What does embodied systemic change look like?


Michael Kourabas


On April 10, after three days together in Brazil discussing systemic crises and their alternatives (at a ‘Systemic Alternatives Symposium’), movement leaders from around the world gathered with funders for a movement-funder ‘encontro.’ The encontro, one part of this year’s EDGE Funders Alliance annual conference, was a radical re-think of the typical conference format. You can read more about the experiment and its goals here, but it’s enough to say that it was powerful, imperfect, messy, maybe transformative. And, as one of the movement leaders put it on the conference’s final day, it also presented a new model for the way funders and movements can come together.

Distilling the key learnings or reflections from such a charged and complex space isn’t easy, but here are a few of the themes and calls to action that feel most urgent to me:

Systemic change is not possible without individual transformation. We – as funders but also just as people – simply cannot show up for movements in the ways required by this moment without first addressing our own internalized oppressions. That means directly confronting white supremacy and patriarchy and how it manifests in each of us and our institutions. This work is uncomfortable and we – especially white men – need to sit with that discomfort and do the work.

In order to engage in individual transformation, we need to create, fund, and nurture more spaces – like the Global Engagement Lab – where funders can be vulnerable, make mistakes, build trust, and begin those transformative journeys while minimizing harm. Then, we need to go transform our organizations.

Cede power and seed movements. As funders, we need to keep working to undermine the power dynamics that perpetuate colonialism, burden grantees, and constrain movements. Among other things, this means a commitment to moving more money to the Global South, supporting movement infrastructure, deepening affected community involvement in our strategies, and strengthening our organizing across the funder-movement ecosystem.

In the encontro, a clear coherence emerged among movement leaders from around the world and there was a call for a stronger, deeper solidarity with those fighting criminalization, oppression, and violence everywhere, regardless of where that fight is taking place (including Palestine). We therefore need to be bold in our political analyses, commit to global solidarity, and translate that to political education of our members, supporters, donors, and boards.

The movement leaders who participated in the ‘Systemic Alternatives Symposium’ were clear: activists and movements need more opportunities and resources to meet, learn from each other, and plan together. That might mean holding more global movement convenings, creating space for local, regional, and national movement convenings, or simply funding grantees to participate in the convenings and meetings that feel most relevant to them. It likely means all of the above.

Finally, in the words of one the activists in the encontro, we can’t let ‘philanthropy for systemic change’ be just another flavor of the month for funders. After this year’s conference, we have a sense for the way forward and the elements that must be central to our strategies (they must be feminist, global in perspective, Indigenous-led, and challenge anti-black racism, among others). Now we need to keep this momentum going.

Michael Kourabas is Associate Director for Grantmaking & Impact at Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

Comments (2)

Deborah MunGavin

Stimulating and hopeful! Indeed, systemic change is messy and requires that uncomfortable quality of vulnerability. Your thoughts get at the urgency of seeing clearly where one stands, listening deeply to the needs of those on the margins of power structures within which funders work and from where funds often originate-- a complicated web to untangle, and a tricky balancing act. A bow to those who are tackling this. On a practical level, the commitment you noted, Michael, of funders to provide resources for activists on the front lines to convene more often seems a hopeful strategy to empower and enrich their work and move this agenda forward.

Alex Levinson

Wonderful and thought provoking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *