La’Tasha D. Mayes, founder and executive director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice speaking at the launch of the rapid response fund.

In the aftermath of the shooting of 19-year-old Antwon Rose Jr. in East Pittsburgh last summer,  local activists found themselves with a rare problem: too many eager volunteers.

According to Jasiri X, founder and CEO of 1Hood Media, even with hundreds of Pittsburghers donating their time and labor, he and his fellow community leaders had to stretch to cover simple costs — like feeding the volunteers making signs for the marches and rallies that followed the tragedy.

“Most of the time,” Jasiri X says, “the people on the frontline are those that are the most marginalized and have the least amount of resources.”

On Wednesday, The Pittsburgh Foundation and the East Liberty-based advocacy group New Voices for Reproductive Justice took a step toward closing the gap.

At an event in the Strip District, the two civic organizations announced the launch of the Social Justice Rapid Response Fund, a new grantmaking program aimed at providing support for activists and civic organizations in underserved communities across Allegheny County.

“The Pittsburgh Foundation has committed to learning with and from those who are working on critical issues like racial justice and gender equity, but are too often under-resourced,” says Michelle McMurray, director of grantmaking at The Pittsburgh Foundation. “We are hopeful that this rapid response fund will serve to encourage and strengthen the growing social justice movement in our region.”

Their current plan is to award around 40 grants over the next nine months. Of the $100,000 funding pool, $75,000 comes from The Pittsburgh Foundation while New Voices provided the other $25,000 with the stipulation that it supports projects led by and focusing on black women, femmes and girls, as well as reproductive issues.

A team of judges from New Voices will make awards on a rolling basis. If a project is approved, the grants will be awarded within 14 days, and grantees are required to have deliverables on their project within 90 days.

The rapid response fund is an offshoot of The Pittsburgh Foundation’s larger social justice fund, which launched in 2018.

As McMurray explained to the assembled crowd at Slate Studio in the Strip, the fund is designed to limit the bureaucracy that all too often stands in the way of effective public giving.

“At our foundation, it can take an application six months to go from submitted to approved,” said McMurray. “Unfortunately, the pace of philanthropy is very slow.”

In addition to insisting on quick turnarounds for both applications and projects, McMurray said this new process will be streamlined by delegating more decision-making to partners on the ground.

“If we wanted to move money quickly, we needed a local partner,” says McMurray. “We needed somebody who had a history in this community of doing impactful social justice work.”

In particular, she says, the fund will rely on the credibility and longstanding networks that New Voices for Reproductive Justice has established all over the county and within Pennsylvania since 2004.

“This is groundbreaking for The Pittsburgh Foundation to work in partnership with black women to move monetary resources to the social justice movement — a movement New Voices has supported and helped build for the past 15 years,” says La’Tasha D. Mayes, founder and Executive Director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice. “But it’s not just about raising money. It’s about raising diverse voices, raising strong leaders and raising the bar on equity in our communities.”

Applications open March 1.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.