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Gender, Childhood & Youth on the Move: “Visibilizing” the Invisible

by | Mar 2, 2020

By Eliza Brennan, Senior Program Officer: Education/Migration, International Community Foundation

This past week, I had the honor of participating in the Gender, Childhood & Youth on the Move conference in Tijuana, which brought together over 75 nonprofit organizations from Central America, Mexico and the United States, in order to share experiences and strengthen partnerships in support of the most vulnerable communities currently fleeing persecution, violence and poverty in this region.

Beyond the learning and relationship-building, it became clear that an important outcome of this convening would be to “visibilize the invisible” – uplift and learn from the women, youth, indigenous, and LGBT populations whose voices are often silenced by the systems and policies that are directly impacting them.

As Francis Valdivia from Asociación Madres de Abril, an advocacy group in Nicaragua said (translated), “today, youth are being the uncomfortable voices in the region”. This is evidenced by the mass protests led by students and young people in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala demanding change in their corrupt, authoritarian governments; and it is evident in the mass exoduses of young families, adolescents, and victims of gender persecution from these countries, as well as dozens of others around the world. Through these brave acts of resistance, we see citizens exercising their basic freedoms of identity, opportunity, and movement. Meanwhile, Central American governments continue to act with impunity, and immigration policies in the United States and Mexico continue to be designed and implemented without consultation or input from the people most impacted by them.

In the “Psychosocial services for migrant populations with a focus on gender” Workshop, facilitators from Sin Fronteras IAP (Mexico) and Equipo de Estudios y Acion Psicosocial (Guatemala) highlighted that the crucial first step in addressing a vulnerable or victimized person’s needs is to simply ask, “what do you want? What are your desires?” Not surprisingly, this approach corresponds with the basic theories of conflict negotiation and successful negotiation. Why then are decision-makers in the immigration policy space so fearful of asking immigrants what they desire? And what they need to get there?

Fortunately, a robust community of civil society organizations is asking these questions and has responded to the needs of increasing numbers of migrants throughout the region. From the drought-belt of Honduras, to the highlands of Guatemala, to Tapachula and up through Mexico to the borderlands, hundreds of nonprofit organizations are providing shelter, food, medical treatment, legal services, and human rights defense for the hundreds of thousands of people in transit, helping them to navigate their uncertain futures. Anecdotally we know that dozens of institutional funders are responding to these critical needs, but often in the form of ad-hoc, emergency assistance particularly for international work. And a recent report by the NCRP (“State of Foundation Funding for the Pro-Immigrant Movement: A Movement Project Brief”) highlights that funding for immigrant communities (even just in the US) is insufficient to meet current challenges and is not being directed to those most engaged with or representative of immigrant populations.

Perhaps then it should be no surprise that throughout the conference’s plenary sessions and workshops, Francia and her colleagues sent a clear message: we must create spaces for the communities to be involved in the systems, decisions, and programs that are impacting them. In think this is a valuable message for philanthropy as we consider our role in migration/refugee efforts or any community development effort. First, funders can identify existing spaces for more diverse voices and experiences to be included. If these spaces don’t exist, funders can create them by organizing convenings between nonprofits and other funders or policymakers. ICF has done this through regular, open-invite convenings for the nonprofit sector in Tijuana and Mexicali since April 2019.Though initially intended to strengthen partnerships and share critical information and tools in response to the humanitarian needs of thousands of newly arrived immigrants, these meetings have provided a crucial platform for grassroots leaders and even some representatives of the migrant community to share their needs and propose solutions that ICF has then put in front of our partners and donor community.

Of course, philanthropy must commit to listening and responding to the needs and goals that are shared in these spaces rather than taking a prescriptive approach. This may require deviating from institutional programmatic goals or existing approaches. This may take time, but if the ultimate goal is to ‘visibilize’ the invisible, it is a necessary process of change for our sector. Fortunately, the third lesson I took from these young, inspiring leaders was “to practice patience”; patience with one another, patience with institutions (be they nonprofits, informal community groups, or even governments), and patience with the process. If philanthropy seeks long-term change anywhere, we must acknowledge and honor the “uncomfortable truths” that are being unveiled by resilient youth, women, and marginalized communities today.

As the go-to international grantmaker in the San Diego-Tijuana border, ICF’s Border Fund has been dedicated to grantmaking and institutional strengthening activities to benefit the nonprofit partners serving immigrants, deportees, and refugees in Tijuana and Mexicali. Thanks to our generous donors, since mid-2018, ICF has invested over $500,000 in local organizations through direct grants and capacity building efforts such as trauma and psychological trainings, fundraising workshops, and communications campaigns. Additionally, since May 2019 we have hosted monthly (now quarterly) convenings that are open to all civil society organizations offering programs directed towards migrant, refugee or deportee communities in an effort to create a collaborative space to share experiences and resources, provide targeted technical assistance, and strengthen the strategies and impact of the sector in addressing the needs of these communities in the long-term. Like the Gender, Childhood & Youth on the Move conference, through these meetings we have witnessed the power of simply creating spaces where trust can be built, uncomfortable truths can be discussed, and the invisible can be heard.

Many kudos and thanks to the Gender, Childhood & Youth on the Move conference hosts and our co-sponsors: Global Fund for Children, Fondo Semillas, Fondo Centroamericana de Mujeres, Seattle International Foundation, and local nonprofit host Espacio Migrante. The International Community Foundation is proud to be your partners in this work! For more information about ICF and our Border Fund, contact: Eliza Brennan, Senior Program Officer: Education/Migration at

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