Grant-making and allyship: Disability rights

The International Day of Disabled People is celebrated every year on 3 December. The theme for this year is fighting for rights in the post-COVID era.

Here, our Programme Manager Tania Bronstein speaks to Tara Flood, a long-standing disability rights activist and vice-chair of our Trustee Board to learn about her experience at the Trust.

Tania: How did you become a trustee of Trust for London, and how would you describe your experience as a member of our trustee board, being a Disabled woman, coming from a world of activism?

Tara: I've had quite an interesting journey through Trust for London. I joined the grant-making committee as a co-optee at a time when the organisation I was running, the Alliance of Inclusive Education, was being funded by the Trust. The Trust was very keen, and remains keen, to hear directly from people who are on the receiving end of grants and working in a grassroots way and have a really good, direct experience of the community sector.

I'll be honest, it felt quite alien to me to begin with, in that I didn't really see other people on the board that looked like me. I have been a disability rights activist for a very long time and I felt, and still feel, that my perspective as a board member is a unique perspective. I really hope that will shift soon and I believe it will as we've got a really good new group of trustees who have joined, who have a good grasp on equality, diversity, and inclusion, and particularly how disability fits into that approach.

I've loved the experience. It has been a challenge but I’ve learned a huge amount in terms of how to build an argument that is outside my comfort zone. All of my previous experience was around the disability rights sector and that was and continues to be my comfort zone. The Trust has opened my eyes to a much broader world of poverty and social injustice than I would not have had access to if I'd not been a board member.

Tania: What are the main challenges being experienced by Disabled people’s own organisations and what needs to happen to better support their work?

Tara: Disabled people's organisations not only have to challenge disablism, oppression and marginalization, but also have to challenge the real damage that has been done by organisations who say they speak for us. The organisations for Disabled people, rather than organisations run and controlled by Disabled people. I bring that up on the International Day of Disabled People because the theme each year is about Disabled people's leadership, and it's important to acknowledge the real resistance and the real barriers that there are to our leadership.

There is a misconception that Disabled people can't run our own organisations in a professional way, in any efficient way, that we somehow need to have non-disabled people to do that for us. The Trust’s Strengthening Voices Realising Rights (SVRR) initiative has recognised that it was Disabled people's own leadership that needed to be supported.

The SVRR is about a fundamental shift in the way that we fund Disabled people's organisations. As funders, we have to work alongside Disabled people's organisations as allies to identify and remove those barriers. This is not a quick fix. I think the Trust recognises that.

There is a real distinction between other civil rights movements historically and the disability rights movement in that society still seems to find it perfectly acceptable that Disabled people are being spoken for on behalf of by non-disabled people. We don’t see this happening in the women’s rights movement or racial equality movement anymore. It’s a unique phenomenon that Disabled people experience and is still absolutely a live issue.

This is about partnership, it's about coproduction actually. It’s about organisations like the Trust, understanding our role as an ally in this. Understanding that it's not our job to speak on behalf of, it's our job to provide a platform for Disabled people. That's what an ally is. An ally is doing everything that we can to support a community, to have its voice heard.
Tania: December 3rd also marks the third anniversary of the launch of SVRR, the Trust’s initiative to bolster the capacity of Deaf and Disabled people’s organisations to advance rights and inclusion for Deaf and Disabled Londoners. You have been closely involved with SVRR - what are some of the key lessons learned so far?

Tara: We all know the power imbalance between grant-makers, funders, and organisations on the receiving end of that money is huge. What we've tried to do with the SVRR work is to work with the DDPO community to understand a different way of grant-making. One that attempts to address structural disablism in a way that is described by Disabled people, rather than the way it is described either by grant-makers or academics. Talking directly to Disabled people about what the community needs to enable us to lead our own social change , with support from allies when appropriate.

I think we have had some successes. Sometimes as a Trust, we worry too much about getting it wrong and maybe that stops us being a little bit braver than we should be. But actually, this initiative has been really brave because we put ourselves out there. On reflection, I think next time around we would have taken more time in our approach, to think what might go wrong and to see if we could find ways of mitigating that. I think we probably should have done more thinking about how to tackle the imbalance of power between grant maker and organization being funded.

We were always going to make some mistakes, but we have managed to get a lot of money out into the hands of Disabled people's own organisations at a time when grant-making seems to be in reverse in some ways and grant-makers seem to be more risk-averse than they have ever been.

I think for me personally, what I've learned is that I was very keen to try to use the language of co-production in this initiative before we were ready to really do it. What I recognise now is that to do true co-production in grant-making you have to recognise and begin to address the inherent power imbalance before you can start to talk about what co-production really looks like within grant-making. That doesn't mean to say that we can't do it. It just means that we can't rush to do it. I think we have to take our time and maybe through what we do next, we'll get closer to it.

Tania: I want to move back to the issue of leadership. You were talking about leadership in disabled spaces and you also talk about intersectionality. We don't lead single-issue lives and we have different identities and different spaces. Disability crosses over, intersects with many areas. How can the Trust do more to increase the leadership of Disabled people in all of the spaces we work ?

Tara: I think we need to be more challenging. We need to be more explicit about it. We need to talk about it more. We need to be talking much more often and much more confidently about intersectionality. It still feels very new for the Trust in the same way it still feels very new for lots of organisations, but it's good that we're doing it.

We need to seek advice from other organisations and people that are ahead of us on this. We are very good at the Trust at reaching out to people that we think are more expert than us on certain issues. We've done it with Disabled people. We've done it with gender-based violence. We've done it on all sorts of subjects. We should do the same for intersectionality. There is a need for all of us - trustees, staff, co-optees, and the organisations that we fund. Why not offer them support and training so that we can all learn together? There’s something really positive about shared learning spaces. I would love to see some really challenging intersectional equalities training done collectively.

Tania: The funding community across the world has been mobilising in response to the severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on marginalised groups. Progressive funders have begun to interrogate the power dynamics inherent in philanthropy and are opting to invest in work that tackles systemic injustices. However, in this process Disability and Disabled people have been overlooked as a key area of social justice. Can funders do better?

Tara: There is a serious amount of work that we can do as a Trust, along with other grant-making organisations, to address this in a much more strategic way, to understand the reasons for that disproportionate impact. Understanding the inequalities that Disabled people experience in all aspects of our lives is not about doing more research, or longitudinal studies. It is about welcoming the community of Disabled people to tell us what needs to change to address inequality and the marginalisation of our communities today. And how we can work together to make that change happen.

And it does come back to leadership. Disabled people negotiate the world, an inaccessible world, an unequal world, every single day of our lives. We have the solutions to those inequalities if only organisations like the Trust and other organisations with power can work alongside disabled people to address and remove those barriers. This is about partnership, it's about coproduction actually. It’s about organisations like the Trust, understanding our role as an ally in this. Understanding that it's not our job to speak on behalf of, it's our job to provide a platform for Disabled people. That's what an ally is. An ally is doing everything that we can to support a community, to have its voice heard.

3 December 2021

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Find out more about our Strengthening Voices, Realising Rights Disability Initiative.