Collective learning, unlearning and strategising
Cindy Clark, Co-Executive Director of AWID , speaks about the many learnings she had in her journey from Participato Just Associates, and finally to AWID. Becoming increasingly interested in the question of resources for women’s rights work, Cindy was a founding advisor of FRIDA and has accompanied the Fund until this day as both an ally and friend.
“As a young woman in school, I was never really interested in feminist groups, because the limited experience that I had going to feminist workshops and trainings was really hostile. There was no room to get the answer wrong.“
In some of those spaces, there were times Cindy tried to speak out when she didn’t know a lot about feminism and gendered methodologies and thinking, and felt, ‘Oh, that’s a space where I get attacked.’ While at college, she did a study semester abroad in Chile. she met someone there and so went back to Chile after graduating. While there, trying to find a job, she knew she had studied international relations and economics, but her Spanish was far from perfect. She started to volunteer at a Chilean organisation called Participa, and it just so happened that they had recently been awarded a big grant for an international women and politics programme for which they were the Latin American partner. The first task of the grant was to organise a regional convening of activists working on issues around supporting women in politics. “Because we were part of an international project, I actually had a lot of value to bring to that. A lot of the correspondence was in English. It was an amazing opportunity because of the regional nature of the work. And of course, again, I’m starting this project not knowing anything about feminist politics in the region, and not understanding at the time how my organisation was located within that,” she says.
Organising the regional convening, “it was months and months of preparation. I’m booking tickets and hotels, and I’m so excited to meet all these amazing women. We had this huge application process, and interestingly, we were very successful in getting some incredible feminist activists from the region coming together. What I later learnt at the event itself was that my own organisation had zero history of feminist activism within the country. In fact, individuals within the organisation had even taken positions counter to feminist demands. I started to see this interplay of, on the one hand, these thirty women coming together from around the region with a lot of goodwill and openness to share their experiences and insights, and, on the other hand, this side process of Chilean feminists then approaching us, saying, ‘What are you all doing inviting these people here? You have no history in these struggles, you haven’t included us at all…’ And we thought, ‘Oh yeah, why didn’t we do that?’
“The programme was led by the Asia Foundation – they were the primary partner. It was the mid-1990’s, there was a lot going on around advocacy and how you engage people and constituencies in advocating for their rights and demands. Asia Foundation also experienced a shift when Lisa VeneKlasen, who would be the founder of Just Associates, came in. As Lisa’s vision began shaping it more and more, it really got very exciting. The organisation I was with ended up getting sidelined from the programme [laughs], precisely because they were not doing that sort of political organising. Anyway, that was my first introduction to the movement, in a sense, and I just found it incredibly inspiring and interesting. A few years later, when I left Chile and came back to Washington D. C., Lisa and I were in touch and I really wanted to work with her. So after a few stints, I had the chance to work with Lisa again at Just Associates.
“She was just getting it off the ground, and in those days, we were still surviving on a consultancy-type mode of work. Lisa then met Joanna Kerr, who had recently become the Co-Executive Director of AWID. One of the things that Joanna was interested in was funding. She said, ‘AWID is getting all these requests and demands and concerns from its members about the lack of resources for their work. Can you do some research into this?’ So AWID hired Just Associates at the time. The paper we did on funding trends for transnational women’s rights organisations eventually grew to become the broader, ‘Where is the Money for Women’s Rights?’ work that AWID initiated and for which AWID collaborated with JASS. At first, the idea of working on a project about resources, for me, was so boring. I thought, ‘What are we going to do? Are we going to guilt donors into giving us more money?’ It’s shameful to say that now, but that is where I was at in that moment.
“But the project was amazing. I got to have so many conversations, both with funders and with women’s rights organisations, and we tried to bridge the two strands. I thought that AWID at the time was bringing really interesting thinking into how we understand resources: that it’s not just about fundraising and money, but rather it is a political relationship that we are building together. What are the agendas that we, collectively, are trying to advance, whether we are in a funding institution or a feminist organisation? For me, women’s rights activism and feminism gave me the tools for analysis to understand problems of injustice that I was seeing and on which I was interested in working. ‘Where is the Money for Women’s Rights?’ positioned me to be at that meeting in Marrakech, where the idea of a young feminist fund first came up.
“At that time, I was AWID’s Manager for their ‘Where is the Money for Women’s Rights?’ programme. We had regional convenings – we had one in Southern Cone, Southern Africa, Central America – bringing together organisations and funders that were active in the region to share our research with folks so that they can use it and also for us to think about how we can get more funders actively engaged in that conversation. Marrakech was a collaborative meeting that AWID and the Global Fund for Women were organising for the MENA region. As we often did, we had a pre-day for young feminist activists before the bigger ‘Where is the Money’ convening. Those who participated in the pre-day came out of it really charged up around the idea that, ‘We need our own fund.’ One of my colleagues, Masum Momaya, who had been on the board of the Third Wave Fund, was there. I think Masum was also putting a bug in people’s ears, saying, ‘Third Wave is doing this kind of work with young women, there could be a dedicated young feminist fund.’ It was just a spark that I think really took hold. After that meeting, the idea never went away. It was something that just seemed to have so much resonance that it kept growing.”
The AWID Forum in Cape Town then happened in late 2008. “We took the idea for a young feminist fund – that seed – and we kept building momentum. There was increasing interest. AWID and Central American Women’s Fund were in conversations about how we could collaborate and make this happen. The Beirut meeting was then really a culmination of all that interest. You know, after you reached out to me, I went back to a few of my old emails, and I found one from Jessica Horn, who we had contracted to do a feasibility study – a business case. In the email, she wrote something like, ‘You know, usually you would do your business case and thendo this and do that, and this initiative is doing things the other way round.’ AWID and FCAM were working together, we were talking to all these people, and – oh yeah, let’s look at the business plan [laughs]. So things were a little mixed up, but the idea was getting so much traction, we felt, ‘We have to do this! We have to set this up.’ We were thinking a lot about the logistics of how we could start the fund, and Beirut was a culmination of all that planning. It was a place to bring together the idea and the research that had been done through the feasibility study.”
At the meeting in Beirut, “there was huge energy, and anxiety too. I was looking back on my notes, and we had so many difficulties around things such as ownership: is this advisory group a formal advisory group? What are their responsibilities? They are not taking on the liability of a board of directors, and yet we need somebody to help start this. As you can imagine, there were all these maternity metaphors, and I was uncomfortable with that. We were not ‘birthing’ anything. We talked about an incubation, which was a term that most of us were comfortable with using. While AWID and FCAM each provided an incubating role, I don’t think we did a full assessment in the beginning of what it would take and how hard it would be. In many ways, we could have and should have supported Amina more, who became the staff person to move the initiative forward. If we were to do this again, I would have another vision of the time and resources that are needed to do it in a humane way, in a way that is healthy and supportive. I give a lot of credit to Amina, who I think was very brave stepping into that role. In Beirut, we had had some initial conversations around who fits the profile of who we want to support with the fund, and what our vision is for the role it should play in the world. Amina was able to take that and make a concept note that could be shared with funders. It didn’t take too long to get some initial resources behind it. So much also benefitted from the personal and political trust and leadership between Lydia, Ana and Carla – between AWID and FCAM. It was a challenge at times, but we kept learning. When I look at FRIDA, I think it is a hugely successful undertaking.
One of the things with which we struggled – and it’s an ongoing struggle in many movement-oriented organisations – is that nobody wants to be “NGO-ised.” And yet, we had to have certain structures, especially as an entity that provides funding. Among the advisors, there was quite a bit of interest that FRIDA not formalise, that it be looser. Maybe somebody will figure out a way one day, but to my knowledge, you can’t really function as a fund without legal status. Those were some of the conflicts and tensions about how we would want to be and work in the world. I think it’s experiences like FRIDA’s that help us push beyond those questions of bureaucracy. There will always be a creative tension between those that feel it’s important to stay unregistered and those that want to formalise. They both serve really important purposes in the movement.”
Looking at FRIDA’s current role in the funding ecosystem, “I’m so amazed. I’m amazed by them and the work that they are doing. I hear about them everywhere, I think they’re incredibly visible. I think they’re innovative and really opening a lot of doors on both sides: engaging with funders and advocating within philanthropic institutions, and also working with and supporting grantees and potential grantees. I think they’re experimenting with important possibilities… Part of what’s so important about preserving memory is just a chance to process learnings with one another. Talking to me, Angelika and Lydia, for example, we were all in the same organisation at the time, but we’ll have very different lenses. I want a million FRIDAs of their own styles and shapes to emerge! I’m not saying we need that many new funds, but how do you help spark these initiatives and really grow them? That’s a hugely important reflection.
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