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A Word with Swatee Deepak

Posted 13 April 2021 in   |   Share

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Swatee Deepak, expert in girl-centred programming and progressive philanthropic approaches, and EMpower UK Director, has helped to guide our girl-focused work. This month, Cynthia and Swatee discuss gender, philanthropy, and envisioning an inclusive future.


What are the biggest challenges for philanthropy that Covid is exposing? And where do you see the opportunity to move the needle especially for girls and gender-expansive people?

With the Covid crisis, the balance of resources is to support the immediate needs, supporting recovery and supporting business as usual for organisations. These incredible local organisations and the incredible people that live in these communities are trying to do all of these things on very limited resources. And so, how do we find the immediate support, how do we fund the recovery and how do we go back to business as usual? There are different ways of funding all of it. For me, it’s all about core unrestricted funding for groups and recognizing that people are not machines and need time to breathe, and to heal and recover from this (COVID). We need to be thinking about what that means for those groups on the ground. As Boards or decision-makers, are we just asking them to innovate, innovate, innovate and get back on track? Or are we are acknowledging the role as a human reality, which is: people do need time to just be, to heal and that shouldn’t negate the support that they’re getting as organisations.

Resources for organisations are stubbornly low across philanthropy. Even when you look at how much wealth is moving, it seems there are billions or hundreds of millions of dollars moving in philanthropy and it sounds like it’s really positive. But actually, the percentage of what people or companies are giving away versus how much money is being accumulated, it’s a tiny percentage: between 1 and 5% for the top givers is what they’re giving away. So, whilst there’s tremendous need, and it looks optically that more money is moving, it isn’t proportionately moving at the scale that it should. That is a huge challenge for philanthropy to meet this moment much more authentically and more boldly.

The biggest opportunities for girls and gender expansive young people in this moment, and for moving the needle, is that over the last few years we’ve seen how powerful young people are, girls are, within social justice movements around the world. When you examine movements like #MeToo or Black Lives Matter or climate justice movements, a lot of the main organisers and a lot of the energy, the innovation in those movements, are coming from young people. And whilst there’s been devaluation of young people’s roles in the movements, that is changing. We have an opportunity to really think about what communities need from a frame of intergenerational solidarity and for me that is super important, not just for the world and themselves, but for their peers as well.

Wonderful. I love that. In a world with myriad challenges, what gives you inspiration?

Things that give me inspiration are noticing that when young people come together, girls come together, when communities come together—and when they also connect with other movements, spaces, organisations, and connect with others nationally, regionally, and transnationally around the world—their demand feels so powerful. Watch: because there’s just something about when communities come together to showcase their authentic power, it is akin to government, it is akin to corporations, it’s bigger. It’s a realization that the change that people want is actually change for everyone, and on the surface, it benefits everybody. There is inspiration right now. You can see that in the farmers’ movement [in India], just the collective power and strength of the farmers’ movement with Dalit communities and other marginalized communities, it is super powerful. Also looking to Myanmar in this moment, which is going through a military coup, the people leading the charge against that are hundreds and thousands of young feminists in the garment industry there who have been leading unions and collective spaces there. They are the ones that are mobilizing.

I appreciate that you have used your megaphone to lift up issues around antiracism, equity, and inclusion in philanthropy. Can you speak to that?

I feel like it is really related. When you think about antiracism and you look at working with young people, and girls in particular, there is a paternalistic frame put on top of girls, on top of racially marginalized communities. It’s a way of thinking that we know best or that we are going to lift you as either elders or white people from the global north to the people in the global south: it’s always been about “we know best, we are here to help you, we are doing this in-service of you that doesn’t actually require you to be part of the decision making or thinking or part of the design.” And for me, looking at antiracism, it’s about recognizing expertise, that value, that strength, those ideas that we are always looking for, those silver bullets, actually already exist in communities but just haven’t been given any space to wield that power. They are already incredible, but they don’t have the access to the resources, the networks, or spaces of power that we occupy. And you just think about the changes that they have been able to make in spite of that. What could we be doing if we shifted more power, more resources, and decision making into the hands of racially excluded communities, into the hands of girls? And also just elevating those people into positions of power as well, and representation in leadership and on boards. That’s what I’ve come to learn more and more: the parity between young people’s issues and those who are racially marginalized, being compounded by intersectionality for girls of colour, who are then further marginalized by all of those factors, race, age, and gender.

You’re so right. One last question, how would you describe EMpower?

I would describe EMpower as really innovative. An energetic organisation that’s always thinking ahead on the pulse of different things. It is deeply committed to working with girls and young people. I often feel the EMpower is doing so much and that it’s kind of doing it quietly. A lot of people don’t know of the amazing things that are going on and the thinking that EMpower has and the work that they are doing in those spaces. I feel like the team is always wanting to do the next big thing, the next important thing for girls, for young people. And when you talk to partners on the ground of EMpower, the way that they talk about is not like the typical funder-grantee relationship. People really feel like they are in partnership with and have just a truly open space to talk about their challenges and their aims and there is a willingness to listen. So, that makes me really proud for being associated with and on the Board of EMpower.

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