Tamira Benitez Wants to Help
DC's Grassroots Leaders Heal
This article is reposted from Proximate, our nonprofit media partner.
Tamira Benitez has Covid – for the third time.
Benitez, executive director of the Washington, DC grantmaker Diverse City Fund, first caught Covid early in the pandemic, while working at mutual aid sites around the city. She caught it a second time while responding to vaccination access issues in Ward 4; the third time while simply existing in Washington, DC.
Some people might consider running a foundation to be a desk job, one that can be done remotely from home or an office; in fact, since Covid broke out, many grantmakers now do. But this insistence on being out in the community is integral to Benitez’s philosophy of philanthropy.
Benitez joined Diverse City Fund after years as an organizer and tenants’ rights activist, with a healthy skepticism of foundations. Since taking leadership in spring of last year, she has bolstered the fund’s participatory grantmaking model, which puts organizers of color in the decision-making seat.
She has also leaned into the fund’s longtime commitment to providing wellness and healing support for the frontline organizers who make up the bulk of the fund’s grantees.
Benitez knows that being an organizer is definitely not a desk job. “The organizers who lead this work, they’re the ones most affected by Covid,” she says. “They’re the ones who are out on the frontlines. They are the most worn down, because they’re out there every day doing this work.”
With the help of the fund’s Board of Instigators – a governing group also made up primarily of lived experience leaders – she is exploring creative ways to provide care for the leaders who anchor DC’s active activist community. That could include sabbaticals or other types of support beyond grant and traditional capacity-building to movement leaders.
It all stems from her belief that those closest to movements need to be leading the work to fund those movements. And in order for them to do that, they need to start a healing journey from the harm of systemic oppression they’ve experienced. They need to be healthy; they need to heal.
“The biggest takeaway from my first two years in leadership is that these multi-generational and deeply systemic issues we’re working on will not go away in a grant cycle,” she says. “And the harm they’ve caused will take even longer to heal. We must pause and rest so we can keep going, because we are here for the long haul.”
“There is a reason why the Board of Instigators wanted someone like me to join. I come with a lot of baggage.”
When Benitez joined Diverse City Fund last year, they had been operating for a decade without an executive director. They were governed for years by the Board of Instigators. Benitez believes they hired her because of her deep roots in the DC organizing community.
Her family immigrated from El Salvador at age 13, and she grew up in a rent-controlled efficiency apartment near Mt. Pleasant, where she saw the overwhelming power of DC’s landlords. Early in her career she started working at a tenants’ organizing group, frequently making the paper with calls to make housing more affordable. When she got the call for the director role she was working as a constituent services leader for Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George.
In her first few months on the job, Benitez has leant into her deep experience with organizing, nonprofit management, and advocacy. She started solidifying processes and building replicable models for the fund. Then she got Covid for a third time, which threw a wrench in the works.
“It got complicated for me, because I was out in the community,” she says.
As the pandemic raged, Benitez attended in-person events frequently, meeting with organizers, holding community information sessions, gathering local leaders to weigh in on strategic priorities. Ultimately, she got Covid three times; the third was long Covid. It led to distracting health issues at a critical time for the fund.
“My health significantly affected the way I was functioning as an individual and as a professional. Everything from cognitive issues to emotional issues. I’d say to myself: ‘I need to be in relationship with all these communities, but I can’t get through a ten page report.’”
She struggled for several months. But at the same time, she learned to continue the work in different ways and at different levels of capacity as her health allowed.
She led three grant rounds over six months, disbursing more than $750,000 to 97 grantees. She led the creation of the fund’s first-ever database of more than 600 past grantees; convened the Compass Council to get feedback from more than 300 stakeholders; led process improvements to cut down grant disbursement time from three months to one month; and hired another full-time staff member.
She recognizes how lucky she has been to have the support of a Board of Instigators who understand what it’s like to work hard while feeling less than one hundred percent.
“It has been a non-stop time for the Diverse City Fund, but luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to to stop when I needed to stop,“ she says. “Thankfully, I was in a philanthropic space where I was supported, where my board wasn’t punitive, where I had support around me the entire time. If I had been in an organization that operates in a top-down way, or that is governed by restricted funding, I don’t think I would have made it.”
Benitez now wants to provide to her grantees the kind of support she received from her Board – and encourage others in philanthropy to do the same.
From Burnout to Healing
As she works through her second year of leadership, Benitez is exploring creative ways to provide healing and other non-traditional kinds of support to the movement leaders in the Diverse City Fund’s network.
Earlier this year Benitez convened a group of stakeholders, including past grantees, to provide her and the Board of Instigators advice as they work to redesign their programs. Beyond larger grants and support to grow movements, the group shared their need to have support to prevent and address burn out.
“Organizers who have been out there for a while; they’ve been doing the work,” she says. “And they need a break. They’re burnt out.”
The fund already has a long history of making grants to support place-based healing work. They’ve provided seed funding for a Black healers’ collective that used traditional healing to support DC-organizers and community leaders; and grief circles for young people of color, east of the Potomac river, directly impacted by violence. They ran one program around wellness support for BIPOC mothers that served as a pipeline for political action around guaranteed income and family safety net programs.
Now, Benitez is in the early stages of considering whether the Diverse City Fund could offer a sabbatical for grantees. She sees them as a way to keep movement leaders in the game for the long run – ensuring that movement elders can pass on wisdom and strategy to the next generation.
“Sabbaticals are radical, anti-capitalist interventions to keep movements and the humans in them safe,” she says. “We’re fighting multi-generational fights for liberation. The humans behind these movements need breaks, so that they stay in this work and mentor younger organizers – preserving our lineage, and preventing erasure of our history.”
Diverse City Fund is not the only social sector leader thinking about sabbaticals and wellbeing for activists. In August 2023, Benitez posted on the Participatory Grantmaking Community’s global listserv, asking for examples of groups offering sabbatical funding to organizers. Examples poured in. In Detroit, Co.Act recently published the Rest and Liberation Report to propose a sabbatical program for Black and Brown nonprofit leaders. In the Bay Area, there’s theO2 Sabbatical Award for nonprofit leaders. There’s also The Wellbeing Project, created by Ashoka, Georgetown University, Impact Hub, Porticus, Skoll Foundation and Synergos.
Overall, Benitez wants others to have the same support she felt from her Board of Instigators.
“What I experienced is not just unique to me,” Benitez says. “The activists and organizers we’re supporting, they have this story in their mind that you need to push through whatever sickness you have, because your community needs you and there’s no time for rest. You have to pull any energy that you need to pull, from wherever it is that you need to pull from, so that you can get shit done.”