Mistakes, misfits, and magic


Rajasvini Bhansali


When the founders of Thousand Currents (formerly IDEX) came together in 1985, they wanted to create an alternative to top-down global development approaches and to build on local wisdom. Over the last 30+ years, the work has taken much iteration – from funding small projects, to organizations, to global movements – but three vital ingredients have remained.

‘We realized that the problems we face are structural, and that they deal with patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism; our actions…had contradictions and inconsistencies’, Milvian Aspuac, Interim Director of AFEDES.

Founded in 1988, the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez (AFEDES) strived to promote economic opportunity for women. At the time,  microcredit was seen by many funders as a magic bullet to eradicate poverty.

While developing a robust microcredit, savings and loans, financial management, and income-generating skills building program, the women of AFEDES discovered that its programs were actually not making much of an impact.

They found that women were deeper in debt at the end of the program, than at the start. In fact, more women were approaching AFEDES to ask for support around domestic violence than for economic concerns. Milvian Aspuac, Interim Director of AFEDES, explains, ‘We realized the importance of promoting the rights of women as they were continually violated at every level…we live in a world where money is the main thing. Women’s caring work is not valued…So we began to work for our freedom and autonomy.’

AFEDES became a Thousand Currents grant partner in 2005. In 2006, they embarked on a deep process of reflection and came to an important conclusion: Women’s oppression could not be solved by credit alone.

Many funders turned away as AFEDES shifted their programming, Thousand Currents instead “risked” investing in innovation from within. The mutuality of our relationship dictated that we trust the analysis and strategy of our grassroots partner rather than impose our own agenda on them.

What if we could unleash just one percent of our annual remittances to African visionaries…The potential for impact is great’, Solomé Lemma, AiD’s Founder.

Africans in the Diaspora (AiD) emerged as a crowd funding platform in 2012 to demonstrate the powerful impact that Africans on the continent and in the diaspora can have in home communities.

AiD began operating as a legal entity of Thousand Currents in 2014. Thousand Currents incubated AiD for 2 years as they led independent programs and communications. Focused on joint learning, together, we targeted diasporans to build community among each other and channel those resources to local, grassroots organizations in Africa.’… Africans abroad and on the continent have an important role to play in development in Africa. The African Diaspora send $60 billion to their families every year. Compare this to US$300 million that U.S. foundations sent approximately to Africa (2010 figure),’ says Lemma.

AiD and Thousand Currents fully merged in 2016. This is the first time a US-based grassroots funder has re-arranged its structure to accommodate diaspora-focused programming. The AiD misfits found a home among Thousand Currents, nurturing a joint vision of decolonized aid and values-driven diaspora philanthropy- a different story of international development that models the change we want to see.

‘Your broken heart is the place of magic, of healing, of transformation’, Sharon Bridgforth, Thousand Currents artist-in-residence.

The creative process of art making, truth telling, and community building is not that far away from social innovation. In fact, without the creative process, grantmaking and investment can become merely check writing.

Mistakes, misfits or not, Thousand Currents strives to assemble professional, competent nonprofit staff. We analyze. We synthesize. We strategize. We plan. We reflect. These are all things that artists do too.

Through Thousand Currents’ artists-in-residence program, Sharon Bridgforth and Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, accomplished interdisciplinary artists and scholars in the theatrical jazz aesthetic, and Pregs Govender, South African activist, writer, and former parliamentarian, bring something profoundly different to our philanthropy table — the radical power of vulnerability; the opportunity for improvising in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity; and the transformative potential of witnessing each other in community.

Thousand Currents partners work on a daily basis with great courage and such commitment to human dignity under very difficult circumstances, to solve the challenges facing their communities. That is why we are finding ways to practice our own vulnerability and courage. Through our work with artists, there’s deeper honesty, authenticity, curiosity, and rigor as egos melt into a growing trust.

Our artists-in-residence teach us to experiment within our traditions/lineages but also as innovators in those traditions. We must let go of our old paradigms and invite new ideas from unexpected places and people.

Raising resources is not easy. Building alliances and deepening relationships takes time. Our artists remind us if we emphasize joy, then we will move forward and more creatively with our work. Being vulnerable means being open to change. It means we can see the magic unfold.

Rajasvini Bhansali is the Executive Director of Thousand Currents.

Comments (1)

Sharon Bridgforth

I am so grateful for the work that Thousand Currents does/for the partners brilliant and brave leadership - for the privilege of being Artist In-Residence. Thanks you Rajasvini for this beautiful sharing.

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