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Time's Up for Philanthropy, Too

April 16, 2018

Me-too-blogAs someone who has spent the last thirty years working to end violence against girls and women, I have never been more hopeful. Women and girls are being believed. Abusers are being held accountable. Sexual violence, so long invisible, is finally becoming visible.

Yet, amid the remarkable momentum of the last six months, it is important to remember what got us here — and to consider how much more philanthropy can and must do to help ensure that all girls and women, and all people, live and work in safety and dignity.

Almost ninety years ago — twenty-four years before she sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott — Rosa Parks survived an attempted sexual assault by her white neighbor. The experience launched her activism — and led her to her role as a sexual assault investigator for the NAACP. Sixty years later, the brave, steady voice of a law professor from Oklahoma riveted a nation, as Professor Anita Hill opened a new conversation about sexual harassment and abuse.

Sixteen years after that, an activist named Tarana Burke gave voice to millions of survivors of sexual violence with two words: me too.

Today, #MeToo is fueling a national reckoning with sexual violence, as women from all backgrounds and industries come forward to share their experiences of harassment and abuse. Their testimony has been a powerful wake-up call, from Hollywood to the nation's factory floors to its farm fields. It should be a wake-up call for philanthropy, too.

#MeToo is a reminder that violence against girls and women pervades every aspect of our society. But the fact that this recognition took decades to break through in pop culture — and still has not broken through in our sector — should give us pause. What is taking so long?

It is philanthropy's role — and our unique opportunity — to seek out and support activists like Rosa Parks and Tarana Burke who are pioneering change in their communities, and whose transformative work is often overlooked and undervalued by the rest of society. Yet, for too long, foundations have treated the work of ending violence against girls and women as a niche category — separate from ambitious efforts to end racism and inequality, improve education, strengthen public health, and expand economic opportunity. As a result, according to a 2008 study, less than 2 percent of all foundation funds go toward addressing gender-based violence. We don't have that data broken out by category, but anyone working in this field can attest that only a fraction of that funding goes to support girls and women of color and transgender women, despite the fact that they suffer violence at higher rates than white and cisgender girls and women.

This failure reflects a broader misconception in our industry — that we can achieve social justice without ending gender-based violence. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, making the world safe for girls and women is inextricable from every one of our missions. We can't talk about fixing disparities in education without talking about the disproportionately harsh discipline girls of color face in our schools. We can't talk about improving our immigration system without talking about the tragic double bind aggressive law enforcement creates for victims of domestic violence. We can't talk about pay equity without understanding the role that sexual harassment plays in maintaining the wage gap for women. If we care about making progress on these issues, and so many others, we have to care about sexual violence.

That means every foundation needs to be asking tough questions about how it is addressing violence across its work, and where it can do more. It means we need to listen to and learn from survivors of sexual violence and design funding strategies based in their knowledge.

It's not enough just to reexamine the work we do externally. We also have to take a hard look at our own institutional cultures — at who holds power in our organizations and in our industry, and who is systematically excluded. Until more women, particularly women of color, are elevated to positions of power in philanthropy, we will not be able to move past our sector's — and society's — patriarchal and white supremacist roots. To do this, we need to ensure that work spaces are safe, equitable, and just; that they value, support, and promote women; and that they are committed to rooting out deep-seated racism and sexism.

As grantmakers, we have a key role to play. If we don't model these priorities ourselves, we can't effectively support them in others. So time's up on pretending that sexual violence is someone else's problem. #MeToo has opened the floodgates for more of these courageous conversations to take place, and for decisive action to follow. It's philanthropy's turn to reckon with its past and commit to a better future. We can begin by changing ourselves. And then start funding the activists who are making sure that all women and girls, and all people, can live in safety and dignity.

Headshot_pamela_shifmanPamela Shifman is the executive director of the NoVo Foundation.

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