The Minnesota Freedom Fund Crisis: $30 Million and an Arbitration

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In the weeks following the killing of George Floyd, tens of millions of dollars have flowed into small nonprofit organizations in Minnesota. Now many donors would like to know how those funds will be distributed.

The Minnesota Freedom Fund, a bail fund that earlier this month only had one full-time employee, has raised more than $30 million alone since Mr. Floyd’s death on May 25. Its name became ubiquitous on social media as activists and celebrities posted screenshots of their donations to the fund and implored their followers to match them. (Bail funds raise money to release those who have been jailed, so that they can await trial freely.)

On Monday, the fund announced that it had contributed “well over” $200,000 to bail payments in the weeks since the protests began. That revelation followed an open letter addressed to two other organizations that had seen a surge in donations, Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block, asking that the nonprofits be more transparent about fund-raising and the allocation of funds.

After the Minnesota Freedom Fund shared the $200,000 figure, several commenters on Twitter expressed disappointment that such a small portion of the donations had been distributed. Some also noted that the fund’s board, as it had been depicted on its website, appeared to be composed entirely of white people. (The web page that lists the organization’s staff has been removed at least twice this month as the board’s membership has shifted.)

Any organization as small as the Minnesota Freedom Fund — which is run by fewer than 10 people, including its board — might have struggled under the weight of such a sudden influx of funding. “Not sure how any small organization would spend $35 million in a matter of 2 weeks when they’ve never dealt with such a large amount of money in their lives,” tweeted Noname, a rapper who helped signal-boost the fund in late May.

But the organization was in a particularly difficult position when it found itself in the spotlight. It had already been grappling with questions about the leadership of its only full-time employee, Tonja Honsey.

In April, a page called “Tonja Honsey – Native Rachel Dolezal” appeared on Facebook. Its administrators alleged that Ms. Honsey, the fund’s executive director, was lying about her identity as an Indigenous woman, comparing her to Ms. Dolezal, the former Spokane, Wash., N.A.A.C.P. president who posed as a black woman for years.

The page’s administrators called for Ms. Honsey to step down from all her organizing roles. The administrators said they would not identify themselves to The New York Times because of concerns about their own safety, but said they were two native women local to Minneapolis.

Ms. Honsey said in an email that she was “not able to talk to media at this point,” but that the Facebook page was “untrue.” She pointed to posts on the page made by her mother, who wrote that her daughter was Indigenous “on her grandfather’s side.”

The Facebook page also carried a message that Ms. Honsey had been ousted from the organization for issues related to those raised by the page.

Ms. Honsey said she could neither confirm nor deny whether she was still involved with the fund.

“Because we are in active arbitration, I am unable to comment about that,” said the Minnesota Freedom Fund’s current board president, Octavia Smith.

Ms. Smith and her predecessor, Greg Lewin, who was the board’s president until early June, said that turmoil within the organization had detracted from its overall mission.

“Our capacity is taxed for sure,” Ms. Smith said. ”Our capacity is definitely taxed.” She added that before the nationwide protests, “our staff was only a staff of one.”

Mr. Lewin said that the internal issues — which he said he was unable to comment on in detail — did not inhibit the organization’s ability to get people out of jail, but that it did “hamper our ability to move and collaborate in the community.”

Mr. Lewin said that the organization typically identifies those in need of bail money with the help of local public defenders, and that its process depended on lawyers’ involvement. That prevented the disruption related to Ms. Honsey from directly affecting the organization’s work, he said, but it also made for a more limited process than many online might have expected.

“Being at the reins of an organization getting this level of attention and resources is a different ballgame,” he said. “That includes public scrutiny. People should be mad, stay mad, stay impatient for change. I’m not sure we’re the perfect vehicle for that impatience but we get it.”

Mr. Lewin added that the criticism could be frustrating. “The left is exceedingly good at eating its own,” he said.

“People think because we got money we are now part of the system,” he continued. “It’s like, ‘No.’”

The Minnesota Freedom Fund was founded in 2016 by Simon Cecil, then a master’s student at the University of Minnesota. Ms. Smith, a friend of Mr. Cecil’s, was the fund’s first employee, and became its board president in 2018. In 2019, Ms. Smith stepped away from her regular work with the fund but remained listed on its website as “emeritus board president.”

On May 31, though, she briefly cut ties with the organization altogether.

“I had some disagreements around leadership,” she said. “That is probably all I’m able to say.”

Ms. Smith, who is black, was asked to come back to the board “in order to steward a just transition of resources and power,” she said. On June 11, she was reinstated as the board’s president.

“Our board has historically been predominantly white, and we recognize that that’s a problem,” she said.

The fund said on Twitter that it had paid “all protest-related bail that has come our way.” Mr. Lewin said that it had bailed out 40 people in June. Ms. Smith said that most other people who were detained in Minnesota had been cited and released, and were not eligible for bail.

“We would love to use that $30 million and get people out tomorrow,” she said. “But the reality is that the systems that are put in place to prevent that, to prevent black and brown people from having freedom, to prevent people who are poor from having freedom, still exist. So we’re still navigating a toxic system. While also trying to abolish it.”

Ms. Smith said she understood why people were upset.

“We’re scaling up to meet the needs of the community while also trying to scale our resources to meet the needs of those who are directly impacted by the harms of mass incarceration,” she said. “That requires deep care and intention. We’re moving. That is all I can say, that we’re moving.”

For the time being, the fund is encouraging donations to other organizations.

Ezra Marcus contributed reporting.

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