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Learning from the  Girls Advisory Board

I am a middle aged feminist. It was at some meeting of the International Network of Women’s Funds when I first understood that the room over there where the young feminists got together was closed to me. They were up to 30. I’m 40. Shit.2013_MB_KopfkreismitHaaren

I work as program manager for filia.die frauenstiftung, a women’s fund based in Germany. And I deeply believe in the maxim “Nothing about us without us”. In 2011 filia decided to dedicate 20% of her grantmaking budget to projects for girls and young women. After all filia means daugther. It became clear to us very fast that we could not do this without including young women in the decision making. Our sisterhood with women’s funds across the world provided us with model and inspiration.

It had been much earlier, in 2006 in Seattle (USA), when I first met a young woman, Emma, who was involved in Girls Grantmaking. She was a total eye-opener for me – standing there at the microphone in front of a hall of hundreds of people, including the wife of the current candidate for presidency, talking about how her girls group had organised a boycott of a T-shirt that had sexist phrases on it. The next day I walked up to her and learned my first lessons about participatory grantmaking from her.

In 2012 filia created the first Girls Advisory Board of a foundation in Germany ever. We had found 11 precious young women aged between14 and 24 who were dedicated to women’s rights and wanted to have a say about our project funding for girls. At our first weekend together we met at the main station in Hamburg (Germany) to go from there to our meeting space. The main station is very crowded during rush hour, but we stood in a wide circle, so everyone of us could see everyone else. Together we, young and older women, took A LOT of space. I stood there and felt my heart beating with anticipation and pride.

The Girls Advisory Board turned out to be a real success. The projects who received the grants felt empowered because young women had selected them. Other foundations invited us to talk about our experience of sharing responsibility. Older women who had founded our women’s fund were moved to tears when they saw the young women presenting at an evening event: “The young women are here now, and they give us so much strength”. The Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and

Youth provided us with a start-up grant for our nationwide Girls Empowerment Program.

But still we are struggling how to hand over power to the young feminists who joined us. Take Anna. I want this girl to be the next German chancellor – such a clear political mind! When we started working together on the Girls Advisory Board I could sense her distrust. Was I really being honest with her or just giving her tokens? Since 2012 the girls have decided on 83.811 Euros that went to 18 girls projects in 11 German cities – I would not call that a token. But Anna had so much bad experience with fake participation – in fact it turned out that all of the girls had. So Anna was questioning me all the time. Test, test, test. I started to feel very insecure. But then, step by step she led me to understand my own “ageism”, how I took my position of power for granted. For example I had, together with filias ED, decided on how many years the girls could stay on the Board. Anna was furious – not about the limit we set but that we had not included them in the decision. (We had been warned that the young women would not stay long because of their fluid phase in life, but in our case they stay on Board for years!)

Still it is not easy for us to really be participatory. In our office every woman is above 40 (middle age to old feminists :-)). If we have to make decisions quickly, for example while navigating a big grant, we feel at a loss at how to include the young feminists into the development of concepts, time frames and action plans. After all they are leading their own busy lives which are sometimes very remote from our women’s funds world.

OK, we are learners. We really want to learn how to do it together, on eye level. Because it is fun! “I feel like part of something bigger now”, said Audrey who is 16 after her first term on the Girls Advisory Board. The same is true for me. Only together we are rich.

*Claudia Bollwinkel has ten years of experience in grantmaking to women and girls‘ human rights groups around the world. As program manager of the international women‘s fund filia.die frauenstiftung based in Germany she is deeply committed to building partnerships that are based on solidarity and respect. In 2012 she co-created the first Girls Advisory Board in Germany, a model for participatory grantmaking that involves girls between 14 and 24 years in decision making. Claudia serves on the Board of the International Network of Women’s Funds.

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