Discover more from Dolores Park
The Dream Keeper Initiative: How San Francisco Defunded the Police for a Historic Racial Equity Cash Grab
in 2020, san francisco announced it would defund its police department of $120 million to fund a racial equity program called the dream keeper initiative — here's how the money was spent
“The scale of investment [in Dream Keeper] is still not enough: according to one grantee, ‘you are in the desert, and you get a glass of water: sure, tastes good, but damn, I could use some more.’” — from 2022 Dream Keeper Initiative impact report
In June 2020, a week-and-a-half after George Floyd was killed, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton announced the city would reallocate $120 million from its police department budget — around 17 percent — to “better support the African American community.” This would be the beginning of a tactical operation carried out by activist local officials who capitalized on post-Floyd hysteria to plunder city coffers and establish a self-evaluating funding program amounting to reparations in all but name: the Dream Keeper Initiative.
Breed and Walton’s first move was to task San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission (SF HRC) with facilitating a “multi-week community input process…centering Black voices and experiences” to determine how to spend the money. “This [reallocation] is a concrete, bold and immediate step towards true reparations for Black people,” said Supervisor Walton, who had previously introduced a resolution to create a city-wide reparations taskforce. A year later, the Dream Keeper Initiative (DKI), a grant-giving program “aim[ing] to ensure San Francisco’s diverse Black communities are experiencing joy, feelings of safety, advancing educationally and economically, are holistically healthy, and are thriving,” launched using the reallocated money.
Since then, DKI has gotten over $100 million1 in funding and established 30 new full-time city government jobs. The initiative’s goals range from concrete (“provide comprehensive support for 300 Black families struggling to meet basic needs due to systemic failures and [offer] educational activities for 500 youth”) to abstract (“through…culturally affirming spaces, as well as workforce and economic development programs…increase opportunities for the Black community to feel seen and valued”). It’s awarded hundreds of grants to a mix of nonprofits, government agencies, and individual small business owners, though the return on investment in many cases remains unclear. Grantees include a one-person-run media company with a tiny audience, a transgender storytelling project, and, strangely, the Human Rights Commission itself.
DKI’s own impact analyses, which rely on survey responses from grantees with a vested interest in receiving more money, provide little quantitative detail upon which to judge how efficiently the funding was spent. The Initiative also has a complicated administrative and fiscal relationship to the rest of San Francisco’s labyrinthine bureaucracy. It disburses much of its funding to other city departments like the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development and the SF HRC — a convoluted passing-around of public funds brokered largely by the dozens of new city employees tasked with spending DKI’s huge budget.
In many ways, the Initiative emblemizes how bureaucracy tends to relentlessly expand outwards, transforming eye-watering amounts of taxpayer dollars into new government jobs, meaningless impact reports, and no-strings-attached grants of dubious merit. It also illustrates how local politicians took advantage of the chaos in 2020 to raid ‘enemy’ coffers, leveraging the cash to stake out new territory and expand their base of client-constituents who, in turn, get to enjoy the war spoils as long as their patrons remain in control.
DREAM KEEPER, BY THE NUMBERS
To date, DKI has disbursed $107 million in 165 grants to organizations across nine ‘impact areas’ ranging from “Economic Mobility” and “Health and Wellness” to “Narrative Shift” and “Capacity Building.” Almost half this money has gone to “Economic Mobility,” largely in the form of a $20 million grant to the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, a department that funds affordable housing projects through the city. Part of this grant supports the DKI Down Payment Assistance Loan Program (DK-DALP), which offers lower and middle-class black San Franciscans looking to purchase property in the city up to $530,000 in the form of no-interest, indefinitely deferred loans of up to $500,000, and $30,000 “wealth building grants.”
Since 2021, almost $9 million, or around 12% of total funding, has gone to supporting the 30 new hires tasked with “supporting DKI full-time” in various departments across the city. Eight DKI jobs, costing the city a total of $1.7 million, were created in the Human Rights Commission alone.
The funding priorities of the Initiative are, in many cases, difficult to parse. DKI has only allotted around $5.3 million to “Education and Enrichment” grantees, but has spent almost $10 million on “Narrative Shift” — an area funding “small nonprofits who have experience…delivering actionable projects centering racial equity that harness the power of storytelling for advocacy.” Strangely, the largest recipient of Narrative Shift money is not a ‘small nonprofit,’ but the SF Human Rights Commission itself, which received over $5.6 million from the impact area. When I asked Dr. Saidah Leatutufu-Burch, DKI Director, about this, she told me that “the HRC grants [this] funding to the narrative shift grantees, nonprofit organizations.” The circular logic here is frustrating: the HRC, which already manages the disbursement of DKI funds to “Narrative Shift” individuals and organizations, granted itself $5.6 million, which it says it’s disbursing to “Narrative Shift” grantees.
An emblematic “Narrative Shift” grantee is Clari-T Media ($200,000 grant), a “multimedia, marketing communications & technical literacy solutions nonprofit agency” focused on “solutions-based stories.” The company’s YouTube and Facebook pages feature hours-long livestreams of “listening sessions” and hearings related to the ongoing push to provide cash reparations to black San Franciscans, along with a series of interviews with local residents. Most of the 100+ videos Clari-T has posted since 2020, often promoted with graphics with text reading “REPARATIONS UNLOCKED,” superimposed on stacks of $100 bills and gold nuggets, have fewer than 100 views.
When I asked the CEO/Founder of Clari-T (who is the only full-time company employee, as far as I can tell), what led her to Dream Keeper, she told me that she was initially contacted by a Facebook friend and local activist, who invited her to one of the listening sessions organized by the SF HRC to solicit applicants to the newly created DKI. There, she “realized that somebody needed to tell the story of the Initiative,” and decided to apply for funding.
Other Narrative Shift projects of similarly dubious ROI include Both Sides of the Conversation, a media company in receipt of a $300,000 Dream Keeper grant to “create storytelling narratives for minority residents in the most underserved and underrepresented communities in San Francisco,” a goal it pursues by running three weekly podcasts, most of which have gotten fewer than 100 views; and The Transgender District, which received $1.4 million from Dream Keeper to further a “visual storytelling project” that “highlights the lives, stories, experiences, and voices of transgender people- from transgender youth to transgender elders, in a way that is humane and celebratory.”
In the case of “Economic Mobility” awardees, DKI drops the pretense that grant money is anything other than a direct cash transfer to recipients. From the DKI impact report: “[Economic mobility] programs fall into three broad categories [one of which is] workforce development training or support through training, certification, or educational assistance and direct cash stipends…[for] small or emerging Black-owned businesses.”
DKI mainly relies on data collected from recipient surveys and analyzed by sympathetic consultants to ‘measure’ the impact of its investments. These consultants often ignore common sense metrics about specific outcomes that would lend credibility to the program.
For instance, an evaluation report of the Homeless Children’s Network ($2.2 million grant), which offers mental health services “utiliz[ing] a unique Afri-centric [sic] model of mental health service provision,” provides no detail about the number of homeless children the program was able to place in permanent housing (a presumably reasonable outcome to measure with an initiative called the Homeless Children’s Network). Instead, the report celebrates such wins as:
“Providing mental health services to 26 black people, exceeding the city's service goal by 30%”
Providing mental health services to 43 members of the Black/African American LGBTQ+ community, surpassing the city's goal by 115%
Hosting cultural events that affirm and celebrate black queer communities, including a Pride month event for over 1,000 black LGBTQ+ community members
Making 163 “contacts” with the “LGBTQ+ community” and “allies”
The document, which was produced by Ceres Policy Research — a consulting group that describes itself as “a trusted space for radical thought” — concludes that “ongoing DKI funding will allow the breadth and depth of the HCN services to continue.”
A two-year evaluation of the impact of DKI as a whole is similarly sparse on details that would lend the program credibility. This report was commissioned by the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (itself a DKI-grantee), which awarded a $75,000 grant to the San Francisco Foundation — a “grantmaking public charity” — for the work. The San Francisco Foundation then subcontracted HR&A Advisors, “an urban development consulting firm,” and the Jumuiya Research Institute, a “communiversity” which “educate[s] and train[s] people in the Black community to conduct their research and tell their stories on racial stress using Afrocentric methods,” to complete the report.
Unsurprisingly, the report finds that “DKI is beginning to live up to its mission as a critically important, historical [sic] effort to redress the historical damage and divestment in San Francisco’s diverse Black communities,” a conclusion based on a series of surveys and focus groups centered on two leading questions: (1) whether DKI creates “new opportunities for Black-led and Black-serving organizations to secure public funding” and (2) whether it “defer[s] to these organizations on how best to serve their communities.”
The report’s quantitative evaluation of DKI’s impact is scant and often vague, though it does mention that the DKI-DALP “wealth-building grants” have “allowed 22 families to own their own homes, with three more families on the way.” For the most part, however, the positive impact of DKI — and the need for ongoing, and increased, public funding for it — is confirmed through statements from clearly biased survey respondents, such as:
All City employees (100%) implementing DKI see this initiative as helping to rectify historical underinvestment in San Francisco’s diverse population…additionally, 90% of the grantees we surveyed reported that DKI funding allows them to provide a service to their community that they otherwise would not have the resources to provide.
The scale of investment [in DKI] is still not enough: according to one grantee, “you are in the desert, and you get a glass of water: sure, tastes good, but damn, I could use some more.”
I asked DKI Director Dr. Saidah Leatutufu-Burch how the Initiative planned on measuring outcomes given how abstract most of its goals are. She told me that, despite having already disbursed $107 million in grants, DKI is still “defining a set of headline performance measures that speak to Initiative level outcomes including people trained and employed, businesses launched and retained, homeownership, graduation rates, dollars distributed in mini-grants, and more.” In other words, DKI is making up their metrics as they go.
Measurements to assess outcomes like whether black San Franciscans are “experiencing joy” are also in development, Dr. Leatutufu-Burch told me, though she said DKI has begun collecting data through event surveys which ask, for instance, “how one feels as a result of attending a DKI-funded event.”
It is true that many of the organizations DKI funding supports — like an established ballet company and a nonprofit offering meals and health care to seniors — seem uncontroversial.2 But this does not offset the concern that the vast bureaucratic structure created to disburse this money is unnecessary and wasteful. San Francisco already has its own publicly funded Arts Commission, Office of Housing and Community Development, Department of In-Home Supportive Services, Office of Disability, Office of Racial Equity, and Department of Children, Youth and Their Families. Do its taxpayers need to fund another multimillion-dollar department tasked with pouring money into nonprofits and direct cash transfers to select citizens?
The Board of Supervisors’ recent expression of strong support for the African American Reparations Advisory Committee’s (AARAC) final reparations report, which recommends — among other things — “one-time, lump sum payments of $5 million” to eligible black San Franciscans, suggests that some think the answer is ‘yes.’ As AARAC member Rev. Amos Brown recently said, “the time for talk is over…the bill is due and the city needs to just [pay] it.”
But if Dream Keeper shows us anything, it is that the city has already paid up.
— Sanjana Friedman
This may actually be too generous an assessment; Susan Reynolds has reported that many of the nonprofits funded by DKI, such as Young Community Developers (almost $4 million grant), are connected to webs of cronyism and corruption. (YCD’s former executive director, Dwayne Jones, was recently arrested on fraud chargers.)