Five Years of Participatory Grantmaking at the Red Umbrella Fund
By Jurre Anema
In the past half year I had the honor of writing my thesis at the Red Umbrella Fund office in Amsterdam. I was introduced to the global movement of sex worker rights activists and had the opportunity to speak with some of the great individuals that are playing a big role in their local, regional or global movement. My objective was to explore how the participation of sex workers at the Red Umbrella Fund has been organized and experienced. As the Red Umbrella Fund just celebrated its fifth anniversary, the Fund is making time to reflect and document its experience in order to further improve its work in the future.
“I always thought that the Red Umbrella Fund is what the world needed, because I really love the idea of changing where the power is.” (research respondent)
There is much academic literature about participation, outlining different levels and qualities of participation processes. Analyzing the processes of the Red Umbrella Fund, there cannot be a doubt that the Red Umbrella Fund is a highly participatory organization, functioning in the top levels of all participatory models. Participation is at the heart of the Fund and at the basis of every major process, initiative and decision. The Red Umbrella Fund has made more than one hundred grants to sex worker-led groups and directly involved over forty sex workers from diverse regions in its decision making structures.
Time for Reflections
The Red Umbrella Fund was created in 2012. Five years after its first grants were made, it is now time to share some of the challenges and reflections I captured from people that have been engaged in different decision making processes at the Fund. Many challenges that the Red Umbrella Fund and its participants experience are not easily overcome; they are part of working with a global and diverse movement and a participatory organization.
Barriers to Break
Based on the interviews I had with people involved in the Red Umbrella Fund I distill five key challenges to participation that the Red Umbrella Fund struggles with: language barriers; distance; knowledge and experience; safety and security; and resource limitations.
- Overcoming language barriers
Language is seen as one of the biggest barriers by respondents in my study. The Red Umbrella Fund’s peer review panel, the PAC, functions entirely in English. The International Steering Committee (ISC), basically the board, currently works in three languages (currently English, Russian and Spanish) which is quite a feat. But if someone does not speak any of those languages there simply is no possibility to participate in Red Umbrella Fund’s internal decision making processes so far. This excludes the majority of the global sex workers’ movement.
And for the people who do participate, those who are native English speakers have an obvious advantage. They do not need an interpreter for conversations and can therefore often respond and articulate their statements more easily than non-native speakers can. However, the non-English speaking people on the ISC are well-accommodated: documents are translated for them and at every online and offline meeting an interpreter is present. Furthermore, in both ISC and PAC meetings the participants are aware of the different levels of English and try to articulate clearly and talk slowly. This way the people that actually can participate have the opportunity to fully engage in discussions.
- Overcoming geographical distance
As the Red Umbrella Fund works globally but has just one small office in Amsterdam, most communications take place online through Skype, phone and email. Online meetings require technology and are complicated to plan when the time difference between participants may be ten hours or more. And there is a recognition that not all sex worker rights activists and groups are able to be equally active online, or are able to safely engage online as sex workers and human rights defenders. Usually once a year, as long as resources allow, a face-to-face meeting takes place. Such meetings provide valuable opportunities to build trust and understanding and have more in-depth discussions and focused time together. But they are also relatively expensive and require much time commitment from all involved. In addition, visa restrictions have challenged the Fund in being able to get all participants together at face-to-face meetings.
- Recognizing and building knowledge and experience
An extensive educational background and grantmaking experience are not necessary to participate in the Red Umbrella Fund’s processes. Instead, activist experience and knowledge of the movements, also at local level, are highly valued and relevant. But having experience in a board, with strategic planning or with annual budgets can come in handy.
“The International NGOs, they always put barriers for sex workers to apply for things. I don’t see that with the Red Umbrella Fund. They do not ask for degrees, they do not ask for bachelors, they just ask for community people to put in something that makes sense.” (research respondent)
But lack of relevant knowledge and experience are perceived as a barrier for (potential) participants. People with no or limited experience in regional or global networks or processes might not feel confident to apply for the ISC or PAC. This makes sense as strategic decision-making at a global level can be difficult, something that also activists with experience in the global movement admit. However, much can be learned through participating in Red Umbrella Fund committees. Respondents in my study said they gained much knowledge and developed new skills as participants in the Fund’s decision making processes.
- Safety and Security Concerns
The safety and security risks that many sex workers experience also affect their opportunities for participating in Red Umbrella Fund processes. Because sex work is criminalized and penalized in many places and levels of stigma and discrimination are high, not all sex worker rights activists are willing or able to come out publicly as a sex worker. Or to be potentially identified as such. It is likely to affect future job opportunities if they wish to switch careers. In some countries, children of sex workers are being refused access to schools. Migrant sex workers, particularly undocumented migrants, may opt to stay under the radar as much as possible. Although the Red Umbrella Fund respects the diverse realities of sex workers and understands that not everyone can always identify publicly as a sex worker, this can increase the threshold for some activists to engage.
- Resource Limitations
Some of the aforementioned barriers can be addressed depending on the resources that the Red Umbrella Fund can make available to address them. There are ways to increase accessibility. For example, adding an extra language to the ISC is possible, but will increase costs and further complicate internal processes. As one respondent argued: “Every time, that requires a balance which is the ISC’s decision around how much money it is worth to have a process be more accessible, or be more participatory, or be more inclusive.”
Accessibility (i.e. mitigating or destroying the barriers) becomes a careful balancing act between allowing as many diverse participants as possible to engage and keeping the organization operational at the same time. It is a well-known dilemma for participatory initiatives. Especially for the Red Umbrella Fund, which aims to have at least 70% of its annual budget spent directly on grants. This means that its overhead and other costs have to remain low.
“I think the Red Umbrella Fund does what it does with the resources that it has, to the best of its ability.” (research respondent)
The different barriers described in this blog are a few selected broad categories and do not do justice to all the different challenges and problems faced by sex workers who want to participate in the Red Umbrella Fund’s processes. One so far unmentioned obstacle is the limited number of spaces available for people to participate. Many very relevant and qualified people have applied to join Red Umbrella Fund committees several times but have never yet been selected to join, which can also be frustrating and discouraging.
The diversity within the global movement leads to an unique situation for each and every single activist. But, as one of the respondents from the ISC highlighted:
“There is a big awareness [at the Red Umbrella Fund] of there being a diversity of sex workers and there is a big awareness of trying to be inclusive, and trying to pay attention to sex workers who aren’t usually included, or who aren’t usually heard.”
Overall, the people who have participated in the organization demonstrate strong support for its work and processes. On to the next five years!
Jurre Anema is a sociology student at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. As part of his master thesis he conducted research at the Red Umbrella Fund about their participatory processes. If you are interested in this study and want to receive more information or a copy of his thesis, please contact the Red Umbrella Fund at: info [at] Redumbrellafund [dot] org.