Looking Ahead to the Future During Black History Month

PUBLISHED FEB 1, 2024 3:12 P.M.
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Today marks the beginning of Black History Month, an observance with a history dating back almost 100 years. Its creator, Carter G. Woodson—also the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History—created the seed for this enduring tradition in 1926 with the first Negro History Week, set to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (celebrated Feb. 14) and Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12).

In 1976, this vitally important history lesson was extended to the entire month of February during the presidency of Gerald Ford, and it’s been observed by every president since then. Woodson’s organization, ASALH, is still in existence, and every year since 1928 it has set themes for each annual observance. In 2024, the theme is African Americans and the Arts.

As rewarding as it is to study the past, today we’re thinking ahead instead. Below you’ll find a short list of just some of the groups whose hard-working members are fighting to ensure better futures for African Americans in California.

The Big Three

Well before 1976, three of the best-known civil rights organizations in the country were already established. Founded in 1909, the NAACP has more than 50 branches in the Golden State, from Barstow to Butte County. To learn more about the NAACP and what it has meant to African American history, read the words of U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, who is currently campaigning for a seat in the Senate. The Bay Area legislator’s essay was published by the Sacramento Observer.

The National Urban League, which came into being in 1910, has “affiliate CEOS” in four large urban areas: the Sacramento region, the greater San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego County.

Created in 1971 by civil rights lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph Levin Jr., the Southern Poverty Law Center keeps tabs on California by tracking various hate groups.

The Birthplace of BLM

Now entering its second decade, the Black Lives Matter movement was started by three Black Californians. The powerful hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was launched by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Ayo Tometi on July 13, 2013, in the hours after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Florida youth Trayvon Martin.

Veteran California journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan looked back at BLM’s history and what it’s accomplished on the 10th anniversary of the acquittal. Aubry Kaplan writes that BLM “still feels like a newcomer to racial justice activism—its members tend to be young, vocal and involved in a movement for the first time. But BLM’s cause of police accountability has been around for decades, stretching back at least to the 1960s and the Black Panthers.” Aubry Kaplan addresses the group’s messy divorce, which separated it into two entities: Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation and Black Lives Matter Grassroots. (For further perspective on the split, read a July 2023 piece by Los Angeles Times columnist Erika D. Smith.) Black Lives Matter Grassroots has chapters in California, including Los Angeles and Sacramento.

Other groups have emerged from the tumult of the Black Lives Matter movement. One of these is Black Futures Lab, founded in 2018 by Alicia Garza, who refers to Black History Month as Black Futures Month. As she told Yes magazine, “Because of the way that the rules have been rigged against our communities, we’ve been forced to imagine a new future with possibilities for freedom.” Part of Black Futures Lab’s mission is to build Black political power—a mission saluted by the Kennedy Center in 2022, when the organization celebrated its 50th anniversary by paying tribute to “50 leaders lighting the way forward,” including Black Futures Lab for its commitment to “ensuring that Black communities are educated, motivated, and activated to participate in elections—now and into the future.”

Homegrown in the Golden State

The following organizations have California roots, and all currently receive four-star ratings on the website CharityNavigator.org.

California Black Health Network Based in Sacramento, this statewide organization works to ensure that African Americans and Black immigrants in California receive health equity. A medium-sized nonprofit, it has a 96 rating on Charity Navigator.

Californians for Justice According to an article published by the Long Beach Post, Californians for Justice was founded in the 1990s “amid a wave of anti-affirmative action legislation happening across California.” The nonprofit currently focuses on working with high school students in San Jose, Oakland, Fresno, and Long Beach. The large-sized nonprofit has a 95 rating on Charity Navigator.

Catalyst California This activist organization has a succinct goal: “to promote racial equity and build a foundation so that every Californian may thrive.” President and CEO John Kim will find fresh ground to pursue that goal as a member of the newly formed Racial Equity Commission. Created by SB 17, its stated purpose is to “address government generated inequity by evaluating and recommending strategies for advancing racial equity across California.” With offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, this large-sized group is rated 97 on Charity Navigator.

Hidden Genius Project Called a “true Oakland success story” by the news outlet Oaklandside, the Hidden Genius Project teaches inner-city youths how to code, and helps them train for careers in tech. To learn more, listen to CEO Brandon Nicholson share his passion for the project in an interview with KTVU. This large-sized nonprofit has a 94 rating on Charity Navigator.

Justice Outside Based in Oakland, promoting racial justice and equity in the outdoor and environmental movement, Justice Outside envisions “a just world where Black, Indigenous, and Communities of Color experience safety, health, and abundant joy through meaningful relationships with one another and the outdoors.” Writing for Philanthropy News Digest, CEO Kim Moore Bailey states, “We know from experience that community-based organizations working with people of color, organizations that tend to have the biggest impact on the ground, operate on small, shoestring budgets.” That’s why the group’s Liberated Paths grantmaking program focuses on programs with BIPOC leaders and annual budgets of less than $1 million, because these groups tend to receive “the crumbs in the current philanthropic landscape.” Based in Oakland, this large-sized nonprofit has a 97 rating on Charity Navigator.

Power California This “multi-racial civic engagement organization made up of on-the-ground community partners in urban, suburban and rural communities” strives to ensure that the state’s voters and the leaders they elect are representative of California’s diversity. As executive director Luis Sanchez wrote in a 2020 opinion piece for the Sacramento Bee, “young people of color are determined to demonstrate their power at the ballot box, with 64% saying they plan to vote. Overall, 80% of young people think it’s more important to vote in this election compared to the previous presidential election.” This large-sized organization has a 97 rating on Charity Navigator.

StreetCode Academy This educational enterprise works to “bridge the digital divide, empowering communities of color to achieve their full potential.” It pursues this goal through a variety of free tech classes in subjects such as robotics, entrepreneurship, coding and design. In 2021, StreetCode was named 2021 Nonprofit of the Year for the 13th Senate District by state Sen. Josh Becker. Based in East Palo Alto, this large-sized nonprofit has a 93 rating on Charity Navigator.

Showing Up for Racial Justice Finally, though it’s a national group, SURJ has a robust network of chapters and affiliates around the state. Its goal is to use community organizing, mobilizing, and education to push white people to take action for racial and economic justice.

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