Mark Zuckerberg has committed $45 million from his philanthropy organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), to help curb mass incarceration and improve affordable housing options in American urban centers, according to a report today from Vice News. The issues mark some of the first causes Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have targeted through political means, including donations and ballot support, beyond Facebook’s role in the immigration debate with the industry lobbying group FWD.us.
For now, the money is mainly being used to help pass ballot measures and lobby with local officials around the country, in areas like reforming sentencing laws and preventing those under the age of 18 from being charged as adults. In the housing sector, CZI is investing heavily in reforming Facebook’s home state of California — specifically the Bay Area, where the company’s headquarters is located.
Facebook and other tech companies have come under fire in recent years for turning the Bay Area housing market upside down, to the point where not even their cafeteria workers, security guards, and other maintenance staff can afford to live on or anywhere near the peninsula. CZI is now supporting supporting academic research at UC Berkeley, funding startups looking at affordable housing solutions, and backing local ballot measures and state housing packages.
While the housing crisis more visibly affects Facebook, Zuckerberg and Chan, who effectively runs day-to-day operations for CZI, became interested in the subject of incarceration due to a number of outreach efforts they’ve engaged in over the years. One included visiting a San Quentin prison in 2015, while another involved meeting a death row inmate in February of this year. CZI tells Vice the couple has been reading more about the systemic racism baked into the US criminal justice process, including works like Michelle Alexander’s landmark book The New Jim Crow. In July, CZI announced it was giving $6.5 million to a California nonprofit building a public database that measures the efficacy and fairness of a state’s county-level court systems.
For Zuckerberg, whose trips to remote American locales and meetings with small-town residents have been labeled by some as political campaigning practice, these investments represent a grander vision for using his and Chan’s multibillion-dollar fortune. “I think that the sort of political scuttlebutt has been kind of silly both in terms of what we’re doing and Mark’s travel,” David Plouffe, former Obama campaign head and current CZI political manager, told Vice in an interview. “You can’t manage a fictitious campaign.” (Of course, it’s not in Facebook’s best interest to suggest to investors that its chief executive and founder has plans to jump ship for a shot at the White House.)
Though it’s clear CZI hasn’t been quite as vocal about these more grassroots and tangible investments, the move toward affordable housing and mass incarceration marks a noticeable shift in the philanthropy organizations far-reaching ambitions. Until now, general knowledge about CZI has centered on its war chest — at more than $60 billion, according to Facebook’s current stock price, the initiative would exceed even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in funding — and its lofty goals.
Prior to today, those goals have included $3 billion toward trying to “cure all diseases” and a series of a smaller investments in everything from free eye exams to funding the development of a $1 microscope. Now, CZI appears to be gearing up to spend more and more of Zuckerberg’s fortune, which is increasingly being converted from Facebook stock into CZI funds. The good news: it’s not all far-off dreams and seemingly impossibly milestones. Some goals, like providing affordable housing and lowering the incarceration rate among black Americans, are closer at hand, with the right resources and political support behind them.