This past week, I had the honor of participating in the Gender, Childhood & Youth on the Move conference in Tijuana, which brought together over 75 nonprofit organizations from Central America, Mexico and the United States, in order to share experiences and strengthen partnerships in support of the most vulnerable communities currently fleeing persecution, violence and poverty in this region.
Beyond the learning and relationship-building, it became clear that an important outcome of this convening would be to ‘visibilize the invisible’ – uplift and learn from the women, youth, indigenous, and LGBT populations whose voices are often silenced by the systems and policies that are directly impacting them.
As Francis Valdivia from Asociación Madres de Abril, an advocacy group in Nicaragua said (translated), ‘today, youth are being the uncomfortable voices in the region’. This is evidenced by the mass protests led by students and young people in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala demanding change in their corrupt, authoritarian governments; and it is evident in the mass exoduses of young families, adolescents, and victims of gender persecution from these countries, as well as dozens of others around the world. Through these brave acts of resistance, we see citizens exercising their basic freedoms of identity, opportunity, and movement. Meanwhile, Central American governments continue to act with impunity, and immigration policies in the United States and Mexico continue to be designed and implemented without consultation or input from the people most impacted by them.
In the ‘Psychosocial services for migrant populations with a focus on gender’ Workshop, facilitators from Sin Fronteras IAP (Mexico) and Equipo de Estudios y Acion Psicosocial (Guatemala) highlighted that the crucial first step in addressing a vulnerable or victimized person’s needs is to simply ask, ‘what do you want? What are your desires?’ Not surprisingly, this approach corresponds with the basic theories of conflict negotiation and successful negotiation. Why then are decision-makers in the immigration policy space so fearful of asking immigrants what they desire? And what they need to get there?
Fortunately, a robust community of civil society organizations is asking these questions and has responded to the needs of increasing numbers of migrants throughout the region. From the drought-belt of Honduras, to the highlands of Guatemala, to Tapachula and up through Mexico to the borderlands, hundreds of nonprofit organizations are providing shelter, food, medical treatment, legal services, and human rights defense for the hundreds of thousands of people in transit, helping them to navigate their uncertain futures. Anecdotally we know that dozens of institutional funders are responding to these critical needs, but often in the form of ad-hoc, emergency assistance particularly for international work. And a recent report by the NCRP (‘State of Foundation Funding for the Pro-Immigrant Movement: A Movement Project Brief’) highlights that funding for immigrant communities (even just in the US) is insufficient to meet current challenges and is not being directed to those most engaged with or representative of immigrant populations.
Perhaps then it should be no surprise that throughout the conference’s plenary sessions and workshops, Francia and her colleagues sent a clear message: we must create spaces for the communities to be involved in the systems, decisions, and programs that are impacting them. I think this is a valuable message for philanthropy as we consider our role in migration/refuggee efforts or any community development effort. First, funders can identify existing spaces for more diverse voices and experiences to be included. If these spaces don’t exist, funders can create them by organizing convenings between nonprofits and other funders or policymakers.
Of course, philanthropy must commit to listening and responding to the needs and goals that are shared in these spaces rather than taking a prescriptive approach. This may require deviating from institutional programmatic goals or existing approaches. This may take time, but if the ultimate goal is to ‘visibilize’ the invisible, it is a necessary process of change for our sector. Fortunately, the third lesson I took from these young, inspiring leaders was ‘to practice patience’; patience with one another, patience with institutions (be they nonprofits, informal community groups, or even governments), and patience with the process. If philanthropy seeks long-term change anywhere, we must acknowledge and honor the ‘uncomfortable truths’ that are being unveiled by resilient youth, women, and marginalized communities today.
If this convening was any indication, actively engaging with those who are most ‘invisible’ should not be approached with trepidation or fear of criticism. The inclusive, and respectful energy throughout the conference sessions offered a welcoming environment that surely would be extended to decisionmakers who demonstrate a genuine intent to listen, learn and respond constructively. Consider this an open invitation!
Eliza Brennan is Senior Program Officer: Education/Migration, International Community Foundation
Many kudos and thanks to the convening hosts and our co-sponsors: Global Fund for Children, Fondo Semillas, Fondo Centroamericana de Mujeres, Seattle International Foundation, and local nonprofit host Espacio Migrante. The International Community Foundation is proud to be your partners. For more information about ICF and our Border Fund, contact: Eliza Brennan, Senior Program Officer: Education/Migration at email@example.com.