01/30/2013 06:24 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2013

This Is Activism's Moment

Nearly 35 years ago, 28 young people sat down on a windswept February evening at New York City's Riverside Church to put in motion a very different kind of foundation. It would fund edgier work at the grassroots level. It would ask donors to pool their funds and give up some control by partnering with local organizers on the ground. And it would not be afraid to take a risk on grassroots activists facing down the powers-that-be, whether for the rights of lesbian moms at risk of losing their kids, the closing of public hospitals, or ending U.S. support for dictators in Central America.

They called the foundation North Star Fund, after the abolitionist newspaper that Frederick Douglass founded in the 1840s to fuel the growth of the anti-slavery movement. Since its very first round of grants in 1979, North Star Fund has raised and distributed $41 million dollars to 1,750 organizing and activist groups.

Along the way, a deeply important thing happened. North Star Fund, and many of our peer foundations around the country, invested in the grassroots movements and leaders who, over many decades, provided the fuel for everything from Jesse Jackson's rainbow coalition, to voter education and mobilization drives in poor communities, to the growth of organized youth and immigrant movements. Our grants enabled activists to come together and create a bridge between movements. Women's activists connected with racial justice activists. Queer youth activists connected with organizers helping undocumented workers. This all led to a stronger, more unified progressive network, which ultimately helped bring Obama to power and enabled his more progressive stance for a second term.

So what now? How do we build on this essential post-election moment, in which the forces of progress have a shot at shoring up reforms of the last century, and making our system more fair, just and compassionate? The answer: Our city, state and nation are in great need of more effective organizing for equality, justice and peace. North Star Fund is doing just that by launching a $7 million Activism's Future Campaign in order to build a more robust movement to close the chasm between New York City's richest and poorest citizens.

Statistics show that New York City is not working for a large percentage of the population. In Manhattan, the top 20 percent of families earn 40 times more than the bottom 20 percent of families. The city's homeless shelter population continues to grow and includes an unacceptable 20,000 children a night. Poor Black and Latino children are most likely to attend the most troubled schools with the fewest resources. People on the margins struggle with a fraying social service safety net, and immigrants, women and unions face harsh crackdowns on their basic rights.

Grassroots activists directly affected by injustice are still our best hope for creating real change. They know firsthand which policies aren't working and which programs must be expanded. And with head, heart and bullhorn, they are taking on City Hall every day. Nothing shows this more clearly than the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, in which the most vulnerable New Yorkers relied on local organizers and activists as first responders in the face of inadequate planning by state and city agencies, and large relief organizations. In several neighborhoods, local organizations are now coordinating an advocacy campaign to demand pro-active plans are developed for every neighborhood before the next big storm hits.

To expand grassroots leadership and secure activism's future, North Star Fund will double its funding to activists so that they can use tools of organizing like public demonstrations, coalition building, and meetings with legislators to stand up for their rights. We will also expand the training of local leaders to organize their communities and build alliances to broaden their reach, and increase media coverage of social justice issues. As a great city, we need to keep issues of equality, economic justice and peace on the front page and in the front of peoples' minds. Finally, North Star Fund will broaden the community of donors who support activism in order to build a bigger and stronger social justice community.

We will make New York City a place we can all be proud to call home. And we will safeguard an important national treasure -- our grassroots activist community.