Keep that same energy: racial justice startups still need funding


By Carlissia Graham, Jessica Salinas, and Phillip Sanders

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The year 2020 will forever be remembered as a flashpoint that defined a great awakening in race consciousness. George Floyd was murdered by police in May; and in the months and year that followed, racial justice was the hottest funding ticket in town. Money seemingly flowed in abundance under a national recognition that structural racism is a threat to democracy. But it wasn’t just money that flowed; so too did the social media highlights, the outrage, the allyship, and the thirst for collective liberation.

The call to action was clear and the bandwagon was full – corporations, foundations, elected officials – all promising reform and most importantly, power-building and access to capital for Black founders and leaders.

It’s been nearly three years since that national reckoning; but in just this past month alone we’re processing the murders of three more unarmed Black men at the hands of police – Keenan Anderson, Tyre Nichols, and Alonzo Bagley – with far less universal outrage and resource mobilization. One thing we’ve learned is that reckoning is not the same thing as resolve.

While many have grappled with the racism underpinning our democracy from individual awareness to institutional, the lack of sustained investment in Black entrepreneurs advancing racial justice has not kept pace with the good intentions.

At New Media Ventures, we are resolved in funding racial justice startups as a critical part of our civic tech vertical because the democracy we want to shape must be multiracial and grounded in systemic equity across the board. More importantly, we believe that the criminal legal system can be fundamentally reshaped if we let those most impacted lead the way. It is the radical imagination of startup founders coupled with movement leaders that will get us to a just system.

Understanding the landscape will help us all keep our commitments to advancing a multiracial democracy. 

Funding for racial justice groups has slowed since 2020 surge

In 2020, we were inundated with headlines around racial justice, followed by a throng of statements from corporations and foundations alike, promising to activate large funds to advance equality. And while these dollars were mostly mobilized, they were largely directed to white-led organizations and initiatives. Even when the philanthropic community seemingly mobilizes around racial justice, far too many funders are inspired to deploy funding when Black thoughts, innovations, and movement language are parroted by white voices. We cannot advance racial justice without Black people leading the way forward. 

Relatedly is the issue of inflated or hollow commitments, expounded on in the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity’s report: Philanthropy’s Response to the Call For Racial Justice. At a corporate level, these commitments were as grandiose as Meta’s $1.1 billion pledge for racial equity, of which a dismal 10% was directed to nonprofits serving Black communities. We saw similar occurrences in the philanthropic sector as well, as stories of committed funding rescissions and reductions became frequent in 2022 (for instance, one of our Black-led portfolio companies had over 50% of their budget rescinded from a large philanthropic donor). Like other institutional work, progress cannot be made without long-term and committed investment.

Progressive electoral victories don't in itself shift Black realities, racial justice can

Winning elections does not in itself build Black power. Too often, the very constituent bases being leveraged for electoral outcomes see minimal difference in the systems that govern and impact their lives – they routinely vote and participate but aren’t free.

For example, there is a marginal difference between the amount of Black people police killed during Trump’s administration and Biden’s, yet we’ll be counting heavily on Black civic participation in the next cycle. Time and time again, we call on Black people to save democracy with their votes, promising collective gains that never materialize in their day-to-day lives. Rather than rebuilding trust in earnest, we then return cycle after cycle pouring millions into targeted GOTV campaigns. 

Building power means resourcing racial justice initiatives at the same pace and fervor as other democracy work – because racial justice IS democracy work. Building power means positioning Black founders to lead civic strategy and governance. It means letting go of paternalistic bias that puts more restrictions, more reporting, and more direction on Black leaders than White leaders. 

Black people need to be at the forefront of any attempt to “build Black power” with tangible decision-making power if the outcome is intended to be meaningful to Black constituents. 

Old problems require radical new ideas that early-stage projects can deliver

Our criminal legal system is one of the most polarizing issues facing America today, one that requires collaboration from organizers, media, policy leaders, and technologists to solve. A successful movement, like the abolition movement, must be rooted in deep reimagining, truth, and accurate data. Just as importantly, it must be driven by people for whom change is an urgent necessity, not a future eventuality. Entrepreneurs in our portfolio embody those dynamics and are disrupting entire ecosystems in the process. 

  • Radical reimagination - A system inherently built to control and exploit a specific population is incapable of self-reform or conceptualizing an alternative model with citizen safety and dignity at the forefront. But those impacted by the system can. Raheem is building infrastructure to support community crisis models that limit police interactions, with its flagship PATCH network of national non-police crisis responders and practitioners leading the way. Ameelio is disrupting the predatory prison phone industry and in the process aiming to cut recidivism and sustainably reduce prison populations – and they’ve grown to three states. Radical vision is the path toward rehabilitative justice and it comes from outside the system. 

  • Trusted messengers – Media is the most powerful tool in not only shifting hearts and minds, but mobilizing people to action. While Black media has  long been underfunded, it is pivotal in leading nuanced conversations around the economic, social, and systemic harms of racial injustice. Two companies that have been instrumental in speaking truth to power for Black Americans are Blavity and PushBlack. They have been transformative in giving millions of Black millennials platforms to own their stories and find community in digital spaces, leading to consistent activism and civic engagement in public spaces. Our portfolio company Represent Justice is shifting our collective understanding of our justice system by collecting and distributing the powerful stories of those caught inside of it. 

  • Equitable data – Systemic racism has been deeply rooted within our algorithms, and is in no small part due to biases held by individual designers and engineers. And while the focus tends to be leveraging data and technology for collective efficiencies, there are groups that know the social implications and harm of biased data embedded in consequential systems like policing. The Algorithmic Justice League is one such group who is building a movement for equitable and accountable AI.  

  • Reparative justice – True racial justice cannot be achieved until we center those who have been harmed, counter current harms, and repair past harms. Project Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations is tackling inequality by building a shared narrative around the root of our inequities, confronting the centuries-long cycle of abuse, and reclaiming wealth and power. Co-founded by Liberation Ventures, The Reparations Narrative Lab is a robust infrastructure that generates opportunities for narrative interventions while building narrative power that shifts dominant mental models around race.

The democracy we seek to build is not limited to the structural tenements – it’s the equal distribution of power that gives citizens access and influence over our policies. None of that is possible without investment in organizations transforming systems through the lens of race. As funders, it’s not only imperative that we keep that same energy we had in 2020, but that we match that high energy with deep investments in Black leaders. If you’re interested in connecting with any of our racial justice portfolios, reach out to us at