In the final days of the $3 million Black Brilliance Research Project, the wheels came off the wagon. King County Equity Now, the organization that fought for and spearheaded the project, found itself on the outside looking in, and despite making allegations that its fiscal sponsor had committed financial improprieties and contract violations, it was unable to convince the City Council to intervene before the clock ran out.
To understand how this ended, we need to review how it all began. Last July, when large anti-police protests — and SPD’s highly criticized response — were still a nightly occurrence, representatives from King County Equity Now (KCEN) and Decriminalize Seattle appeared in front of the City Council and pitched two investments of city dollars: $10 million for community organization capacity-building in advance of future efforts to shift some of SPD’s responsibilities to civilian community-based alternatives, and $3 million to conduct research within Black and BIPOC communities in Seattle to learn what the community believes will enhance community safety. Both were approved in August by the City Council. After months of foot-dragging by the Mayor’s Office and the Human Services Department, a plan to spend the $10 million in capacity-building funds finally comes up for consideration tomorrow.
Separately the $3 million for research was awarded in a single, no-bid contract to King County Equity Now, but there were a couple of snags. By city law, all contracts over $53,000 must be bid out; there is, however, an exception for 501(c)(3) nonprofits. But since KCEN is not itself a 501(c)(3), the nonprofit Freedom Project was recruited as “fiscal sponsor,” to be the official grantee on the contract with the city, subcontract implementation to KCEN, and process invoices and disbursements as directed by KCEN.
Two quick notes on the fiscal sponsorship agreement between Freedom Project and KCEN:
- The contract specifies: “Other than processing Successfully Submitted Expenses, the Sponsor will not spend any portion of the Funds without first obtaining written authorization from the KCEN.”
- It also says: “Either party may terminate this Agreement by giving 30 days’ written notice to the other party.”
The fiscal sponsorship agreement between KCEN and Freedom Project was signed on November 13th, and on November 18th the research contract (officially titled: “King County Equity Now Community Research Project”) was signed by Freedom Project and by Council President Lorena Gonzalez on behalf of the city. Since then, the contract has been managed on behalf of the city by staff in Councilmember Morales’ office.
King County Equity Now delegated the day-to-day direction of the research activities to two co-leads, Shaun Glaze and LeTania Severe, while retaining approval authority over payments. Much of the funds were used to pay researchers recruited to work on the project, a mix of individuals working solo, small groups, and a handful of community-based organizations. In an unusual, and in retrospect worrisome, arrangement, one of the sub-sub contractors conducting research was Freedom Project; in fact, it had the largest research contract at $543,000. Having the same organization serving as both fiscal sponsor above KCEN and a sub-sub-contractor below it suggests a conflict of interest, which could create problems if the two organizations don’t see eye-to-eye on everything (spoiler: they didn’t).
During the holiday season, unconfirmed rumors spread that there were tensions between KCEN and its coalition of researchers, alleging that some researchers weren’t paid for work done and others were paid without doing any work. There were also unconfirmed rumors that KCEN’s partners were finding the organization difficult to work with. Last week a spokesperson for KCEN admitted that at the time it did run into trouble paying some researchers on time, and attributed the problem to having to wait for city funding tranches to come through.
On February 1, the project delivered its preliminary report to the City Council. But in the subsequent days as it geared up for the push to complete the final report, the key relationships in the Black Brilliance project fell apart. According to King County Equity Now, on February 3rd Freedom Project notified KCEN that it was unilaterally terminating their fiscal sponsorship agreement, and on February 8th it “informed KCEN that none of the funds disbursed by the City to Freedom Project as funding for the Research Project will be transferred to KCEN and it intends to use those funds as it sees fit moving forward.” KCEN further alleges that Freedom Project froze all of its access, including to grants awarded outside of the Black Brilliance project, which left KCEN again unable to pay researchers as well as other project expenses.
Also on February 8, research co-leads Shaun Glaze and LeTania Severe published an “open letter” announcing that they and some of the community-based organizations that had signed up to do research were cutting their ties to KCEN, and that they intended to work directly with Freedom Project to finish and deliver the final report. The letter made several allegations of hostile behavior by KCEN, including:
“locking research leads out of their KCEN e-mail accounts without warning during a key moment for the research; locking research leads out of access to the relevant online research files; unilaterally making major decisions that impact researchers — including decisions about contract renewal and decisions about hosting major public events — without consulting researchers in advance; cutting off communication when requests for transparency and accountability were made; abusive communication from KCEN leadership; unacceptable delays in paying people for their work that has seriously impacted researchers’ mental health and our ability to economically sustain; and dismissing the lived experiences of some Black community members, including Black people who live in but were not born in Seattle and trans and queer people.“
King County Equity Now held its own “community conversation” event that same day, in which it announced a new “research panel” of community elders to review research projects. The messaging around it was somewhat confused, particularly around the new panel’s duties. Subsequently a KCEN spokesperson clarified for SCC Insight that some of the tensions in the relationships were connected to concerns over KCEN’s desire to “bring more voices from the community” into the research, notably community elders who were under-represented among both the Black Brilliance researchers and their research results. KCEN was also looking to leverage its relationships in the community, something it sees as a key asset of the organization, for gathering community input in addition to the more transactional processes that the researchers were employing. “We talk to people on the ground all the time,” the spokesperson for KCEN said. “We wanted to bring more of that to the research project.” They also felt that the final report was being rushed: while the report had been scheduled for delivery in late February, the contractual deadline was the end of March. With this information, the role of KCEN’s newly-formed research panel is clearer: its aim was to effectively take over from Glaze and Severe post-split in reviewing research projects to decide which to incorporate into the final report, and possibly to charter some last-minute additional projects to fill holes in the research results.
On February 10, KCEN escalated the quickly unraveling situation to City Council President Lorena Gonzalez with a letter from KCEN Board Chair Dawn Mason, the former 37th District Representative and respected elder of the Black community, laying out the actions that Freedom Project had taken, which in their eyes were in violation of the terms of the contract. KCEN asked Gonzalez to intercede by freezing any spending by Freedom Project that KCEN had not authorized and convening a summit meeting between KCEN and Freedom Project to disentangle the finances and chart a path forward for the brief remainder of the contract. According to KCEN, $1.8 million of the contract funds had been spent to-date, leaving $1.2 million still to be spent.
This was obviously a huge mess. According to the fiscal sponsorship contract, Freedom Project didn’t have the right to immediately terminate the contract; it was required to give 30 days’ notice. But even if it did have that right, terminating the fiscal sponsorship agreement throws doubt on the status of Freedom Project’s contract with the city, since the intent is clear in that contract that KCEN is to have the central role. It also raises questions about the status of the sub-sub-contracts that KCEN signed with other community organizations — include Freedom Project’s own $543,000 sub-sub-contract. Was KCEN on the hook to pay all its sub-sub-contractors, even if Freedom Project had cut off its funding? And does removing KCEN leave Freedom Project managing a $543,000 subcontract with itself, with no oversight?
Council President Gonzalez did not respond to Mason’s February 10th letter. Mason sent it again on February 17th; according to a spokesperson for KCEN, an aide to Gonzalez called Mason’s office on February 18th “stating CM Gonzalez’s office was taking the communication seriously and would provide answers on the 19th.” No such answers came.
On the morning of February 26th, the Black Brilliance Research Project final report was presented by Glaze and Severe to Councilmember Morales’ Community Economic Development committee, via Zoom. According to KCEN, their Media Director TraeAnna Holiday, who co-presented the preliminary report a month earlier, was not allowed to participate:
Among many, many instances of institutionalized racism we experienced, KCEN was unable to present at the City Council meeting for the research presentation to address our efforts to get this project off the ground to begin with. As communicated clearly to City Council, TraeAnna Holiday was there to honor the history of Black organizing and KCEN’s efforts that helped to launch this project. Yet as soon as the introduction for the project started, TraeAnna Holiday was moved from the panel to the audience and was excluded from rejoining as a panelist to give history, background, and shed light on how important this project was; and importantly, how KCEN advanced its own funding to get this project started on the unreasonable timeline that the City required, particularly as city funding had not come in before researchers were required to begin work…
At the referenced presentation meeting, TraeAnna Holiday made clear that it was incredibly important to truly honor the history of Black advocacy, thought-leaders, and longstanding community relationships that were leveraged to bring forth Seattle’s historic change, particularly now. More, she made clear that any public record regarding this work must highlight the “invest in Black community organizations” aspect of the divestment conversation, as a huge part of this vision is to intentionally uplift, center, and rapidly scale the Black community organizations, strong Black institutions, Black community elders, etc. that currently hold and have been holding the bodies of work that make divestment from policing possible. That an entirely non-Black City Council actively excluded KCEN leader TraeAnna Holiday from doing so is disturbing, though unsurprising, and reflects City Council’s anti-Black institutional processes.
Later that day, Mason followed up one more time via email with Gonzalez, expanding the communication to the full set of City Council members and providing a further status update:
“Disturbingly, since our initial outreach, Freedom Project has notified KCEN’s leaders that City Council, via your office and Councilmember Morales’s office, has somehow given their organization permission to unilaterally take over the Project without any input or authorization from KCEN regarding how Project funds may be spent – in direct breach of KCEN and Freedom Project’s fiscal sponsorship agreement, incorporated into the City’s contract. The City’s contract clearly provides that KCEN has full control over both: (i) allocation of the funds and (ii) day-to-day project management. This project was developed by and through direct conversations between KCEN and the City over the past several months (clearly, as the Project title bears our name). We seek immediate clarity and direct communication about the Project yet again. We request here that you:
1. Freeze all money allocation to the Freedom Project, as they are in breach of contract and putting all parties at risk; and
2. Immediately initiate arbitration proceedings to seek a resolution and mitigate harm caused, particularly in the lack of accountability to the Black community w/r/t how the money is being spent.”
Again, there was no immediate response from Gonzalez or other Council members. Finally last Friday (March 5) — a week after the final report was delivered — Gonzalez sent a response to Mason:
“I received your letter dated February 10, 2021. We understand that King County Equity Now was originally a subcontractor to the Freedom Project, but the City’s contract is with the Freedom Project.
It is clear that the Freedom Project did enter into an MOU and fiscal sponsor relationship with King County Equity Now. However, that relationship lies solely between the two parties, and is not in the purview of the City of Seattle to impact, direct or control.
The Freedom Project has now completed the terms of the contract with its presentation of its final deliverable last Friday February 26, 2021 in the Community Economic Development Committee; therefore the contract work is complete.
While I understand that this is not the outcome you were seeking, I do want to recognize that KCEN continues to advocate tirelessly for increased investments, improved outcomes, and equity for the Black Community. And I want to be clear that I share those goals. With the forthcoming Participatory Budgeting process, I believe that we will have a sincere opportunity to do just that.”
In essence, Gonzalez asserts that the Council has no right to intervene in a dispute between a city contractor and its subcontractor, and at any rate because the last deliverable in the contract is now complete the whole matter is essentially moot.
In an interview today, Gonzalez explained that upon receiving the letter from Mason, she consulted with Councilmember Morales and with the city’s law department on how to respond:
“You know, I think there’s there’s obviously a lot of allegations going back and forth. And as articulated in their own words, I’m not going to put words in their mouth. And I think for us, it’s a it’s a matter of understanding who we have a contractual relationship with. And there’s no ambiguity that that the entity that we have had a contractual relationship with was the Freedom Project, and that they had a subcontractor relationship via a memorandum of understanding with King County Equity Now, but our contractual relationship was with Freedom Project, who gets to choose who their subcontractors are, so long as they’re complying with the overarching requirements of the contract, which in this case, as far as we can tell, they were.”
Gonzalez also confirmed what Mason said in her email above: that before the final report was delivered the Council gave written permission for Freedom Project to switch their subcontractor relationship from King County Equity Now to the newly-organized Black Brilliance researchers, effectively cutting KCEN out of its central role in the project.
Gonzalez’ description of the limited “purview of the City of Seattle” when faced with KCEN’s allegations of improprieties by Freedom Project doesn’t stand up to examination. In fact, the city’s contract with Freedom Project has several provisions that would allow much deeper investigation. Those include:
- “Consultant’s employees, agents, and subcontractors will be competent and hold appropriate licenses and endorsements. The City may require the removal of any employee or subcontractor of Consultant for misconduct or incompetent or negligent performance. Such persons will not be allowed to perform services under this Agreement without the written consent of the City.”
- “Upon request, the Consultant shall permit the City and any other governmental agency (“Agency”) involved in funding of the Work, to inspect and audit all pertinent books and records. This includes work of the Consultant, any subconsultant, or any other person or entity that performed connected or related Work. Such books and records shall be made available at any and all times deemed necessary by the Agency, including up to six years after final payment or release of withheld amounts.”
- “The Consultant shall not assign or subcontract its obligations under this Agreement without the City’s written consent, which may be granted or withheld in the City’s sole discretion. The Consultant shall ensure that all subconsultants comply with all obligations and requirements applicable to the subcontracted work. The City’s consent to any assignment or subcontract does not release the consultant from liability or any obligation within this Agreement, whether before or after City consent, assignment, or subcontract.”
Nevertheless, Gonzalez does not feel that it is necessary for the city to investigate the allegations against Freedom Project:
“I think that there’s there is a lot of background and conflict that is ongoing between entities. And I think for us, we have to look at whether or not the contractual obligations are met. Allegations are just that; they’re allegations, they’re not proven. One way or the other, we know that there is a state audit underway, this particular effort and program, and we also look forward to hearing what the state auditor has to say about those particular issues…
I think for me, it’s really important to acknowledge that this contract concluded about a week ago. And these allegations all came forth, nearly towards the end of the completion of the contract based on the the records and the information I had seen and been able to look at. Now, again, we’ve consulted with the law department on what our options are and what our contractual requirements are… I am, I think it’s fair to say, following the legal advice from our law department related to what the city’s contractual obligation is, and I think I have done that.”
And with that, the City Council is done with the troubled Black Brilliance Research Project and is moving on to the $30 million Participatory Budgeting process — at least until the Washington State Auditor concludes their investigation of the contract.
For their part, Freedom Project seems happy with how things concluded. In a statement provided to SCC Insight this evening, a spokesperson for the organization said:
“Freedom Project could not be more excited about the work community has successfully completed as part of this historic participatory action research project, the Black Brilliance Research Project. During a pandemic, over a hundred community members, who are directly impacted by systemic violence and racism, came together to complete a robust community-led research project. This is a big deal. Together, researchers worked with thousands of Black, Indigenous, and community members of color using interviews, focus groups, community dialogues, and art-based methodologies like photovoice and story-mapping. As a result, those closest to the issues were able to help author the plan that will help direct investments and create true community safety, health, and thriving. Scaled-up participatory budgeting in Seattle is just one thrilling development based on the findings of this research. This means that the priorities and expertise of those closest to the issues will guide the direction of investments that can create true community safety and health for the first time for so many of our community members in Seattle and King County, Washington. We are so proud of how community members have come together to support this work.”
King County Equity Now, as you can imagine, is not as cheerful, though they are insistent that this incident be placed in a broader context:
“We encourage you here to resist reporting on this historic change as a moment, rather than decades of generational work that led to this work’s possibility. As a pro-Black organization, we carry the responsibility to uplift Black community organizing and ensure it is appropriately elevated in public record and media pieces to ensure no erasure occurs as it does so often, i.e., to make sure that the success behind Seattle’s historic mass mobilization towards Black liberation (including divestment from policing) is not reduced broadly to a ‘BIPOC’ movement of many voices, or a few individuals, when the vision, energy, labor, relationships, and theory driving its success comes directly from decades of labor by Black communities specifically. We attempted to do that many times to City Council and faced resistance if not wholesale exclusion.”
Shaun Glaze, Black Brilliance Research co-lead, has not responded to a request to a set of questions emailed to them last week.
King County Equity Now finds itself at a crossroads. It’s still a young organization, founded only last year as a coalition of advocacy organizations before incorporating in the fall in order to organize the Black Brilliance project. KCEN’s Holiday suggested that the organization may now return to its roots as a coalition-builder, and a cultivator of relationships within the Black community. “The only time we’ve tried to organize has been the past few months,” Holiday said. “We took a step back to create the structure. I don’t want anyone to think that we’re not talking to our coalition members or other organizations. We just had to step back. We brought on some amazing people… It’s important that we stay united in this work.”
That said, in a statement today KCEN made clear that not only that it won’t have a role in the Participatory Budgeting process moving forward, but it also does not support the process as currently envisioned:
Based on a misalignment of values and strategic analysis, KCEN is no longer directly involved with the current participatory budgeting process. As a Black organization dedicated to building collective Black power and achieving equity for Black communities across all measurable metrics, we do not support the process in its current form.
It is fundamentally anti-Black for the entire population of a majority white, non-Black city – with an abysmal wealth gap, home ownership gap, mass incarceration rates, mortality rates, etc., that has roots in white supremacy with a deep history of white and non-Black folks historically and presently profiting-off of Black plight and Black death at the hands of police – to all “vote” to help determine how Black peoples and Black communities should spend their investments. Though it is an improvement, it sets the wrong example and provides the wrong racial framework.
Equity means ownership. We advocate strongly for Black community ownership over solutions intended to affect Black lives. We do not support watered-down, broadly “BIPOC-centered” policies intended to affect Black peoples, and look forward to seeing improvement in the process on this front.
However, Holiday is quick to bring focus back to the important work that she believes KCEN can do moving forward:
“A Black organization, it’s very unfortunate when it comes under attack from either the inside or outside. But it’s important that we want the same thing. Its important that we show the community that we want the same thing, and what that means, by uniting as much as possible and ensuring that Black lives are at the center of the process.
“We want to make sure that the Council centers voices of the Black community. It was $100 million, then $30 million here and $30 million there. We don’t want to see it whittled down. We need resources coming into our community effecting sustainable change. That’s what we all want. It’s important that the original intent for the funds to support Black communities, that’s what they are used for in the end.”
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