Laura McCargar, President
As we closed out the first month of the new year, I sat down to write a piece about moving with intention, to share my reflections on the process and outcomes of developing the Perrin Family Foundation’s new strategic framework. I planned to write about how our new framework is the result of an intentional excavation of hard-earned lessons learned; the result of an intentional commitment to prioritize collective engagement in a process over a quickly delivered product; the result of an intentional decision to deepen the work we committed ourselves over the past decade rather than pivoting to pursue a shiny new interest, as philanthropy so often does.
But I’m finding it difficult, at this moment, to write about moving with intention. Truthfully, I’m finding it difficult to move at all. I am struggling to focus, to quiet the restless churn stirring inside me over the police murder of Tyre Nichols. I know so many of my loved ones, so many of the young people, community members, leaders and organizers I have worked alongside, and a good number of deeply aligned peers and colleagues in philanthropy likely share shades of numbness, heartbreak, rage. Where do we put it?
As a former organizer, and as the current leader of a foundation whose newly updated mission is to invest in and cultivate support for an ecosystem that builds the collective leadership and power of Black and Brown youth to advance movements for racial and social justice, it feels as though the answer should be clear to me. We grieve, we hold each other, and we organize. And, in the very same breath, actualizing that answer feels both exhausting and elusive.
I am keenly aware that this week many of my peers in philanthropy will walk into workspaces where there is no mention or acknowledgement of Tyre Nicols’s life. Many of us — myself included — will likely face questions from a board member or trustee about how this recent murder could be a manifestation of racism if the perpetrating officers were Black. We will navigate the cognitive dissonance of being in spaces that both condemn Tyre’s murder yet have refused to publicly condemn the deaths of more than 20 Connecticut residents at the hands of police over the past five years. How are we to make sense of the millions of long overdue dollars now rightly moving to support the work of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) organizations in Connecticut while also knowing that not a single community-led coalition working on police accountability in our state has received a substantial, long-term grant to support their efforts? After ten years in the philanthropic sector, a sector whose own institutional racism is widely known but still seldom owned, there are moments where I simply want to scream, ineloquently, what [the *bleep*] are we actually, really doing to make meaningful work of the power, influence, and resources we have access to?
Before entering philanthropy, I was a youth worker and community organizer. Youth Rights Media, the organization I helped co-found, engaged young people in media production and community organizing to build power and advance justice for their communities. Founded in 2002, before the emergence of social media as we now know it, our work began a few years following two police murders of Connecticut youth, Malik Jones and Aquan Salmon.
A proverb attributed to African ancestors and cited by writer Chinua Achebe, “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will glorify the hunter” hung on the walls of the media lab where youth produced and edited documentaries. The proverb not only reflected our belief in the power of positioning young people to shape their own narratives, but also the social-political reality our youth members faced. Our country has long depicted Black and Brown youth as predators at the same time that the very systems that purport to serve young people have treated Black and Brown youth as their prey. My life’s work has been to change that, to support — through whatever role or position I have occupied — young people to grow, build, and actualize their inherent power to create a world more just than the one we currently know.
In 2004, the young people I worked with created CJT$: At What Cost?, a documentary about the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) in Middletown. It was the first time anyone had been permitted to bring video cameras inside. We were given a tour by DCF staff, our guide pointing out a mural youth had just painted, about the vocational programs made available to youth at the greenhouse and bike repair shop. Unimpressed and armed with scathing reports that had been published by then-Attorney General Blumenthal and the Child Advocate, youth producers responded with questions about how many young people participated in the programs (a small fraction), the recidivism rate (unacceptably high), and the use of restraints and seclusion (excessive). We had to turn the cameras off when we entered the residential unit, a pod which the security guard, with cruel sarcasm, referred to as “Tahiti.”
Several of our youth members had been incarcerated at CJTS — for one leader, a school suspension for being in the hallway without a pass had resulted in a probation violation and their spending nearly a year in a cinder block cell with a barely a slit for a window. At the time, the facility was making headlines with then-Governor John Rowland being federally investigated for corruption. One of the leading charges in his indictment was the rigged-bid contract he awarded to the Tomasso brothers for the construction of the CJTS — which cost the state $57-million to build — in exchange for renovations to his private residence. Young people were enraged that no one was talking about “what was really going on” behind the walls. Enraged that youth there were labeled as violent and dangerous despite the overwhelming majority being incarcerated for non-violent or misdemeanor offenses. Enraged that the state was spending $325,000 per child, per year to imprison them — more than 25 times what was being spent on their education annually. Enraged by the video footage, released by the state later that spring, of a teen being taken down by multiple staff and left struggling to breathe, alone, in an isolation cell.
As is so often the case, young people were the first bold enough to make what others deemed an “impossible demand”: our youth leaders stood up, organized and called for the facility to be permanently closed. Fourteen years later, the state finally conceded. CJTS was shut down in 2018.
It was at a youth-led community screening of their documentary that I first met David Perrin, a trustee of the foundation I now lead. Over the past decade, since 2012, PFF made investing in youth led social change its core focus. In the intervening years, the Perrin Family Foundation’s steadfast commitment to trusting, following, and resourcing young people’s voice and leadership has helped to nurture and anchor Connecticut’s burgeoning youth-led social justice movement.
Young people have since led efforts resulting in dozens of concrete changes to local and state policies, from access to healthcare to changes in education ordinances and statutes. Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, as tens of thousands of people across our state turned out to March for racial justice, young people were at the helm. In 2021, when the Lamont administration attempted to re-open CJTS, arguing that the decommissioned youth prison “as safe and as wholesome a place as we can come up with” to house undocumented and unaccompanied minors, the organizing efforts of young people and others fighting for racial justice brought the plan to a halt. As I write this, one of the young people who once worked on that that CJTS documentary is exploring the purchase of farming land in Middletown, and collaborating with Cultivating Justice, a new community collective working for food security, land access, environmental justice, and pathways towards agriculture for BIPOC and formerly incarcerated people.
In the months ahead, I look forward to sharing more about PFF’s strategic framework — about how investment in youth organizing is the sustainability strategy for our democracy; about the decision to center Black and Brown youth in our mission not as a “population to be served,” but as a critical constituency in social and racial justice movements; about why efforts to create systemic change will fall short if we focus on policy change at the expense of power-building; about our commitment to organizing within philanthropy to marshal resources for movements; about what we’ve learned from the past decade of field-building work, and how we’re shifting and evolving our approach for the next one.
But for right now, I share this youth organizing story — one with a twenty-year arch — because it deserves to be heard and known. And I share it because right now, in this moment, I find myself in need of a reminder of what’s possible when we commit to building youth and community power for the long-haul.