Building Resilience through Participation with a New Global Fund

Girls, young womxn*, trans and gender non-conforming youth  are living on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis in many ways, both direct and indirect, including increased caregiving burdens, horrific and ever rising rates of domestic violence, soaring unemployment and disrupted food supply chains, all under the auspices of what many see as an acceleration of state sponsored human rights violations under the cover of lock-down.

Yet we can also understand the pandemic as just one moment in a continuum of crises that form the backdrop and foreground of girls and young womxns’ lives across time and place. In this context, young feminist activists are showing up in this moment with the strategies, the creativity, the courage, and the resilience they bring to all their organizing. The Global Resilience Fund, a pop-up partnership between 22 funder organizations housed at and facilitated by Purposeful, exists to resource their resistance at speed and scale.

The fund is supporting groups, collectives, and organizations that are led by girls, young womxn, and trans and non-binary young people under the age of 30. From late May to early August this year, there were over 1000 applications submitted. By the end of the Round 2 disbursement period (there will be three rounds in total) the fund will have distributed grants to 129 groups from 67 counties. Twenty of these groups are led by 19-25 year-olds and 29 led by those under 19 years-old.

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Despite being directly impacted by and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, these groups are historically and continually underfunded, they are often unregistered organizations and experience a range of barriers in accessing funding. There are a number of reasons why they cannot be officially registered including the age of the activists (“too young”) or the work that they are carrying out, for example, crackdowns on organizing of a certain type or closing space for civil society.

But their work is cutting edge and pushes against systemic and normalized discrimination; their tactics are political and grounded in their lived realities and the injustices they directly face. These include an organization to support girls kidnapped and trafficked by Al-Shabaab terror group in Kenya, a number of groups supporting girls with disabilities in settings where they are extremely isolated —  such as in Nicaragua and DRC — organizations led by and supporting transgender communities in Benin, Ivory Coast and Uganda, and groups working with Roma communities in Serbia, Israel, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Centering the Leadership, Wisdom and Strategies of Young Feminist Activists

Across the world, mutual aid organizing is gaining traction among new and diverse audiences, and even in formalized institutions. Whether they know it or not, these communities are using the very organizing tools that girl activists and their feminist allies have been using for decades in their struggles for justice. Indeed, it has never been more important to learn from the leadership of the girls and young womxn who live through lockdowns, political uncertainty, and economic instability every day.  They are the ones we have been waiting for and they’ve been here all along.

Rather than becoming distracted by flashy technology, or formal funding, or government sanctioned solutions, now is the time to invest in young feminist leadership. As justice funders, we firmly push back against the usual noise around programmatic innovation and technocratic solutions in this crisis and beyond. We see these as typical ways to obscure the powerful work — led by girls and young womxn and their older feminist allies — that is already creating change. The Global Resilience Fund provides rapid resources in response to this moment, acknowledging the increased vulnerability these groups face but, crucially, it does this through flexible core grants to support the powerful organizing work that girls and young womxn are already doing every day to build worlds that are safe and healthy and free.

Participatory Funding: Putting Power into the Hands of Young Feminists

As activist funders, we know that we cannot remake the world unless those who live every day with injustice have access to the resources to define their own roadmaps to liberation. In many ways, philanthropy is predicated on the systems of harm that we are working to dismantle, with wealth generated through extractive capitalist practice that exploits the very communities philanthropy then seeks to support.  One (very small) way to redress these power imbalances is to put decision-making power into the hands of those doing the work. As well as offering a deeper connection to local contexts and movements, activist decision makers are able to read proposals and engage in collective decision making with a degree of nuance, expertise, intellectual rigor, love, and solidarity that is rarely seen at the traditional philanthropic decision making table.

Through participatory processes, we are funding groups who would likely have been shut out or overlooked, and yet who are often doing the most critical, transformational work. Beyond the function of grantmaking, we believe in ceding decision making power because we trust girls, young womxn, trans and non-binary youth. We trust their leadership, their instincts, and their deep and embodied understanding of this work. Indeed, who else should be making decisions about resourcing young feminist collectives if not them?

A Feminist and Participatory Approach

The participatory decision-making process we have developed for grantmaking for The Global Resilience Fund centers on a peer-led panel made up of young womxn, girls, and nonbinary activists coming from all corners of the world between the ages of 14 and 35. The panelists review applications and score proposals using a basic tool developed with a range of examples of participatory funding score guides and in consultation with activists. After this, the panelists come together regionally to review the results of the collective scoring and debate the regional realities together to form a final list of applications to be funded by that regional panel. Panelists are compensated for their work in each round, and we have also engaged panelists in translation tasks (the fund is administered in English, French, Spanish and Arabic), and translators are also paid.

Our first panel was recently held in June 2020, kicking off a process that is highly participatory in many ways, with partners sharing advice, co-creating the founding concept note and criteria of the fund, and giving advice on the process and planned collective learning sessions. Additionally, different partners are taking up the roles that make sense for them locally, in many cases seeking to support groups locally, directly driving the nature of participation and ensuring the response is embedded in local contexts and movements.

The panel was created through a process of drawing on the networks of Fund partners. Activists were asked to then complete a very short expression of interest with a few simple questions. The expression of interest was available in a multi-language online form, and as a downloadable document compatible with software used by those living with visual impairments.  The various partners and the team here at Purposeful reviewed and made decisions about who to invite to the panel by taking geographic, identity, issue, and movement diversity into account. The intentionally chosen board reflects the vast diversity of girls, young womxn, and trans youths’ identities. It includes Black members, members of color, members with disabilities, and members with a range of gender expressions and sexualities, religions, and ideologies. Already we are seeing powerful opportunities for panelists to connect and build relationships over the course of their involvement of the Fund. That is some of the magic of peer-led and participatory processes that cut across themes, movements, ages, and geography.

A Collective Process

In many ways, this unprecedented moment calls for a collective response that reaches across borders, movements, and issues areas.  Each of the Global Resilience Fund partners are supporting emergency and recovery work in their own contexts and through their own frames, many with their complementary local or regional funding windows. By pooling resources and expertise, we can reach new groups at a speed, scale, and depth we could not do alone while holding all the personal and organizational complexities of this pandemic. A brilliant example is the leadership of the Disability Rights Fund in the design and execution of our collective work. Thanks to their expertise, commitments, and mobilizing power we are reaching groups working at the intersection of disability rights, girls’ rights, and a range of other justice struggles including LGBTQIA2S movements; groups that are so often shut out from even applying for international funding opportunities like this.

The fund is in its essence collaborative and aims to embody the principles of feminist solidarity, co-created with different funders including womxn’s funds, international organizations and private foundations, leveraging and leaning into our collective strengths. As a temporary fund, being embedded in an existing ecosystem of funders committed to doing this work is part of its DNA.  It aims to be complementary to longer term funding mechanisms, as well as ongoing emergency funders such as the Urgent Action Funds for WHRs, moving core funding to young feminist activists for a finite period to respond to additional need and to ensure resources flow quickly to young feminists activists doing this work.

Beyond this moment, it seems essential that we learn and document what it takes to build and hold collective funding processes during times of crisis. Knowing what we do about the world, it is all too clear that we will be called on to do this again. As a group of funders, we are committed to learning and experimenting with what that might mean over the coming years.

As funders committed to justice and freedom for all girls and young womxn everywhere, we have an opportunity not only to respond to the needs of young feminists, but also to align our processes in complementary ways to grassroots organizing. This means applying an intersectional feminist lens, to learn across borders, issues, and identities, to center practices of collectivity, reciprocity, and transnational solidarity.  We also have an opportunity to connect to a range of justice movements where we know girls and young womxn are often organizing, but where their age, patriarchal norms, or other social factors keep them invisible. Supporting girls and young womxn with critical resources — especially young activists organizing outside of programmatic frames — is a first step in building a world where their critical contributions are seen and celebrated, in and across movements.

*The term womxn, used by some, especially in the intersectional feminist movement, is one of several alternative spellings of the English word woman. It is used by some feminists to avoid the spelling woman (which contains and derives from the word man), and to foreground transgender, nonbinary, and other marginalized women