I came to New York City for my third co-op because I and a few other Antioch students were invited by a group of student activists from Cooper Union who are engaged in an ongoing battle to reinstate free tuition as the founding principle of their school. Their interest in Antioch’s history and feeling of affinity between the two schools connected with my studies of the governance and political economy of educational institutions. I wanted to experience the climate of activism and movement building among students and radicals in New York City, but I first I needed a job.
Antioch’s co-op department connected me to an internship at North Star Fund which has not only allowed me to survive financially in one of America’s most out-of-control rent nightmare cities, but to engage with New York City’s grassroots community organizers.
North Star Fund is a small fundraising organization that gives grants to community organizers working on social justice issues in New York City. Founded in 1979 by a group of young people with financial resources, North Star has strived since its inception to redistribute wealth in a more democratic way. They have distinguished themselves by prioritizing activist organizations that are led by people directly impacted by injustice. Among non-profit organizations, they stand out for their commitment to including local activists in their grantmaking process. The unique model used by North Star places the power to decide which organizations are awarded grants in the hands of a rotating committee made up of former North Star grantees and local activists. Those who best understand the work of organizers and who are in the fairest position to evaluate advocacy groups are charged with distributing North Star’s budget.
I was attracted to North Star based on this philosophy and their thoughtful and critical analysis of grantmaking, philanthropy, and the relationship between funders and grantees. I felt disillusioned with the non-profit world, its inefficiencies and redundancies, and lack of democracy, transparency, and accountability. Working with North Star has given me a more nuanced view of the intricacies of grantmaking and a better perspective from which to critique it.
I also felt passionate about the issues that they fund and the community organizers that they work with. Some examples of current campaigns by North Star grantees include anti-gentrification and housing equity, police accountability, the rights of undocumented workers and detainees, and racial justice. I saw North Star as a great opportunity to learn about these issues and connect with the groups doing advocacy work around them. I was also personally interested in learning more about the strategies and tactics of community organizers and the structure of their organizations. After explaining my interest to my supervisor, I was given space and encouraged to become familiar with the grantees and their issue areas. Staying engaged and up to date with local news and campaigns made my work at North Star much more rewarding.
My job included the grant cycle process of reading proposals, coordinating and attending site visits, and deliberating over how much money to give each group (the final decision is made by the Community Funding Committee, not by North Star staff, but staff participate and observe to give background and for institutional memory).
The organization recognizes the importance of advocacy, testimony, and empowerment of marginalized groups. They also recognize that there are grassroots groups with potential that lack the vocabulary and connections to appear attractive and viable to more traditional grantmakers. Sometimes, grants are funding potential that is never fully realized. That is part of the process.
In addition to being an incredible resource for connecting to powerful advocacy organizations, North Star has given me a lot to consider in terms of the world of philanthropy and the different tactics available to those seeking to change the injustices in our social and economic system.
I’ve also been given the space and resources to think about and observe how my academic interests are put into action. My major is a self-design which investigates social transformation through coursework in political economy, history, and culture. Working at North Star, meeting with community organizers doing campaign work, and living with student activists from Cooper Union and former participants in Occupy Wall Street who are connected to radical communities in New York has informed my time in New York and enriched how I think about strategies to transform society.