When U.S. attorney Rachael Rollins granted $6,000 to nonprofit Violence In Boston in order to provide a retreat for at-risk youth, she hardly could have imagined that the money would go towards a meal at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a fresh set of nails and an exotic Maryland getaway, among other things. Yet, on Tuesday, the nonprofit’s founder Monica Cannon-Grant was federally charged with embezzling the retreat funds, defrauding donors and illegally collecting pandemic unemployment benefits.
In 2017, Grant founded Violence In Boston in order to serve underserved communities by addressing the violence, trauma and social injustices they face. By 2020, the organization had expanded greatly, receiving more than $50,000 in donations in a single month alone. Grant’s true rise to fame, however, came later that year when she organized a protest in Franklin Park after the murder of George Floyd.
In the months that followed, Grant won local acclaim as a prominent Black Lives Matter activist and her organization continued to flourish. She was even able to start paying herself $2,788 a week in October of 2020, although she neglected to mention this to the IRS.
The news that much of Violence In Boston’s donations, topping over $1 million, was directed into Grant’s personal expenses is shocking. Was a Walmart trip really worth breaking people’s trust, capitalizing off their good intentions and directing funds away from the communities that need it the most? Grant has proclaimed her innocence, but the verdict has been reached, and all the Bostons from Herald to Globe have unleashed their scathing reportage. The public’s trust will never be the same.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time the Black Lives Matter movement has been tainted by fraud. Forget acrylics — in 2020 Sir Maejor Page used funds from his organization Black Lives Matter of Greater Atlanta to finance new suits and five-star hotels. Additionally, earlier this year a report revealed that the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation had over $60 million but no one to control the money.
But before it was Black Lives Matter-turned-vacation funds being promoted on social media, it was a sensational video exposing Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. The 2012 video by nonprofit Invisible Children gained well over 100 million views, collected $5 million during the first days of its campaign and made thousands of teenagers realize that “starving African children” wasn’t just a comedic bit on Means Girls.
However, it didn’t actually lead to much change. It was a classic case of “clicktivism” — viewers felt they were doing something by donating to Invisible Children, when in reality only a third of their donations directly served Ugandans and Kony remained at large for years to come.
Whether a painfully under-nuanced take on a foreign conflict or embezzled funds meant for underserved Bostonians, what underscores these social justice scandals is the immediacy that has penetrated activism. In a world where everyone’s posting black squares on Tuesday and then telling everyone to delete them on Wednesday, there is a vast amount of pressure to respond to social movements.
Of course, this environment can be a catalyst for change. However, when people are pressed for time and resources, the easiest option is to simply donate to the first PayPal username that pops up on your Instagram story — regardless of the organization’s credibility — and feel you’ve done your part.
But individuals aren’t the only ones to blame. The Cannon-Grant scandal has revealed the stunning lack of structure and accountability in some of the organizations we have come to trust. It also doesn’t help that every next person with a loudspeaker and an ambiguously named nonprofit is being turned into Mother Teresa by news media outlets.
Cannon-Grant, for example, was named Bostonian of the Year and Beantown’s “best social justice advocate.” Of course, the important work her organization has done should be recognized, but the media’s tendency to glamorize individuals feels tone-deaf when considering the serious, systemic issues that led to their celebrity. It also makes it hard to separate the successes of the organization from the failures of its Gandhi-like leaders when scandals occur.
Violence In Boston, and other nonprofits like it, stand on shaky ground in terms of credibility. How can I be sure my $100 is going to help a family in need and not the organizer’s Shake Shack orders? The saddest part is that this lack of trust ultimately hurts social justice movements themselves, and the people who stand to gain the most from them.
In the comment section under an article on Cannon-Grant, one reader wrote, “Whenever you hear nonprofit for youth services you know it’s a scam.” What was for Cannon-Grant a few thousand in unreported income is now being used to discredit nonprofits and perhaps even the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole.
Despite Cannon-Grant’s quick transition from Bostonian of the Year to scammer of the season, the realities of the injustices she sought to tackle haven’t changed. Social media and performative activism has called into question the authenticity of many social justice movements. However, we can’t let scandals such as Cannon-Grant’s deter us from working for change. Perhaps now, that change includes making nonprofits more structured and transparent about their funds.
As long as activism efforts are led by human beings they will never be perfect. Nevertheless, we cannot let this detract from the importance of the messages they represent.