Dreilinden’s Claudia Bollwinkel talks to Nino Ugrekhelidze and María Díaz Ezquerro of FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund about the importance of hearing and shifting power to the grassroots and the need for self and collective care
What does feminist philanthropy mean for you?
Nino: Feminist philanthropy for me is a very specific way of distributing funding according to the moral compass of feminist values and principles. The aim is to achieve transformative social change and social justice which requires an intersectional approach to challenging patriarchal, heteronormative, colonial and capitalist relationships.
It’s about decentralising power and giving it to grassroots activists, and being very flexible, caring, responsive and respectful of the experiences of the different constituencies and movements we try to support. It’s also about the ways of approaching the work, not simply giving money but asking what we can do to best support the social movement?
We try to ensure that we have ‘multi-vocality’ in the system – everyone has the right to say something, it’s properly facilitated and we appreciate all perspectives and ideas.
Maria: I completely agree and just want to add that to me, feminist philanthropy is also a political commitment and act that, on the one hand, acknowledges that resources bring power and on the other, ensures that by establishing more horizontal relationships based on mutual accountability, trust and feminist solidarity, the resources flow into the hands of feminist organisers who are making radical social change in their communities.
Co-creation is a word very much associated with FRIDA. What does co-creating look like in practice?
Nino: You’re right, co-creation is really the essence of FRIDA, not only as a team of people who work together, but the whole community. All of our day-to-day decision-making and operations stands on co-creation. It’s really constant dialogue and active listening, the aim of which is to understand each other better, it’s part of the deep and very transformative collaborations that we aim at. So we focus a lot on mutual learning and communications. We also try to challenge our practice and ways of thinking. We support each other a lot in unlearning. Because FRIDA’s staff are based all across the Global South, we come with such unique experiences and knowledge and we build on one another and eventually we grow each other up. So that’s co-creation at FRIDA, being open to growth as a collective and as individuals and also becoming vulnerable because sometimes asking stupid questions is part of co-creation as it makes us see things from a different perspective. We understand that it’s very difficult to build trust and it takes time, and we really commit to building systems because co-creation needs systems for working collectively and effectively, and we try to ensure that we have ‘multi-vocality’ in the system – everyone has the right to say something, it’s properly facilitated and we appreciate all perspectives and ideas. Transparency in decision-making, accountability to one another and shared responsibility are also critical pillars of what FRIDA means by co-creation.
We see it as an empowering process that provides participants and young feminists with accountability and agency.
Could you say a bit more about how your shared leadership works?
Nino: We don’t only practise co-leadership on an executive level, but at a programmatic level as well. For example, Maria is co-leading the team of programmes with Jovana. In our systems, we try to have a composition of different experiences and voices so that it’s not just comfortable for one person or identity, but also it’s reflective of the diversity that is FRIDA. And we give a lot of feedback, which we try to internalise to come up with the end product. It’s a very long process and it requires a lot of discipline as well as time.
Maria: I just want to add that co-creation is challenging but really enriching and when we create something – whether it is a new grant or any funding+model project – it’s not us proposing it out of the blue but it usually comes from the community who share with us a need, a gap as well as insights on how to address it. Therefore we collectively, with grantee partners, with advisers, and other allies that we work very closely with, co-create something that’s beautiful, because it responds to real needs and it’s never us imposing anything on the movements or simply doing what we feel that FRIDA as a fund needs to do.
How is this reflected in your participatory grantmaking process? Can you explain how that works?
Maria: As you may know, FRIDA is the only global fund that applies participatory practices in its grantmaking but also, as we’ve said, in designing organisational strategies, policies and decision-making processes. We initially adopted this participatory grantmaking model from the Central American Women’s Fund (FCAM) and we adapted it to be able to respond to global specificities. It puts decision-making in the hands of young feminists themselves as agents of change. That really helps to shift the traditional power relationship between us as a funder and grantee partners.
Young, woman, or self-identifying as a woman, living in a rural area, working on environmental justice – they are the first people who are attacked and affected by this climate crisis.
We see it as an empowering process that provides participants and young feminists with accountability and agency. In terms of how it works, FRIDA counts on its advisers, who are young feminist activists based in different regions, who support us throughout the grantmaking cycle, developing regional strategies, doing outreach in their communities, then reviewing applications, ensuring criteria are met, and also supporting us with the due diligence process and much more.
When young feminist groups apply for funding, they play a critical role in voting for whom they believe should receive the funding. We have regional groups, and they comment on the top ten choices in their own regions. And, depending on our funds, the top two to three groups from each region will receive funding. The aim is to democratise the funding process. It’s FRIDA’s way of breaking down barriers of power and expertise and empowering groups through the process of collective decision-making. FRIDA’s participatory grantmaking is managed virtually, and has required a lot of labour. As we didn’t have any system in place to ensure that we manage grantmaking in a more efficient way, we invested a couple of years ago in a new grantmaking system, which we are still working to improve, but it has already reduced our workload and the time required to process applications and reports. Also, with the new system, we will be able to have more effective data collection and tracking so it’s something that’s been challenging but also really worth it.
Last year FRIDA launched the first-ever call for proposals to young feminist groups working on environmental justice. Did the issue come from the communities or was it the other way round?
Nino: That first grantmaking cycle was in 2017 and it really came from the movement itself, because we saw the amount of climate justice work they were doing. With the help of our global advisory committee, we selected seven grantee partners in Latin America and the Pacific Islands. Most of those partners are living and working in rural areas. That’s a very good intersection – young, woman, or self-identifying as a woman, living in a rural area, working on environmental justice – they are the first people who are attacked and affected by this climate crisis. So we found it really important to fund this work but in addition to grantmaking, we have a climate justice fellowship which we launched this year.
We also want to make sure that young feminists create the narrative on climate justice so we decided to also establish the media fellowship to ensure their message is reaching very different spaces than if they were just writing some community newsletter.
Maria: I’d just add that, as Nino said, there were many young feminist groups doing climate and environmental justice work who we were unable to reach, so that’s where the idea of having a specific call for climate and environmental justice groups came from. In the second call in 2018, we received so many applications from groups doing this type of work and coming from very diverse communities, Indigenous communities, black communities, trans communities, women and girls that are doing climate and environmental justice work. That was a big lesson because we are learning how to better do outreach for these groups and now we are more intentional about it. Because of this, we have now been able to support these groups and ensure that they have access to resources, provide accompaniment and other support.
What did you do differently to reach out to them successfully?
Maria: We got in touch with advisers and organisations that were already doing this work or supporting CEJ groups from different regions to support us in sharing the work and spreading the word.
So you made sure that the call reached the right people?
Nino: I think it’s also very important to acknowledge that FRIDA has intentionally put a lot of effort into being multilingual. People can apply in seven different languages and our communications materials go out in seven languages, which is a lot of effort. Obviously that’s not full inclusion, but that’s how much we can afford at the moment.
It really came from reflecting on how important it is to decolonise and unlearn what we’ve learned from the capitalist system about what is ‘successful’ and what is ‘productive’ in terms of working practices.
Maria: Sometimes we have difficulties in reaching out to, say, Indigenous communities who don’t speak mainstream languages. In those cases, what we sometimes do is, with the support of the advisers who are connected to these communities, communicate in their own languages and find creative ways for them to apply, even though they don’t speak the majority language.
The Happiness Manifestx is FRIDA’s guide to collective and self-care. How did you come to reflect in such a deep way on how you do your work, and how is it put into practice?
Maria: The Happiness Manifestx came at a time when we as young feminist activists and also as FRIDA staff, started sharing our personal experiences around burnout, overwork, and this constant feeling of exhaustion and how these things have been normalised in our lives, in our organisations, in our movement. It really came from reflecting on how important it is to decolonise and unlearn what we’ve learned from the capitalist system about what is ‘successful’ and what is ‘productive’ in terms of working practices.
It is critical that funders who are committed to social, climate and gender justice ensure that grassroots and young feminist groups and networks have access to flexible, multi-year, core funding.
The Happiness Manifestx was collectively created to reimagine self-care, but also collective care. How we work and cared for ourselves was and is still critical. It’s a constant process that sometimes is very challenging. We firmly believe that the organisations and movements that we are part of should care for us as activists, should protect us from burnout and violence, and that our organisations should be healthy and safe workspaces for all of us. This sometimes means we need to collectively reflect on the rhythm of work, of the organisation, because it can be crazy, and to pause and take up a more realistic and healthy organisational workload. We also need specific policies of care within the organisation that are mindful, flexible and responsive to the needs of all of the staff members. We’ve been rewriting policies of care and human resources. I believe that FRIDA is really flexible in terms of employment benefits, for instance, because our idea of health benefits includes mental health, well-being and self-care. We are trying – because it’s all a process of course – to practise deep systemic changes around care and the culture of care, for instance by implementing strategic budgeting that prioritises it. First of all, though, the FRIDA Happiness Manifestx is something that we created as staff and is a living document that will change as part of an ongoing transformation process that hopefully forces systemic, radical change.
One of the features of your work is transforming power and relationships in philanthropy. What would you suggest that funders do differently?
Nino: We try to be an example. Everyone feels that FRIDA is their space and they own FRIDA, so our missions and our actions speak to shifting power and challenging traditional philanthropy to be more open, responsive and caring. Care is a very important word. Funders also need to acknowledge power. What FRIDA does is give people time and space. We never come with our own agenda, except to make sure that we hear people. That’s all. Also, we have really deep ongoing discussions with the different community members, by which I mean our partners. They’re not grantees, they are our partners and what FRIDA does is understand holistically who are our community members, how are they organised, what kind of support they need to achieve more, because they know best how to smash the patriarchy in their own communities. We are there for people and whenever you need any support, just send us a message.
Maria: From our experience, lack of resources is usually one of the main challenges that young feminist groups face, so it is critical that funders who are committed to social, climate and gender justice ensure that grassroots and young feminist groups and networks have access to flexible, multi-year, core funding. And given the rise of fundamentalisms and shrinking civil society spaces, specific resources and accompanying support for holistic security, including physical and digital protection, but also resources for self and collective care, are critical. In view of closing spaces, funders also need to become more creative in finding ways to support young feminist groups who are responding to their changing realities. And like Nino says, they need to find ways to establish more truly horizontal relationships. I think it’s critical for funders to really share power for decision-making on grants, because it’s not only about active listening, but about how young women, trans and intersex youth can be agents of change and self-determination.
Nino Ugrekhelidze is co-executive director and María Díaz Ezquerro is senior programme officer of FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund.
Claudia Bollwinkel is senior programme adviser at Dreilinden.