Black-focused and Black-led organizations, already underfunded in Canada, must also contend with systemic inequities in the application process itself.

The federal government has proclaimed itself committed to the pursuit of diversity, equity and inclusion. The 2020 Treasury Board directive calls for an “equitable, diverse and inclusive workplace where no person is denied employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability or job requirements.” The federal budgeting process is supposed to use GBA+ analysis in decision-making. And yet, the government continues to ignore the entanglement of race in the organizations they fund. This has only served to disadvantage Black-focused, Black-led, and Black-serving (B3’s) organizations.

Recently, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), launched the Supporting Black Canadian Communities Initiative (SBCCI) – a capacity-building funding program. B3’s from all regions of Canada, outside of Quebec, submitted applications in the desperate hope of securing funding. You see, the funding apparatus in Canada, including the philanthropic sector, leaves Black-led organizations and groups that serve primarily Black communities without support to operate at their full potential. A recent report by the Foundation for Black Communities outlined the “miniscule” amount of funding provided to B3s, and how that funding is “sporadic, unsustained, and does not invest in the long-term capabilities of Black community organizations.”

And so when an initiative emerges that lays claim to building the capacity of B3’s, there is a collective hallelujah throughout Black communities. However, for many applicants to the new ESDC funding program, shouts of hallelujah quickly turned into groans of frustration. Organizations such as Black Lives Matter, the Somali Center for Family Services in Ottawa, and Operation Black Vote Canada, disclosed through various media channels that they received emails from ESDC rejecting their applications for funding because “information provided…was insufficient to clearly demonstrate that the organization is led and governed by people who self-identify as Black.”

The grant application required all applicants to “describe the extent your organization is Black-led, serving or focused.” The aforementioned organizations and others easily satisfy this criterion (by a glance at their websites) – Black leadership and service to Black communities are at the core of their being.

Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen responded to the outcry stating that the initial communication sent to organizations like Operation Black Vote Canada was “completely unacceptable” and that his department “has implemented new measures” (details not publicly shared) to ensure such a “mistake” does not reoccur.

Was this a mistake? We will probably never know. What B3’s know with certitude is that when it comes to securing financial support from the government or other funding sources, it’s a vicious cycle. The organizations that tend to get funded are organizations that can demonstrate capacity and effectiveness. But how do organizations increase capacity in the first place? Of the millions of federal dollars in grant money we hear about in the news that are dispersed every year, only a small percentage reach Black communities and B3’s. The federal government should consider this a consequential failure on its part.

Black-focused, Black-led, and Black-serving organizations’ struggle has not been due to a lack of quality programming, ability, innovation, or dedication. They struggle due to a lack of funding and access to resources – funding to increase and strengthen their capacity and unrestricted dollars to operate at their full potential. (Unrestricted funding is not tied to any particular project or initiative, and can be used at the organization’s discretion.) The clientele served by B3’s is the constituency most impacted by injustice, and that regularly navigates multiple systems of oppression.

Further, leaders of B3’s have smaller budgets to work with compared to their white counterparts. Leading these organizations is not merely a job. It is their community. It is their life. And yet, the work they champion remains unfunded and under-resourced.  This leaves the issues and neighbourhoods they advocate for lingering in a perpetual state of community disadvantage.

For many B3’s, their experience with the Supporting Black Canadian Communities Initiative has only exacerbated racial inequities and highlighted, yet again, the need for frank conversations about race and funding access.

There are four measurable steps the federal government can take now, to remove the barriers to equitable funding:

  • Explicitly acknowledge that broad change cannot happen without comprehending the reality that the grant-making process still operates in a system of inequity, making the journey to acquiring funding difficult to traverse for B3’s. Things that are not acknowledged remain unchanged.
  • Consult, engage, and convene B3’s in the design of funding programs and disbursement of funding dollars. This ensures an explicit eye toward inclusion and equity.
  • Design funding programs that take into account and provide financial support (e.g. seed funding) to B3’s at distinctly different points in their development.
  • Support B3’s with multi-year, unrestricted funding. This would provide an infusion of resources that would enable B3’s to address the needs prevalent in Black communities in a transformative way; increase organizational capacity and sustainability; and foster transparency and accountability between the government and organizations. This approach also prevents B3’s from being trapped in the annual application cycle.

Federal grant funding access and success are deeply entangled with inequities – stifling the success of B3’s and their ability to drive social change in the communities they serve. Black-focused, Black-led, and Black-serving organizations know that racial disparities matter. The mistakes made in the management of the SBCCI have elevated awareness. This must now lead to deliberate action.

This article is part of the Identifying the Barriers to Racial Equality in Canada special feature.

Photo: Original illustration by Raz Latif, a Toronto-based freelance illustrator focusing on editorial, book, fashion, marketing, and commercial campaigns.