Top 8 Ways Philanthropy Can Make Space at the Table for Immigrant Women Leaders

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Top 8 Ways Philanthropy Can Make Space at the Table for Immigrant Women Leaders
By Taryn Higashi, Executive Director, Unbound Philanthropy

While it’s thankfully becoming common knowledge that investing in women leaders is smart, just and strategic, women’s voices and gender-based challenges are still often buried under the weight of the “bigger” issue we are trying to tackle.

In Unbound Philanthropy’s case, that bigger issue is “immigrant rights.” Too often, gender-based bias and discrimination are internalized by women in the movement on a cultural and personal level and are off the radar – or are pushed under the rug — “in service” to the collective big picture.

At Unbound Philanthropy, we’ve been digging deeper to learn from women leaders at organizations we support about what their specific challenges are and how we can help.

At a recent panel hosted by Philanthropy New York’s Funders of Women and Girls, “New Pathways for Building Immigrant Women’s Leadership,” which I had the pleasure of moderating, five brilliant women shared their insights and experiences: Nisha Agarwal, Commissioner, Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; Afreen Alam, Executive Director, Chhaya CDC; Sayu Bhojwani, President and Founder, New American Leaders Project; Zeinab Eyega, M. Sc, Executive Director, Sauti Yetu Center for African Women; and Kristen Illes, Vice President of Programs and Training, Coro New York.

There were several themes that emerged during the panel discussion, along with particular needs that philanthropy can help fill:

  1. Trainings, Fellowships, and Convenings help immigrant women connect, network, and support each other, and create ripple effects in building their leadership. During these gatherings, mutual listening and collective reflection on women’s challenges in the immigrant rights’ movement can help build bridges across political differences and create intersectional learning opportunities.
  2. Strengthen and foster a pipeline for immigrant women to rise to leadership roles. As Nisha Agarwal said during the conversation, “How do we support the next layer of leaders? What are our responsibilities to the next generation?” An early sign of the effectiveness of networking and fostering a pipeline is the appointment of Azadeh “Azi" Khalili’s as the first Executive Director of the Commission on Gender Equity. She was formerly MOIA’s Executive Director of Language Access Initiatives, and designed and directed the Immigrant Women’s Fellowship Program. Azi shared with us that “this ‘next step’ was made possible, in part, due to the Immigrant Women Leaders Fellowship program, which introduced her to a wider network.”
  3. Sponsorship, not just mentorship, of other women, is critical for ensuring that women continually attain leadership positions. Sponsorship, which includes opening doors and making introductions and recommendations that can lead to greater influence, is something that is a longstanding tradition for men, but is a muscle that can continue to be developed and strengthened among women helping women.
  4. Educate and develop thoughtful alliances with men and boys to advance women’s leadership and the larger issues groups are trying to tackle will be key to our success.
  5. Better childcare support systems and family-friendly policies to enable more immigrant women to sustain leadership roles. Mothers face particular challenges in holding demanding positions of leadership.
  6. Diversity and inclusion. Every time we have a panel, program, or meeting, we should ask ourselves about the diversity of participants. This is as true for philanthropy as it is for the immigrant rights movement.
  7. Coaching. There is a need for women and girls to “see” themselves in leadership and decision-making roles and to own their talent and power. Several panelists said that coaching is valuable.
  8. Visibility. On a broader scale, we at Unbound Philanthropy see a great need and possibility to harness the power of culture, including pop culture, to create more opportunities for immigrant women and girls, people of color, people of all faiths, and others who are viewed as outside of the “mainstream,” to see themselves in popular stories, which shape our politics, perceptions, and assumptions in profound ways. You can learn more about the promise and potential of pop culture to advance social change in #PopJustice, a new report series produced by Liz Manne Strategy and supported by Unbound Philanthropy and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

As philanthropists, we have the power and responsibility to listen to and collaborate with our partner organizations to understand and respond to the challenges and opportunities they face, and to think holistically about how all of our social movements are connected. No one person has a single-issue story. In the immigrant rights movement, women experience gender-based challenges at multiple levels: internally; within their organizations; across the whole movement; and from social structures. If we only take note of the immigrant in the immigrant woman leader, but fail to recognize the specific challenges she faces as a woman, or as LGBTI, or person of color, we are missing the forest for the trees.

I invite you to join me in considering our collective work through a gender lens, in all of our fields, and in lifting up the powerful women who lead our partner organizations. Unbound Philanthropy will continue to learn more and invest with this in mind. Join us. We will all be stronger for it.

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