as advocates for their communities.
Pamela Tapia first worked with us during her sophomore year at McClymonds High School. She was shy, isolated and unengaged, but our interactive lessons lit a spark in her. We saw her grow into a confident, determined community advocate, displaying Rose Ratner’s tenacity when she felt something was unjust.
Pamela is currently a health correspondent with the Oakland Tribune – researching the connections between air quality and health in West Oakland and helping her community advocate for a healthier future. And she won’t stop any time soon, “I will absolutely continue to do environmental justice work. I believe that it’s an issue that affects everybody and we should fight for and inform our community about.” These young people have so much to say about our shared future, and we are so proud of how well they say it.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
These past 20 years have been an amazing ride. As roses go, we’re a hybrid – part lawyer, part organizer; rooted in the community, but comfortable in a boardroom. Mix the gravitas of a policy wonk with a canvasser’s knack for the five-second sound bite, and add in a healthy dose of impatience. We’ve brought this unique blend of characteristics to all the campaigns we’ve run. We brought shareholder activism into a long campaign that saved Humboldt County’s Headwaters Forest, the last big stand of California’s old-growth redwoods. We petitioned to make companies tell the truth about expensive environmental liabilities – and won national accounting standards for better corporate environmental disclosure. We trained hundreds of high school students to register voters. We found innovative ways to invest in our communities and the environment; with your help that now comes to $25 million and counting.
We can’t say exactly what Rose Foundation will be doing in 20 years, but we are excited for the possibilities. Our new Community Leadership Project, supported by the William & Flora Hewlett, David & Lucile Packard, and James Irvine Foundations, will allow us to fund grassroots groups and help them grow into stronger organizations after the grant is spent. We’re launching new Donor Advised Funds that help people of wealth pursue philanthropic visions that are grounded in environmental and social justice values. And we are expanding our New Voices program, empowering East Bay high school students to take the lead in making their schools and communities sustainable and resilient in the face of climate change.
We’ve been leading the Rose Foundation for 20 years and we look forward to celebrating all that we accomplished together with you at our party on May 4, 2013! As we look ahead, we know that 20 years from now others will be at the helm. But we’re sure that the Rose Foundation will still be trying to save the world one small grant at a time, and that our New Voices Are Rising students will be leading the way.