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Minnesota racial-justice groups with sudden influx of money face new scrutiny

“Now that money is flowing when it historically hasn’t, people want to know ‘Where’s the money going to?’” said Tracey Webb, founder of Black Benefactors.

In an image from June 1, protesters gathered in Minneapolis following the death in police custody of George Floyd.
In an image from June 1, protesters gathered in Minneapolis following the death in police custody of George Floyd.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

After Minneapolis became ground zero for protests over police violence, the voices of local racial-justice groups in the city were amplified across the country. In the course of just a few weeks, thousands and even millions of dollars poured into these highly local organizations from donors in and outside the state.

Then, supporters came knocking for receipts.

People wanted to know what these groups were going to do with all of this new money. The Minnesota Freedom Fund, which stood ready to bail out protesters, raised $32.5 million. When the organization announced it had spent over $200,000, they were met with outrage on social media from those asking why they hadn’t spent more, and what about the other millions? The furor attracted national attention, and the organization was suddenly in several major media reports trying to clear up the situation. 

New funds, small staff

Jared Mollenkof, a board member, explained that the organization had to handle the sudden influx of money with a small number of staff. At the end of May, the organization had only one full-time employee. The board of directors were volunteers who put in a few hours a month.

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But the primary reason they hadn’t spent more money was because many protesters were released without having to make bail or were not required to make bail when they were arrested, Mollenkof said. 

The highest bail they made was about $75,000. According to Mollenkof, the fund has since bailed out 100 people, both protesters and those unrelated to the protests, since the uprising started. 

Jared Mollenkof
Jared Mollenkof
“My entire life is trying to get people out of jails, it’s what I do. … And I am keenly aware of what it means for people to have days of their life stolen from them while they wait in custody pretrial,” said Mollenkof, a Hennepin County public defender. “So no one feels the pressure to get people out as quickly as possible more than we do … and we’re going to do it as fast as we can, while having integrity about what it has meant that over a million people have entrusted us with this task.”

The increased attention and financial assistance supporting groups like the Minnesota Freedom Fund seem new, given that nonprofits or other organizations that serve Black and brown communities have been historically underfunded by philanthropy, according to Tracey Webb. 

To address this, Webb founded Black Benefactors, a “giving circle” where members pool donations for organizations that support Black children and families in Washington, D.C.

‘Where’s the money going to?’

“Now that money is flowing when it historically hasn’t, people want to know ‘Where’s the money going to?’ Like, we need help now, we’re in an unprecedented time. So I think people want to see action right away, and that’s just not realistic. And it also could point to donors or supporters, people looking on the outside — they may not even be that knowledgeable about how this all works,” Webb said. 

The fund wasn’t the only local organization to face newfound scrutiny. Black Visions Collective (BLVC) and Reclaim the Block, groups that have championed defunding the Minneapolis police, were called upon by several young Black organizers for more financial transparency.

In an open letter released mid-June, the authors described being directed to ask these groups for supplies and funding while they were protesting. But when they reached out, the authors said they had difficulty getting in touch with the two organizations.

“I had a lot of youth contacting me saying we’re trying to get goggles, we’re trying to get vests, because youth are getting hit. And now we have some youth who need jaw surgeries because of police hitting them with those rubber bullets,” said Lucina Kayee, the 24-year-old co-founder of MY Generation, which supports young people of color in the foster care system. 

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Kayee said she knew BLVC was still getting donations, “So where’s the money going, if you’re not directly helping these young folks who are on the front line … those who are literally putting their bodies in harm’s way, then what exactly are you doing?”

‘We’re demanding transparency’

The youth eventually did meet with some organizers with the two groups, but came away asking more questions about how the group planned to be accountable to the community, leading to the public letter. For these signees, it wasn’t about seeing the money spent all at once, but asking how the organizations would ensure the money went back to community causes. 

“I want to make it clear that nobody who signed the letter, or who was supporting the signees, had any sort of lofty expectations about how Black Visions Collective should have been able to move this money,” said Kaaha Kahiye, a 20-year-old organizer with Defend Glendale. 

“We’re not demanding, like some overachievement, we’re demanding transparency. … This is not a takedown campaign. For me it’s about making sure that the people who say that they are working on my behalf are actually in community and exchanging information.”

Timeline set

Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block released a letter a few days after, which laid out a timeline for how they were going to use the $26.1 million that was raised. 

According to the letter, they had set aside $1 million in emergency funds to distribute to anyone who has been “targeted by police and has costs from being in the streets, supporting frontline work, or building non-police alternatives that keep people safe.” They plan to announce by Sept.  15 how more money will be redistributed in the future. 

Kandace Montgomery
Courtesy of Black Visions Collective
Kandace Montgomery
“I always appreciate young Black people holding me accountable and making sure that our organization is being as transparent as possible. I think that there’s lots of factors that go into that folks don’t always understand or know,” said Kandace Montgomery, director of Black Visions Collective, adding that they were and still are a small operation. For example, Montgomery said one staff member has gone from cutting about 15 checks a week to 200. 

“And that doesn’t make any excuse for what the youth were calling for, which is a direct response to them,” said Montgomery, adding that on a call with the youth, BLVC organizers said they needed to apologize for causing this harm while committing to “transform the relationship moving forward.”

The young organizers also pointed out that it was Black youth who led calls for more accountability, and they’ve in turn faced accusations of dividing the movement. 

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“I think people see call out culture, especially from Black kids, and Black youth as this aggressive unacceptable behavior, but it works,” Kayee said.

“So I’m very proud of these youth … who say, ‘OK, I’m tired of being ignored and other people are tired of being ignored, we’re going to hold our community accountable because our community deserves better, and we need organizations like the BLVC. And so in order for those organizations to be successful, your community has to trust you.”

A council of Black teens

Women For Political Change, a nonprofit that advocates for the leadership of young women, transgender and non-binary people, is planning to establish a council of paid Black teenagers who will provide input on the organization. 

While WFPC didn’t see as many donations as BLVC or the Minnesota Freedom Fund, education and advocacy director Felicia Philibert said they received enough to double their budget. The organization posted an “accountability update” to their page, breaking down how they’re spending over $476,000 in donations. 

“Some people talk about accountability and go straight to like legal compliance … but like really this is more of just a moral conversation, which is what makes it super nuanced and complex,” Philibert said. “We need to really be proactively accountable because we’re, you know, raising this money for mostly the Black community within [one of our funds]. And so that was just like a major thing for us and knowing our place and our privilege as an organization.”

As for the Minnesota Freedom Fund, Mollenkof said the organization now has “no caps” and will bail out anyone related to the uprisings, and has increased caps for bailing out those on unrelated charges. In light of the criticism on social media, he maintains that the organization has done its best to be transparent by publishing how much money had been raised and what it would be used for. Still, he understands the rebuke.

“It is not unreasonable for people to fear that this moment will be co-opted by folks that do not have the best interests of communities of color at heart, and Black people specifically at heart,” Mollenkof said. “I think that absolutely makes sense, and that that is something that we want to engage with wholeheartedly.”