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Prioritizing Racial Equity Through Experiential Learning


This summer, the Butler Family Fund board and staff along with other Butler family members, traveled to Alabama to take their racial equity learning from behind conference room walls to an on-location “classroom” filled with the most qualified teachers – those with lived experience.

Funders Together spoke to Martha Toll, Executive Director, and Anne Morin, Program Officer, about the events leading up to the trip, their experience and reactions, and how other foundations can incorporate immersive learning to further their racial equity journey.

How did the idea of traveling to Montgomery and Birmingham come about?

The idea originated with our board president, following Butler’s support for the Equal Justice Initiative and the work of Bryan Stevenson for more than a decade. Our work in criminal justice began with investments in ending the extreme sentences of the death penalty and juvenile life without parole. Bryan has been instrumental in elevating those issues, in winning major Supreme Court victories, and in connecting the dots from slavery to lynching to mass incarceration.  His book Just Mercy is a bestseller and is in production as a commercial film.   The Butler Family Fund has also funded in the homelessness area since our inception.  To know anything about these issues is to see the gross racial inequities that caused them.   It was a natural step for our foundation to leave our office and immerse ourselves.  Even though we had a basic understanding of the destructive impact of structural racism in America, nothing can replace learning from the experience and knowledge of those who have lived it.


Tell us a little about what the trip entailed.

Our trip consisted of spending 1 ½ days in Montgomery including a visit to the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, then traveling to Selma and Birmingham to meet with individuals who had lived through the harrowing days of the Civil Rights Movement.  We visited historic sites, such as Dr. King’s church and home. Once the planning began, we realized we would need a local guide to accompany us, a critical piece. We hired Ann Clemmons, who is based in Montgomery.  Her expertise amplified our learning. She had terrific suggestions on what to see and introduced us to people who personally knew Dr. King, which made a huge impact.

Bryan Stevenson sat with our board and gave us an overview of the stories and concepts that went into the creation of the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which set the tone for the whole trip.  Our visit to these places was indescribable.  A memorial to the thousands of people who were murdered all over the country due to racial terrorism is a very long time in coming, and necessary to understanding what is the real American history.


The people Ann Clemmons connected us with were another highlight of the trip. We had meals with them and heard first-hand the stories of the events that transpired in these cities during the Civil Rights Movement. We met a woman who had grown up with Dr. King’s children, and one who had been a member of his congregation.  We heard from a man who delayed college for a year so that he could dedicate himself to working with Dr. King.  In fact, youth from all over the area postponed school to join the movement in Selma.  Through their passionate advocacy, parents also became involved and the movement grew.  These stories gave faces and voices to events and brought a new gravity to our learning.

The Civil Rights story is so much more than the “Black History Month” narrative. It’s a part of our nation’s history that cannot and should not be ignored or confined to one month. We don’t focus enough on the heroism of the every day person who participated in events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It’s America’s history, and it should be prioritized.

What were some of the reactions to the trip and outcomes from the experience?

Overall, board members were very enthusiastic about the trip. They loved the first-hand experience that brought life to the concepts and people they had heard about. Because of this experience, the board decided that experiential learning and site visits like this should be done at all of our in-person board meetings.

The trip had a profound impact on our conversations about funding.  At the end of our travels, board members interviewed each other about what they learned.  Our trip deepened our conversations and increased our awareness of how systemic racism affects every one of our country’s institutions. We saw the need to call out racial equity as key to all of our work, and to invest in local communities of color who are creating a positive, long-term vision about moving our country forward.

While keeping our focus on criminal justice and housing, we plan to prioritize more local work, and to be more intentional about investing in leadership and communities of color.


What can other funders do to help educate their board and convince them to participate in immersive learning like this?

Our trip solidified our belief that there is no substitute for this kind of immersive experience. These places are the cauldron where leaders of monumental grace and tenacity like Dr. King and Bryan Stevenson formed visions born from the longest, ugliest, and most violent chapters in American history. 

If you want to do something similar, the best advice is to go! Try to put your board members in the experience as much as possible.

And if you can’t physically go, bring in the most effective messengers--people with lived experience and individuals doing the work.  They can share the raw narrative. Their stories are more powerful than any staff report. 

A final note:  We held our next board meeting at the Facing Race Conference in Detroit in November.  This was another transformative experience where we could immerse ourselves in conversations and presentations about the searing, divisive, and destructive impacts of racial injustice in America.  We plan to make more such trips in the future.



Funders Together is dedicated to addressing racial equities in homelessness. To facilitate both an internal and external learning journey for funders to dive deeper into the issue and understand how to apply a racial equity lens into grantmaking, Funders Together is launching Foundations for Racial Equity, a two-year community of practice. Learn more about Foundations for Racial Equity here. We also have resources available in our Funder Resources section.

We joined Funders Together because we believe in the power of philanthropy to play a major role in ending homelessness, and we know we have much to learn from funders across the country.

-Christine Marge, Director of Housing and Financial Stability at United Way of Greater Los Angeles

I am thankful for the local partnerships here in the Pacific Northwest that we’ve been able to create and nurture thanks to the work of Funders Together. Having so many of the right players at the table makes our conversations – and all of our efforts – all the richer and more effective.

-David Wertheimer, Deputy Director at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

-President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964 State of the Union Address

Funders Together has given me a platform to engage the other funders in my community. Our local funding community has improved greatly to support housing first models and align of resources towards ending homelessness.

-Leslie Strnisha, Vice President at Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland

Our family foundation convenes local funders and key community stakeholders around strategies to end homelessness in Houston. Funders Together members have been invaluable mentors to us in this effort, traveling to our community to share their expertise and examples of best practices from around the nation.

-Nancy Frees Fountain, Managing Director at The Frees Foundation

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