Building Gender Justice Through Culture: A New Fund Takes Shape - Women's Foundation California

This article was first published in Inside Philanthropy

The movement for gender justice looks beyond legal protections and focuses on improving the day-to-day lives of people experiencing gender discrimination. The new Culture Change Fund aims to spark a societal shift toward greater gender justice in the U.S. The California Gender Justice Funders Network, in partnership with several national foundations, announced the $10 million fund in July. The funders focus on cultural change because they think legislative progress is insufficient to spur true intersectional gender justice.

“We want to change the way people think about gender,” says Surina Khan, CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California, which houses the fund. She says culture is the right avenue for these efforts, because, “Culture is where most of us are most of the time; [it’s] what we’re watching, what we’re reading, what we’re interacting with on social media.”

Through research and storytelling, community building, and grantmaking, Khan says the fund will “elevate the voices of people most impacted by gender-based oppression.” She says it will foster a more “empathetic” culture “that puts women and gender at the heart of the solutions to the systemic problems we have.” The fund sees gender justice as intersectional with racial justice, disability justice, immigrant rights, LGBTQ+ liberation and other issues.

Stories, Community-Building, and Grants

The Culture Change fund states that “hearts and minds” must be changed to achieve gender justice. One of the most powerful ways to influence people’s perspectives and cultural outlooks is through storytelling. The fund will run a story-based program called “Story at Scale.” It will be driven by the voices of people who experience gender-based violence and discrimination, including transgender and cisgender women, genderqueer and non-binary people, and transgender men. It will span issues like economic security, sexual assault, maternal health, reproductive justice and more.

Story at Scale is a data-rich “narrative research project.” It will conduct audience research, create and test story strategies that advance gender justice, and provide them to advocates, artists and campaigners. Khan says the fund is looking at multiple audiences “across various metrics, in terms of gender and politics” for its research. The fund will analyze “a variety of big data” from social media platforms and other sources. “We want to try to understand as many audiences as we can,” she says.

One of the fund’s other strategies is to create a “community of practice and learning,” so people working in gender justice can share experiences. It will also make grants to organizations from impacted communities that use cultural organizing to advance gender justice, or are ready to start. The first invitation-only grants will likely be awarded in early 2020.

As the project progresses, Khan says the goal is for “artists to make art in service of movement needs,” and “movement leaders [to use] the art in an intentional way.” She says the fund and its partners aim to employ “images, sound, messages and stories that will really resonate with the broader public.” Lucia Corral Peña, senior program officer at fund partner Blue Shield of California Foundation, said in an announcement, “By telling true stories of gender justice in ways that all people can understand, we can change the national conversation around gender and also change norms and minds.”

Real-life stories of gender oppression can reveal the limitations of official policy and the importance of cultural progress. For example, while murder is illegal, this kind of violence disproportionately targets transgender women of color—12 were killed in the U.S. in the first seven months of 2019. Most recently, 29-year-old Denali Berries Stuckey was shot to death in Charleston, South Carolina. Laws cannot always govern culture or keep people safe. Meanwhile, some laws have directly undermined the rights of transgender communities in the last few years.

The California Gender Justice Funders Network is backing the Culture Change fund. It includes the Women’s Foundation of California, Blue Shield of California Foundation, California Endowment, Fondation CHANEL, Philanthropy California and other philanthropic partners. Additional Culture Change funders include the Ford, Hewlett, Compton, and General Service foundations, as well as the Lefkofsky Family Foundation, among others.

The Women’s Foundation of California manages the current fundraising and research phase of the project. It plans to guide the fund’s expansion to Georgia and Michigan by partnering with local organizations, with more states added as the fund grows.

How Culture and Policy Work Together

The power of personal stories, vulnerability and truth telling is a core tenet of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, which the Culture Change Fund cites as some of its inspirations, along with the record number of diverse women running for and holding public office. Growing abortion bans and other policies that can threaten women’s well-being also spurred the creation of the fund, and its members’ conviction that real, lasting change must come from the cultural level.

But the Women’s Foundation of California also recognizes the importance of influencing legislation—it has long been a funder of policy change for gender equity. For example, 2018 was the 15th year it has run its Women’s Policy Institute, which trains grassroots community leaders in a yearlong fellowship and public policy program. It now has more than 500 alumnae statewide, whom the foundation says helped advance 90 pieces of legislation to the governor’s desk, with 32 bills signed into law. For example, WPI teams worked on the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which was enacted in 2013, extending overtime pay rights to domestic workers.

Khan says “law and policy are absolutely a powerful way to solve social problems and support people to improve the way they’re living their lives… If we add a culture change strategy, then we will be able to accelerate change… Our thinking is that by changing the culture, we’re creating an environment that’s more receptive to gender justice policies. They absolutely have to work together,” she says.

Making Sure No One Gets Left Behind

Peña of the Blue Shield of California Foundation mentioned a change in norms as part of the fund’s work. Gender norms—socially constructed ideas (and narratives) of how to be a woman or a man—and their pitfalls are receiving increased attention from philanthropy, as gender equity pioneer Riki Wilchins of TrueChild wrote for Inside Philanthropy. Gender norms that strictly dictate cultural roles for men and women can perpetuate systemic inequity, and even the acceptance of gender-based violence. We asked Wilchins about the connection between gender norms and gender justice. She says rigid gender norms are “integral to inequality.”

Men’s norms and behaviors are a big part of gender culture. What can men do to support a culture change for gender justice?

A Call to Men is a group that aims to help men recognize harmful gender norms and develop healthy perspectives and behaviors toward women. We asked Ted Bunch, the organization’s chief development officer, what he thinks men can do to promote cultural change for gender justice. He says men can be part of the solution, “but it won’t be by refusing to meet with women or backing down from this issue. The answer is not punishing women for the discrimination and abuse they have already faced.” He says change will happen when men bring “healthy manhood into the workplace,” and commit to change culture and “pursue gender equity.”

Khan says gender justice will not be achieved “without the meaningful and active participation of men.” She points out that transgender men have experienced gender-based oppression, “so there’s definitely some common issues that we feel bring people across genders together.”

Khan says the fund also welcomes “the participation of cisgender men. We believe the most powerful thing they can do to support this movement is to listen and to help elevate the voices [of women and girls, especially those of color], along with using their own voices to push for change.” Khan ties this stance centering women in gender justice to her foundation’s belief that “people who are closest to problems in their community are also closest to the solutions.”

The Third Wave Fund has prioritized gender justice in its work for two decades. It’s an activist fund led by and for “women of color, intersex, queer and trans folks” under age 35 in the U.S. It defines gender justice as “a movement to end patriarchy, transphobia and homophobia, and to create a world free from misogyny.” Given the fund’s experience with this movement, we asked co-Director Kiyomi Fujikawa if she had any thoughts on challenges the new Culture Change Fund might face, and how its funders can address them. She is “very excited” to see the new fund centered on culture change for gender justice, and offers the following advice:

“[You] want to make sure no one gets left behind. In the past, some cultural change moments have leaned too heavily on a respectability politics; a sense that only the folks closest to the dominant culture from a marginalized group can get in the door, and the vision for change is very narrow. This approach has left our communities divided and actually in a more difficult place to build collective cultural power together. Since this is an intersectional feminist fund, I have no doubt in my mind that [it] will be able to handle this.”

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