By Gargi Sharma
The world is changing rapidly due to climate disruption and the COVID-19 crisis, and that’s not going to stop. But even as fires rage and storms brew, the impact of these changes can still be influenced. Grassroots groups around the world are filling the gaps created by government inaction, practicing mutual aid, cooling the planet, and building power and resilience for the long haul. They are challenging the status quo and advancing systemic change so we don’t go back to the ‘old normal’.
What role does philanthropy play in supporting action towards justice, collective health, and ecological vitality?
From April to August 2020, we organized the second edition of our Underpinning Stories Dialogue Series. In this five-part dialogue series, the CLIMA Fund and guest speakers from grassroots movements around the globe connected the dots across our global ecological, health, and social crises, and how grassroots solutions are growing to meet the challenge.
The world looks so much different from when we started in April, with Black Lives Matter, Indigenous rights, and pro-democracy movements rising up around the world. We also saw the toll the COVID-19 pandemic took on human lives and communities around the world, with women, Afro-descendant and Indigenous Peoples, and those living in the Global South countries, bearing a disproportionate brunt.
The visual on the left synthesizes the first dialogue on unpacking and understanding how grassroots work creates change. The visual on the right synthesizes the fourth dialogue on how funders can support social movements by creating trustworthy grant-making practices and ensuring accountability to partners. Illustrations by Liz Niarhos.
Dialogue participants recognized that climate disruption and global pandemics are not going to stop, and that philanthropy – for better or worse – can influence the direction and impact of these crises. An all-star cast of grassroots and philanthropic leaders shared how grassroots movements are responding in bold, nimble, and imaginative ways to this political moment. Here is what we learned:
- Grassroots groups have the ability to offer the boldest, most imaginative, and inclusive solutions to our social and political problems, because they are closest to those woes. And, funders have to be careful with romanticizing the grassroots. It is important to reflect whether grassroots groups take a piecemeal approach or mobilize for transformative change. Kate Kroeger warned participants to not use the same lens in funding that were used in creating the injustices faced today. In practice, this means interrogating funder assumptions that grassroots means “small” or ”inefficient”.
- The crisis is also an opportunity. Humanity does not have to go back to how things were. We can decide what the new normal looks like. 1% of philanthropic funding supports climate action, only 1% of U.S. funding is moved beyond our borders, and less than 1% of international funding is unrestricted. These numbers show how we export colonialism and racism through philanthropy. Funders can flip these numbers starting now.
- “Social movements are the essential workers of civil society”. The pandemic has exposed the underlying injustices and instabilities in our global systems, where grassroots groups are not only ensuring community health and well-being, but are also advancing long-term political and social change to stave off the crushing, and often deadly, long-term economic impact of the pandemic. The work of grassroots groups preceded this pandemic and will continue long after as communities stand up for their lives and homes.
- Solidarity extends beyond grant dollars. Some funders’ structures might not permit them to fund in the Global South, but they can still share information, knowledge, and experience.
- Cindy Weisner, a speaker, mentioned: “We are not in the same boat and we are in the same waters; each of our boats are different”. We can have joint articulations and commonality without actually erasing our distinctions and differences. What racial capitalism does to Indigenous Peoples is different from what it does to Black or Latinx people. To address the plurality of our experiences and situations through a solidarity lens means we have to assess the root causes of impacts.
- As funders, we can re-frame scale to help our peers understand the importance of place-based solutions that follow from an internationalist analysis. We can also share how grassroots is not a description of the size or impact of a group, rather than the direction from which change begins.
- Speakers called for an ecosystem approach to grant-making. Movements have the intelligence of plural strategy (from disruption to reform, informal to formal movement strategies); funders can as well. Philanthropy can be bolder in funding across geographies, regardless of organizations’ registration status, and look to supporting movements over individual actors.
The last six months have shown us again the strength and resilience of human beings. Where governments and corporations failed to take action, communities stepped in to take care of each other – from sharing prevention information to curbing food insecurity to taking to the streets to demand a better tomorrow. Where governments rolled back environmental protections, grassroots groups resisted and stood strong. Where top-down policy and information-sharing failed, movement ecosystems capitalized on their roots within their communities to reimagine, challenge, and reform the system. From Brazil to Belarus, from Thailand to Mali, from Lebanon to the USA, we have witnessed the strength and resilience of peoples as they address the COVID-19 pandemic – the resilience so necessary to facing our planet’s climate emergency.
Grassroots organizing is critical in – and much beyond – this political and ecological moment. As grassroots groups organize and respond to these crises, philanthropy can listen and learn from frontline activists, and redistribute global wealth towards grassroots climate solutions.
A big a thank you to all our speakers for sharing their knowledge and taking us on this learning journey: Alejandro Argumedo, Amaru Torrez Ruiz, Angela Adrar, Chung-Wha Hong, Cindy Weisner, Crystal Hayling, Jocelyn Velázquez, Kate Kroeger, Laura Garcia, Nmimmo Bassey, Ozawa Albert, Solomé Lemma, and Sonja Swift.
If you would like access to the recordings, further synthesis of this series, or discuss bringing this material into your philanthropic institution, please reach out to Gargi Sharma (gargi[at]climasolutions.org).