Transforming Gender Equality Efforts: Young Feminist Activism and Climate Justice

July 1, 2021
The Generation Equality Forum is a global milestone in the fight for a gender-equal future. Convened by UN Women and co-hosted by the governments of Mexico and France, it unites leaders from every sector in new commitments—and action—toward gender equality. The gathering comes at a critical moment for the world, as the COVID-19 pandemic simultaneously threatens fragile progress on gender equality and brings renewed attention and momentum to the feminist movements pointing the way toward a more just and sustainable recovery.  
At the Forum’s first gathering in Mexico City in March, we announced a new $15 million USD partnership with the Ford Foundation to reimagine the ways that government, private philanthropy, and the private sector can work together to unlock capital for feminist movements and women’s rights organizations. At the second and final gathering in Paris, we seek to continue this momentum, spotlighting the critical role that feminist movements will play in moving gender equality from an aspiration to a reality in the years ahead. In this three-part blog series, we share more about the context for this moment, the commitments we are making, and the essential role of young activists in guiding us forward.

The Generation Equality Forum is inspiring us here at the Equality Fund to reflect on how the global community can achieve transformative change in support of a sustainable and gender-equal future. Young feminist activists hold powerful wisdom and perspective to guide our collective way forward, and we turned to our sister fund, FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, to share more. We chatted with Maria Alejandra Escalante, Climate and Environmental Justice Advocacy Officer, on FRIDA’s system-busting approach, funding young feminists tackling the root causes of the climate crisis. 

In Maria Alejandra’s own beautiful words (edited for brevity)

Tell me about FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund. 

FRIDA is a youth-led feminist fund dedicated to resourcing and supporting girls, young women, trans, non-binary, and intersex youth who are doing feminist and intersectional work at the grassroots level. They organize in collectives, movements or NGOs, based in the global South or periphery regions. 

FRIDA respects activists’ autonomy and provides core, flexible, and recurrent grants. We use a participatory model in which groups themselves have the power to say where resources go. Youth and people on the ground are experts of their own realities. We try to give trust back, and power back, to movements on the ground. 

What brought you to FRIDA?

I had never worked in philanthropy before FRIDA. I had always been on the other side of philanthropy, as a youth organizer on climate and environmental justice issues, always having to ask for funding and adjust our rhetoric so that funders and donors would look at us and support our ideas, initiatives, and projects. By getting to know FRIDA, I have been learning about the importance of redistribution of power and resources. It’s not only about money, but also spaces, opportunities, and narratives for youth-led transformative change. 

What motivates you? 

So many youth, so many feminists are doing incredible, transformative work with so little. I often imagine what if we, as feminist youth, are given the resources, credibility, and trust that we deserve to really grow in the transformations we are already doing. Having the motivation, hope, and energy to keep doing transformative work is a political act. Systems of capitalism and patriarchy want to push down achievements and possibilities for change. Fighting against that is crucial. 

What does climate justice mean?

The climate crisis is a human-made catastrophe that began long ago with a colonial system that regarded certain populations and ecosystems as commodities and sources of profit. This history of slavery and extractivism paved the way for a society that is racist, patriarchal and unequal in its capacity to sustain economic well-being. When land, nature, ecosystems and bodies are placed below profit, systems of violence are produced.

To me, climate justice means a systemic transformation of the social and political structures that led to the climate crisis. We are talking about reparations to the earth and the populations we have hurt and damaged for centuries. We are talking about redistribution and decentralization of power structures. We are talking about challenging gender norms that intend to colonize our bodies, and about uplifting the wisdom, leadership, and power of diverse women and LGBTQI people. We are talking about the well-being and co-existence of humans and non-humans. 

Given the relationships you point out between the climate crisis and colonialism and patriarchy, how is FRIDA tackling the climate crisis? 

We apply this systemic lens to the reality, and actually do something about it. Black and Indigenous communities have been exploited, taken out of their lands, and are living in contaminated lands, as well as in the forefront of nature’s devastation. Women have been on the periphery of power, not sitting at the table, not making decisions. FRIDA works to amplify these connections by creating narratives, by talking to people on the ground, by making space for their experiences to be told and amplified. 

We dismantle the “fact” of the climate crisis as a technical issue that can be approached with technical fixes, such as lowering carbon emissions and other market solutions. Instead, we give power to communities who are not only bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, but are also doing incredible work to overturn systems of oppression. Feminist youth activism is transformational because it challenges the foundational structure of violence in society, which separates nature and humanity. Bodies and territories are interconnected, and both need to be healed and protected. We are getting there. 

What does meaningful youth participation and leadership in climate action look like? 

It’s very important to listen to what different youth movements are asking for. Some youth want a seat at the table, some don’t. Youth leaders are doing other important things that don’t look like sitting down, talking, negotiating, and being in conversation with powerful people.

Meaningful youth participation looks like youth who can drive transformations without having to worry about whether they need to do those transformations while also getting a job on the side, or about whether their food and needs are being covered. 

And youth need to be safe. Take environmental defenders. The number of threats, harassment, and murders is a very clear sign that young people are challenging power. And they are being silenced because those in power do not want to give up their power. In order for leadership to be meaningful, it must be safe. We can’t do activism knowing it can cost our lives. 

What are the barriers to achieving youth participation and leadership? 

Tokenism. The attitude that if we have one young person at the table, one global South person, one person of colour, then we are fine. It’s not fine. It’s not a matter of numbers of people. It’s a matter of looking inward and changing power dynamics at the very core. 

Lack of trust. Especially from donors in general. Youth leadership and activism are not “linear.” It can’t be evaluated and calculated. Donors need to trust that we are working closely with communities on the ground. 

And finally, lack of financial and non-financial resources going to youth, especially youth doing intersectional work. 

How does FRIDA help overcome these barriers? 

The very foundations of FRIDA — of flexible, core, predictable grantmaking that goes beyond resource transfer but actually allies with groups on the ground — help to overcome these barriers. We trust what feminist youth do on the ground. We want to take forth their messages, their voices, their demands and show the transformations they are making on the ground. 

What perspectives do youth bring to climate action discussions that no one else can? 

We are seeing the world falling apart in front of our eyes, literally. By year 2100, life as it is right now won’t continue. We know the urgency of these times. 

Youth activists are saying that it’s not one piece of the system that needs to change— we need to change everything. From wealth accumulation, to how white supremacy operates, to commodification, to gender-based violence. It’s all or nothing right now. If we are serious about transformations that need to happen in the world, we need to talk about the redistribution of power, from those who have had the power for decades. 

Heading into Generation Equality Forum Paris, what advice do you have for governments and philanthropists in terms of funding and supporting youth activism for climate justice? 

Increase funding. So little philanthropic and bilateral money reaches the grassroots, the intersection of women doing intersectional environmental work. Most of the resources are going to the market and geo-engineering type solutions to a climate crisis that really needs people on the ground to lead the change. 

Shift your donor mindset. Instead of seeing youth as recipients and beneficiaries of money, they are the experts, the drivers of change on the ground. And it’s fair to give back resources to those who have been on the margins of power, those bearing the brunt of the crisis, being repressed and at risk. 

Be innovative. Philanthropists have the power to influence corporate, market, and government spaces. It’s time for philanthropy to take a political stand, and to amplify different narratives that are stemming from people on the ground. 

Protect human and environmental rights. Governments must ensure that environmental and social activists and leaders on the ground are not risking or losing their lives for protecting their lands, standing up against privatization of natural goods, or speaking up about their realities. 

We’ve got the resources, we’ve got the tools, it’s more a matter of political will. The change is going to happen and hopefully governments and philanthropists are going to be there to be allies of movements on the ground.

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