For twenty years, Urgent Action Fund (UAF) has supported frontline activism in the United States and around the world. The need for our funding has never been more apparent, especially here in the U.S. Activists — particularly those who are black, queer, Muslim, or undocumented, as well as others whose identities make them a likely target of threats — are operating in a different environment now.
In reflecting on our work over the past six months, I've identified a few keys to what effective organizing in the current era looks like, and how we as funders can respond.
1. The success of a progressive agenda is dependent on a groundswell of grassroots mobilization and support. Civil society has a heavy lift right now when it comes to defending existing rights and preventing a rollback of the gains we have made over the past few years. We need to recognize that if we are to create additional momentum and sustain our victories, the grassroots need support. Looking back, it's clear that hard-won legal victories — the Voting Rights Act, Brown vs. Board of Education, Roe vs. Wade — could not have been secured or sustained without the actions of vigorous and committed social movements. But because they are harder to fund, because being on the frontlines means they don't always have the breathing room to promote the results of their work, and because philanthropy systematically ignores work led by marginalized people, grassroots movements are often the least resourced part of the equation. Yet their proximity to the issues at stake means they are often best placed to raise awareness and frame the debate.
2. Support intersectional activism and understand the security implications. Because of the backlash activists often face, over 50 percent of UAF's rapid response grants go toward security for our grantees.
This has a lot to do with the fact that women and transgender activists are breaking stereotypes by taking a public stand. They confound society's expectations that they will stay silent, apologetic, and shy away from controversial political views. In our society, one's identity can put you at grave risk.
For example, as the rhetoric around mass deportations began to ramp up, Urgent Action Fund received a request to support an immigrant rights organizer, Valeria, who was facing deportation as well as harassment based on her gender identity at a Texas detention center. In addition to supporting the campaign for her release, UAF's grant to her organization helped activists in the area build networks of support, take know-your-rights training, and develop messaging to push back against discriminatory policies.
As funders who support frontline advocacy efforts, we must remember that not all activists will be treated equally by those opposed to their efforts. At Urgent Action Fund we have seen a 300 percent increase in security requests from women and transgender activists in the U.S. over the past few months, and more than 96 percent of these requests have come from women or transgender activists of color.
As funders, then, it's good to be aware that a strong security plan needs to be part of any frontline advocacy plan, and that we should be ready to fund both.
3. Work with international actors to advance a progressive agenda in the U.S. It's a humbling time to be an activist in the U.S. Much of what we accomplished through our activism over the past few years has been rolled back or now seems out of reach. We can't rely on the federal government in the way we could — to some extent — just a few months ago. The targets of our advocacy work need to shift if we hope to be effective.
Here's an example from our recent grantmaking.
Last summer and fall, we supported Native American women at Standing Rock who were resisting the extension of the Dakota Access Pipeline through Native territory. Those efforts, targeting the federal government, were successful, although the victory was short-lived, with the new Trump administration moving immediately to reverse the decision.
This spring, Native women activists reached out to UAF with a plan to target international influencers, rather than the federal government, through advocacy focused on Keystone pipeline investors in Norway and Switzerland. As a result of this engagement — and the stories Native women shared with the bankers — activists were able to secure a commitment from the Norwegians to withhold their financing for the pipeline. The tactic also is working in the case of the Agua Zarca dam in Honduras, where efforts by activists to secure justice from the government following the murder of Berta Carceres, an activist who led a campaign against the dam, yielded little response. After sustained advocacy, however, three foreign investors in the dam pulled their funding.
The lesson: Funders who support advocacy groups that work at the federal level may need to think internationally as activists look for new paths forward.
Advocacy Right Now
These are just some of the ways that funders can be responsive to the current moment and support activism at a time of change and transition. In this context, being flexible with how our funds are used, and ensuring the timeliness and accessibility of that funding, is also of the highest importance.
A healthy democracy is one in which citizens can criticize their government and take action in support of a progressive agenda without fear of reprisal. In the current climate, we must be there to support activists willing to speak out and resource them in ways that enable them to be effective — and safe.
As Frederick Douglass said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand."
As we work to create a more inclusive society and more responsive, democratic government, it is up to funders everywhere to support those willing to demand.
Kate Kroeger has served as executive director of the Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights since 2012.