Community Coalition
Photo from Community Coalition. SCYEA youth leaders gathered at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) office to urge the school board to invest in LA’s highest need schools by adopting the Student Equity Need Index (SENI) 2.0.

Inside MCF

Change from the Bottom Up

September 25, 2019

Elizabeth Posey
By Elizabeth Posey
Program Officer, West
Co-Authored By
Alberto Retana President and CEO, Community Coalition

There is a dominant narrative of social change in America, usually involving a charismatic political leader with the courage and backbone to stand up to special interests in the name of correcting injustices.

This could not be further from the truth. Progressive social change that fundamentally alters underlying conditions has always resulted from people organizing en mass to pressure government, corporations and the media to change. To this day, the people directly impacted by poverty and racism still sit farthest from the decision-making table.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Fundamental change starts by seeing everyday people and their families — not politicians — as experts who can architect restorative solutions to the myriad of issues rooted in poverty and racism.

Power is at the root of these issues. Achieving equity will require correcting this power imbalance through independent, organized action that will hold whole systems accountable. Those who are most impacted by overlapping racial, social and economic inequality know what their communities need. By organizing to take collective action, they can shift the trajectory of their communities — and over time, shift the trajectory of the country.

Community Coalition and Marguerite Casey Foundation have partnered for over seventeen years to empower low-income families of color to drive change from the ground up. Given all that is at stake in American democracy and racial justice, now is the time to take a robust power-building approach to advancing equity from the bottom up, instead of imposing structural transformation from the top down.

Where’s the evidence? It’s in California.


California is often held up as a bastion of progressive social change. But twenty-five years ago, California was quite the opposite, passing draconian, right-wing policies that criminalized people of color.

In 1994, California had two statewide ballot initiatives that targeted Black and Latino communities. The first was Proposition 184, the “Three Strikes” initiative that dealt a 25-years-to-life sentence for a third felony. The second, Proposition 187, was an anti-immigrant initiative that denied services and education to undocumented immigrants. And a decade earlier, California voters passed Proposition 13, creating an unfair tax break for corporate landowners and effectively starving public schools and other services for low-income families and people of color. The combination of these policies destabilized the community and had a devastating impact on low-income Black and Latino families in South Los Angeles. These policies broke apart families driving a disproportionate number of people into foster care and the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

How did California undergo a sea change? Community organizers understood that everyday people — not governments or politicians — are the most effective drivers of change. They knew the most important conversations start in living rooms, not city hall chambers. By centering families as experts on reimagining justice and designing restorative solutions, they built leadership and power in low-income communities for wins at the ballot box.
California is now home to an ecosystem of trusted movement-building organizations with decades of deep community knowledge, working together to take on the larger structural issues that are driving the numerous, intertwined racial and social inequities. Now California is leading the nation in passing community-driven criminal justice reforms that reinvests “punishment” dollars into prevention and re-entry, as well as advancing humane policies that support all immigrants.


Marguerite Casey Foundation believes families closest to poverty are also closest to the solutions. And that grassroots power-building is key to achieving racial equity.

Marguerite Casey Foundation does not take an issue-specific approach to addressing the root drivers of poverty. Instead, it makes sizeable, unrestricted, multi-year investments in grassroots organizations such as Community Coalition— organizations that are building power in communities disproportionately impacted by poverty.

This funding model addresses the reality of overlapping forms of structural inequality and their relationship to power. It funds both organizations that are building an organized base around specific constituencies or issues and cross-issue networks that reinforce multiracial alliances and inclusive analysis. The model acknowledges the way race operates as a proxy for class in the American experiment, which has roots in genocide, theft of land and chattel slavery.

The organizations serve as a vehicle for investing directly in communities by making multi-year grants to organizations led by people of color engaged in authentic leadership development, grassroots organizing and advocacy, integrated voter engagement. These investments increase social and political capital for communities of color and advance community-driven solutions rooted in the wisdom and knowledge of those directly impacted by structural racism.

Multi-year, unrestricted support gives base-building organizations the freedom to organize towards bold structural change and puts everyday people in a position to set the agenda. Communities identify solutions, win bold policy propositions and hold systems of power accountable to implement those policies.


Community Coalition organizes people directly impacted by the “war on drugs.” Located in South Los Angeles, Community Coalition recruits and trains Black and Latino youth and adults to identify and lead campaigns that transform the social and economic conditions rooted in racism and poverty.

These campaigns facilitate face-to-face engagement through tactics that build collective power, including town hall meetings, pickets and protests — bringing together those impacted by problems (residents) and those with the institutional power to change the law (politicians).

Community Coalition is an anchor organization of California Calls, a statewide alliance of primarily Black and Brown base-building organizations impacted by historic disinvestment and mass incarceration. This strategy builds organized, mass-electoral power for low-income families of color that can be harnessed by communities locally, regionally and statewide. This approach doesn’t seek to convince the existing electorate to vote a certain way, but transforms the electorate altogether by engaging intentionally excluded communities.

2020 represents a key moment in the future of California, as residents will vote for the Schools and Communities First Initiative. This community-led initiative will close a corporate loophole established by Proposition 13 in 1978, bringing upwards of $11 billion dollars back into local communities and schools annually. Those resources can pay to shrink class size, implement restorative justice, hire more counselors or broaden social emotional supports for students. These resources can also be used by local governments to improve city services in communities that have been underfunded for decades.

Perhaps the most important element of passing Schools and Communities First goes beyond the dollars; it finally closes the door on an egregious policy that was advanced by a conservative movement to defund services supporting low-income families and families of color.

The real narrative of social change is emerging – in part due to the democratized forms of communication. Multiracial alliances are collectively building their power and asserting bold solutions. Base-building organizations led by these communities are setting the agenda and are successfully advancing community-led solutions to address:

  • The skyrocketing cost of rent, displacement and access to affordable housing,
  • A climate-justice agenda that addresses long-standing economic divestment and economic exclusion of communities of color,
  • Strengthen accountability to address entrenched employment discrimination for Black communities and “Ban the box” policies, · Strengthen accountability in ensuring high-need schools receive equitable resources, remove police in schools and reduce suspension rates of Black students,
  • Policy frameworks that undo the cumulative harm of “tough on crime” legislation on Black and Brown communities.

Change from the Bottom Up