This In Focus article was contributed by Meerim Ilyas, Senior Program Officer at Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights, and Tatiana Cordero Velásquez, Executive Director at Urgent Action Fund – Latin America.
The revolution is in the making. Thousands of people march everyday in almost every country in the world to keep pressuring their governments, to protest police brutality, and to make their voices heard. In Brazil, women have been organizing against sexual harassment, and through a social media campaign called #EuNãoMereçoSerEstuprada, they were able to share their own personal stories of everyday misogyny and violence. In the United States, a movement against violence and systemic racism against Black people, spearheaded by Black women, has reached unprecedented levels. In China, young feminists continue to keep their heads high after having spent months in jail, where they were harassed, tortured and refused medical care. In Russia, Uganda, Turkey and Bangladesh trans activists continue to fight for their basic human rights, in light of physical and sexual violence, often fearing for their lives.
We, human rights funders, support these brave activists because we want the revolution to happen. For various reasons, we are not the ones at the frontlines. We are not the ones who will be jailed, who will get beaten or harassed, or threatened with rape for pursuing justice. Not for all of us, but for most of us, this is not the reality of our everyday lives.
Though we are not the activists facing daily threats on the frontlines, the impact of being a human rights funder on our lives and wellbeing is undeniable.
For some, the impact may involve missing a child’s dance recital in order to process an urgent request from an activist in danger before it’s too late. For others, the impact may be less attention paid to personal medical or exercise needs. Or, for some, the impact of working to protect and defend human rights defenders involves deep anger and tears, touching on issues that are close to the heart, to one’s own experiences, or to unresolved, personal trauma.
Most of us are engaged in this work because the personal is political. We all have invisible threads in our hearts, attached to people, issues and places in the world, pulled and triggered at times.
We want the revolution to happen, but to do so, we as funders, together with activists, need to be able to dance. To dance fully, using all of our muscles and limbs, singing in chorus, celebrating and mourning as needed. To do so, we must engage in conversations around donor ethics. Donor ethics includes funding for wellbeing and safety for our grantees, which can only happen if we understand and utilize care practices, as individuals and as organizations, collectively. Only then will we stop ‘abusing’ activists by demanding ever-more measurable results and lengthy reports rather than funding their basic healthcare needs or providing unrestricted funds to support their children’s school fees, maternity leave, pensions, or basic security measures for their offices and homes.
Wellbeing includes proper time and space to assess the hidden risk of workload and activism. It includes funding adequate time for rest for an activist, after she spent several months or years in jail, so she does not have to worry about sustaining her family. It includes not scheduling 12-hour per day seminars and conferences, because we as funders often have the luxury of influencing, if not setting, the agenda. It includes funding an assistant for the activist with a disability, so she can be fully present and comfortable during your convening.
As Lin Chew, a women’s rights activist and self-care facilitator, beautifully puts it: “Wellbeing is not about taking a few days off. It is about learning the skills to use while you are doing the work. It is about sustaining our organizations, if we want to sustain them, and to change them. We need to reach the point of habitual mindfulness.”
How do we begin? There is no one formula. Caring practices are deeply individual, cultural, and even depend on economic background and political beliefs. An ethic of care is both individual and collective. For many, separating their work from their personal lives can support overall wellbeing; but, unfortunately, this is not always possible for those of us working in the field of human rights. For example, as women working to promote women’s rights, it can be challenging to separate our work from our own personal struggles and obstacles as women. As funders, we must be aware of our own privileges and assumptions around wellbeing.
Prioritization of collective wellbeing must happen at all levels.
Establishing sustainable care practices requires ongoing exploration and engagement to find what works. In smaller organizations, where funding for wellbeing and holistic security has always been at the forefront of grantmaking practices, getting everyone on board may be easier. In larger, more traditional organizations, it can be a challenge. Individual staff forming ‘advocacy’ groups may be an effective first step, but these groups require ongoing commitment.
If an organization engages in an ethic of care, wellbeing practices are collective, incorporated institutionally, thus, individuals are motivated to create and sustain their habits. For example, Urgent Action Fund fosters a culture of wellbeing by holding two “Getting Nothing Done Days” per year, during which staff take a complete break from their work to rest and spend time with each other. At Urgent Action Fund-Latin America, staff members responsible for rapid response grantmaking are provided with ongoing psychosocial support to help with processing their frustration, pain, and difficult workload. In addition, “Sustaining Activism” has been incorporated as a cross-cutting program in an effort to institutionalize wellbeing across the organization. Many of our grantees have already incorporated care practices out of necessity, and there is much that human rights funders can learn from their practices.
Only when these conversations and practices take place, we can begin to understand the importance of funding wellbeing for activists.
Let us all start to hear and learn from one another and to seriously commit to an organizational culture of care. Here are a few resources and articles with ideas for how to get started:
- What’s the Point of Revolution if We Can’t Dance? – This book, produced by Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Rights, shares the experiences of more than 100 activists from around the world and their strategies to stay well and safe. The Chapter on “Next Steps” (pg. 114-136) shares some specific recommendations women activists make to funders.
- Practicing Individual and Collective Self-Care at FRIDA – FRIDA team members share why they consider self-care to be a feminist political strategy and tangible examples of individual and collective self-care practices.
- Let’s Stop Conflating Self-Care and Actual Care – This article provides a refreshing take on self-care and reflects on the obstacles for embracing wellbeing in the United States (particularly for women of color).