COLLABORATIVE WORK + COLLECTIVE ACTION
Jessica Horn is a women’s rights strategist and feminist activist, currently working as the Director of Programmes at the African Women’s Development Fund. Looking back on the founding of FRIDA, Jessica emphasises the collective work and community effort that brings something vibrant and new into creation.
“Any initiative that is birthed always has many people involved in its creation, nurturing it and helping it come to life.”
“The history of things can often get lost,” emphasises Jessica. Anything that is created takes so many people’s energy in so many different ways. Sometimes the process of founding an initiative can get attributed to one person, and we always know that that is never – can never – be the case. There is nothing that is created that only took one person – even babies – regardless of how they are conceived. Any initiative that is birthed always has many people involved in its creation, nurturing it and helping it come to life.”
“I was born into a very politically conscious family. My parents are both from the left, and I was born at a time when my parents were living in Lesotho. It was the anti-apartheid era, and Lesotho was a key base for the anti-apartheid struggle. My father was an academic at the National University of Lesotho. My mother had trained as a nurse and midwife, but was now doing her first degree in politics and literature, of course from a Marxist perspective, given that it was Lesotho. My mother was pretty clearly feminist, in a very integrated and embodied kind of way, and really raised all of us – me and my two brothers – with a feminist politics that was about questioning gender power roles, and questioning oppressive power in general. So I really was nurtured by that kind of consciousness, just in the after-glow of independence of most African nations – I was born in 1979. All those discussions about what the Third World was, what Africa was, and how people could shape and fashion a reality that was theirs, were being had. I’ve always been on university campuses – on university campuses in the Global South as we now call it – where those conversations were just very, very alive. For me, it was almost a natural inclination to be involved in activism.”
Jessica speaks about the importance of remembering our roots, and thinks back to how FRIDA was started. “It really was an active community. It wasn’t just one organisation or one person pushing it. Amina Doherty was the founding coordinator of FRIDA and really put her soul into building it with AWID as a host and supporter. With them was an active group of advisors and supporters, really engaging, trying to get it moving, finding funding, developing excitement around it, supporting design, helping host events. There was a lot of pro bono energy put into it. That’s one thing that is really remarkable about the fund. There are a lot of funding initiatives that are just set up by a bureaucracy, but what I find marks FRIDA out as different is the fact that it was created by a community of feminist activists who were really interested in creating a resourcing mechanism that was different.”
“What is difficult about young feminist organising in African contexts is that almost all of us live in social contexts that are very ageist, and so the organising cultures are also ageist. There is always this idea that younger feminists have to be mentored by older feminists, or helped and supported, but a less common view- that maybe young feminists could be doing it by themselves, or maybe even leading the way on some issues. On issues of sexuality in the African region for example,, there have been a few older generation feminists who have been really clear on analysing, breaking silences and helping shape debates, but I find it’s the younger feminists who are braver, more vocal, more open about issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, who are really pushing that conversation very actively forward. When you look at trying to fund young African feminist mobilising, it can also be hard to find young feminist groups, because sometimes they are not necessarily organising formally. You do find a lot of campus groups and university students, but in many contexts, again, they don’t really have a way to organise themselves into formal structures, and so it means that they’re really hard to fund, because most of our funding has to go to registered organisations.”
Jessica became involved with FRIDA by applying for the job of a consultant to write the initial mapping and scoping paper, and look into exactly these challenges. How can a funding model be created that actually enables young feminists to be leading the way on certain issues and actively participating in the decision-making processes of grant-making for their movement?
“The first job I got as a consultant was working to develop a funding framework for UHAI, the first East African Sexual Health and Rights fund supporting LGBT rights and sex worker rights. We were very much concerned with creating a funding model where decision-making was done by activists in the movement, because of a need to really build up a culture of accountability around money, and also direct the funding to make sure that is was politically aligned with the needs of the community. We basically developed a framework that is modelled off the Central American Women’s Fund. And so when AWID floated the idea of creating a young feminist fund, very much directed by young feminists themselves, and I saw a call for a consultant and I thought, I’ve just done a similar exercise, let me apply, and I ended up getting the job. I developed a mapping paper that looked at options of ways to structure a fund that would be led by young feminists.”
“I presented that options paper at the Beirut meeting. It was interesting. What was to become FRIDA was a new idea, and whenever anything is new and there are a lot of serious decisions to be made, there is also a lot of concern, of worry, of wondering where it’s all going to go. Nadine Moawad, a co-founder of Nasawiya, hosted us in their office. [Nasawiya] was a pretty new initiative at the time, led by young Lebanese feminists who were really pioneering in creating space, in creating really interesting conversations, and were doing all sorts of creative interventions around discussions of gender and sexuality in Lebanon, which can be difficult. They hosted an evening for us with migrant domestic worker organisers – I remember there was a woman from Madagascar – who spoke about their realities living and working in Lebanon. It felt like we were embedded in an activist community having these conversations about FRIDA. Amina was there, who then went on to be the coordinator of FRIDA, Perla, and also Ana Criquillion who had been the Executive Director of Central American Women’s Fund, and had helped pioneer the idea of this funding model. Lydia Alpizar, Executive Director of AWID at the time and a champion of this idea was there along with other AWID staff…so it had a little nervous energy, but also very exciting. We were really trying to think about what this fund would be, who would be involved, what genders, all those kinds of big questions that you have to decide when you are at the start of creating something.”
Since its creation, FRIDA has become “a very vital mechanism.” The world is “getting quite young. Africa is getting very young, and very soon, young people are going to be the majority of Africa’s population. It’s crucial to build that confidence about organising and having a voice, because at the moment, it doesn’t feel like Africa’s young people – and by young, I don’t mean the official definition of up to age thirty-five, but I mean people in their teens, people in their twenties – actually feel the confidence to mobilise and to address their own issues, because they actually face their own issues…” In the context of African philanthropy for young feminist organising, “I’ve seen a lot of focus on intergenerational work, or on leadership training for young feminists. The presumption is that young feminists need leadership training. And in some respects, yes, everybody needs leadership training, and activism and career-wise, you’re just starting out. But I also think that there could be some emphasis on other areas – maybe more thematic organising, depending on what people are up to.” Young feminists must have the confidence “to raise questions that are feminist questions, and to push societies to really respect and consider the rights and needs of African young women and queer people.”
“For myself, what has strengthened my activism has actually been challenges. I began in feminist activism relatively young… I’ve been involved in student activism since secondary school. I became an HIV peer educator when I was fourteen…Even in terms of the positions that I occupied and roles that I played officially in organisations that were movement-aligned, I was pretty young for the seniority of some of those roles, and that didn’t always go down very well with older colleagues- particularly men. I definitely had experiences of hierarchical behavior and power dynamics that weren’t very comfortable. But I think in the end it strengthens your resolve around knowing that your politics and your contributions matter and they’re real. Something that’s also really valuable is finding other people who share the vantage point and the energy that you have: sister friends along the journey, people who are actually connected to you beyond the work. Adversarial experiences of things that had been difficult are always learning experiences. I spent quite a lot of time working in and around conflict and conflict-affected communities of women, and also with queer people facing a lot of violence and marginalization. In both of those experiences, I experienced vicarious trauma. But through it, it actually led me to be part of creating an initiative that looked at African feminist approaches to reconceptualising trauma: an initiative called AIR. They always say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I don’t feel that you should always have to be facing things that are so stressful in order to grow, but I do actually think that some of these experiences that are difficult do actually help you really understand what you’re up against.”
“In terms of FRIDA’s role in the current ecosystem, FRIDA really has to remain itself. It has to remain young, it has to remain feminist, it has to remain vibrant, it has to remain slightly non-conformist, and really interested in supporting activist initiatives, and in supporting young young people. In the [philanthropic] ecosystem that we have where things are quite bureaucratic, I think that the role of activist funders who are really activist is vital. I really hope FRIDA can sustain that. FRIDA is embedded in feminist movements. It’s a funding mechanism to support feminism, so it’s a part of the movement. I don’t think that movements exclude donors per say, particularly a donor like FRIDA that involves people actively in the movement in its decision-making and its governance. The question is just, what more roles would it like to play? Every donor has the power to be a convener, just because of knowing so many people, being connected to so many initiatives, and having a bird’s eye view. That convening role can be quite powerful in terms of being able to pull people together who may not know each other but who are working on similar issues, or who could benefit from knowing one another for feeling a sense of solidarity. I hope FRIDA keeps doing that and stays present in the different conversations and dialogues… I think it’s really wonderful.