Women in Dev Steering Committee Spotlight – Uma Mishra-Newbery
Please start by telling us a little bit about yourself and what you do?
Sure! So I’ve been working in the Global Development sector for a while now. Currently my work revolves around racial equity and anti-racism. I work as a Senior Consultant with The Better Org, as well as an independent consultant and my work is focused on pushing for transformation within the sector on racial equity in organisations. I also focus on organisational strategy and development, campaigning and mobilisation, and facilitation.
I’ve had a really varied career over the past twenty years that informs who I am and how I show up in the spaces I move through. I’ve worked in the military and civilian health care sector, as an educator at both university and high school levels, and then in Global Development in the women’s rights space where my previous role was the Executive Director of Women’s March Global.
All of these experiences have really pushed me to look at the interconnectedness of racial inequity and racial violence within global development, and specifically how this impacts Black, Indigenous and people of culture/colour who work within global development. This exploration led me to initiate the Racial Equity Index. So now, I spend a lot of my time organising with our fellow BIPOC collective members to build the first ever accountability system on racial equity for the global development sector.
You’ve been involved with Women in Dev (WID) since the 2020 conference – what was that like?
I have been with WID since the beginning, and I started with the conference because a friend and colleague of mine, Stephanie Kimou, and I were working to push Rachel [founder of WID] to include more diversity within panels. There are not many opportunities for women in global development (at all levels) to gather in this way, so we really felt it necessary to make sure that discussions of equity were included in the construction of these conversations from the onset.
Rachel was open to listening, and so, thankfully, the conference turned out to be a beautiful gathering of people just before COVID-19 hit. It was just a really special moment. There were a lot of connections made at the conference that I still carry with me today, and people who are like oh, I met you there, and now I’m working on this new project. So to then move from being able to speak on a couple of panels at the conference with a lot of people, to being on the Steering Committee, it has been a real pleasure as we were able to ensure that we continued to talk about the issues that mattered within the global development sector at large.
Do you have any highlights from the last two and a half years? Anything you’ve enjoyed the most about being part of WID, and being part of the Steering Committee in particular?
Yes, two things come to mind:
1) Meeting fellow colleagues within this sector who are committed to really speaking truthfully about the issues that are in front of us as a development sector. With my fellow Steering Committee members, we are individually working in our own areas, but we’re doing so really intentionally. And then collectively, I think we’ve been able to tell and weave together some of the stories, whether it’s through the podcast, whether it’s through articles, whether it’s through different projects that we’ve worked on. So it’s been really a great experience, especially in this virtual work environment, to remind us that we’re not alone in our struggles, and there are a lot of us working together who are pushing for change.
And 2) that there are really dedicated people who are not shying away from the harsh realities that we face in this sector.
I saw that you’ve published a book recently! Do you want to talk a little more about that?
Yes! So I’ve been working, like so many women of colour I know, on multiple projects. And one of them was the campaign to free Loujain Alhathloul, who is a Saudi human rights activist who was imprisoned for 1001 days for her activism. Unfortunately, as I now speak to you about this, Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi activist, was just sentenced to 34 years in prison based on her tweets in support of women’s rights.
So, this fight for Loujain was not an isolated one, and I was working quite heavily with her sister, Lina, on campaigning for her release from prison, because she was sentenced to five years and eight days in prison, and was tortured brutally during her time in prison.
During the campaign, Lina met my daughter Leela, and the question of how do we tell stories of human rights defenders while they are living came up. Not something that happens posthumously or after they’ve been murdered, but while they are living. How do we tell the stories of the people that are really on the front lines? And how do we tell them in a way that respects the family members and does not increase the risk against the family or the defender?
Lina and I came up with the idea of a children’s picture book and Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers, was released in March 2022, and it’s been a wonderful release. It was reviewed by the New York Times and so many other outlets, and it’s been so great to see how parents, teachers (there’s an accompanying teaching guide), and young kids are interacting with the book, and the fact that it’s again just another point of inspiration that people can link up to and share Loujain’s story and activism with their kids.
So the Free Saudi activists campaign was a coalition of various organisations? How did you start campaigning with them?
Yes. So I started campaigning with this issue, because during my time at Women’s March Global, in 2018 over 10 Saudi women activists were arrested all at once. And so there was a coalition of organisations that Women’s March Global helped bring together: CIVICUS, Equality Now, ISHR, WHRD-MENA, and others. And so, we brought these organisations together, because we wanted to make sure that we were not duplicating efforts, that we were communicating clearly what we were working on, and campaigning together, so our work would be amplified.
This was a really serious issue. Trump, at that time, was president. So there was really no hope, especially given the close relationship that Trump continues to have with Saudi Arabia, for Loujan’s release. So we really had to continue keeping her story alive and keeping hope alive in many different ways. And so that’s how the campaign started, and when I transitioned out of Women’s March Global, I continued to help on a personal level, and was the campaign manager of the #FreeLoujain campaign.
I guess that kind of ties into the early days of Women’s March Global. How did that come about and what was your experience leading that global movement?
I originally marched with (alongside millions of women and allies around the world) Women’s March Geneva in 2017, and saw that after the march there was this real need to continue to gather. Organisers had put in a lot of hours to create these one-day events around the world and it’s not like the issues were solved after millions of women and allies had marched. There was a lack of coordination in terms of how do we move forward with this global movement that just sprung up?
And so, I started volunteering with Women’s March Global, and eventually decided, when a position opened up, to leave my teaching job and join as a Director of Global Community. And then transitioned to the Interim ED and then Executive Director after the first ED transitioned out of the organisation.
So how has your involvement with WID tied in with all of this work that you’ve been doing?
You know two things that come to mind. One is the fact that WID is a space where we can make sure that we’re not further siloing women’s rights struggles. So the fight that we are focused on at the Racial Equity Index of holding the sector accountable, is not isolated from gender equity which is not isolated from SRHR, etc. These are all interconnected struggles. And because we have such a diverse body of people from so many different backgrounds as the Steering Committee we get to have a space where we can talk about how we actually connect those circles together.
The second thing is just being a platform where we can actually amplify the things that we are focused on. So, I know that one of the first things we did last year was this really great, really honest conversation around the immense challenges in philanthropy and the interactions with philanthropy and the rest of the global development space, and how there are a lot of harmful white supremacist practices that are perpetuated by the philanthropic sector and by people working in the philanthropic space.
We asked the questions (and continue to) of what does accountability look like? What does transparency look like? And so that was a really important discussion, and it’s one that continues to be necessary. But I remember that it was the first time that I saw a group of women really talking about this issue, and it wasn’t just limited to people in the philanthropy sector. There were community activists that were part of different struggles that were there speaking with funders publicly. So that was a really important discussion. So yes, WID has been super helpful in terms of amplifying important causes across the sector.
Definitely. Our readers can watch that discussion here!
This really is a case of putting activists, NGO leaders, and donors in one virtual room to speak frankly about how funding practices can be better. Of course, one of WID’s calls to action is to transform funding practices. But this is easier said than done. How do you think this should happen?
So I think if we’re talking about funding practices specifically, there’s been a lot of conversations in philanthropy about trust-based practices that I have yet to see actually implemented and those that are implementing trust-based funding are radically intentional funders like FRIDA, the Black Feminist Fund, Mama Cash and others. And so this is what the Racial Equity Index is really trying to do, especially with funders. Because what’s been interesting is that we see white-led racial equity initiatives in the global development space being funded; we see funder-led racial equity initiatives being funded, but we see very little money actually going towards BIPOC led racial equity initiatives that are calling for accountability and data on racial equity in global development specifically. And that’s something to dig into. There’s some homework that the philanthropy sector needs to do around this, because what that says to us as a body of BIPOC individuals (at the Racial Equity Index) who have over 50 years of experience in global development is that the sector isn’t actually ready for accountability. It isn’t actually ready for transparency. It isn’t actually ready for data on racial equity in global development.
And all of that to say that when we want to keep the actual reality of racial equity obscure, when we want to avoid looking at the numbers, we are then saying that obscurity is more comfortable than the reality, which, in a lot of ways, is terrifying. Because white supremacy doesn’t want to actually confront the reality, it doesn’t want to actually confront the data, it doesn’t want to sit with what accountability requires, and that’s where the sector is at the moment.
So within the philanthropic and funding space, there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to still be done. Because there is a lot of cyclical power. There’s a lot of gatekeeper-ism, white feminism, and white supremacy that still exists. A lot of money still goes to the same types of initiatives. I read yet another report just last week saying that still less than one percent of funding goes to gender-rated initiatives. So if you give 1% of funding to gender-related initiatives then less than that goes to gender-related initiatives that are led by people of colour, and even less than that goes to Black-led, gender-related initiatives. The global development sector continues to show us, every day, who is valued and trusted and who isn’t. And it’s devastating to bear witness to that reality.
So we really have to do some deep, deep, deep questioning within this sector, because all of this is continuing ongoing cycles of harm and violence rooted in white supremacy. So what is the good that we’re actually doing if we’re not willing to do the hard work that is required to achieve accountability and transparency and truly commit to the work that racial equity requires because pledges and ‘commitments’ aren’t it. What is it that we’re actually doing? This is my question to the sector.
A big question, and it links to what you were saying before about how there’s no isolated issue – everything links and intersects. I suppose this also relates to your work at the Racial Equity Index?
So with the Racial Equity Index, we have now been around for more than two years now. We are a completely BIPOC-led initiative and we are working to build the first, ever accountability system for racial equity in global development. And what that means is that we’re producing an index that would publicly list non-profit organisations, and we want to invite organisations into this process, so that we can have a way to track and measure change on racial equity annually within these organisations. So the Index would list organisations publicly in terms of where they stand on the eleven indicators that we’ve developed and their subcodes, and also provide a pulse check for the sector every year. So the survey tool that we’re developing would be open to everyone that works in global development, but mainly targeting Black, Indigenous people of colour within global development. It is critical that data on racial equity is public and we have continued to push for transparency despite the discomfort this may cause organisations in global development. Ultimately any organisation receiving funding for charitable or non-profit work has a greater responsibility to ensure they are truly committing to the work that racial equity requires. And that data deserves to be public so that the people who work in these organisations and the sector at large can see the commitment (or lack thereof) and progress on racial equity in organisations.
We’ve been doing this work as volunteers for over two years and even with the peer-reviewed data and research we have produced we still lack substantial funding. So, we are doing this work in between everything else that life entails. So this process has been very slow and very intentional. Our work is peer-reviewed consistently. And so where we are right now is that, hopefully, we should have some sort of pilot that we’re ready to release publicly either in the first or second quarter of next year.
The amount of sweat equity given by our collective members is enormous. We wouldn’t be where we are as a democratised, consensus based collective without our members. As a person who has worked in the global movement space, it’s really incredible to witness the dedication of the people that are in this collective. But we have no choice. A question that often gets asked of us is “isn’t this work exhausting? It’s surprising that you haven’t fatigued out yet.” But we have no choice. The data on racial equity in global development organisations doesn’t exist. And so, we’re here to change that because we need the data. Data in its essence is love. It’s love because it casts light on what the realities are, even if they are harsh. But that light allows us to recognise the issues that really need to be confronted.
What motivates you to do all this? Because it seems like you’re doing so many different things at the same time! And how do you keep going?
I think, and I’m sure you experience this as well, that a lot of people, especially people who are older than me and people who are still in power that are majority-white will say of my generation and generations after me that we are entitled. But there is no entitlement here. We have inherited a whole mess of problems and issues, and it is incumbent upon our generations to really push for change. And this is what we see. We see more unionisation happening. We see more people leaving really toxic and harmful work environments and choosing differently, because honestly, we have one life. We need to live in a way that fulfils us. But at the same time, I want to make sure, and I know so many people I get to organise alongside of do, that we’re not passing on these issues to the next generation.
And for me, that means ensuring a global development space that looks radically different than it does now. That it is a place where BIPOC people can actually do the work we set out to do but do so in a way where our whole humanity is respected and where dignity and justice are at the root of the work. So many people join global movements and causes because they want to support doing good in the world and work on issues that really matter to them. And so many of the solutions for issues come from marginalised populations and racialised populations. And yet these populations are the same peoples that have to experience racial violence on the most egregious level in some of the biggest organisations in global development, that we see some of the biggest amounts of funding going to.
And so for me, there is no choice. We have to address this issue head-on, and it’s one of the reasons that the Racial Equity Index exists and I’m now a consultant because even privately working with these organisations doing racial equity audits and training sessions is something that little by little I see as seeds of change. You’re just planting seeds of change. You’re encouraging people to reflect, to do better, to show up, to have this conversation, and yes, it’s exhausting work, but we don’t have a choice.
Yes, it must feel like a never-ending battle. But overall, do you think things are getting better or worse?
Yes, as our elders remind us and for me, it’s Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Bell Hooks, Arundhati Roy, Vandana Shiva and more…, these really toxic and very harmful white supremacist capatalist systems want us to believe is these issues are too big for us to confront. But they created them! These systems created them.
And so what I know to be true is that there are amazing powerhouse people and women that are out there that are working on these issues, and there are movements around these issues that continue to show up. So for me, there is hope, because I know the people that are working on some of these issues, and they are amazing. It’s so important to remember that there’s a lot of wisdom from our elders and ancestors that shows we are not alone in these struggles. Isolation is a tool of white supremacy which makes us feel alone and makes us feel like there’s no hope, that we’re not making a difference. But we need to continue to always, follow the lead of women of colour, of Black women and Indigenous women, in these struggles and ensure that we’re mobilising in community around these issues.
What you just said encapsulates why WID exists; why we do what we do. So, as a final question – since we will soon be welcoming new Steering Committee members, do you have any advice for them to get the most out of this?
I have no advice for them, because these are amazing people. And the next Steering Committee members are incredible. For me, it’s about learning from all of them, and seeing what direction they take WID. I know some of the Steering Committee members in terms of their honesty, addressing the issues, and confronting issues head-on. And so, I’m really looking forward to another generation of that happening for WID!