Anne Wendel, Win McCormack, Sarah Pillsbury, and Larry Janss founded the Liberty Hill Foundation in 1976 to promote left-of-center “social change” in Los Angeles County, California. Although the foundation has always restricted its activities to Los Angeles County, many of its programs have national implications.
The foundation has close ties to the administration of Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti (D). Liberty Hill’s president, Shane Goldsmith, has been a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission since 2016, and had been an adviser to Garcetti on gay and lesbian issues when he was a member of the Los Angeles City Council. 1 Mayor Garcetti’s wife, Amy Wakeland served on the Liberty Hill board. In addition, while Garcetti was on the Los Angeles City Council, according to Kevin Roderick in Los Angeles Magazine, he and Wakeland set up two funds at Liberty Hill “to steer contributions to progressive causes.” 2
“Unlike most foundations, Liberty Hill doesn’t fund social services, such as after-school programs or health clinics,” Phuong Ly noted in a profile of the foundation in Stanford Social Innovation Review. “With the motto, ‘Change, Not Charity,’ the foundation focuses on community organizing.” 3
The four founders of Liberty Hill Foundation, Anne Wendel, Win McCormack, Sarah Pillsbury, and Larry Janss, all had inherited wealth. The foundation’s name comes from a stage erected by workers striking at the Port of Los Angeles in 1923. Author and radical socialist activist Upton Sinclair was arrested on that stage, and the Foundation has named its annual awards dinner in Sinclair’s honor. 4
Of the four founders, Sarah Pillsbury, an heir to the Minnesota flour fortune, is most closely identified with Liberty Hill. In 2001, she told Los Angeles Magazine she was raised Republican but was radicalized after she attended the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami. 5 In a 2017 interview with Robert Scheer, Pillsbury said that Liberty Hill “really began to get people’s attention” as a result of the 1992 riots after the death of Rodney King. She added it was not Liberty Hill’s goal to “become more mainstream” but to move “the stream” of funding to the left. 6
In addition to its activist founders, Liberty Hill Foundation receives outside contributions, allowing it to be organized as a public charity rather than a private foundation. In a 2017 interview with Robert Scheer, Pillsbury said that after 1992 Liberty Hill started “working in conjunction”7 with larger organizations, including the Irvine Foundation, the California Endowment, and Comic Relief.
Liberty Hill gets a steady stream of donations from foundations and unions. Contributors to the 2020 Upton Sinclair Awards Dinner included the Annenberg, Attias Family, Philip and Muriel Berman, David Bohnert, California Community, California Wellness, and Weingart Foundations; the Service Employees International Union; and Hollywood figures J.J. Abrams and Steven Zallian. 8
Other contributors to Liberty Hill include the Hewlett Foundation and the Obama Foundation, which says “for more than 40 years, Liberty Hill has been Los Angeles’s epicenter for social justice.” 9
In 2012, Kresge Foundation president Rip Rapson said that Kresge not only donated to Liberty Hill, but also planned to use its programs on fighting inner-city pollution to create similar programs in Texas. 10
Left-leaning private foundations give to Liberty Hill Foundation in part because it lets them test the waters to see if political-advocacy grantmaking can be done without violating IRS regulations on foundations funding certain political activities. In 2002, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Michael Anft reported on Liberty Hill’s support of a referendum in Santa Monica, California that required a citywide minimum wage of $10.50 an hour, which was the second “living wage” measure nationally not limited to governments or government contractors. Foundations, Anft reported, donated to Liberty Hill for this campaign, and then Liberty Hill funded groups supporting the higher wage. “That indirect way of making grants, Anft reported, “might insulate large foundations from critics, such as employers who may be subject to higher-wage laws, who complain that foundations are giving money directly to political groups.” 11
In 2004 Liberty Hill started the “Liberty Vote” campaign to increase voting among the poor. Liberty Hill board member Jon Weiner said that the foundation was going to commit $1.3 million to voter registration drives over a three-year period and that “fear of violating IRS rules is based more on ignorance than on the law itself.” 12
In 2008 Liberty Hill president Kafi Blumenfield said that in 2004 donors to the foundation were “terrified” that get out the vote drives for the poor would jeopardize their tax exemptions but that in 2008 about twice as many donors were funding these campaigns than they did four years before. 13
Liberty Hill has continued its voter-registration efforts under the brand name Liberty Vote! The program promised to give grants to Los Angeles-based 501(c)(4) lobbying and electoral advocacy programs to “engage, organize, and organize voters,” provide support for ballot initiatives, and hold “educational forums to discuss electoral organizing strategies.” Groups receiving grants include Community Coalition Action Fund, LA Voice Action, and Long Beach Rising. 14
The foundation continues a decades-long fight against oil drilling in Los Angeles County. In 2013, the group successfully stopped an oil well operating near the University of Southern California. Liberty Hill environmental health and justice manager Daniela Simunovic told the Orange County Register that oil drilling was “an incompatible land use that shouldn’t be happening next to homes and schools.” 15
In 2017, a Liberty Hill grant to the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance partially paid for 100,000 door hangers the group distributed to homes warning that they could be subject to a hydrofluoric acid gas attack if the oil refinery in Torrance was damaged by an earthquake or explosion. 16
In 2018, Liberty Hill allied with 29 other left-wing and environmentalist organizations, including the California Nurses Association, Environment California, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace USA, urging a halt to oil production in California as a way of dealing with climate change. 17
Black Lives Matter
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 has enabled Liberty Hill to forge alliances with Los Angeles sports teams. In September 2020, the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation and pitcher Clayton Kershaw donated $300,000 to Liberty Hill for support of “grassroots social justice organizations,” including Children’s Defense Fund-California, Inner City Struggle, and the LA Youth Uprising Coalition dedicated to ending “youth incarceration as we know it.” 18 The Dodgers promised to hold “in-person events” with Liberty Hill after the pandemic. 19 The Los Angeles Chargers donated game-worn jerseys to Liberty Hill for a fundraising auction. 20
California Black Freedom Fund
Liberty Hill Foundation was one of the original donors to fund the creation of the California Black Freedom Fund (CBFF) at the end of 2020. The CBFF is a left-of-center grantmaking organization that funds California-based groups that seek to eliminate what it perceives as systemic racism. It used funding from the original donors to provide grants that went towards advocacy for targeted redistricting, so-called racial equity, and the firing of who it determines are racist police officers. 21
- “Shane Murphy Goldsmith,” profile on the Los Angeles Police Commission website, http://lapdonline.org/police_commission/comm_bio_view/61355 (accessed September 30, 2020).
- Kevin Roderick, “Thinking Big,” Los Angeles Magazine, March 2006. Garcetti and Wakeland also donate through the Roth Family Foundation, created by Garcetti’s grandparents. For a profile of Wakeland’s political views, see Michael Finnegan and James Rainey, “Mayor-Elect’s Partner in Life,” Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2013.
- Phuong Ly, “Mobilizing The Masses,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2012.
- “Liberty Hill’s First Decade,” https://www.libertyhill.org/liberty-hills-first-decade-1976-1985 (accessed October 1, 2020).
- Bobbi Murray, “Cause That Refreshes,” Los Angeles Magazine, August 2001.
- “Sarah Pillsbury On The Intersection of Hollywood and Activism,” interview on KCRW, August 18, 2017, https://www.truthdig.com/articles/sarah-pillsbury-intersection-hollywood-activism-audio/ (accessed October 1, 2020)
- “Sarah Pillsbury On The Intersection of Hollywood And Activism,” https://www.truthdig.com/articles/sarah-pillsbury-intersection-hollywood-activism-audio/ (accessed October 1, 2020).
- “2020 Upton Sinclair Award Dinner,” https://www.libertyhill.org/upton-sinclair-awards (accessed October 1, 2020)
- “Liberty Hill Foundation,” https://www.obama.org/mbka2/our-work/communities/liberty-hill-foundation/ (accessed October 1, 2020)
- Phoung Ly, “Mobilizing The Masses.”
- Michael Anft, “Pay-Raise Activists Buoyed By Growing Support From Big Foundations,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 2, 2002.
- Jon Wiener, “LA’s Liberty Vote,” The Nation, October 18, 2004.
- Suzanne Perry, “Race to November,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 26, 2008.
- “Liberty Vote! Uniting Grassroots Hustle and Electoral Muscle Across L.A.” https://www.libertyhill.org/libertyvote (accessed October 2, 2020).
- Aaron Orlowski, “Housing Tracts Built On Or Near Legacy Oil Drilling Fields Can Lead to Tension,” Orange County Register, April 3, 2016.
- Nick Green, “Torrance Group Launches Public Outreach Over Refinery Dangers,” Torrance Daily Breeze, November 2, 2017.
- “Consumer Watchdog: 30 Public Interest Groups Urge Governor Brown to Freeze State Oil Drilling,” press release from Environment California, January 23, 2018.
- “The Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation and Ellen and Clayton Kershaw Commit More Than $300,000 to Racial and Social Justice, “ press release from Liberty Hill Foundation, September 24, 2020, https://www.libertyhill.org/2020/09/24/the-los-angeles-dodgers-foundation-and-ellen-and-clayton-kershaw-commit-more-300000-to (accessed October 2, 2020).
- Jorge Castillo and Jack Harris, “Making A Statement Before His First Game,” Los Angeles Times, July 26, 2020.
- “Chargers Game-Worn Jerseys Now Available for Auction With 100% Proceeds Liberty Hill,” press release from Liberty Hill Foundation, September 24, 2020 https://www.libertyhill.org/2020/09/24/chargers-game-worn-jerseys-now-available-for-auction-with-100-proceeds-benefitting (accessed October 2, 2020).
- California Black Freedom Fund, February 4, 2021. https://cablackfreedomfund.org/#partners.