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The True Reformer Building, designed, financed, built, and owned by African Americans

Public Welfare Foundation President and CEO Candice C. Jones describes the history of the True Reformer Building Source: The Washington Post / Getty

Philanthropy can sometimes seem out of touch with real people and issues. But some organizations understand the importance of directly funding the work of impacted communities.

One such organization, the Public Welfare Foundation, is celebrating 75 years of supporting justice initiatives and transformative work this week with an in-person gathering in Washington, D.C. Candice C. Jones, president and C.E.O. of the Public Welfare Foundation, described the organization as the only major endowment fund dedicated to transforming the youth and adult criminal justice.

She told NewsOne that the two-day convening is like a family reunion bringing together supporters, grantee organizations and justice advocates. Nationally renowned attorney and activist Bryan Stevenson will give keynote remarks at the “Evening of Celebration.”

“Public welfare has been well ahead of the curve,” Jones said. “Its founder created it to have a catalytic approach, always giving money in a proximate way.”

This year’s anniversary theme is “By Any Means,” signaling the need for everything to be put on the table when it comes to achieving real justice. The theme is also a framework for long-term action that seeks to fund work that meets the moment and advances justice.

Jones said that Public Welfare Foundation’s mission remained broad to allow funding to be distributed in whichever ways best served the commitment to advancing justice.

“We are an organization that exists to give other organizations that do good work money,” she said. “That’s our mission. We show up just to support the audacious visions of other organizations doing this work on the ground.”

Current geographical areas of focus include Washington, D.C., Georgia, Jackson, Mississippi, Colorado, Michigan, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Grantee organizations include policy advocacy groups such as the Southern Center for Human Rights, Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, and the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Some grantee organizations are directly led by formerly incarcerated people, such as EXPO in Wisconsin, the New Orleans-based V.O.T.E. and Women on the Rise in Atlanta.

All 75th-anniversary events will take place on-site at the historic True Reformer Building on Wednesday, Sept. 7 and Thursday, Sept. 8. A fitting location considering the building’s history. First commissioned in 1902, it was the first building designed, owned, financed and constructed by a Black community.

For those not in D.C., there will be an opportunity to join Livestream sessions on Thursday, Sept. 8. Registration is free.

The True Reformer Building, designed, financed, built, and owned by African Americans

The True Reformer Building in Washington, D.C. Source: The Washington Post / Getty

The foundation, founded by Charles Edward Marsh in 1947, always focused on giving. According to its website, over 5,700 grants totaling more than $700 million have been made in the foundation’s 75-year history. But in the past few years, the organization shifted its focus to supporting criminal justice efforts targeting adult and youth issues.

Another component of the foundation’s approach is building solid ecosystems to nurture and sustain change. Jones described the need for strong media partners as a part of that work, particularly with the resurgence of tough-on-crime rhetoric.

“We really need to be funding the whole constellation of partners necessary for change,” she said. “You need media partners who can say to the broader public this is what’s happening on this issue. We’re going to be truth-tellers about the choices policymakers are making, the choices they’re not making and consistently telling that story to the public, which keeps everybody accountable.”

The Public Welfare Foundation brings together partners across organizing, advocacy, data and media to create a collective resource to inform and engage communities and policymakers about issues related to criminal justice and real solutions. In this way, Jones and others in the network hope they can

This work is personal for Jones, having gone to law school to keep people out of prison. She later served as an advocate for systems reform at the MacArthur foundation. Jones said her prior work looked at reducing systems footprints, but she remained committed to overall justice reform.

“I came into this life knowing that this work is the only work I’m gonna do,” she said. “I won’t fix it all. But we’re going to run some yards down the field for the next generation.”

Jones’s commitment to justice reform reflects the anniversary theme “By Any Means.” The theme holds the spirit of the foundation’s future as it continues to support visionary work and leadership in communities around the country.

“You’re not going to get to new ideas around justice reform that aren’t all about suppression and incarceration if you don’t start to bet in a meaningful way on communities of color,” Jones said. “We must make them a part of the conversation, give them agency, and for philanthropic organizations, the message is clear, we got to give them scratch. Nobody is saving these communities by parachuting in. We got to drive resources there.”


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