By: Meghan Theobalds
In February, the Equality Fund traveled to Barbados to attend the Black Feminisms Forum. Hosted by the Black Feminist Fund, the event was a unique opportunity to celebrate and honour the contributions of Black feminists across diverse social movements, and is a vibrant example of feminist partnerships and collaborations at work. Our Policy Advisor Meghan Theobalds shares her reflections on her time at the Forum below.
Four key insights from my first Black Feminisms Forum
Earlier this month, close to 450 Black feminists from across the world gathered in my homeland, Barbados, for the Black Feminisms Forum. For five days, a collective of fierce feminists comprising activists, scholars, policymakers and funders came together in community to celebrate, strategize, dream, network, and build alliances. Under the theme “Building Black Feminists Worlds” the forum was a space to honestly examine the following questions:
- What could it look like to build Black feminist worlds?
- How do we advance our collective goal of building Black feminist worlds that reflect the beauty and diversity of our communities?
It also created space for us to have frank conversations with each other and look “future forward” together. We were encouraged to imagine an alternative world where everyone could be free and thriving.
The Equality Fund sent a delegation of five staff to the Forum. Collectively, we listened, we learned, and we contributed to the numerous discussions about the social injustices and challenges faced by Black Feminist movements. This was an excellent opportunity to convene with our grantee partners in person and connect with allies in the philanthropic space, and deepen our understanding of feminist partnerships
As a first time participant at the Forum, I didn’t know what to expect from my time there. It did, however, become quite evident that this Forum and my experience at it would be vastly different from the spaces I typically occupied. The Forum became a home away from home for all in attendance and showed the importance of convening in community and feminist collaboration.
It’s hard to sum up the impact the Forum has had and it’s nearly impossible to share all the insights I’ve taken home with me. For now, I would like to share four key learnings.
- Barbados was an intentional and, ultimately, perfect location to host the Black Feminisms Forum
When it was revealed that Barbados was the chosen country for the Forum, I was elated but not surprised. Barbados’ first female Prime Minister, Mia Amor Mottley, is considered by many a beacon and champion for social justice, particularly in the areas of climate and reparatory justice. Prime Minister Mottley has earned a well-deserved reputation on the global stage as a Black woman leader who is not afraid to challenge injustice where she sees it, inspiring people working on social justice across the spectrum? This became obvious during her surprise visit when throngs of attendees cheered her on and clamoured to hear her remarks and get a snap with her! As a Barbadian, I’m well aware of her impact internationally, but it was quite another experience to see it unfold in real time.
Another important reason for gathering in Barbados at this particular moment in time is the country’s clear commitment to gender equality and global philanthropy. During her welcome remarks on behalf of the Prime Minister, Senator the Honourable Lisa R Cummins, Minister of Energy and Business Development, reaffirmed the intention for Barbados to be a leading hub driving philanthropy in the Caribbean region. These remarks come at a time where it is woefully evident that the Caribbean continues to be deeply under-funded and Black feminist causes in the region are even more so. According to recent research by the Black Feminist Fund, only 18% of global human rights funding or development aid went directly to Caribbean organizations, while only 2% of that funding went to Black feminist movements. Furthermore, reporting shows that “half of women’s rights organizations globally did not have dedicated or flexible funding for core operating costs, nor did they have dedicated funding for more than one year.” In her keynote, on behalf of the Prime Minister, Senator Cummins re-stated Barbados’ commitment to attract social impact investment, and to create an amenable environment for philanthropic engagement across the region.
- Connecting in unapologetically Black Feminist spaces is not just nice to have- it is crucial for the movement
The theme of connection resonated throughout the Forum. Colleagues who typically communicated via email and Zoom could now strategize, debate, exchange ideas, laugh, and dance in person, creating an electric and positive energy that lent itself to the Forum’s dynamic environment. It is not every day that close to 450 Black feminists from over 70 countries find themselves together in one place. The uniqueness and sacredness of the occasion could not be overlooked or dismissed. For many, the Forum represented a much-needed brave space and a respite from the grueling work required to fight for social justice within communities.
As Ashlee Burnett from Femenitt Caribbean in Trinidad and Tobago noted, “There are actually very few spaces in the world where you can see people like you and in positions where they make you feel safe and learn about yourself. I have been in predominantly white spaces where I’ve had to dim myself and make myself smaller.This space helps me to feel liberated and free.”
“As someone in the social justice space and a Black feminist, the journey can be isolating at times even within a region that is predominantly Black but is challenged by vestiges of colonialism and bigotry. Before this conference, I was feeling a little battered and wounded but spaces like this rejuvenate me and remind me of why I do what I do. It gives me the boost to continue the work.”
Keithlin Caroo, Founder and Executive Director of Helen’s Daughters, St. Lucia, an Equality Fund grantee partner
Convenings like the Black Feminisms Forum prioritize connection and community and support the vital infrastructure of movements, including creating space for collective visioning and agenda setting, cross movement alliance building, and advocacy.
- Black Feminist spaces require the wisdom of our elders and the exuberance of our young people to advance the movement
One unique element of the Black Feminisms Forum was the intentional and impactful inclusion of both young and old. The Forum’s youngest attendee was two years old and the eldest was 89! The elder’s day was dedicated to the community elders who have paved the way for the rest of us in Black Feminist movements. I had the privilege of accompanying Peggy Antrobus– a stalwart in the Caribbean feminist movement and an activist, renowned author, and scholar from Grenada– on her journey from Toronto to Barbados. We shared laughs, stories, and many memories. This was an example of the uniquely intersectional and intergenerational approach to partnership that Black feminists lead, one that fosters generational connection, nurtures leadership in overlooked spaces, and embodies collective care.
Peggy was excited about the Black Feminisms Forum. She expressed this was the first forum where she was treated “like royalty.” Peggy shared that traditional convenings didn’t typically give consideration to the older folks who might not be as agile nor to those who may have accessibility issues. She also noted that having a day dedicated to elders was unheard of. The most she’d experienced was a session on ageing or an intergenerational dialogue. For Peggy, it reinforced her belief that in Black feminist spaces, elders are appreciated and that to be old does not mean to be cast aside.
The Forum also included a Youth Space, curated by youth activist Gabrielle Bailey, and a Kids Zone curated by 8-year old Lumumba from Colombia. I spent some time with Jamila Abbas from CHEVS, a queer, youth collective, who shared, “The BFF has been a healing space in that I haven’t had to explain myself about my politics, my identities, my experiences and that’s so rare. This has been really healing for me. Also the opportunity for mentorship is something that I’m trying to soak in and make the most of.”
It was clear that for both the young and old, the Black Feminisms Forum was a space to feel seen, heard, and actively participate in advancing the Black feminist movement.
- We need to resource Black Feminists so that they can win
The final day of the Forum was dedicated to Black Feminists in Philanthropy (BFiP) where the group discussed resource mobilization strategies. Research shows that less than 1% of foundation funding goes to Black women, girls, and trans people. It wasn’t just about identifying the issues, but delving into the minutiae of how to overcome them. There was also space to discuss the impact of navigating philanthropic spaces as a Black feminist, with participants sharing their strategies on how to remain resilient in the face of obstacles, challenges, and harmful perceptions.
Vanessa Thomas, Program Manager at the Black Feminist Fund, shared her thoughts on the purpose of BFiP day and the Forum in general: “The Black Feminisms Forum allows attendees to be in space with people they can learn from, challenge, disagree, think, dream and build. This forum has both transformed what participants believe they can do in the spaces that they navigate and also what we can do as a network. We aren’t just individuals, we are actually a union of women and gender expansive people who are serious about funding the Black Feminist movement. Plus, the program was intentionally designed to make participants think, feel, and see things that aren’t necessarily within their own individual context.”
The Equality Fund team used this space and the forum at large, to dialogue with Caribbean activists about their vision for a Caribbean Feminist Fund following the 2022 feasibility study, “If Not Now, When?”. The Caribbean remains one of the only regions in the world that does not have a standalone movement-led fund. The dearth of funding in the region means that an independent Caribbean Fund, designed for and by Caribbean activists, could go a long way towards closing the funding gap in the region.
This was a sentiment shared by others over the many days at the forum, including Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund. In her keynote remarks, referring to Black women and girls from the Caribbean, she said: “We understand the strategic value of building partnerships and strengthening Black feminist movements and organizations from the ground up. This is a worthy pursuit for Black feminist philanthropy.”
Creating Black feminist worlds
We need more spaces like the Black Feminisms Forum. There is a strong desire for in-person convenings where there is intentional co-strategizing and dreaming. Building Black feminist worlds will take time and commitment and it’s important to recognize that the journey can feel isolating. However these opportunities to be in community with one another provides the breathing space that we all need to regroup, recharge, and go again. As a first-time participant at the Black Feminisms Forum, convening with my siblings felt like a “coming home.” Engaging with others in a Black-affirming and healing space was freeing and the Black joy was out in full force in all of its beautiful diversity.