21st century citizen action: co-creating to improve resourcing relationships

By Dumiso Gatsha

The first time I read about Christina, Dahlia, Naro, Nawa and Samuel, I was excited. From a pool of over 2000 activists dedicated to making the world a better place, this diverse, passionate and intentional selection of activists are co-creating a campaign to rethink resourcing for civil society.

The Grassroots Changemakers group reflected the many peers I encountered on social media, the margins of advocacy mechanisms or amidst variant forms of civic action. The energy of meeting people who sacrifice and navigate a world that consistently denies us equal participation, opportunity or dignity is unparalleled. In this collaborative space, there is no need to over-explain or clarify what is already known. This  space recognises and affirms your story, without questioning whether you belong or can be vulnerable.

These sentiments were confirmed by the check-ins we have; to take stock of the changemaker group’s progress in the project. Discussing mental health, well-being and healing made me realised that serving a community, and possibly your childhood self, takes shape in different ways. Also, that when in service of others, burnout, exhaustion and de-prioritising oneself can be normalised. My initial observations for de-centering oneself in grassroots activism is because of the conditions in which one is born; normally challenging, of historical disadvantage and never having enough to meaningfully participate in education, economic, social and other spheres of development. I now see how this emanates from the care work and opportunity costs that activists have to endure without resourcing or recognition.

 

Relationships as key determinants of resourcing

The kinds of relationships grassroots activists have with funders are central to the recognition and resourcing of activism. How trust, care and intention manifest or not is key to understanding the nuances of relationships. The campaign’s hypothesis reflects this: if grassroots activists’ relations with donors are enabled without prescription or limit, they may achieve the highest possible change at individual and collective levels. It underpins an understanding of the importance of a space to co-create a campaign for improving funding practices and relationships for grassroots actors. Similar initiatives have already been a success under CIVICUS: holding space for dialogues, linking activists to other spaces and recommending co-creative models for resourcing them.

The campaign advocates for and explores improving the quality of relationships as a precondition for reimagining an equitable resourcing environment for grassroots activists. The journey so far acknowledges the role in which power dynamics play out in activist-funder relationships. We have learned how power plays out in language, access to, and grant processes that activists have to assimilate to and navigate. The further away from understanding the concepts and framing of normative INGO terminology; the less opportunities, trust and exposure to equitable resourcing practices.

Ideating equitable resourcing for grassroots activists

Power often comes with the privilege of options. For instance, funders can have a range of tools at their disposal to ensure participation. Whether this is equitable depends on whether those most left behind are included. Some activists spoke at length about how language is a barrier to participating in resourcing opportunities or during the initial co-creative stages of our campaign. It reflects how something as simple as language can disempower one from equitable participation. The same can be applied to internet access/bandwidth, eligibility for funding and other structural determinants such as vaccine inequity and colonial legacy. These all impact how one can grasp concepts and align the needs they want to address through resourcing opportunities.

Establishing spaces for conversation, connecting and challenging different aspects across the landscape of civil society and development value chains is critical. Focusing on grassroots activists not only allows for trauma-informed programming, messaging or resourcing; but also addresses the invisible impediments and blind spots of power in enablement. This campaign provides a platform to test what autonomy and agency look like within the context of co-creation and activism in the 21st century. It provides critical learnings that can be intentional or not – and cut across various aspects of enabling and resourcing activists.

A notable takeaway from the initial stages of the campaign

In the journey so far, the co-creative initial stages of the campaign revealed how activists are built to serve as a result of resilience or their contexts. They consistently have to understand or adapt to the actions of others, both those that depend on them, and/or even those who oppress them. The same applies in activist-funder relationships; where they do the groundwork, manage expectations and navigate triggers of harm within systems of society, civil society and development. Activists never prioritise themselves because of having to do the difficult work of having to be cautious whilst challenging structural powers where possible. More importantly, this can be just as evident in safe spaces; adding layers of complexity to navigating institutionalisation and advocacy. This campaign reaffirms the need to better understand grassroots activists who are at the center of the change ecosystem. Their expertise, insight and invaluable experiences will inform lessons learned and the true meaning of strengthening citizen action in the 21st century [amidst and beyond COVID-19].

Dumiso Gatsha is a CIVICUS member, inaugural Diversity and Inclusion Group for Networking and Action advisory group member, former Goalkeeper Youth Action Accelerator participant and Pan-African queer feminist activist working in the nexus of human rights and sustainable development. 

In this blog, Dumi shares initial thoughts related to the Grassroots Solidarity Revolution campaign co-created with a team of inspiring activists.  Dumi is collaborating with CIVICUS as a “critical friend,” supporting the various teams and other key actors in reflecting, capturing and sharing learnings as we go. Given the highly experimental nature of this initiative, having a critical friend is key to enable meaningful reflections and document learnings. Having a grassroots activist playing this role helps make sure the learning framework and data collection align with and are informed by what makes sense for grassroots activists.  Dumi’s story and varied experiences in the thematics of this campaign and observations are already proving to be a precious resource. This blog is the first of a series of reflections that Dumi and the team will share in the future. Watch this space!