Revolutions are built on hope: the role of funders in collective self-care

What can activists do when traditional advocacy efforts are often deemed “subversive” or “undermining national interests”? Globally, we see space for civil society decreasing and government repression increasing—from Brazil to Egypt to India. At the International Women’s Health Coalition, we support feminist organizations advocating for the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women and girls around the world. Among our partners, we’re seeing a rise in alternative approaches in response to these troubling global trends, and among them: collective self-care.

As social justice champions, collectivizing our struggles, including our self-care, exponentially ensures our survival and sustains our movements. This is especially crucial because the potential to feel despair, stress, anger, burnout, trauma and isolation increases when working in oppressive contexts.

In settings where human rights and social justice activists are subjected to intense repression, structural inequalities and threats, surviving is a major achievement.

One of our strategies to accomplish this is to explicitly structure our financial support to prioritize our partners’ autonomy. Grants should reflect the cost of doing business in the countries where our partners work, and organizations should not be forced to operate on a shoestring budget or make sacrifices that funders do not. Flexible funding is essential for partners who do advocacy work, because this funding allows them to be agile and respond to threats and opportunities as they emerge. Our grantmaking often provides partners with unrestricted funding that can be used towards institutional costs, such as salaries, professional development, rent, or digital security. This is an essential component of a trust-based grantmaking strategy that foregrounds partners’ freedom to allocate resources as they see fit, including covering costs not directly linked to specific activities or projects. When possible, we also provide our partners with long-term support and eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic burdens. These funder practices, in our organization and others, can help to alleviate partners’ stress, anxiety, and burnout from uncertainty or rigid requirements, freeing up time and energy for resistance work, and to plan ahead.

This type of grantmaking approach also affirms the collective self-care approaches that partners are using as part of their resistance strategies. In settings where human rights and social justice activists (not to mention marginalized and/or minority identities), are subjected to intense repression, structural inequalities and threats, surviving is a major achievement. In the words of Brazilian feminist musician Lidi de Oliveira, “Self-care is a political act, it is something revolutionary for us and dangerous for those who want to oppress us.” Many advocates are focusing on building coalitions, strengthening cross-movement collaboration, and operationalizing solidarity as a way that will ultimately strengthen direct advocacy. Embattled causes must align to strengthen one another and support each other’s survival. Banding together is also a powerful way to resist divide and conquer strategies and  scapegoating tactics typical of repressive regimes.

For example, the Indian Coalition for Maternal-Neonatal Health and Safe Abortion, CommonHealth, recently invited representatives from various social movements to join its annual members’ meeting. By immersing in each other’s struggles, participants demonstrate several important aspects of collective self-care. First, this relationship-building creates an environment that fosters care for all, rather than relegating the challenges of survival onto the individual when they need support the most. Second, by embodying solidarity across movements, members amplify their collective resilience and capacity to resist government repression. Sharing responsibilities across a specialized division of labor within a coalition (advocates, researchers, providers, etc.) reduces the labor and emotional burden borne by each individual and organization. Third, it’s a smart strategy for CommonHealth: increasing inclusivity and diversity allows the coalition to more accurately represent the full range of Indians’ SRHR needs, which is necessary for better policy analysis, implementation and change.

Flickr/ Tribes of the World (Some rights reserved).

As social justice champions, collectivizing our struggles, including our self-care, exponentially ensures our survival and sustains our movements..

It is important, however, to recognize that approaches vary across regions, and partners’ notions of self-care must lead the way. For example, our flexible, long-term funding to CFEMEA (Centro Feminista de Estudos e Assessoria – Center for Feminist Studies and Advisory Services, in Brazil), supported them to begin training the next generation of activists on advocacy with the Brazilian Congress, while also offering trainings for activists working on environmental and racial justice issues. In the Middle East and North Africa, where many activists face imprisonment and harassment, organizations choose to focus on low-cost, low-profile activities, while hiring consultants to bolster digital security and setting aside funds for legal defense.

Additionally, IWHC’s learning, monitoring and evaluation team creates space for reflection that enable our partners’ collective self-care. In doing so, we not only have the opportunity to help sustain movements, but to learn from them—and to better advocate for and support our partners. For example, we funded a Uruguayan feminist organization, Mujer y Salud en Uruguay (MYSU – Women and Health in Uruguay), to commission a study analyzing its contributions to a long, successful fight to expand abortion rights. While this exercise ensured that the feminist activists’ contributions were not erased from this historic, monumental struggle, it also served to celebrate their win and rejuvenate the activists before launching into another uphill battle—ensuring the new law’s implementation. This opportunity to document, celebrate and share victories is one way to measure success and encourage sustainability of the ongoing work of feminist resistance and movement-building.

Funders can also support the wellbeing and sustainability of partners by adjusting expectations of grantees: perhaps survival in the face of constant opposition is itself a measure of success. Funders can attempt to measure resilience as a positive outcome through documentation and evaluation projects. We have found that activists rarely have time to rest, reflect, and rejuvenate. With this in mind, funders must strive to support partners’ efforts to pause, learn, and recharge both for the sake of improving learning in the field, and to buoy mental and emotional wellbeing.

As feminist and rights-based funders, we often consider the implications of shrinking civil society space and mounting repression. And while there is no magic bullet, funders should reflect the ways in which we are supporting grantees and/or overburdening them. A paradigm shift is necessary for funders to see ourselves as promoters and supporters of collective self-care. We can do this by offering flexible and long-term support, encouraging collaboration, creating space for restorative reflection, and above all, centering our partners’ needs and solutions.

Professor Cornell West famously said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” For us at IWHC, supporting collective self-care and love in service of justice is itself a profound and radical act of resistance, and integral to our feminism.