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Holiday Wishes from IDF

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Dear partners and friends, holiday greetings from all of us at IDF! We hope this finds you healthy and safe as we turn the page on another year still in the grip of a global pandemic. Hopefully this time next year, Covid will be in our rearview mirror (or close anyway) but for the time being living with this unwanted guest for a bit longer is our shared project. As Arundhati Roy and others have described, the pandemic is indeed a portal revealing the deeper roots of many global crises that need our collective attention and urgency:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

As we reflect back on 2021, we have felt the discomfort of being in this “portal” yet are grateful to be part of larger change happening in the world. We are filled with gratitude for the little bits of normalcy and human connection that have been slowly returning, eg. going back to our office and getting to meet in person with some grantee partners passing through Boston. We are grateful for all the ways we have been able to stay connected with partners near and far and continue to be in awe of the incredible steadfast care and resourcefulness of partners on the frontline who are working tirelessly in these very challenging times to alleviate human suffering and not give up when so much progress on so many fronts has been set back by this pandemic and other global challenges. 

Change is in the air everywhere, here too at IDF. We were sad to say goodbye to Lisa Jackson, who is moving onto another chapter in her incredible career. We are so grateful for all the ways she has left her imprint on IDF over the past four years and has spoken into the larger ecosystem of philanthropic and social change we operate in. We are adapting and settling in with a smaller team and are busily working on a new set of strategy conversations as we look forward to the next chapter ahead.

On behalf of all of us at IDF, may you experience the peace of this holiday season as you embrace the uncertainties of change around you.

May our hearts continue to expand and grow and remain open and kind as we look ahead to 2022 and discern ways to lean in and tend to the needs and crises around us asking something of each of us.

May you find some hidden joy this upcoming year conspiring together for the better world we all seek.

Warm wishes for a blessed holiday season,

Emily & Ross

PS: In the spirit of rest and rejuvenation, the IDF offices will be closed Dec 27 – Dec 31. If you need anything before the end of the year, please reach out to your program partner within the next two weeks. Otherwise, we’ll be back in touch on Jan 3.

Sustaining Leaders to Make the Impossible, Possible

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I am continually inspired by the work of our grantee partners and the impact they achieve in the world. These partners are diverse and work on a range of issues and in a range of settings and geographies. What unites them is that each relies on passionate and dedicated leaders who work tirelessly to serve their communities. Often these leaders are so focused on organizational and external priorities that they can overlook their own spiritual, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. Perennial reminds us that a core component of leadership development is a focus on a leader’s inner life. We are excited by the programming and fellowship opportunities they offer, all of which are designed to nurture leadership skills and focus on renewal or as we like to say, “keep the spark alive.” — Sheila Leddy, Program Partner

Some years ago, we chose to name our organization Perennial because of our experience that humans are remarkably sustainable and resilient beings who, like living soil, can generate magnificence. More specifically, the leaders who dream and inspire others to take action toward building a more inclusive, equitable and loving world regularly make the impossible, possible.

At Perennial our belief is that this capacity to generate hope and possibility is, again like living soil, something that can continue to produce if well tended. Therefore, our approach to leadership development has always been focused on those deeper, inner landscapes from where leaders access their resolve and capacity to renew themselves and their work.

After doing this well for two decades we have learned that ignoring or delaying these priorities inevitably leads to a depletion of inner resources that cannot be sustained. In short, our work has taught us that social leaders are capable of remarkable sustainability but tend to approach the inner landscape of their leadership in unsustainable ways. And when the depletion of inner resources hits critical levels of concern, and leaders cannot continue with their work, we are reminded that social leaders are not easily replaceable. More than anything—ideas, strategic plans, policies, funding—positive social change requires humans, leaders, to make the impossible, possible.

And over the past several months, we can see the world over that this proposition is under serious threat.

Leaders from all angles of social change—especially in health, education, environment, and human rights—have been called to be more resilient than ever and take actions while facing prolonged uncertainty. Communities are in crisis. People are displaced and under new threats. Organizational budgets are on the brink. More than ever we see widespread coverage of leadership burnout.

One anecdotal sign of how things have changed is that for many years our work at Perennial was not generally understood or, if it was, it was sometimes considered to be a “nice to have” leadership development training experience. But starting in 2020, it became less necessary for us to “make the case” for why our work and approach to leadership development is so important. Anyone who is involved with the social sector—whether it be at the local, national or global scale—knows leaders doing the work who have been working under crisis mode for what seems like forever.

Here we are reminded that while leadership may be sustainable, it is not easily replaceable.

Perennial is meeting this challenge by dramatically scaling our offerings to make our work more accessible to leaders around the world. With COVID protocols preventing us from conducting in-person trainings, we have adapted our work and expertise to be as powerful and transformational as a virtual offering. Since March 2020, we have trained hundreds of leaders throughout Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America, the Middle East, and North America through our Perennial Fellowship and other partnerships in our facilitated and asynchronous programs.

And perhaps as evidence that institutional philanthropy is beginning to recognize and prioritize leadership, wellbeing and sustainability, over the last two years we have worked closely with funders like the Obama Foundation, the Malala Fund, Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, the Issroff Family Foundation, and of course Imago Dei Fund, to elevate and amplify the Perennial approach to leadership development.

In January 2022 we are excited to be launching a new program in partnership with the University of Washington Department of Global Health called Wellbeing for Healthcare Professionals. This ten-week course will be built around our Perennial Wellbeing Practice and will enroll 2,500 participants throughout the world.

Additionally, in Spring and Summer 2022 we are offering our two-month Perennial Fellowship, which is a great opportunity for leaders to restore and renew themselves in a global cohort of remarkable people leading change throughout the world.

For more information on our work and what we are learning about leadership sustainability, wellbeing and burnout, please visit our website.

A Warmi in STEM

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In July 2021, IDF grantee partner Girl Rising launched the Future Rising Fellowship program. The project seeks to support young activists working at the intersection of environmental justice and gender equity. This is the story of Leticia Tituana, an indigenous woman from Ecuador who became one of the Fellowship’s first cohort. She is working to combine her training as a chemical engineer with the indigenous wisdom of her ancestors to address water contamination in her community.

I’ll begin by defining “warmi,” it means “woman” and it comes from Kichwa, one of Ecuador’s two official languages. It represents the harmony of the indigenous home, the union, strength, and rebellion. 

Being born in a rural community and belonging to an Indigenous town allowed me to understand the needs of the most vulnerable sectors of the country, the challenges we confront as Indigenous women, and the environment that we must constantly adapt to. 

My name is Lisseth, but I feel that there’s always been confusion since everyone used to call me “María,” just like they called my mother, grandmother, neighbors, and all women who wore the anaco, the typical dress of the first nation communities they belonged to. I’ll never forget the smiles that each one of these women gave in response. It was a simple smile, warm, with eyes full of light, with the hope of being more than “María,” or that was my perception, that’s how I saw it and have wanted to change things ever since I started schooling at nine years old in the city. I wanted to be more than “María.” 

I studied in four schools, one in my community, one in the parish, and two in the city. When I was nine years old and ready to start my sixth year of elementary school, the city schools refused to accept me because I came from an indigenous village, along with everything that implied. My education would have stopped there had it not been for the persistence of my mother, who carried the hope that I would have a better education.

My mother was a housewife and my father was a construction worker and learned about the importance of education from his contractors. Earning money to survive was a constant struggle for them. I saw this and sensed their frustration and so I spent hours in the school’s computer center to find my way – searching for a path forward. I wouldn’t have found it alone. My chemistry teacher, Jaime Albuja, was excellent. He told me not to waste my talent and dedication in a career that many others chose just because it seemed easy, and it was he who suggested that I pursue a career in STEM. Just over a month ago, I graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering from Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (ESPOL), one of the top public universities in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

It had always been in my plans to go far away, maybe I didn’t know my own place, but I longed for a change and thought about the challenges I faced. The main inconvenience from my point of view was money, how to pay the costs of rent, transport, food in a city. Luckily, I had seen all the Rocky movies on television and I knew from those stories, that I should not give up. However, something that I didn’t think about was that being an Indigenous woman, the first daughter from a home deeply tied to the customs and traditions of the Kichwa-Otavalo culture, might not allow me to go and study in another province.

My parents chose not to let me go, and my response to their refusal was that I didn’t care, that this time I would disobey them. I threatened to go and live under a bridge and not return without my degree. After some time, and a lot of soul searching, they finally accepted my decision, and I set off for Guayaquil, where I would study.

Once at University, I wondered if I had made the wrong choice. I was alone and I missed my family. We couldn’t speak because they didn’t have a cell phone or internet access, nor enough money to spend it on a call from a phone booth. At home every cent counted.

During my first days of classes, I didn’t realize that I was causing bewilderment in the university. I happily dressed in my typical dress, and that’s what I wore every day. A lot of my classmates asked me if the heat made me uncomfortable, but they were the only clothes I had. I felt proud to be dressed in so many colors stamped on my blouse and I wasn’t uncomfortable. My classmates never treated me badly, on the contrary, I made excellent friends who I still count on.

It was tough though to make ends meet and at one point, I was forced to leave school for lack of money. But I found my way back – working even harder than before at a lot of different jobs. I sold empanadas, cleaned houses, taught classes, sold crabs, lived in houses of families who helped me with a place to sleep and food. I helped with housework and saved for transportation costs. 

Eventually I became an aide in the chemistry department, and that led to a scholarship to study abroad at the University of Malaga in Spain.

The happiness that I felt that year is still indescribable. I’m grateful to my professor, the support of my friends, the unconditional love of my parents, self-love, principles, goals, and motivation. For the first time I felt I was equal. I felt that the academy offered me the same rights, rights that I Read More

Pain and Privilege of Leadership: Reflections of A Global South Change Maker

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I once read an article about MacArthur Fellows that highlighted their transnational and cross-sectoral life experiences. It affirmed my belief that our world’s increasingly complex problems are often solved by leaders who can transcend geographical borders, break down sectoral silos, and connect dots across fields and global communities in a way that others are challenged to do.

However, as a transnational and cross-sectoral bridge builder myself, I can attest that building “new boxes” that can hold solutions to our communities’ enduring issues is often a brutally challenging journey. My particular journey as an advocate for community-led structural change, spanning over three decades, has left me believing that social change should be led by communities, with communities, and for communities. At the same time, I’ve learned the hard way that most donor countries and philanthropic institutions that state their commitment to community-led development rarely put their money where their mouths are. It’s a reality check that leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) activists in the U.S. and all over the world. And being a woman always adds insult to injury, because no matter how much we women, and especially women of color, do the grunt work that allows critical change to take root (from President Biden’s election victory in the U.S. to Liberia’s peace process and the everyday victory of cities, towns and villages’ survival), we get discounted, underpaid, and marginalized thanks to the crushing grip of patriarchy.

Since my Haitian and international network and I led the launching of Fondation Communautaire Haitienne-Espwa, known internationally as the The Haiti Community Foundation, we’ve had to deal with no less than four disasters, from the 2010 Haiti Earthquake to Hurricane Matthew in 2016, to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and now the 2021 Haiti Earthquake. Truth be told, our focus has been more on community-led development, community philanthropy, and nation building than disaster relief. However, when you live within a community, when you are close enough to hear its heartbeat and the yearnings of its soul, you cannot ignore the pain inflicted by the disasters that wrack its body.

What have we learned over the years? Women, children, the elderly, and the handicapped are usually left behind by most international aid stakeholders who are unfamiliar with the topography and sociological patterns of local communities and who (to be blunt) are unwilling to learn them. As a result, the Haiti Community Foundation gives priority to single mothers, lactating mothers, and physically disabled community members who cannot get to the centers of towns where aid is distributed. We’ve been funding more women’s groups and we carefully nurture and support women leaders through our community representation policies not just because they are often not noticed by funders. More importantly, they know how to get things done and they are and know the heartbeat of their communities. We’ve also learned that disaster readiness and response is not a separate funding category but rather is just a regular part of life and good development.

Our community-led approach helped us to build a cross-sectoral community leaders network of over 1,000 leaders in the Grand Sud region that showed its priceless value as a human infrastructure after Hurricane Matthew and at the very onset of the 2021 Haiti Earthquake. Our network mobilized, brought life-saving water, medicines, and medical supplies to Pestel and Corail’s towns and villages that had lost 95% of their housing and 100% of their water distribution systems to the earthquake. We haven’t stopped helping and with other organizations and funders, we’re planning reconstruction and training leaders to respond to the next disaster.

The amazing support, solidarity, and endorsements that we have been receiving from international development, humanitarian and philanthropy leaders from all over the world has stunned us. Somehow, while we had been building our community-led institution the hard way and shifting the power to Haitian communities, the world had noticed our work. We’ve received a great number of donations as well as offers of support and partnerships with a gratitude tinged with incredulity. “It only took you a decade to gain the recognition for the great work that you’ve been doing all along” said my husband with his usual dry sense of humor. His comment hit a nerve. Young white do-gooders with no solid community experience seem to easily attract praise, support, and significant levels of financial resources while we experienced BIPOC community leaders toil in obscurity and struggle to access resources for our communities year after year.

In one of my other lives, I am the Director of Imago Dei Fund’s Girl Child Long Walk Project where, with a great team that includes co-authors Emily Nielsen Jones and Rev. Domnic Misolo, we’ve built and are launching a Fellowship working at the rare intersectional space of faith, gender, equality, and community-led development. We are very excited about the incredibly talented and diverse cohort of leaders and student fellows that we’ve attracted that include eleven women and three men from various African countries, the United States, Pakistan, and Brazil.

(If you are interested in learning more about the very brave work of faith-inspired change agents around the world to untangle contradictions at the nexus of their own faith tradition, culture, and gender norms, please consider joining our upcoming reading journey beginning in just a few weeks!)

During the interview of a candidate for the fellowship, I was reminded of why this work matters. “I wondered,” she said with a voice filled with Read More

What About Asking the Girls?

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Photo courtesy of Komera

It’s been well over a year since COVID-19 emerged as a global pandemic and yet it will be some time before we grasp the full impact of the pandemic on girls’ lives and education. However, AMPLIFY Girls reminds us of the necessity of taking the time to truly understand the complexity of the issues at work. The collaborative research effort by AMPLIFY Girls and its community-driven partners also demonstrates the wisdom of asking girls themselves about the unique issues they faced and what they need to move forward. At the Imago Dei Fund, we are grateful for the important insights shared below from their multi-country research project. We look forward to the release of the full report this summer and the launch of their campaign focused on community-based solutions and policy changes in Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya that are informed by girls. — Sheila Leddy, Program Partner

When COVID19 hit, the global community was asked to stay home.

But what if home wasn’t safe? What if school was the only place where you could get a meal, escape from the weight of household chores, learn about your rights and health, and ultimately see a pathway out of poverty.

For many young women and girls, this is their reality.

During the COVID19 pandemic, the global community mobilized into research mode to understand how COVID19 would impact girls’ education. Much of it from a desk or a mobile phone, global directors were surveyed, government officials provided feedback, and modeling was completed.

Rarely did anyone ask a girl directly what she felt were the barriers to returning to school and what she considered were strategies for that return. In the world of development, as we rush to solve problems, we often forget to ask questions of those most affected by the situation. We are in a pandemic in and of itself as we seek to solve the problem rather than slowing down, taking the time to understand the issues and trying to solve them through a community-based lens.

AMPLIFY Girls, a partner-driven collective of community-driven organizations in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania decided to address this issue by asking and listening to the adolescent girls they serve.

What happened when we asked girls?

In October 2020, AMPLIFY Girls, undertook a multi-country qualitative research study to ask girls why they were dropping out of school and their recommendations to get young women back to school and back on track.

The results are painful but important.

Our research makes clear the fact that girls are experiencing protracted trauma during COVID-19—trauma that is much larger and long-lasting than the period of school closures. The daily experience of violence, acute poverty, stress, anxiety, stigmatization and insecurity have all served to deteriorate girls’ psychological and emotional health, making school return unlikely without sustained and holistic care for multiple facets of their wellbeing.

At the highest level, our findings suggest that pregnancy is the primary driver of girls’ dropout from school during the pandemic, but that pregnancy is a symptom of underlying acute, economic vulnerabilities and is augmented by situations of social and physical isolation that are often mutually reinforcing. The overwhelming majority of focus group discussion participants cited transactional sex for basic goods (such as food, clothing, and menstrual hygiene products) as the primary cause of unintended pregnancies in their communities. Accordingly, we found that economic precarity leading to transactional sex and unintended pregnancies was the most common pathway leading to girls’ dropout.

With pregnancy and economic hardship cited as the primary drivers of girls’ dropout, our research found that the primary barriers to girls’ school return are toxic home, school, and community environments that view pregnancy from a moral lens. Whereas respondents very rarely reported that their families were unsupportive of girls’ education, girls frequently noted that their communities were discouraging towards pregnant girls’ education. Our research suggests that the social stigma surrounding teen pregnancy and motherhood is the single biggest factor keeping girls from returning to school post-pandemic.

Photo courtesy of GirlUp Uganda

Girls offered many important solutions and policies that they felt could support their continued learning. Recognizing the complex nature of their needs, common features of these recommendations were their holistic nature and their deep care for the social and emotional aspects of girls’ wellbeing, particularly pregnant girls. The vast majority of girls felt that psychosocial support for girls, combined with community norm shift and sensitization around pregnant girls’ value, their needs, rights and opportunities would be profoundly impactful.  Girls had many suggestions for government including:

  • Strengthened reintegration policies
  • School-level implementation to make schools more girl-friendly and supportive of pregnant girls and young mothers
  • Community-based strategies for preventing early and unwanted pregnancies
  • Better access to the necessary tools for participating in remote learning; and
  • More structured support and encouragement for at-home learning.

Our synthesis of these findings and girls’ recommendations leads us to the following calls to action to support girls’ school return. We divide these into actions that should be taken immediately to halt attrition in the short term, and actions that should be taken in the medium and long term  to prevent continued dropout in the future.

Short-Term Actions:

  • Provision of immediate economic reliefspecifically menstrual health supplies, food and school fees for both pregnant and non-pregnant girls. Removing the immediate economic pressures associated with risky behaviors and dropout is a necessary and basic prerequisite for returning girls to school.
  • Trauma counseling and The vast majority of girls are experiencing both acute and protracted trauma. Psychosocial support and counseling are necessary to encourage girls (both pregnant and not pregnant) that it is both possible to return to school. Mentorship by either peers or adult women can provide girls with a sense of connection, belonging, and hope.
  • Pathways for pregnant girls to continue learning. As work is undertaken in the long term to make schools more girl-friendly and less toxic to pregnant girls, pregnant young Read More

Funding the Power of Women and Girls of Color

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In honor of Mother’s Day that we recently celebrated here in the USA, I want to reflect on the power of women and girls of color. At the Imago Dei Fund we care deeply about supporting women and girls of color to have agency and decision-making control over their lives. Our starting point in this work is the assumption that women and girls of color have power (they do not need to “be empowered”) and that this power can be supported and grown in ways that help women and girls of color live the lives they want for themselves, their families and their communities. We have the privilege of walking alongside a number of organizations and communities that center the needs of women and girls of color in this way.

Centering the agency of women and girls of color in our work as a funding partner means we partner with organizations that do the following:

  • Assume that women and girls of color live complex, dynamic, nuanced lives that are intersectional in a multitude of ways and do not shy away from centering women holistically,
  • Ask women and girls of color what they want and need, 
  • Trust in women and girls of color being the best qualified people to know what they want and need and therefore believe them when they say what they want and need, and
  • Leverage the power inherent in women and girls of color and do what is necessary to support them to attain what they want and need.

While the above may seem obvious to those of you already centering women and girls of color in your work, I continue to hear folks in the spaces I am in center themselves and what they think women and girls of color want and need, rather than centering the women and girls of color they claim they want to “help.” They often say things like “we need to empower women and girls” or “we need to include women and girls.” The assumptions in statements like this are the antithesis of what it means to center women and girls of color. In addition, the “of color” is often omitted, ignoring the racialized experience of women and girls of color and avoiding the intersectional nature of the work that needs to be supported.  

Oftentimes I hear “we want to remove barriers to access and equity for women and girls.” To be clear, it is critically important that barriers to access for women be removed and that organizations, including philanthropic organizations, center gender equity in their efforts. That said, when you center women and girls of color in your thinking and approach it is easier to see what those barriers are from the point of view of a woman or a girl of color. And once the barriers are removed, women and girls of color can then engage as they want, when they want, and on terms that work for them.

I am excited to share that the Imago Dei Fund recently invested in three remarkable organizations that fully center women and girls of color. They are remarkable for a few reasons.

  • They all center Black women and girls and women and girls of color unapologetically and respectfully.
  • They hold themselves accountable to the women and girls of color they partner with and engage them as leaders in the work.
  • They are focused on advancing the well-being of women and girls of color (different from “helping”).
  • They are all putting the decision-making power into the hands of women and girls of color when it comes to the distribution of resources. Women and girls of color are making the decisions about where the money goes, to whom and for what – rather than the organization or donor/funder making that decision.

The Black Girl Freedom Fund, the Children’s Rights Innovation Fund, and the Boston Women’s Fund are all deeply committed to centering the lives of women and girls of color, advancing their well-being, and ensuring racial and gender equity and justice for them and their communities. IDF is proud and humbled to walk with and learn from these organizations.

Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

Our colleagues in philanthropy need to step up when it comes to centering and supporting women and girls of color. There is a lot of talk about what needs to be done, but very little action being taken. According to the Pocket Change report put out by the Ms. Foundation:

Of the $356 million from foundations available for women and girls of color (WGOC) in 20171, less than $15 million, about 4.2%, was specified as benefitting Black women and girls. The median size of grants benefitting Black women and girls was $18,000 compared to a median of $35,000 for all foundation grants reported to Candid in 2017.

If philanthropy actually wants to respond to the cries for racial and social justice in this country and have a real and sustainable impact on issues such as health care, education, poverty alleviation, civic engagement, it needs to de-center itself more and center women and girls of color – they have the power and wisdom to make the world a better place for all of us. We just need to get out of the way.

Top featured photo by Jennifer Burk on Unsplash.

“There is in all things a hidden wholeness.”
Thomas Merton