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Removing Barriers One Opportunity Grant at a Time

University of Washington Black Opportunity Funds reach one million dollars of funding after first year of creation.

 

In the wake of several tumultuous years, uncertainty about the future for many underrepresented communities, and the all-too-frequent reports of Black men and women dying at the hands of law enforcement – the nation was on edge and racial justice was once again center of a national debate. Protesters, activists, and community organizers took the streets across the country often being met with force by the very same agencies they were demanding reform their harmful practices against communities of color. The demands for justice saturated national news, local papers, and every university campus. The University of Washington was no exception, and in the spring of 2020, University of Washington leadership held conversations with the Black Student Union and Black faculty and staff to listen and learn where support is needed most.

 

Equity Minded Solutions

One result of those meetings was the creation of the University of Washington Black Opportunity Funds (BOF) where each of the three UW campuses set up separate funds to help meet the specific needs of Black students, faculty and staff on their own respective campuses. Shortly after was the creation of a mirror endowment on the Seattle campus with the same name by an anonymous seed donor to provide funds in perpetuity. These two Seattle campus funds in conjunction will create ongoing grants to be awarded each year. UW President Ana Mari Cauce and the Vice President of the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity and University Diversity Officer Rickey Hall wrote a joint letter outlining what they saw leading to the need for the creation of equitable solutions. “We are writing to you because our country has a problem. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed with fierce clarity the systemic inequality that affects every aspect of life,” wrote Cauce and Hall. They continued, “This urgent wake-up call has been compounded and amplified by the recent police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and too many other Black men and women to name.” In her individual statement Cauce goes deeper to state, “Our country has a problem that we cannot afford to ignore: Racism and racial inequality are pervasive and systemic.”

University leadership recognized the need for a fund of this type, and the BOF website credits the student demands for change to accelerating the fund creation. “Continuing a long history of justice work on UW’s campus, the Black Student Union, along with representatives from other Black orgs like the African Student Association, presented a list of demands to UW leadership, one of which includes a fund to support Black Registered Student Organizations. The BOF is an extension of this demand, and is also a result of many conversations Black students and faculty had with university leadership regarding how to create a more sustaining space on campus for Black students, faculty, and staff.”

The UW community answered the call for support, with the initial appeal being met with a clear and rapid response from donors, the majority of whom were under the age of forty. Speaking to the importance of the work, President Cauce allocated other unrestricted philanthropic funds to the BOF, rounding out the support from the initial appeal to bring the funds over the $1 million milestone. A committee was formed of students, staff and faculty to set selection criteria and manage the grant application process from application to selection. Teri Ward, director for Health Sciences Center Minority Students Program was selected to lead the committee. “As a Black Educational Opportunity Program alum and current staff member, I am honored to serve as the inaugural Chair for the BOF Seattle. The fund is a great step forward for OMA&D and the University to acknowledge the impact of systemic racism with a never-ending commitment to support the experiences of Black students, faculty and staff,” said Ward.

 

Selection and Awards

The newly formed committee wasted no time getting to work and setting the selection criteria for the first round of grants. Each funded application must align with institutional values, and for the first round of grants they were looking for new initiatives or projects to fund. Each selected application must also fit into one or more of the funding categories. The categories were intentionally broad to include the most possible applications and a variety of outcomes.

The first category is educational advancement. The committee explains, “The purpose of the Black Opportunity Fund is to bring resources to those needs and experiences that may elude students for financial reasons and students who have been marginalized and traditionally locked out of opportunities that will enhance their educational experience.” One such grant was issued in this category to an applicant focusing on pandemic preparedness, where the funds were used to purchase a computer that could handle designing proteins. Their goal is to generate rapidly scalable, safe and effective treatments for pathogens using computationally designed proteins to decrease the response time in combating future pandemics.

The second is projects that support the Black community. “Students and faculty are often engaged in community projects. But often these projects can only develop as far as resources go to support them. The fund supports community-based projects that both enhances education and instruction, and are an asset to the community in solving complex, and or simple issues.” In this category the UW Seattle Black Student Union applied for funds to host a community-oriented speaker series and to create a space where Blackness is recognized and validated. This speaker series might cover a broad variety of topics including socioeconomic justice and abolition, environmental and healthcare disparities, allyship, and the impacts of Black culture. Providing a variety of voices and expert perspectives enriches the learning experience and builds stronger communities.

The third category is innovation or “stretch” projects. The committee explains, “Often, students and faculty come across opportunities that will help them bring an idea to fruition, or that encourages them to explore solutions to common problems. But these opportunities often have barriers – resources. The Black Opportunity Fund seeks to encourage students and faculty to lean into these opportunities with the confidence that needed resources are available to them.” One undergraduate grant application that was selected was titled “Gardening Under a Microscope”. They describe their project as a collaboration project with Basilica Bio and Black Star Farmers to transform the Garfield Community Center Garden into an organic food hub for the local community and a series of interactive educational presentations on historical policies, environmental hazards, and solutions. This project links community-based education, mentorship, and meaningful action in the community in an innovative and original way.

The first call for submissions to the BOF received 33 applications. Of those applications the BOF was able to fund 19 grants with an additional two being referred for funding by the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity separately from the BOF. In total, the Black Opportunity Fund issued $137,853 in grants from the immediate use fund while the endowment continues to grow. The grants were issued to students, RSOs, staff and faculty, with more than half the funded applications belonging to undergraduates, graduate students, and RSOs.

 

The Future

The success of the first year for the BOF is only the beginning. The first round of grants was possible with the initial seed funding, and as the fund grows more projects can be considered for the second round. The BOF has reached the $1 million milestone, but more support is needed. In the first round of grants 12 applications went unfunded. President Cauce has called on everyone to do their part in supporting Black students, faculty and staff at the university. “Confronting bias, transforming institutional policies, and accelerating systemic change is the daily work of everyone in our community, and we recognize that there is so much more work to do. As a public university, we are part of a system that has historically harmed and marginalized communities of color, and the responsibility lies with us to create a safe, supportive and equitable institution, community and world.”

To learn more about the Black Opportunity Fund, or to invest in the fund’s growth to support future BOF grant applications, visit the BOF website, or connect with OMA&D Advancement at kdayhase@uw.edu.