“We have to learn to work on systems, not on symptoms”, that’s how Conniel Malek, form the True Costs Initiative, started her contribution to the webinar Progressive Philanthropy Needs to Spur System Change.
As part of the Just Transition Collaborative Webinar Series, the session took place on January 30th, and brought together over 70 participants to hear from Pablo Solón (Fundación Solón), Conniel Malek (True Costs Initiative), Kiti Kajana (Open Society Foundations) and Sofía Arroyo (Sacred Fire Foundation). The webinar was guided by Arianne Shaffer (Indie Philanthropy Initiative and EDGE Global Engagement Lab).
As the title of the webinar suggests, progressive philanthropy is changing its siloed focus and starting to look at the contours of the crisis with a systemic approach, but still at a slow pace. Among the presentations and questions from the participants, the discussion framed how philanthropy can shift its grantmaking practices to support the systemic alternatives to the crisis the word is experiencing.
“As funders, we support the change and applications of interim policies, but it is not enough to put bandaids over broken systems. We need really comprehensive systemic change”, explains Kiti Kajana, using her work on access to medicines as an example of how philanthropy can tackle to root causes of the interconnected crises.
Check out the webinar recording and scroll down to read and respond to a post-webinar chat with participants:
How can funders best support social movements, especially as they shift and grow in this era of accelerating, overlapping systemic crises? Are we part of the movement? What does it look like to give systemic support, not symptom support?
Conniel Malek (True Costs Initiative): We think the best way to support social movements is to listen to local partners, fund at the intersections and to give systemic support instead of only symptom support. Are we part of the movement? Different funders are going to have different answers and perspectives on this. It is possible that being preoccupied with whether funders are part of the movement or not may distract us from the ultimate goals of supporting the hard- fought battles of grassroots activists, local and civil society advocates. At TCI we ask instead – do the grantees find our support effective, timely and amplifying to their work?
We live in a world where there are constantly fires to be put out. While it is imperative that we devote well- needed attention to emergencies, we believe that being a progressive funder means we need to do more than only react to issues or crises of the moment. Giving systemic support means a few different things to us. It means being open to recommending general operating support not just program or project support. It means multi-year support for groups fighting human rights and environmental rights battles that are long term propositions. It means supporting groups that don’t just fight for redress when there is corporate harm but groups that engage communities about what development the communities themselves expressly want and groups that preemptively warn communities when projects are being proposed or permitted. It means addressing biased international finance systems or loopholes in local laws which make human and environmental abuses easy or even invite them. It means supporting the *next *generation of public interest advocates including public interest lawyers.
Kiti Kajana (Open Society Foundations): “Access to Medicines and Innovation,” part of the Open Society Foundations’ Public Health Program, aims to build a world in which everyone has fair and equal access to the medicines and treatments they need as essential elements of social and economic justice. We seek to challenge the current profit-driven system of medical research and development, which depends on public financing but fails to produce public goods. We work to spark, deepen, and share new thinking about people-centered approaches to medical innovation that can create sustainable human rights-based alternatives to the current model that leaves essential public health needs unfulfilled. We advocate for policy changes that expand access to existing medicines and medical technologies, while working to make sure that policies that promote the realization of the right to health are implemented. We also support and bring together researchers, health providers, and activists who share our belief that medical innovation should serve the public interest, fostering connections and building a movement for transformative change.
While working in narrow geographic scope, how do we ensure we’re building the new globally? (And is that even our job?) How can funders support complementarity even if they’re working on a local scale?
Samantha Harvey (EDGE): Because Pablo Solon is traveling and could not respond to this chat, he’s agreed for us to pull some of his responses from the chat the day of the webinar. So first, links can be found here for Pablo’s sheets and the publications: https://systemicalternatives.org/category/about/publications/. And now, in his own words, Pablo’s thoughts on complementarity, from the other day:
Pablo Solon (Fundacion Solon): This is not a crisis that will end in some years or decades. The world will not be the same any more. In other words we have to think how democracy has to be not only in the future but in the middle of this collapse.
I think the collapse has begun. We have to build systemic alternatives in the middle of this collapse. Complementarity needs to be built globally but it is too diverse to be handle in a centralized way. Complementarity is a process that has to start from the bottom and the top. Complementarity is to build a whole, is to recognize that you are a part and that the only way to embrace the whole is to complement with other parts of the whole.
Samantha Harvey (EDGE): Thinking about how smaller, local funders can make a difference in shifting “the whole,” as Michelle writes in response to the question about scale, “Instead of a bowling ball, we need a bag of marbles.” We need to rethink “progress,” rethink our assumptions that large scale is a default goal in making a better world. Funding locally in a way that supports connections with broader groups and networks, in a way that, within a potentially small geographic scope, still chips away at global systems of oppression – this is a way to connect local and small-scale work to larger global shifts.
What are some examples of alternatives outside the capitalist model that can be scaled?
Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan (Movement Generation): First, let’s remember that the scale of the problem IS a big part of the problem! So we can’t let that same sense of ‘scale’ dictate the scale of the solutions. Instead of a bowling ball, we need a bag of marbles. Translocal strategies that are being deployed by many different communities may each be small in and of themselves but when banded together, they can be leveraged as political power to change the rules towards making those kinds of strategies—food sovereignty, zero waste, sustainable housing, clean community energy, transit, and ecosystems restoration—the path of least resistance rather than the exception. For all of this to take root, communities, especially those on the frontlines of the crisis, must foster new muscles to self-govern. This requires practice and experimentation. Lessons can be shared across communities to accelerate adaptation of governance models.
We at MG look to models like the Movimento Sem Terra/Landless Workers Movement in Brazil which organizes landless people from cities to take land that is not being put to productive use and organize settlements. The people of those settlements have built schools, clinics, and productive agriculture systems that meet the needs of the people day in and day out. MST is organized into units of multiple families that study together, work together, take on patriarchy and racism, and make decisions together. Those units contribute to larger collective decisions of the MST. Of course, Brazil is a complicated place and the MST is not an island. It is engaging with the political realities of the government within a global context that relies on extractive state power.
What kinds of culture shifts will be required to “decolonize” and affect systemic change? Are people willing to get out of their comfort zones?
Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan (Movement Generation): We’ve got to take on and uproot systems of domination and hierarchy in order to maximize the potential of so many humans applying themselves in a fully embodied way. That means brain & muscle but also heart, gut, spirit. Workers in meat factories, kids in schools, soldiers, public works people who are tearing down homeless encampments, bulldozer drivers destroying forests—are all required to cut off rather than listen to and utilize all of their senses in order to do what the bosses tell us to do. Systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, gender binary, heteronormativity, and many more facilitate people being pushed into these jobs but also having the sense that it’s ok.
It’s unclear if those who live in comfort will be willing to get out of their comfort zones but certainly, those who experience the violence of the system first hand have a vested interest in decolonizing and leading us to transform the system to benefit all.
Pablo Solon (Fundación Solón):We have to decolonize our territories and our being. The decolonization of territory means self-management and self-determination at all levels. Decolonization of the being is even more complex and includes overcoming many beliefs and values that impede our re-encounter with nature and humanity.
Sofía Arroyo (Sacred Fire Foundation): We need to shift our value systems to one in which owning and producing is not at the center. In order to really decolonize our culture, new visions on how we can live and relate to each other and the natural world need to surface. Through our work with Indigenous Peoples I have heard people say we need to “indigenize”, instead of decolonize, meaning that adopting indigenous ways of being in the world will in fact help decolonize our culture. As an example, this entails recognizing the interconnected relationship we have with nature and in doing so acknowledging that nature is not just a resource for humans.
If we find the courage to think and live differently, adopting a new set of values, we may end up having to let go of some things that you could say are part of “our comfort zones”, such as hoarding water for cities in order to have constant water supply, buying a ton of imported products that leave a huge carbon footprint or actually getting to know your neighbors and spend time building relationships with them to collectively find solutions for your community. We need to be able to ask ourselves the hard questions: What are you willing to let go of in order to live in a more balanced and just way for all? How far can philanthropy push this in order to act as midwife to these new value systems so that a new just and democratic culture can emerge? I personally think we do need to rethink what is most important and let go of some of these modern commodities so all life can continue, and that philanthropy is poised in a unique place of power to be an agent of change.
Since systemic alternatives take time, what is a useful response to the “we’re running out of time” critique?