Support Girls of Color by Listening First

Support Girls of Color by Listening First

Last year, the NoVo Foundation announced a seven-year, $90 million commitment to support and deepen the movement for girls of color in the United States. After more than a decade of partnership with incredible organizations working with and advocating on behalf of adolescent girls across the country, we saw that the need for additional funding to support girls of color specifically could not be more urgent or clear.

Girls of color face structural barriers in nearly every aspect of their lives. Over 60 percent of girls of color are born to families living on low incomes or below the poverty line. Sexual violence is pervasive in the lives of all girls and often goes neglected, especially for girls of color. What's more, girls of color who face harm are often unfairly penalized. Black girls, for example, are six times more likely to be suspended in school than their white peers — and are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system. At least eight trans women have already been murdered this year, most of them women and girls of color. All these disparities combine and deepen into new disparities in adulthood: the median wealth for single black women, for example, is just $100, compared to $44,000 for single white men.

Despite this profound structural inequity, a movement for and with girls of color thrives. And we knew that the best way to deepen our own relationship with this movement was to be guided directly by the women and girls of color who'd been leading it for decades — rather than by our own assumptions. Otherwise, we'd simply be reinforcing the very structural barriers and power structures we sought to dismantle.

So, before developing a new strategy to guide our work, we spent a year traveling across the country, from the Northeast to the rural South, from the Midwest to the Southwest, to hear from girls of color as well as activists, movement leaders, and organizers of all ages. We prioritized communities that are often underresourced, less visible, and living with their own unique challenges — as well as possessing unique strengths.

Our conversations brought to light rich and complex perspectives from the lived experiences of girls of color, their hopes and dreams, and the diverse set of challenges they face in achieving them. The insights will guide the coming years of our work, and we share some here with the hope they can benefit others.

First, "girls of color" is not a monolith. Class, race, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, and other social identities all drive unique challenges as they intersect in the lives of girls. Yet,the visions girls across communities had for their lives were often similar; to live in safety, dream all the possibilities for their future, access what's necessary to live with dignity and to feel celebrated.

We also saw how the same systems that harm girls of color and render them invisible also marginalize the work that is being done with and for them. The movement for girls of color is largely led by women of color, working on their own time, driven by personal commitment. We met women who work late into the night and travel hundreds of miles, drawing on whatever could be packed into the trunk of their cars, to respond to the urgent needs of girls in their communities. Yet this work is often not seen as "work" at all. Just as labor traditionally done by women is devalued across our economy, work done with and for girls of color is often seen as the responsibility of the women doing it, not something that should be valued and compensated on its own.

All of this results in a troubling cycle. As work is devalued, it never becomes formally resourced, and ironically, because it is not well resourced, it is not seen by foundations as something that should be supported. While philanthropy often celebrates investing in "risk takers" from other communities, deep patterns of sexism and racism end up deeming the truly innovative work of women of color as a risk too great to take.

That's why we'll be working from the ground up and are committed to finding creative ways to support these women who are and will continue to lead this work. By inviting letters of inquiry, we will support local initiatives that are defined and led by girls and women of color who are best positioned to provide safe and healing spaces for girls while also engaging them in the movements that center them.

As funding at the grassroots level grows, we see an opportunity for philanthropy to also fund regional philanthropic infrastructures. We trust that local and regional leaders know best when it comes to defining how to authentically support movements and deliver resources to community groups, activists, and emerging organizations. To begin this work, we will focus on a region that's been largely ignored but has a deep and strong social justice movement history and capacity: the U.S. Southeast.

Our listening tour reinforced our suspicion that initiatives supporting girls of color in the Southeast are severely underfunded. Yet too often in philanthropy, the drive toward metrics and evaluation creates an insidious pressure to focus on segments of communities that are easier to reach, with the idea that quickly "demonstrating progress" will eventually cause change to trickle down to others. We know that trickle-down progress is a myth.

That's why we're launching a request for proposals to identify a regional partner(s) in the Southeast who can serve as an intermediary for our grantmaking and capacity-building efforts. Having a regional partner who is already deeply invested in the work will help us build the philanthropic and movement-building infrastructure necessary to support activists doing transformative work while bringing additional funders into the fold. And over the long-term, we'll expand our work to include additional regions.

As funders, we have a tremendous amount to learn from girls of color and their advocates. And it all begins with listening. If philanthropy can find the courage to be as creative, determined, and brave as the movement leaders we seek to support, lasting change is within our reach.

Jody Myrum is director of the NoVo Foundation's Advancing Adolescent Girls' Rights Initiative.