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On a Mission to Equity: How Women’s Foundations Around the World Are Changing the World

ELAS Dialogue Girls in STEM
ELAS Dialogue Girls in STEM

No matter where you are – from vibrant cities to rural communities in the United States and every nation in the world – women and girls are leading innovation and solutions to poverty, violence, health disparities, and a lack of leadership opportunities. They are creating community-centric programs and driving policy that ensures access to opportunity, education, safety, and more. At the forefront, listening and following the lead of community, are women’s foundations.

Approximately 100 of those women’s foundations and funds, operating in 14 countries, are members of the Women’s Funding Network (WFN), whose mission is to catalyze the collective power of women’s foundations to address the most pressing issues impact most women and girls, from poverty to global security.

The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota (WFMN) is a founding and leading member of WFN. While our programming is Minnesota-focused, our mission transcends state borders. We actively look for opportunities to connect our work with that of other women’s foundations in the U.S. and internationally. The movement to achieve gender and racial equity is global, and there is a place and role for our leadership to resource, and champion our sister funds.

To formalize our ability to resource and support international women’s foundations and leaders quickly, we established the Madada Fund in 2016. The word “Madada” means sisters in Swahili, which beautifully defines the intent of the fund. To date, WFMN has invested $61,000 to directly support the work of the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) and other women-led funds outside the United States. In 2018, AWDF supported 75 women’s organizations in 23 countries through its grantmaking efforts. In 2010, the Women’s Foundation led a donor tour to some of the organizations funded by AWDF, and had the chance to hear directly from women how similar their challenges and opportunities were, though their context was very different. The Women’s Foundation encourages donors who want to be philanthropic in other countries to invest in women’s foundations who are building solutions within their own contextual realities.

In 2018, we added Brazil to the list. In September 2018, Lee Roper-Batker (WFMN president & CEO) and Saanii Hernandez (WFMN vice president) travelled to attend the 5th World Conference on Remedies for Racial and Ethnic Inequities in Vitória, Brazil. The Foundation was part of a consortium of Minnesota-based philanthropies to help foundation leaders identify new strategies to eliminate racial and ethnic economic inequality through their grantmaking and create action plans for equitable change across sectors.

Saanii Hernandez, K.K. Verdade, Lee Roper-Batker

While there, Lee and Saanii met with K. K. Verdade, executive director of the ELAS Brazilian Women’s Fund, whose mission is to promote and strengthen women’s leadership and rights in Brazil. They discussed women’s empowerment and leadership, women’s global solidarity, and the work of international women’s movements like ELAS that are leading resistance against human rights backlashes and supporting democracy. The parallels between our organizations, mission, work, and impact was striking, underscoring the common issues women and girls face regardless of culture, community, and country.

Through the Madada Fund, WFMN made a $10,000 grant to support the National Meeting of Black Women in December 2018 (watch the conference videos), convened by UN Women Brazil. The conference centered the powerful voices and leadership of women of color in Brazil to showcase work, on the ground and in community, that Black women are leading across the country.

Through email, we recently spoke with K.K. about the work her organization is leading in Brazil impacting the lives of women and girls and carving a pathway to gender and racial equity.

K.K. Verdade, executive director of the ELAS Brazilian Women’s Fund

What is your mission?
(K.K.) Promoting and strengthening women’s leadership and rights in Brazil through fundraising and grantmaking, supporting women’s groups and organizations all over the country.

When, how, and why was ELAS founded?
(K.K.) ELAS Fund was founded in 2000 by five lesbian feminist activists committed to gender and racial equity in Brazil. The emergence of ELAS met the urgent demand to create a fund dedicated to resource women-led organizations in the country to sustain the women’s movement. What makes ELAS unique is its easy, unbureaucratic access to resources by the most diverse organizations of women in the country.

How is are you funded?
(K.K.) ELAS Fund raises funds with national and international foundations, multilateral organizations, private sector, and individual donors. We have diverse partners because we believe resource mobilization is more than raising funds, it is creating alliances for women’s rights.

Diálogo Mulheres em Movimento Alianças e Ações Coletivas; Fundo Ellas; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

What are your key program areas?
(K.K.) ELAS Fund’s investment areas are:

  • Prevention of violence against women
  • Promotion of economic autonomy, entrepreneurship, and end of poverty among women
  • Expanding access to health and sexual and reproductive rights
  • Expanding access to culture, communication, arts, and sports
  • Promotion of racial and ethnic equality
  • Promotion of a fair and sustainable environment

Our current programs are:

  • Speak Without Fear, a partnership with the Avon Institute focused on ending violence against women.
  • Girls in STEM, a partnership with Unibanco Institute, UN Women and Carlos Chagas Foundation focused on the insertion of girls in STEM areas.
  • Building Movements – Contemporary Feminisms, a great alliance with British Council, Global Fund for Women, UN Women and others focused on strengthening feminist movements for the defense of democracy.
  • LBT: Autonomy, Leadership and Rights, that supports initiatives led by lesbians, bisexual and trans people.

What are the most pressing issues for women and girls in Brazil?
(K.K.) The current government represents huge setbacks for human rights and particularly, women’s rights in Brazil. Government leaders are calling for the criminalization of abortion in all cases, including rape, and that a woman’s place is in the home caring for her family, not in public spaces. Family is defined as the union between a man and a woman only. Social problems are blamed on feminist women and the LGBT community.

The new Pension reform, which amends rules of the Federal Constitution and is considered the main project of the Bolsonaro government, deepens inequalities between men and women.

Most politicians defend “School Without Party,” a movement that claims Brazil’s schools have been politicized by left-wing teachers and advocates a “non-ideological” education. They combat what they call “gender ideology,” and any attempt to discuss gender equity and sexual diversity in schools, which contributes to expanding the already alarming rates of violence against women and the LGBT community in Brazil.

Brazilian women still have less access to resources, lower wages, and are outside the spaces of power, especially black women.

How is your organization making a difference?
(K.K.) ELAS Fund is strengthening women’s groups and building and strengthening women’s networks all over the country. We not only donate financial resources, we do it respecting women’s autonomy. We bring the grantees together to create partnerships and joint strategies. Our methodology increases the impact of projects and programs and contributes to the sustainability of the groups, beyond each grant.

Since 2000, we have supported more than 460 projects. Initiatives of black women, indigenous women, quilombolas, domestic workers, LBT women, students, sex workers, rural workers, and others. Last year, we supported 71 projects, most of them led by black women, as described our annual report.

What is an example of ELAS’ impact?
(K.K.) This month, Brazil celebrates Domestic Workers Day. In 2015, ELAS launched a program to strengthen domestic workers’ unions and support the implementation of ILO Convention 169, which was new national legislation on domestic work. The program has institutionally strengthened the National Federation of Domestic Workers (FENATRAD) and associations of domestic workers in Brazil’s five regions. It has also mobilized and guaranteed political support for the rights of domestic workers, including passage of the Domestic Workers Law (Bill 150/2015), benefitting more than 7 million workers across the country.

What are your greatest challenges and opportunities?
(K.K.) Our greatest challenges are related to the conservative political and social context and to the economic crisis, which result in even less resources for women’s rights. Nevertheless, our greatest opportunity and incentive are the Brazilian women themselves, who have always been united for their rights and reinvent themselves with each new challenge. They are at the forefront of struggles for education, housing, water and land, LGBT citizenship, labor rights, rights to the city, and end to the genocide of black youth.

How is ELAS connected to the fight for gender and racial equity outside of Brazil? Why is this important?
(K.K.) ELAS Fund is part of international networks such as Prospera, Women’s Funding Network, Human Rights Funders Network, and Win-Win Coalition. We also work together within the Alliance of Latin American women’s funds, with joint initiatives. We are together with sister funds all over the world, such as Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. Global alliances and global solidarity are key to promote equity and guarantee human rights, internationally.

What did the grant from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota support?
(K.K.) Women’s Foundation of Minnesota supported ELAS Fund’s institutional strengthening and also the National Meeting of Black Women – 30 Years, strengthening this great alliance to support women’s resistance. The National Meeting of Black Women happened last December. It was a historic moment to celebrate and evaluate the 30 years of the first national meeting of black women, which took place in 1988, a milestone in the empowerment of black women.

What is your greatest hope for women and girls?
(K.K.) Women transform the world. Women will lead us to a world with social justice and gender and racial equity. Investing in women is our way of changing the world: donate to transform.

Learn more about ELAS on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

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