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How Local Nonprofits Continue to Support Newly Arrived Immigrants

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Last week my colleague Sonya and I had the pleasure of visiting Bishop Nicolas Homicil at his Voice of the Gospel Tabernacle Ministry church in Mattapan. As a long-time grantee partner, we were aware of the important work that he and many of our other community-based partners in Boston do to meet the needs of their communities. In fact, Bishop Homicil’s work was recently featured in a local newspaper. As is often the case, faith-based organizations are the first place that newly arrived immigrants seek out when they need assistance. Many provide food, emergency shelter, and serve as critical points of connection to other services and resources. In short, they welcome newly arrived immigrants with love and do their best to help them integrate into the community. Our visit drove home not only the immense need, but the powerful way Bishop Homicil and others are responding to the increased need driven in part by the crisis at the Southern border and instability in Haiti. As part of our new strategy the Imago Dei Fund, has affirmed our role in continuing to support this essential work in the community and in particular to strengthening the network of support in the Haitian diaspora in Boston. An important part of that network is the Immigrant Family Services Institute that offers a range of services and is an important advocate for immigrants in Massachusetts. We are happy to spotlight their work here as a way to share what we have been learning about the needs and the powerful way the many nonprofit organizations are responding. ~ Jennifer Oakley, Program Partner Imago Dei Fund

Immigration Family Services Institute (IFSI), was founded in 2015 by Executive Director, Dr. Geralde V. Gabeau and other dedicated Haitian professionals with the belief that when voices of marginalized people are centered, the outcome is equity, inclusion, and greater wellbeing. IFSI’s mission is to expedite their successful integration into the social and economic fabric of the United States with justice and dignity. Inspired by a humanist vision of global solidarity and peace, IFSI aims to address the needs and aspirations of recently arrived immigrants in the United States by being a leading institute for direct services and programs, thought leadership, coalition building, and advocacy. Adopting the ‘It Takes a Village’ African proverb that resonates with immigrants, IFSI’s team welcomes all into the IFSI Family and accompanies these resilient individuals and families on their journeys, creating pathways to new beginnings.

In solidarity, IFSI quickly pivots to meet clients where they are, providing emergency services, temporary housing and food, and processing work applications. Once basic essentials are met, immigrants are better positioned for opportunities in education and workforce development. At the heart of its mission is the educational program, and IFSI takes special pride in fostering a nurturing and safe environment for young people and adults to learn, develop intellectual curiosity, and acquire practical skills. IFSI offers after school and summer programs rich in academics and the Arts to help students thrive. The adult education program provides classes focused on ESL/ESOL, literacy, technology, certified nursing and culinary arts to support pathways to gainful employment, meaningful inclusion, and optimal living for those served.

Across Massachusetts IFSI’s offices serve as ‘One-Stop Centers’ bringing together, in one place, linguistic and cultural expertise in service delivery, providing information that connects immigrants to the resources they most need and in proper sequence. These areas include housing; healthcare; legal assistance; and education for children, youth and adults, as well as workforce development, job placement, and advocacy. IFSI’s advocacy efforts are broad and range from individual empowerment to systems change; educating a broader public through radio, published news and Navigator stories (found on IFSI’s website); collaboration with coalitions and partners; and meetings with policy makers, fostering better understanding of the immigrant context with impact to facilitate a greater understanding of developments, and to shape timely, appropriate, and scaled responses.

With the third-highest number of Haitians in the country, Massachusetts has 81,050 individuals – 1.16% of the state’s population – and is fast growing. The number of newly arrived IFSI families increased from 520 in 2020 to more than 9,000 family units served this year to date, 17 times that of 2020. In this year alone, IFSI has welcomed more than 14,000 individuals at its doors. They face language and acculturation challenges, an education gap, scars from years of violence and repression in Haiti following the assassination of their president in 2021, and a national immigration border crisis. Upon arrival, they are met with social and structural barriers, intolerance, and inequity– further exacerbated by a housing crisis and bottlenecks at the federal level with application processing of Temporary Protective Status and work permits, which are vital to self-reliance.

In 2021, IFSI elevated advocacy efforts with community partners statewide, mobilizing its Haitian brothers and sisters in protest against injustice and inequity. Ascending the state house steps together in a call to action led to meaningful systems change, yielding a first ever $8M Haitian Resettlement Assistance Program (HRAP) pass-through grant in 2022, with IFSI named as administrator.

Last month, IFSI led a charge to amplify awareness of the ongoing shortage of available and affordable housing as it relates to the influx of newly arrived immigrants. Dr. Gabeau’s statewide advocacy focused attention on the crisis at the intersection of an unprecedented influx of immigrants and the longstanding affordable housing shortage in the Greater Boston area. Her participation in dialogue with legislative leaders culminated in one-to-one conversation with Massachusetts Governor Healey. This resulted in the August 2023 announcement of the State of Emergency to address the migrant housing crisis, a turning point in heightened awareness and a push toward system change. IFSI works tirelessly to create lasting change and dares to dream of a time when ALL immigrants are accepted, and full inclusion is realized.

Continuing Our Climate Learning Journey

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As we have shared in previous blogs, Imago Dei Fund has been on an intentional learning journey around climate change. Like many of you, we have been struck by the stark warnings and the closing window to mitigate its worst impacts. Indeed, one only needs to look at the news to hear about heat waves, droughts, forest fires, increasingly intense storms, flooding, and other natural disasters. Dig a little deeper and it is clear that many of these impacts fall most heavily on women and girls and frontline communities who rely on the land and ocean to sustain them and their families.

As we have engaged with our grantee partners around this issue, we have heard loud and clear that climate change is a priority for many of them. It intersects with all of the issues we care about – gender equality , poverty reduction , migration and displacement of people, agriculture, girls’ education, health and well-being, and the list goes on. Based on what we are hearing from grantee partners as well as our own understanding of the existential threat climate change poses, we are feeling the urgency to do more and have named climate change as a key priority in our recently completed strategic plan.

Earlier this year, the three of us participated in the online course Climate + Philanthropy: A Compact Learning Journey. We wanted to deepen our collective understanding of the issue, analyze how it intersects with our work, examine how other foundations were mobilizing to address it, and identify opportunities for engagement. Each of us got so much out of the course. On a psychological level, it did a great job of making us feel both uncomfortable and motivated. We learned how we got ourselves into our global climate crisis in the first place and became more aware of things that we can do and fund to be part of the solution. By the end of the course, we all felt energized to be part of the global movement to halve our carbon emissions by 2030 and come as close as we can to a carbon neutral world by 2050.

We want to emphasize that this is not a new issue to Imago Dei Fund. In the early years of the fund, there was a focus on what we called “creation care”: mostly supporting faith-based actors to use their platforms to raise awareness about the environment and the need for all of us to do our part to care for creation. And, while it has remained a thread in our holistic approach to grantmaking, it has not been an explicit priority in our decision making over recent years.

However, as we move into our next strategic phase, more fully defining and expanding our role vis-a-vis climate change is a priority. To demonstrate this commitment, Imago Dei Fund recently signed on to the International Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change. What does this pledge mean? For us, it is not only a public commitment to climate action but a framework that will inform how we integrate climate change in Imago Dei Fund’s work. This does not mean that we are abandoning our commitment to centering the needs of women and girls or to holistic grantmaking, rather we are lifting up climate as an essential element to both of these goals.

Before signing the pledge, we looked carefully at the seven pillars for action in the International Philanthropy Commitment’s Implementation Guide. These include: Education and Learning, Commitment of Resources, Integration, Endowment and Assets, Operations, Influencing and Advocacy, and Transparency. Going forward, we will be examining the climate impacts of our grantmaking, operations and investments much more intentionally.

As a faith-inspired foundation that centers women and girls and takes a holistic approach to grantmaking, we know we need to work with our partners to address climate change. We signed the #PhilanthropyForClimate pledge because we are committed to ongoing learning and intentionally driving more resources to combat the crisis. ~ Ross and Emily Jones

Recognizing the urgency of the issue, we have decided to focus initially on our grantmaking as we believe we can have the most impact there in the short term. We will continue to gather feedback from our existing grantee partners, allocate funding to climate related work, and define a climate lens to apply to our grantmaking. In addition, we will look to further mainstream positive impacts on not only women and girls but also on the environment in the investments of IDF’s corpus, which holds the potential to unlock vast additional resources beyond grantmaking alone. Last but not least, we will continue to focus on education and learning to ensure that everyone in the organization understands the issue, can collectively own it, and can think creatively as a team about relevant opportunities and how we can best contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts here in Boston and around the world.

We fully understand that there will be challenges in making this shift and many decision points will be difficult to navigate. After all, we are talking about all aspects of the organization – what we do and how we do it. The questions are many. How do we ensure that our grant dollars are working to support initiatives and programs that are benefiting local communities and are sustainable in both the short and long term? How do we think about travel? How do we take a responsible and thoughtful approach to aligning investments and deploying capital? None of these will be easy and we are not promising to get it all right. However, we recognize the time to act is now and are absolutely committed to making progress, learning with our partners as we go, and sharing our learnings along the way.

Deep Listening to Lift the Veil of Stigma & Shame – a Spotlight on Nyanam Widows in Kisumu, Kenya

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After almost three years of limited international travel, I had the privilege of traveling with colleagues to Kenya to visit with partners in March. I left with familiar feelings of hope, tremendous awe, and deep gratitude for the incredible visionary changemakers that the Imago Dei Fund is so fortunate to be able to support and learn from. As I often do after a trip I reflect on my key learnings and the linkages to other work we support and that I care deeply about around gender and norms change. On this particular trip, I was deeply affected by a visit with Nyannam, an organization founded and led by Jackie Odhiambo, that works with widows in rural Kenya. Widows in many places suffer from a very deep stigma and scorn and are often blamed and shamed for their husband’s death.

Before I left on my trip, I had started conceptualizing an essay that I was calling “Destigmatizing Eve.” It was an attempt to capture my thinking about how so much of the web of gender-based oppression that plagues our planet stems from the story of Eve and the ancient stigma that functions like a curse or a taboo rooted in millennia-old beliefs and myths that still live on in our collective consciousness. As I was listening to Jackie and her team share their own personal stories as well as what they have heard from the widowed women they serve, I literally could feel in their stories the lingering hold of this ancient man-made curse but also the light and love of awareness exposing and dispelling it. Jackie is now collaborating with me on a longer paper on this topic that uses her work at a case study. What touched me most about our day with Nyanam is the simplicity and humanity of their main “intervention”: deep listening. It is at the core of all they do and is the magic of their work. ~ Emily Nielsen Jones

Nyanam started in 2017 and grew out of an experience I had while working on a water project that led me to connect the dots between things I had experienced or witnessed growing up and what I was seeing in development work. Widows were being left behind in community projects. Their voices were unheard and often treated with neglect and disrespect due to social and cultural stigmas. Nyanam was started to change that. We work in Kisumu Kenya, where I grew up and where almost everyone on the Nyanam team is from, and like me most have a direct link to widows. In my case, I was raised by a team of widows: my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother. So I know the stigma the women we serve experience. Let me share a bit of context.

In Kenya, as in much of Africa and Asia, 1 in 3 widowed women experience societal stigma that devalues their humanity and creates social, economic and health losses in the lives of widows. Nearly half of the widows are young, aged below 60 years. Widowhood is also a gendered social identity. While widowed men often remarry within 2 years of the death of their spouse, women with deceased husbands remain widowed for a long time or forever. Cultural practices such as leviratic marriage require widows to remarry within the community of the deceased husband, constraining remarriage options. The culture is also patrilineal with children belonging to the family of the husband, making official remarriage a threat to mother-child relationships. Widows also worry that their children with the deceased husband might not be fully accepted in a new marriage. Some widows also discover new individual freedoms that they never experienced in marriage, making them prefer singlehood. As a result, for every one widower, there are at least eight widows in the country.

Structural stigma, expressed through culture, religious traditions and laws favor men over women during widowhood. Female widowhood can be seen as a root cause of health and wealth inequalities women experience in widowhood. When a husband dies, widows lose more than a husband. For example, they lose their social status and become inferior, they lose social relationships they had when their husband lived, and they also lose economic resources they enjoyed in their marriage. At a challenging time in a woman’s life when she can use as much support as can be offered, the contrary becomes true.

Like Emily, I see the link to the story of Eve. “Eve” is blamed for sin hence death entering the world. When a husband dies, it is common for the widow to be blamed for his death, regardless of the cause of death. Labeled ‘husband killer’, the widow is now believed to acquire a spiritual impurity (the shadow of death) that threatens the survival of her children and the wellbeing of her community. She becomes a ‘witch’, a ‘bad omen’, held responsible for all misfortunes that befall her family and community, and excluded from all forms of social events to keep ‘bad luck’ and death at bay. This discrimination remains unless she is purified through a sexual cleansing ritual, or performs whatever cleansing ritual her family demands.

Despite progress in laws that promote gender equality in Kenya, property laws applicable to women during widowhood uphold male dominance, including economic dominance, plunging widows into more poverty. Often, widowhood means the loss of a breadwinner and the expansion of a woman’s financial responsibilities. This situation is most desperate for women whose husbands prohibited their participation in the labor force, demanding they remain housewives as the husbands provide. The desperation deepens when the same widows suffer property disinheritance, with their land, animals and household effects grabbed by their in-laws who cling to patrilineal inheritance and see the widows as responsible for the death of their son thus undeserving of their son’s or family wealth. Although Kenya’s constitution protects women’s rights to inheritance, the Read More

Imago Dei Fund’s New Strategic Plan – An Update

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We are excited to share an update on the strategy planning process that our staff and trustees engaged in last year. With support from a facilitator, we started with a series of internal reflections and discussions to review Imago Dei Fund’s mission, core values and approach as well as to dig into the foundation’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Our goal was to map out our strategic focus for the three years ahead (2023-2025). With an initial draft plan outlined by late 2022, we then took the time to engage nearly 100 grantee partners, peer funders, and program experts either in one-on-one calls or in small groups. This was a key part of our design process and so valuable to hear impressions of Imago Dei Fund’s current work and ideas for us going forward.

It is crystal clear to us that while it takes a lot of time, gathering input from many voices and vantage points is critical to deepening understanding and perspective. We are deeply appreciative of participants’ time—their feedback was rich and insightful, and our plan is better for it. A few examples of feedback that informed our plan:

  • The well-being of our grantee partners’ teams is top of mind and critical to success and our Keep the Spark Alive grants are important and fairly unique in the funding space.
  • We should use a justice and human rights approach in our support of those working to combat commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking.
  • We have a unique role to play as a bridge builder with secular funders for our faith-inspired grantee partners.
  • Grantee partners appreciate our relational approach and would like us to do more to influence others in philanthropy and to continue amplifying their work.
  • Partners encouraged us to increase direct engagement with and seek input from those with lived experience in the geographies and areas in which we fund.
  • Grantee partners want to be networked and to learn with and from each other and efforts to support connections and convenings should be informed by their needs.
  • Grantee partners are amazing resources both for each other and for helping to identify new partners for IDF as we grow.

This feedback was incredibly valuable in both affirming some of our initial thinking and pushing us even more.

What’s Next

As we look forward to the next three years, we will continue to center the needs of women and girls in our funding, strive to be bridge builders, and deepen our relational and holistic approach. In addition, we are looking forward to:

  • Expanding impact in our focus geographies through increased grantmaking in support of community-driven development that centers the dignity and agency of girls and women, working with more proximate funders and ecosystem players, and building out our impact investing;
  • Strengthening our learning, feedback, and communications through deepening our culture of learning, practicing trust-based and highly relational partnership, and communicating better with all our stakeholders; and
  • Improving our organizational design by aligning our team with these strategic priorities, enhancing our internal systems and culture, and diversifying our team and the voices informing our work and funding.

We are ever grateful for our partners and will continue to seek your feedback – and learn from it – throughout our strategy implementation process. Thank you! It’s good to be on this journey together.

Here’s the link to a summary version of our 3-year strategic plan.

Empowering Leaders to Dismantle Patriarchy: A Spotlight on the Kenya Reading Journey

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Last year, Imago Dei Fund’s Girl Child Long Walk project launched a pilot fellowship with 12 faith-inspired change agents from across the globe seeking to grow in awareness of the ancient roots of patriarchal cultural norms which stubbornly persist in our world, and ask “what is mine to do?” One of the fellows, Rev. Dr. Patrick Musembi, decided to take action by launching a Girl Child Long Walk reading journey in Kenya, and to invite village chiefs and assistant chiefs to explore together the ways that they can foster gender equality in their communities. We are honored to spotlight Patrick’s incredible story and recently awakened and contagious passion as a male ally working for gender equality.

My backstory

Societal change doesn’t happen overnight and is often a slow, painstaking process that spans generations. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Growing up in rural Kenya, in a small village in the Kathiani region of Machakos, patriarchy was deeply woven into the fabric of our society. I grew up watching my sisters doing the thankless work of cooking and fetching water from strenuously long distances. Given my family didn’t keep a large herd of animals, the work for me and my brothers of looking after goats felt immensely easier. Although my father didn’t harbor any discriminatory feelings between boys and girls, patriarchy still seeped through. 

Poverty held us by the throat, keeping our finances meager and my father in constant debt. In the background, my unschooled mother supplemented my father’s income through a greengrocery business in the village square. She was up before the sun, beginning her lengthy journey to the town and ensuring our mouths were fed and our education well taken care of. However, in a culture that prioritized male education, my sisters did not get the privilege of proceeding beyond high school. I, on the other hand, went on to become ordained and an accomplished educator. 

As a child, I hardly realized all the dynamics I was witnessing, or the inequalities faced by my sisters. Nevertheless, hindsight has proved to be a powerful tool. Our unsung hero, my mother, plays center stage in this story. Raised in a family that didn’t see the value of education, she still managed to break through those conceptions and instill its importance in us. In my village, she is something of a revolutionary. Her blood, sweat and tears set my homestead apart from the rest; full of learned, determined and accomplished individuals who continue to challenge societal norms. 

She lit a fire in me that only grew brighter when I participated in the Girl Child Long Walk fellowship in 2021. The fellowship cemented something I always suspected to be true: this is what I was created to do. I will spare no effort in calling men in Kenya and in Africa to step back and make space for girls and women to grow and excel.

A missing link in community transformation

At the end of the fellowship, we were given the opportunity and support to work on a project of our choosing and I got inspired to do something new in my community with what felt like an untapped and missing constituency in the work of gender equality: the village chiefs and assistant chiefs.

After the fellowship was over, I adapted the Girl Child Long Walk reading journey into something we could use to reach this target audience. The program we launched enlisted 24 chiefs and assistant chiefs drawn from the three southeast Kenya Counties of Machakos, Makueni, and Kitui. These leaders are directly in touch with people at the grassroots level where ordinary life happens and where patriarchal gender norms persist within the invisible fabric of the family and the community and create change. They enforce government policies and officiate at various public forums including burials, school meetings, weddings, development forums, and public holidays. They have a right to call for baraza, community public gatherings to discuss important matters, and to share information with the public. 

This cadre of leadership is the unrecognized missing link in community transformation in general and also with respect to the traditional layer of society which all too often sanctions patriarchal norms that make girls and women so vulnerable to harmful practices, overwork, marginalization, sexual exploitation, and myriad forms of violence. These leaders are called on to arbitrate in most gender-based violence cases, marital and inheritance disputes, among others but they could do much more to galvanize great awareness of and action to address the pervasive nature of gender-based exploitation in our communities.

Local initiatives to safeguard and liberate girl children

The Kenya Reading Journey has inspired several local initiatives to transform gender norms and liberate the girl children in Kenya from needless oppression and violence. The administrators have committed themselves to mainstream issues related to girl children in their public engagement rather than sweep these under the carpet or treat them as a taboo topic that can’t be talked about. 

Some of the administrators have initiated specific programs to challenge prevailing gender customs and practices to safeguard and liberate girls in their communities. For example, three administrators have mapped key stakeholders to mobilize various groups to keep an eye out for harmful things happening to girls in their communities. As a result, two teenage girls in Makueni County have been rescued from early marriages and funds were raised to enroll them back in school in 2023.

An assistant chief in Makueni County brought together 274 girls to talk about what it means to be a girl in that community. She invited various professionals from the region to speak to the girls on various issues. Read More

Wishing You Holiday Hygge

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During this busy holiday season, our inboxes and our hearts can be overfull as we remember all that the year held while we gather with family, friends, and co-workers for some holiday cheer. At Imago Dei Fund, our hearts certainly are full as we look back on the global struggles of 2022 and the web of kindness and change that we are privileged to be a part of.

We spent a good portion of this year working on a strategic plan that will shape our work and priorities for the next three years. As part of this, we engaged in many stakeholder conversations with partners and friends. What a gift it has been to be on the receiving end of so many people’s time and wisdom! We are working on the final touches of this plan and look forward to sharing more in the new year.

In this busy and sacred season, our holiday greeting this year is short and sweet: we wish you something the Danish call hygge, which is more easily felt than explained. It is a feeling of coziness and wellbeing, a contentedness surrounded by simple things and/or the people you love. In our fast-paced, digitally over-connected world, hygge invites us to switch off our devices and return to the simple enjoyment of the moment at hand.


However busy you may be, however full your inbox or social calendar, whatever your longing for alleviating human suffering and changing unjust social structures, whatever heaviness may be burdening your heart, or whatever hopes you carry for the year ahead… this holiday season we wish you the simple pleasure of feeling cozy and peaceful in the refuge of the present moment.

We are grateful to be in the mix with so many incredible change-makers, like you, who make the world more kind, beautiful & safe.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, & Happy New Year,
Ross and Emily

PS: In the spirit of rest, rejuvenation and hygge, the IDF offices will be closed Dec 26 – Jan 2. If you need anything before the end of the year, please reach out to your program partner before then. Otherwise, we’ll be back in touch in the new year.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead