Healing is the work


Dennis van Wanrooij


Religious conservatism, closing spaces for civil society, the global gag rule and pushbacks against ‘gender ideology’. These are some – but certainly not all – of the barriers experienced by LGBTI people and sex workers in affirming their human rights and achieving a sense of justice. Globally, these issues are rapidly manifesting in the form of an increasing wave of authoritarian governmental regimes, while simultaneously, there is a group of dedicated philanthropists committed to supporting the alternatives. On 8 June 2019 a group of funders attending the Changing Faces Changing Spaces conference in Kenya decided to discuss and coordinate a joint strategy to better sustain the LGBTI and sex worker movements. The Global Philanthropy Project facilitated the pre-donor conference, which was attended by over 80 donors with a strong US and European presence.

It turned out to be an interesting conversation about strategies to destabilize the status quo of rising global conservatism and create a joint plan for systemic change. However, the overall conclusion of the day was that another frame to the funding we provide needs to flourish alongside the bravery of activists who are at the forefront of social justice struggles.

Movements are made by individuals; by human beings who have basic needs and rights. In the case of self-led LGBTI and sex worker movements, these are often made up of individuals who have experienced and carry – often multiple forms of – traumas related to gender-based violence, stigma, discrimination, marginalization, among other forms of social exclusion. These activists are the very actors of social change – and who else could they be? They push for decriminalization in countries where their lives are not considered possible. They take risks on behalf of their communities, and often experience disproportionate levels of violence and retaliation directed at them. For instance, while writing this piece two partners of COC Nederland attending the conference cannot go back to their homes safely after the event. They are being forced to relocate after giving interviews to national media channels in an African country that COC Nederland funds.

In this context, funders have a responsibility to not only take risks, but also to support these activists beyond their own donor agendas and priorities. And address the very questions – how do we center the collective well-being and acknowledge self-and-collective-care practices into our funding? How do we ensure that the people behind the work have not only safety but also well-being and care? How do we best fund interventions at the particular intersections where trauma is reinforced, that is, the coming together of gender, race and class? Erin Williams, the Program Director, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights at the Global Fund for Women UK asked, not less importantly: ‘How do we fund pleasure and joy?’ as a radical approach to well-being often not acknowledged in patriarchal societies.

These questions kept funders busy for a full day, and perhaps more days would have been necessary to come up with concrete answers to these difficult yet critical questions. Still, as someone who’s been following the philanthropic conversations over the years, I see change in the mindset of funders as we start understanding our role beyond the money that we give. We as a community of donors, are ourselves actors of change, and influence social movements dynamics, strategies and their ability to resist – or not – challenging environments. We have as much power as we have responsibility over the things we fund.

Another important conclusion of this conversation was – funders need to coordinate their work better, we need to support each other in the development and implementation of our, sometimes similar, programmes and create an infrastructure of relevant funding that enables not only social change but also safety and well-being of the activists who do the actual work. Funders need to complement each other, do what others cannot do – filling the gaps where needed and relevant for partner organisations.

As a member of the LGBTI community and a former sex worker, I believe we – peer funders – can do even more to challenge traditional donor-grantee relationships. I feel it’s my duty to listen to the activists. Active listening creates funding embedded in the principles of solidarity, sympathy and empathy. I call everyone to learn from their grantee-partners, and not to push them for unsolicited retreats or other donor-driven practices. We must ask them in what ways to best support them to improve their well-being while doing important work.

‘Healing is the work. Healing justice is not something extra. (…) We have this win, but how are we living?’ – by a funder present at the meeting.

I learned that simple things are healing. Therapy sessions for activists, retreats, activist conferences and gatherings, paying fair salaries to activists, and promoting safe spaces. All these things can be healing. But also, a trust relationship between funders and activists can be healing. And to build that momentum, we need to start undoing the work we funders do. We need to move away from funding restrictions, reporting and programmatic burden, to true partnerships where activists are truly listened to, respected and valued for the work they do.

‘Enable activists to develop skills that are useful beyond activism. This becomes an issue when existing leaders are holding on to power because they have no life perspective beyond activism and that doesn’t allow movements to grow.’– by Justus Eisfeld, Program Development Manager at HIVOS.

Finally, if we want to truly encourage sustainable social justice movements, we must be ready to invest in new leaders while valuing the work of the older ones. It’s time to fund the quality of lives of activists in order to avoid toxic dynamics and burnout which stifle our movements, and keep them from flourishing. We need activists to flourish in order to achieve sustainable results. It’s high time for healing to be the work.

Dennis van Wanrooij is International Project Manager at COC Nederland

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