Collective Liberation: Allyship Versus Solidarity

Tenaja Jordan

A black woman wearing a striped black and white shirt.
Skip to content

This blog post is the third in a three-part series focusing on our three main values at New Breath Foundation: Collective Learning, Collective Healing, and Collective Liberation. At NBF, Collective Liberation means freedom for all groups, recognizing that oppression is intersectional and all our oppressions are tied together. We can only achieve Collective Liberation when we work in solidarity with one another. 

This month, we invited Tenaja Jordan, philanthropy researcher, strategist, and consultant, to share her insights on collective liberation. We are grateful to Tenaja for her leadership and partnership in the ongoing work of collective liberation in the philanthropy sector and beyond.

What is the difference between allyship and solidarity? 

As a Black woman, I am blessed with a rich heritage of documented Black feminist scholarship and leadership that has interrogated this question for decades. My answer to this question, and my understanding of the critical importance of solidarity, is informed by the work of the Combahee River Collective, a collective of Black feminists whose work in the 1970s has been crucial to our understanding of systemic oppression, intersectionality, and identity politics. Their seminal statement catalyzed most of what we understand today about collective liberation:

The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives…We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.

– from the Combahee River Collective Statement

Allyship recognizes the disparate treatment of marginalized people and offers support but is largely centered on actions taken by those outside of the community of marginalized people. Allyship is the favored strategy of the powerful because it does not require them to reckon with how they contribute to and benefit from the systemic oppressions facing marginalized people. An ally can believe that a community deserves better and still place limits on realizing what better could or should look like. Performative allyship often reinforces harmful power dynamics by creating a culture where marginalized people are forced to suppress the nuances of their experiences with systemic oppression so as not to attract punitive attention.

In contrast, solidarity recognizes that multiple oppressions exist and builds community from the shared experiences of oppression across differences. As the women of the Combahee River Collective noted, solidarity derives from a healthy love of ourselves and our communities. This does not mean that solidarity subsumes differences. Rather, solidarity requires that we learn from each other’s experiences, recognize the ways that we have participated in or benefited from each other’s oppression, and commit to sharing power and holding each other accountable as we work to transform institutions and systems. Solidarity, then, is the way that collective liberation is achieved. 

Image of the cover of the Combahee River Collective Statement book cover in a reddish-orange color.
The Combahee River Collective released their pivotal statement in 1977.

Collective liberation can’t happen without the meaningful centering of marginalized people’s needs, experiences, and leadership. Yet, too often, the way philanthropy operates deepens disparities in funding and support to marginalized people and leaders. Research conducted by Building Movement Project documents some of the distinct barriers to sustainability faced by people-of-color-led organizations. Their Race to Lead survey found that nonprofit CEOs of color tend to lead organizations with smaller revenues and report struggles to access networks of foundations and individual donors more often than their white counterparts. Nonprofit CEOs of color also reported having fewer staff dedicated to fundraising and fewer board members fundraising for the organization than their white counterparts.  

These disparities in access to the infrastructure and social networks attached to institutional funding mirror what is known of how funders–predominantly white themselves–operate when it comes to identifying best practices and growing practical knowledge. Research conducted by the Hewlett Foundation examined the practices of foundations related to gathering practical knowledge. Among the findings was the observation that nearly all of the foundations surveyed (92%) identified peers and colleagues as a source of practice knowledge, compared with just two-thirds of foundations surveyed identifying grantees as a source of practice knowledge.  

Funders listen first and foremost to other funders and are most inclined to make shifts when a peer shares advice or guidance on best practices. But how often is solidarity seen as a promising practice, and how often is collective liberation seen as a goal? In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and George Floyd protests, some foundations reported actions to address the systemic inequities that have deprived some communities of access to funding. The COVID-19 pandemic saw many foundations shift to unrestricted grants, trusting nonprofit leaders to use funding to meet their most urgent needs. Foundations also reported shifting their application and reporting requirements to reduce barriers for nonprofits to access funding and lifted up the negative impacts that cumbersome requirements can have on people-of-color-led nonprofits.

While the George Floyd protests led some funders to more openly reckon with the roles they play in maintaining funding disparities to communities of color, many were frank about the internal barriers that prevent commitment to addressing systemic racism:

Indeed, some of the top challenges foundation leaders themselves said they face in trying to address systemic racism are building staff and board alignment and ensuring long-term commitment to this work. With varying levels of commitment, and different perspectives about how to approach this work, leaders said, “It’s hard to get everybody on the same page” and described this work as “Messier than hell. Just simple conversations turn into huge learning moments.” “We have a lot of willingness, but complete uncertainty about the best approach to actually address systemic racism,” said another.

– from Foundations Respond to Crisis: Lasting Changeby Center for Effective Philanthropy 

Philanthropy can scarcely comprehend collective liberation because systemic racism remains deeply entrenched in the overall fabric of how funders perceive marginalized communities and the issues they experience. Many funders strive to be merely good allies and limit solutions to the narrow scope of their own understanding without building strong feedback channels between themselves and communities. But when foundations are led by people of color, these foundations engage in practices that support collective liberation, such as tracking the demographics of communities and organizations they fund, determining whether or not prospective grantees are community-led, and taking an intersectional approach to funding marginalized communities. 

New Breath Foundation offers a concrete example of what philanthropy can accomplish with collective liberation as its north star. With a staff comprised of people of color and a formerly incarcerated leader, New Breath Foundation utilizes its resources to uplift how all communities are impacted by the unjust US immigration and criminal legal systems and center the work of their grantees in advancing solutions that break down systemic barriers. They also stand in solidarity with other communities of color by listening and using their platform to enable others to tell their stories.

The author speaking on a panel about the importance of intersectional data in philanthropy. Photo: Kanan Gole

As a Black woman in philanthropy working to create spaces for marginalized people to grow and deepen our solidarity, I have no shortage of stories detailing my intimate knowledge of all the ways that philanthropy inhibits and often suppresses the solidarity work necessary to achieve collective liberation. But I chose not to share them here because they aren’t what motivates me.

The psychological toll of being a Black woman and the difficulties this presents in reaching political consciousness and doing political work can never be underestimated. There is a very low value placed upon Black women’s psyches in this society, which is both racist and sexist…We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression. 

– from the Combahee River Collective Statement

I draw strength from the blueprint for our liberation laid out by the Black women of the Combahee River Collective, and the bottom-up power that will galvanize our solidarity. May we continue to work in true solidarity towards collective liberation, knowing that none of us are free until we are all free.

Tenaja Jordan has nearly two decades of experience in nonprofit and philanthropic strategy, capacity building, organizational development, and program management as a consultant, volunteer grantmaker, and organizational leader. She brings to the work an intersectional perspective informed by her lived experience as a disabled black queer woman. In addition to independent consulting work, Tenaja currently serves as Research and Communications Director at CHANGE Philanthropy and frequently collaborates with Colmena Consulting on philanthropic research and evaluation initiatives.