Six Questions for Morgan (Mo) Willis and MARS. Marshall, Co-Directors at Third Wave Fund

Six Questions for Morgan (Mo) Willis and MARS. Marshall, Co-Directors at Third Wave Fund

In January 2024, Third Wave Fund, an organization founded in 1992 that resources and supports youth-led, intersectional gender justice and activism, welcomed Morgan (Mo) Willis (she/they/he/all pronouns) and MARS. Marshall (they/he pronouns) as co-directors.

Since Third Wave Fund’s inception, the organization has raised over $13 million and funded over 500 groups, advancing young Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) most directly impacted by gender oppression. It’s long been focused on empowering people who’ve been locked out of decision-making power in philanthropy — something Third Wave was doing well before the topic became widely discussed (if far more rarely acted on) by funders. In their roles as co-directors, Mo and MARS. lead Third Wave Fund’s resourcing work, grantmaking and donor organizing. 

Mo and MARS. are Black and queer writers based in Detroit, Michigan. They produced the Allied Media Conference, a community-designed experiment in organizing, community care and social justice coalition-building toward liberation.  

Mo has 15 years experience creating and supporting similar community projects, including at nonprofits, philanthropic organizations and academic institutions. Mo has a master of fine arts in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a bachelor of arts in English language and literature from the University of Michigan.

For over six years, MARS. has worked with queer and trans BIPOC artists, movement organizers and cultural workers to form meaningful relationships and impactful work. MARS. is currently an MFA candidate at Randolph College and has a master of social work from Wayne State University and a bachelor’s degree in psychology and African American studies from Eastern Michigan University. 

IP spoke with Mo and MARS. about their backgrounds, work at Third Wave Fund and hopes for philanthropy. Here are some excerpts from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Finish this sentence: I wouldn’t be here today without…

MARS.: Black, queer community. A lot of us have hard stories about finding ourselves and coming out, but there’s something really special about finding your folks, and your folks finding you, and surrendering to the process of being seen.

I talk all the time about Mo taking me on a trip to Brooklyn, New York, that changed my life. It was that moment where Mo saw me and saw what was possible within me and showed me something I had not seen before. There’s such a big, beautiful, Black, queer community, and Black nonbinary community, and Black trans masculine community. I don’t think I will be here today without that experience and without those folks.

Mo: That overlaps with what I was going to say, so I’ll take it a different direction and say I wouldn’t be here today without a man named Eastside who I met and genuinely befriended doing work that I don’t think I’m as politically aligned with now, but it was doing workshops inside of prisons. We did a theater workshop together and he is probably the main reason I didn’t drop out of college. He imbued in me a sense of possibility to be doing the bridge-building work that has come to define the way that I approach organizing, leading and community-building and supporting. Shout out to Eastside!

What did you learn about money growing up?

Mo: I grew up in Washington, D.C., in the ’80s and ’90s being proximate to money and privilege that I could not fathom. I’m a child of nonprofits that were relying on philanthropy so that my parents didn’t have to pay for summer camp. Here, I learned there are places that cared about people and were somehow getting access to money. I grew up poor, so I learned that money is adjacent to a hustle at all times and that there is never enough. 

MARS.: I also grew up poor with a lot of job and housing insecurity. I grew up in Detroit understanding the histories around redlining, the divestment after the Detroit rebellion of ’67, and how race and systemic oppression informed job opportunities. For me, there wasn’t a lot of thinking beyond landing a good job at a Big Three auto factory. So I grew up with this very complicated relationship to money, with the understanding that to have it meant that you had such a great, immense power over your own life.

It’s interesting working in nonprofits, even before coming to this role, and having to fundraise for my salary and find ways to make my story compelling to someone that has a lot of money and doesn’t even have to work. I’m often thinking about that power dynamic and how it affects people that grew up with backgrounds like Mo and myself, who are in positions now to be advocating to regrant money out to organizations and movements that we care so deeply about and are a part of.

Mo: One of the major lessons that I learned is that in order to access money, you have to give them your tragedy story. Philanthropy has definitely reinforced this. You have to prove you deserve it and it has to be bleak. And you have to be willing to put that out there and make it publicly consumable in hopes that it will trigger someone’s generosity. That’s a huge lesson that I find myself deeply interrogating as we’re thinking about how we might continue to push philanthropy to turn certain models of thinking on its head.

What do you want to say to grantseekers navigating the current state of philanthropy?

Mo: Third Wave’s 2023 year in review report is framed around the phrase “we presume our power,” a principle from some of the work at Allied Media Projects, where MARS. and I were before this role. The full principle is “we presume our power, not our powerlessness.” It’s this idea that who we are and what we might be seeking support for should be anchored in agency, possibility and work that’s already happening. 

A lot of our grantees and funds do a great job of valuing people’s lived expertise, in addition to some of the things that would look really good on paper to funders. There is this dance between the presumption of power, which offers [grantseeking organizations] the opportunity of what it could look like if you were well-resourced, but also reminding philanthropy that it has a responsibility to structurally address the conditions that cause organizations to need its services in the first place.

Philanthropy loves a report. It is clear where resources are distributed and who’s not getting served. I would advocate [nonprofits] to spend less time case-making around trauma first as a framework and move towards power first, and not be afraid to name trauma as some of the framework around why this is essential.

MARS.: Plus one to what Mo said. Also, how do we not also deny the fact that philanthropy is a system set up to create competition so that we have to do that case-making? Philanthropy doesn’t get off the hook in terms of what it means for folks to even have to have the framework of having to presume their power first.

What is your biggest hope for philanthropy moving forward?

Mo: One of my biggest hopes is that it gets more courageous with who and how it gives money. Third Wave is an intermediary in a position to take risks and support folks who are so marginalized and kept at the gates of philanthropy. We’re in relationship with folks who know Third Wave will give to folks who they would have a hard time justifying giving to. They need support to make the case for funding organizing by disabled folks, sex workers, folks for whom English isn’t their first language, and youth. Philanthropy’s courage around showing up in direct support of some of the groups that I’ve named is really limited. I look forward to philanthropy getting bolder with how they cut checks.

MARS.: My hope in the short term is that philanthropy moves beyond the notion of charity and thinks deeper about not just what wealth redistribution means but actively works ourselves out of “philanthropy” as a collective framework. What actually happens when people everywhere can live and thrive, and they don’t have to grovel for this money? The figures of what a foundation has to give away is so small, in some cases 5-7% of the endowments they actually have. I’m interested in philanthropy actively working to disrupt what it means to have that money, and resisting the structures that prop up a system that ensures a small percentage of people in the world maintain their wealth. That’s my biggest dream.

What has been keeping you entertained lately?

Mo: I’m watching this Guy Ritchie series called “The Gentlemen,” which is silly and ridiculous. I’m also having a moment with collaging right now. I’m having a wonderful experience going through this book, “Black Liturgies.” Their Instagram page is really dope and their book is just serving and giving me what I need right now.

MARS.: I’m so deep in writing my thesis right now. I just finished reading “Brutal Imagination” by Cornelius Eady. I’m also diving into Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Blacks.” I also have a film photography practice. Right now, I’m interested in documenting my beloveds, and what it means to be held as a beloved, in a portrait photography series.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Mo: I think about one of the functions of an intermediary as a bridge, and the idea that bridges are sustained and kept by tension. There’s an appropriate tension that is necessary to be able to move things to the places where they need to go, particularly when there’s no entry point. What that also means, though, is that we’re asking these pillars to hold tension, such as a grantee thinking about how they might approach storytelling in an application or how they’ll allocate funds that are never enough. Staff hold tension of doing really complex work, so what does care look like for folks entering philanthropy through whichever door, such as movement work?

Care really has to become a part of how we approach what it means to resource and to be resourced across the board. I don’t think people credit the notion of care concretely enough, but we’re talking about the sustainability of, for example, our staff, but also for the projects, programs and organizations that they fund and the impact that that we’ll get to have. We insist on operationalizing and centering care, and also raising the bar on its meaning.

Capitalism does not give a damn about care. We press our communities of funders to think about what that means, act on it, and give room to it, because this tension-holding and bridge-building work is essential. It could look different, and hopefully it will in the near future, towards liberation and more equity. But as we’re doing this, we deserve to be supported, replenished, and have room to rest.  

MARS.: Mo beautifully summed it up. I really want to encourage people to think about what it means to move courageously. When we’re talking about funding our movements and redistributing wealth, what’s really on the line for our movement? What’s the most dangerous thing you can do without it being too dangerous? Move boldly, courageously and bravely!

Michelle Dominguez (they/them/elle) is a Queer and Nonbinary professional born to Colombian immigrants on Tongva Land, known post-colonization as Los Angeles. After a decade-long career in higher education student affairs, they switched to the nonprofit and philanthropy sector in 2021. What brings Michelle joy? Quality time with loved ones, mindfulness, dark chocolate and Disney magic.

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