What Does Social Justice Funding in Education Look Like?

The Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace came together in 2007. It has since been committed to improving and growing the impact of philanthropy on social justice and peace building work. It has done so through dialogue amongst the members; through meetings and even entire conferences devoted to peace and social justice philanthropy;  through surveys and mapping of relevant fields; through comedy and drama at conference workshops; by developing tools to help practitioners; through articles in philanthropy journals and magazines; through blog posts and reports…through an endless array of platforms available to philanthropy. Therefore it came as no surprise when recently a member of the group said to us that she needed help to unpack the question “What could social justice funding in education look like?”

In order to get to some answers we harked back to a workshop called ‘Sea change or hard to see change: are foundations making enough of a difference?’ held in Sarajevo in June 2014 with the European Foundation Center, which had applied a social justice lens to common philanthropic actions in education.  At this workshop a play called “Waiting for Do Good”, highlighted how different approaches to integration can put the onus on different actors within education and lead to different results.   

The play was set in the fictional island of ‘Trouble’ where the Do Good Foundation operated. The staff at Do Good had just received a memo informing them that 2000 extra-terrestrials would be arriving on the island next week. The islanders needed help from the Do Good Foundation to address the anticipated educational needs of the alien children and an anticipated disruption to the classrooms. Four program officers argued about how best to become engaged. The four approaches explored through the play were:

  1. Offer scholarships to promising marginalized students
  2. Empower and organize the marginalized community to speak up for their rights to education
  3. Organize after school activities and teacher training
  4. Change the school system to meet the needs of these students

Scholarships could possibly increase the ‘participation’ of the marginalized in the education system by subsidizing the costs of schooling and thereby increasing the opportunity for those students who would otherwise not be able to participate. Perhaps scholarships also provide a level of positive reinforcement to the children. But do scholarships address social inclusion? Do they result in equality of opportunity for all marginalized students or only the handful that made the scholarship cut? And even those who were given scholarships, is there any guarantee that the societal structures that have denied them equal opportunity up to that point wouldn’t seep into the social relations at school? Aren’t other measures needed to be taken at school (and society at large) to ensure that discrimination and social prejudices don’t follow these children into the classrooms and that they are treated equally and fairly by their peers and teachers? How would the foundation ensuring “participation” of the marginalized through scholarships address these questions?

To empower the marginalized communities would mean to increase the social, political and economic strength of the entire community. Grants under a portfolio that took the ‘empowerment’ frame could mean supporting activists to carry out awareness programmes to raise the consciousness of the community about their rights and entitlements, organizing the community to challenge prejudices and discriminatory practices in schools and society at large. This could definitely be a positive step by the foundation toward ensuring that community is part of the change process to make the school system more ‘socially inclusive’. But wouldn’t change come too slow? What if the schools are too expensive and there are no laws to ensure subsidies for marginalized children? Once again, what if the social prejudices against the marginalised (such as the Roma in Europe or Dalits in India) are deeply seeded in the minds of students and teachers and the education system doesn’t address that? Wouldn’t mobilizing and organizing the community for their own rights to demand system changes take too long and how would we know any change was coming? An entire generation could miss out on opportunities for equal education! Isn’t it the prerogative of a powerful foundation to use its unique position of independence and influence to do more than give out grants to activists? To ensure that it is doing all there is in its capacity to support movement building toward sustainable and effective changes? Should it not seek partnerships across the board, with grassroots activists from the community, with the schools as well as legal bodies to ensure system changes?

One of the programme officers in the play argues that organising after school activities along with teacher training would be more culturally relevant. Perhaps the extra effort after school would allow the marginalized students to ‘participate’ and cope better in school but doesn’t this put the onus on the students to work twice as hard instead of on the system to be more suitable for all students? Moreover, if at all, this approach would only be effective as long as the foundation carried out the after school activities? How would the impact be sustainable once the foundation stopped the programme? Wouldn’t it create a condition of dependency instead of empowerment? And would one foundation’s efforts by supporting after school activities be effective in catering to the needs of all marginalized children?

The fourth approach proposed through the play focused on changing the school system to meet the needs of these students. To quote directly from the script,

“The school system must be changed to meet the needs of these students: we need to teach in their language and provide culturally appropriate top-to-bottom education in order to ensure that they thrive. The Do Good Foundation needs to engage with the local and national governments to make sure these reforms are lasting and sustainable. Overall, we must create a more conducive atmosphere for alien education on our island.”

While the play was inconclusive on the best approach and left the audience to decide on which approach they’d choose, it seems that a grant portfolio that took the fourth approach would have the best chance at achieving a social inclusion goal. It would empower the community to participate in the change process, speak to power and inform the reforms, have the best chance at creating a conducive environment for the students in schools (such as by teaching in their language) and thereby increasing their participation in the education system.

Each of these approaches begs the question of what is the underlying problem one is trying to address. Is it “participation of the marginalized’’ or  “social inclusion”.  You might ask, “what’s the difference?” The way in which the problem is framed can actually make a big difference in the ensuing approach. Scholarship alone would not result in social inclusion though it could address participation of some marginalized. Community empowerment approaches if not designed well can result in unrealistic expectations and be ineffective.

Steps to ensure simple “participation” of students in the education system are not strategically sufficient to ensure social justice. Whereas “social inclusion” cannot be achieved without participation of the affected community at various stages of the change process. A holistic grantmaking strategy that adjusts to the needs of the community and supports efforts across the board is needed in order to ensure a fair education system that is inclusive and provides equal opportunity for all students to thrive.

Does your foundation have a strategy for funding in education? What has worked and what hasn’t? What do your grants look like? What are some of the issues and questions that a foundation wanting to device a brand new grantmaking programme in education consider? We’d love to hear your views. Write to us at info@p-sj.org