Running an organisation as young people and women of colour is a rollercoaster to say the least. There is nothing straightforward about it. There are twists and turns, highs and lows and an inevitable path that moves in many different directions at paces you’re not always prepared for. Despite the way it makes you feel whilst you’re on it, you know once you committed to sitting in that seat and get strapped in, you are in it for the whole ride so you make the most of the experience and just hope that you get off in one piece. Knowing about this rollercoaster is something we had to learn from experience. When we first setup GirlDreamer, we immediately split roles to play to our strengths and try and manage all aspects of running an organisation – with two people (as you do).
I remember after one of our first successful funding grants, we had to fill out an evaluation together and I clearly remember I just walked off appalled because Kiran read out aloud: “How many disadvantaged young people did you help?” ‘How is that even a question?’ was my immediate response. To me, it just sounded like a fetish more than a sincere interest in wanting to learn about the work we were doing in our community. It seemed so insensitive to write such a blunt question which involves us responding with our life experiences and our stories. However, this is the reality when attending fancy breakfasts, formal events and more. It constantly feels like your stories, life experiences are being auctioned in a room of people with lots of money and whoever seems most interested will buy into your story and invest in your cause but only once you give them a peek of your wounds, no matter how painful it is to relive.
The more we’ve moved through the funding world, the more the cracks began to appear. Now, seeking funding seems to requires a pretty normal amount of energy and we’re quite happy and confident in knowing where to source new grants that can support our work. However, when it comes time to filling out the application form .. well, that requires a different level of energy. As a young founder, when you see a document that has 36 pages you need to fill in return for £2,500 which is completely restricted in every way, it makes you question the point. You are under-resourced and over-stretched in the first place so how do you now justify more time and energy spent on something with no guarantee but that could pull you away from the vital work you want and need to be doing? It doesn’t and so the search for easier ways to access money through grants whilst you build your sustainability plans continue.
Not all funders are the same though and this is of course not the only experience. We’ve been supported by some amazing funders who truly care and the grant managers we’ve had have been absolute champions and helped further our work in additional ways to just overseeing our grant.
Take The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust for example. When QCT first reached out to us, their first questions were:
• How are you?
• We’re inspired by your work, tell us more about your values and mission
• What does your organisation need more of?
• What do you as an individual need?
• How can we support you beyond funding?
After asking such real, human questions, they took the time to hear the entire start-up story of GirlDreamer and also learn our individual experiences in life which led us to found GirlDreamer in the first place. This instantly built a different bond between the two of us, one which didn’t involve any formalities or facades. There was no power-play or hierarchy – for once, it actually felt like someone genuinely wanted to know and cared and we’re open to hearing our brightest, sunniest dreams and ideas and all the ways they can support them in coming true.
In just one year, we received funding, were able to take our work international, met Prince Harry twice, sat and spoke with one of our role models Meghan Markle and shared parts of our journey with her and given countless opportunities and support to develop our business model, strategy, connections, network, financial stability and everything in between. Then COVID-19 happened and you know what they did? Reached out and asked how they can support us and we are now ready to launch a fund to help other women of colour-led organisations because of their quick action, empathy and trust in us. You see, trust is key. As organisations like ours navigate society, social change, communities and tackle social issues, we ultimately want to be trusted in our ability to do what we know best and to be treated like real people who bring real value to the sector. We don’t want to be patronised with empty applause for our efforts whilst we are left out of decision-making spaces. If you truly value our presence and efforts, then why are we not helping to shape the sector on the same stage you are? That is where the real change will happen. Our lived experience will help make systems better, improve processes and steer positive change that best serve the communities we serve.
We recently put out a social media post about a harassment incident I experienced at an event we had attended. Since posting, this sparked an influx of people responding back with ‘me too’ statements and ‘omg if I could only begin to tell you about this time when…’ and ‘I wasn’t sure about how to speak about an experience I had, but now you’ve shared, I feel safe to too, so …‘ It made us wonder how many people internalise this sense of shame and vulnerability they feel even though they have these big job titles and work at C-suite level roles. The very fact of the matter is that we are human beings with dignity and rights and shouldn’t be made to feel like vulnerable victims or have people abuse their own positions of power.
We and other young fellow women of colour are in this sector to make society better and each time we attend events on behalf of the sector, we already come knowing there’s a chance we have to share past traumas and lived experiences we may not want to, however, we know will benefit our work so we continue to for the sake of our missions and community. To experience unwanted behaviour, hurtful comments, mockery, racism and/or sexism makes trying to do our work that much harder and if we have taken a stand to create social change, the last thing we need is people to take advantage, make advances or make us feel like we can’t speak out.
If we are the ones who are spending each moment doing and thinking of ways to enhance the sector and create better access and opportunities for our communities, the sector needs to understand and reciprocate trust, respect and a shared power as a standard.
I will do what I can with my power and platform to help and if anyone wants to join in this discussion, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org