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Pathways to power: Is activism within philanthropy possible?

Earlier in the year, my life changed unimaginably. Botswana’s high court named and shamed colonial-era laws, strengthened autonomy in privacy and removed possibilities for the persecution of me and my peers. I had just received an offer for executive director for a global youth network, which I saw as an accumulation of immense human rights work as an outlier and underfunded activist. It also validated my capabilities as a change agent, aside from the challenging recruitment and recommendation process. A few weeks later, the offer was rescinded. Reasons were just as ambiguous as the source; a donor’s perception of my likeability to securing funding. This was devastating and baffling.

Since then, I have decided to “follow the money.” It seems to dictate all aspects of organizing within and without the causes one stands for, or even worse, experiences. Power feels threatened when it is questioned or challenged. Thus, I have come to understand three main things within a segment of philanthropy; 1) money follows people, people are political, politics are resources 2) although intent is good, privilege, power and patriarchy are prevalent in ways of working, grant-making decisions and asset management deployment and 3) social justice remains one of the most inconvenient and underfunded of overall development funding. Speaking truth to work on the ground has often been inconvenient and simply outside prescriptive means of “development.” For example: it is impossible to see how advocacy on criminalized issues can be non-partisan, quantitative or fit into a medium-term theory of change.

The Pathways to Power Symposium, along with a few other initiatives that have been brave enough to bridge the gap between grassroots actors, such as myself and philanthropy, are brave enough to bring together these worlds and the intermediaries that support them. It is an avenue that, for far too long, has missed better understanding of how money is deployed, how accountability can be meaningful for the communities that money serve, and more importantly, how it’s not the same people, languages, perspectives and concepts dictating how movements create impact. The very concept of movements means they not static. Yet, the ways of enabling remain static. The funding has been declining and the naming and framing of concepts still rely on largely colonial ways of thinking (formally and informally).

The space to share my opinion beyond an email exchange, open grant solicitation opportunity or in the margin of a conference (that speaks to the converted) is appealing. This is because it brings in people from different environments and eliminates the threat of economic and mental violence. More so, it doesn’t premise likeability, character or bias as dictated by many relationships that dictate what is relevant and valid for resourcing. Surprisingly, it becomes a safe space because it doesn’t have nuances of bias gossip or toxicity within specific sectors or causes. Those we have struggled with, prior to or after, are often experienced inside and outside our work. The intentional mapping and separation of people who would organically end up together is a great step towards safeguarding inclusion and ensuring a more systemic lens to truly #ShiftThePower.

I am hopeful that this conversation isn’t new and that it can be linked with other work. Also, that new voices can be added from a variant lens without prescription. There are too many young people with talent, diversity and creativity ready but unable to scale change and navigate what comes along with formal civil society work. The few questions I hope this convening will answer for me are as follows:

  1. Who gets to define what capacity is?
  2. How do we bridge the gap between agile, context-specific and systemic movements and unprescribed enablement?
  3. How diverse and inclusive are the spaces we create/have/safeguard?

By: Dumiso Gatsha, Success Capital Organisation

This blog also appears on the Alliance magazine website. It was part of a special feature on the Pathways to Power Symposium. See also a video interview with Dumiso from the Symposium. 

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