medico: What does it mean to be a feminist in Poland? In what situation and condition is the feminist movement in Poland?
Gosia Leszko: FemFund was established in 2018 in the context of the sky-rocketing backlash against women’s rights, but for us feminism is more than just women’s rights. We have a more systemic understanding of feminism as a radical change in power systems. For us feminism is a general perspective from which we look at the social change that has to happen. We see the feminist movement interconnected with other social movements – with queer, refugee, environmental justice, workers, anarchist and environmental movements in an intersectional approach.
We recognize that there are many different realities feminist face depending on their experiences and positions, so our feminism puts emphasis on solidarity and autonomy. We support, among others, women in rural areas, women with disabilities and other groups which are not necessarily considered part of the feminist movement and are often forgotten in the mainstream representations of feminist issues. For us being a feminist means being a force for change, which is on one hand resisting the authoritarian government, laws and tendencies in society. And on the other hand is not just responding and reacting but proposing something new – new ways of operating based on trust and relationships, non-hierarchical structures and collective decision-making, etc.
For many years now feminist activists are at the first line to response the crisis conditions – from rise of authoritarianism, attacks against queer communities, rollback on abortion access, shrinking of public services, to inhumane treatment of refugees pushed-back at border with Belarus, and of course the Russian’s invasion on Ukraine. But of course this is not a crisis, it is how capitalism works.
We have been dealing with massive protests, crisis at the border with Belarus, where many activists have been present for many months to provide humanitarian relief for the people who were stuck in the forest, unable to seek asylum. But the way we respond to crises, the way we step in when the government fails, takes away resources from a systemic change. We are trying to provide food for refugees because the government is not doing it. Out of this constellation, how can we then push for a systemic change? We don’t have the energy and many feminist activists are burned out. Our resources are tipped away by the momentary way of responding to the crises.
In the meantime politicians, right-wing organizations are solidifying this system of oppression. In the long run we need to think about how we can do this while still having in mind the long term goals we want to achieve. It´s not just enough to put out fires as we go.
Why did you establish FemFund? Can you tell us more about your founding history?
FemFund was initially created by three feminist activists. The spark that created FemFund was the mass protests in late 2016 and later on around women’s rights. The massive mobilization in defense of reproductive rights was not recognized in Poland for many years. It was led by informal groups and ordinary people who are not necessarily part of the so called movement and who would not consider themselves activists.
The traditional funding system didn’t recognize this mobilization. Since there is not a lot of money for feminist organizations, they are under the pressure to shift their priorities or adjust their own strategies in order to get funding and be able to pay their bills. Initiatives for feminist change and generally for progressive social change that challenges the system rather than tries to accommodate face even bigger obstacles.
FemFund doesn’t want to push the agenda in terms of strategies and priorities of the movements and therefore tries to offer more flexible funding options for unapologetically feminist causes. Within this we try to provide resources to those of the movement who are the less recognized and represented.
Why did you aim at humanitarian aid explicitly from a feminist perspective?
We consider feminist perspectives part of human rights perspectives. Human rights are also women human rights and queer human rights. Women and LGBTIQ people are very strongly impacted by war and all kind of humanitarian crises and lack of social justice. But they are not necessarily the ones being listened to because politicians, leaders are usually men. Even if the women do all the work in the back, their voices and perspectives are not really taken into account.
When it comes to war, for us taking a feminist perspective means recognizing that women and queers did not start this war but they are the ones being affected with physical and sexual violence. But it also means recognizing leadership and agency of women - who is doing the work. In Ukraine trying to sustain life, in Poland mobilizing the diaspora which is very active. They are the ones doing most of the work even though they are not recognized by the system.
That being said, for us feminism has the radical goal of changing the system in the long run rather than trying to make sure that human rights are recognized within the current political and economic system. We don’t think this is really possible in a patriarchal and capitalist society which is built on inequalities. While making sure we fight for women’s rights, we need to move towards a broader feminist approach, which centers social justice for all people and living beings.
According to our experiences as NGO aid is also a question of power – what is your understanding of aid and how do you define solidarity?
For us the main question is who is making decisions about the needs and priorities of aid. We try to support organizations that are led by migrants or refugees. And if they are not led by refugees, that they are part of their decision making processes or work is organized with refugees on a partner based relationship. For us this is one of the most critical things: who and what creates the priorities of aid. We are very careful about that. In the beginning of Ukraine Support we provided large grants to organizations who are working with migrants and have a human rights and feminist perspective or organizations who have not traditionally worked with refugees but stepped in due to the crisis because they are anti-racist or anti-ableist or anti-homophobic.
Now we are seeing new initiatives emerging, because some of the refugees are here for a longer time. They themselves are getting involved and quite often leading the response. We believe they have to be included in the process of making decisions about integration and direct support efforts, and recognized as the ones showing solidarity within the community. That’s why we look forward to support not only bigger NGOs but also smaller groups, smaller self-led collectives. Recognizing the agency of collectives which for many reasons don’t have the capacity to take large money, because they don’t even want to be formalized.
One of our grantee partners said that the funding system of NGOs is like an oligarchy: those who are rich are getting richer, while those who are poor are getting poorer. So we have to be very careful about how the funding goes in order to avoid this scenario. And furthermore, we should also be mindful of how big money for humanitarian aid affects activist communities in the long term. When human rights organization grow, they need team members, staff, they naturally hire activists, who become part of the system of NGOs. While this can be seen as a positive thing, connecting movements and NGOs together, it can also be considered from a more critical position – to what extent does it change the activists’ potential to bring about a more radical change?
Can you describe how you come to your cooperation partners and how you decide in which form you provide support?
In our approach with response to Ukraine is quite a bit different from the way we usually work, because we are in essence a participatory fund (so our community makes the decisions about funding). Unfortunately we knew that participatory grant making, which is time and energy consuming, would not work here, and so the decisions were made by our team. Even though we are really careful about stepping in to positions of making decisions power is not necessarily bad, it´s what you do with it.
The main mechanism for us is that we believe that FemFund is part of the movement. We don’t position ourselves as an organization that is outside, neutral, objective, above the movement, but rather part of it, and we ourselves are also feminist activists. So we have relations with groups, we know activists and actors in the feminist scene. This enabled us to quickly identify the needs and to inform our decision-making.
The second part of our approach is that we don’t come with an agenda and the burden of paperwork. We rather ask, what they need and then assist. With our response to war we don’t even have a call for proposals, we just meet with organizations, have a call and then consider the information we received. We offer flexible grants. We don’t ask them for specific budget items, the budget is part of the report. Instead of providing a budget in the application we ask them post-factum.
It’s also worth mentioning that aside from grants dedicated to support refugees after the war in Ukraine has started, we also offer Rapid Response Grants who are part of our regular granting options – a very small grants for both NGOs and informal collectives, available in open calls all year around, with only a couple of days needed to make the decision about awarding the grant. They are not part of the Ukrainian response in general, they were part of FemFunds strategy for more than a year. But it was kind of logical to use them for Ukraine, and many groups applied for small funding using this mechanism. We just made them available in other languages, in Ukrainian, Russian and English. We reached out to different collectives so that they know about the opportunity.
Can you further elaborate your understanding of intersectionalism and solidarity?
It is important to recognize that there are not a lot of feminist funders in Poland. Right now a lot of aid and relief flows in, but there is not a lot of funding that has a strong feminist perspective and gender-lens. We try to support groups which are led by women or trans-people and non-binary people and who consider themselves feminist. For example Feminoteka, which is one of the biggest organization in Poland dealing with women’s rights. They were one of the firsts to respond to instances of sexual abuse and violence against refugees. Specifically at the border. Despite being a big organization it always lacks funding for their statutory mission.
Another example is Nomada, which provides support to refugees and is deeply connected with other social movements, queer organizations. Nomada also works with Roma communities who are dealing with an unspeakable level of violence and discrimination from authorities and also from other activists and volunteers, which is heartbreaking. This is why we also support a Poland-Roma-Ukraine group, working together with a Roma-led organization “Center Towards Dialogue”.
We also funded Alliance for Black Justice, which is a collective that focuses on People of Color. Discrimination of non-Ukrainian citizens is especially harsh, since it has many dimensions - one is unfortunately a high level of racism in Poland and Ukraine at the border, and another is legal discrimination due to the Polish legislation that differentiates people with and without Ukrainian citizenship in access to support and aid.
When we talk about solidarity and the intersectional approach, we are really thinking about which groups would not get funding from other sources. We want to provide stability and safety for their work. We want growth and sustainability instead of eruption.
Another partner organizations is RegenerAkcja which focuses on helping activists working in a more balanced way, prevent burn out and create a more regenerative culture around activism which we also consider a key aspect of our funding. With money and crises there is also work and this is leading to burn outs very fast. We saw this even a couple of weeks after the invasion started there were already people who were burned out. Some of them for example were on the border with Belarus, continuously for many months. They were psychologically really exhausted.
On the other hand there are people with burnout who were not even activists before but then overnight became full-time volunteers, for example many members of the Ukrainian diaspora in Poland. After working for many hours at their daily jobs, they were helping at the bus and trains station in the evenings. As they are not connected and networked with activist movements, many of them they don’t even have the access to knowledge about burn out in activism. Now they are feeling the psychological impact of dealing with trauma. We are looking how we can, as a movement, support those in a way that helps them sustain their own health and well-being.
In your publications you explain from a feminist perspective why you are against the war in Ukraine, writing that it is a manifestation of patriarchy and systemic oppression. Could you elaborate a bit on this context?
When you look at the mechanisms women face in gender-based violence and when you look at the systemic level of how war works, it is really the same mechanism. It is about control, physical and symbolic violence, restricting basic human rights on an individual level and on a societal level. But it is also about what we prioritize, how we define the goals of what it means to live in a healthy and just society. War is a power struggle for resources. In a feminist society we think about resources as something which should be shared fairly and collectively managed, rather than won by one side or the other. War is also not only linked to patriarchy but also to capitalism, because it is a war over resources.
As feminist, we oppose war, this is quite clear to us, and we deeply believe that it is much more needed to sustain life than to fund weapons which bring death. However, we also listen very carefully to the voices of our Ukrainian colleagues and feminists, who are saying that the anti-war narrative, very prevalent among the Western feminist, can hurt the cause of Ukrainian women and oversimplify the issue. To them, Ukrainian soldiers and militias are not aggressors, but defenders. We cannot be oblivious to this perspective.
While FemFund doesn’t financially support any military operations, we need to recognize that it comes from a place of privilege to decide what we consider right and wrong funding purposes from the safety of our houses, while the war is raging in Ukraine. Can we defend lives without weapons? Within all contradictions we believe people should be able to make decisions about their own lives, and Ukrainian women and feminists need to be listened more carefully in this aspect.
Let´s dive in to the question of Participatory funds. How does this exactly work?
We have a couple of mechanisms depending on which specific grant program is considered. In MiniGrants 99 applications who best fit FemFund’s priorities are split in to nine baskets. Each basket has 11 proposals, and the applicants read each other’s applications, choosing 3 they would like to have funded. In this way, approximately 25 grants are given each year. The rules say that 80% of the grants are given by the community, so by other applicants. 20% of the grants are given by the team of FemFund, in order to make sure there are no “gaps” in funding for strategic, self-led groups who face more inequalities in access to resources (refugees, women with disabilities, sex workers etc.). and award them so called strategic grants. We fill up these gaps with remaining 20% of grants.
For long-term support we have a more deliberative process where team members and grant partners from previous years can make collective decisions in a more deliberative way rather than voting. We are also looking at other funds who have participatory grant mechanisms. Because there is also criticism of participatory grant making of course, putting the burden of decision making on the grant partners, the effort it takes etc.
The main result that we see with participatory grant making, is that it builds solidarity instead of competition. And many groups would never ever meet with the other groups in real life. They would never get access to the knowledge that is put in the application, they wouldn’t know about this issue. So there is a lot of peer education going on in the process that helps to build the intersectional approach and solidarity within the movement.
Have you faced any repression or persecution so far because of your work as FemFund?
For now FemFund is quite safe. It is still a little bit under the radar of the government. We had some investigations when we protested against the situation at the border with Belarus. We were the organizers of the demonstration and were investigated officially because of breaking the rules during the pandemic. On an individual level as activists we are facing some minor offences, having to pay fees for protesting during lockdown for example. It is more irritating than actually threatening. As a fund we have not faced persecution yet. But the government tries to tighten the control over resources coming from outside of Poland. There are legal attempts to restrict funding from abroad. They introduced a similar law that was in Russia and Hungary that puts a sticker of being a foreign agent on an organization which receives money from abroad. This could have consequences for us.
It is also important to mention that just because as a fund we have not yet faced persecution, it is not the case of many of our grantee partners and fellow activists. Many of them are being harassed, threatened, investigated due to their activism. We are trying to be there for each other – we know that solidarity means everything and is stronger than oppression.
Interview: Kerem Schamberger, Transcription: Rebecca Renz
Alliance for Black Justice – a collective of Black and anti-racist activists focuses on immediate support (food, shelter, financial aid) to refugees of Color and of non-Ukrainian citizenship. It offers psychological support to help alleviate the trauma, exasperated by the racist treatment. It also assists with procedural issues related to the legal status of refugees in Poland, provides support with job-seeking, accommodation, continuation of education.
Mudita Association – pre-invasion, the organization mostly worked with mothers of children with disabilities. Since February, Mudita organizes evacuation, medical aid and humanitarian support to people with disabilities fleeing Ukraine and moving to Poland. It runs an accessible temporary hostel, as many reception points and private accommodation spaces do not meet basic accessibility criteria. Mudita also supports families with disabilities with access to medical services and equipment, helping refugees maneuver the complicated and overwhelmed social services systems for people with disabilities in Poland.
Roma-Poland-Ukraine & Foundation Towards the Dialogue – a collective of Roma activists and allies, responding to needs of Roma community fleeing Ukraine. Due to widespread romophobia, many Roma refugees have experienced discrimination, violence and lack of support from both the state institutions and the grassroot activists and volunteers. The group provides immediate support (food, medication, transportation etc.) to Roma people, runs an emergency safe-space hostel for refugees of Romani descent, and supports them with integration efforts (job-seeking, education, legal aspects).
Feminoteka – one of the largest feminist organizations in Poland, focusing largely on fighting gender-based and sexual violence. Since the beginning of invasion, Feminoteka has been building a holistic response to victims and survivors of war trauma, as well as refugees who experienced gender-based and sexual violence. This includes not only intervention help, legal and psychological counseling, but also social services and relaxation activities like yoga for violence survivors.