In Conversation with Najia Nasim, Executive Director of Women for Afghan Women

As Domestic Violence Awareness Month draws to a close, we are pleased to share a recent interview we had with Najia Nasim, Executive Director of Women for Afghan Women (WAW). Keep on reading to hear about her new role and WAW’s continued commitment to supporting Afghan women and families.

Initially having plans to become a doctor, Najia made her way to WAW after realizing its mission allowed her to make significant changes in the lives of Afghan women and children. With the passion and motivation to make a difference, Najia became WAW’s Afghanistan Country Director in 2014 and was promoted to Executive Director in January 2019. “Every day we work through the challenges. That is the hard part. But at the same time, the smiles, the hope, the successes, the end results of our work and the positive impact– it’s all worth it,” she says about her experience.

Intimate partner violence affects more than 12 million people annually, according to the Office of Justice Programs. In New York City, domestic violence accounted for 17.5% of homicides recorded in 2017, according to data from the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence.

For Afghan women adjusting to life in the United States, this epidemic is often intensified by cultural differences, language barriers and varying levels of education.

WAW’s record of supporting survivors extends back to 2001 when the organization was first founded to support women living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Since then, WAW has expanded their base with their New York Community Center, where more than 1,000 women are served annually. WAW is also now the largest women’s organization in Afghanistan, with over 850 staff, the majority of whom are women, and 6,000 individuals accessing their programs annually. Although Afghanistan continues to face security challenges, Najia is proud to work with a team of human rights defenders. “They have basically risked their own life to save the lives of others, no matter what position they are in,” she said.

Afghan women in New York City may have certain liberties and freedoms not afforded to them in Afghanistan, but navigating a new country can be incredibly difficult without the proper support. “In New York, women have the right to get educated, they have the right to work, they have the right to seek justice,” she said. “But someone needs to assist them and tell them that these are their rights, and that they can do all this.” And meeting that need is exactly what WAW sets out to do, providing a comprehensive package of services for clients. Offering confidential case management and pro bono legal assistance, ESL, citizenship, and driver’s education classes, women’s circles, and leadership and after school programs for children and youth, WAW is a lifeline for immigrant and refugee communities in New York City.

Najia also identifies the isolation Afghan and other immigrant women face in their new lives in the United States as a major challenge. “It takes a long time for them to feel they are part of this society,” she explained.

From women now serving in the Parliament of Afghanistan to holding key positions at nonprofits and other businesses, Afghanistan and Afghan women have seen tremendous improvements over the past 18 years— but running an organization dedicated to women’s rights and protection still comes with risks. WAW’s network of services in Afghanistan includes programs and 32 centers across 16 provinces. Of the 32 centers, 12 are Women’s Protection Centers that provide confidential and safe shelter until the cases of endangered women and girls have been resolved. “The Women’s Protection Centers are a new concept in Afghanistan, so it still comes with a lot of challenges and a lot of risks. Our staff is going through that every day,” Najia says.
No matter the time of year, WAW continues to work to create a world free of gender-based violence. “When it comes to domestic violence, I would say that we, as an organization, always fight for the elimination and reduction of violence against women,” Najia says. WAW has trained more than 360,000 individuals across Afghanistan on how to advocate for and educate others on women’s rights. At the New York Community Center (NYCC), this month also featured events to raise awareness among WAW’s clients and emphasizing the importance of the fight to end gender-based violence, including co-sponsoring the Silent March coordinated annually by the Korean American Family Service Center and participating in a resource fair at the Queensborough president’s office.

For as much success as WAW has seen, support is still needed to see sustained change in the lives of Afghan women and children. Najia credits The New York Women’s Foundation as an early supporter of WAW, investing in the organization during its first stages.

“The Foundation believed in WAW from the beginning, when we started our work with only one to two staff members and 10-15 clients,” she says.

The Foundation was also a supporter of WAW’s Know Your Rights program, which provides information sessions, direct and referral services for immigrants, raises awareness about immigrant rights and assists women and men in the Afghan, South Asian, and Muslim communities in better understanding and responding to immigration challenges. As WAW continues through Domestic Violence Awareness Month and beyond, Najia expresses gratitude for the support the organization receives in helping Afghan and other immigrant women and families realize their fullest potential.

“Coming to WAW is like a door of hope for our clients. Everyone that contributes to WAW gives women, children, and all of our clients hope,” she says. “With this support, our clients are able to not only serve themselves but to become agents of change in their community. Philanthropy actually makes this happen.”

4 Things I Learned as an Intern with The New York Women’s Foundation

I became affiliated with The New York Women’s Foundation back in 2017 as one of 14 Fellows participating in the Girls IGNITE! Grantmaking (GIG) Fellowship program. The GIG Fellowship is a program dedicated to young girls and gender-fluid youth between the ages of 14-18 who live within the five boroughs of New York and identify with historical marginalized communities. This opportunity is an entry point to discover what participatory grantmaking is, what the process looks like, and in general, learn about what the field of philanthropy entails. This exposure offered me a professional career where I could fight for justice and contribute positive change in my community for the future. I had the privilege to come back this summer to work closely with the Programs Department to support the 2019 GIG Fellows as an intern to continue my journey as a philanthropist. These are 4 things I learned throughout my experience:

1. So many people come into philanthropy ‘accidentally’. What does that mean?

I had the chance to hear from various professionals about how they landed in philanthropy. After reflecting on these conversations, I noticed a trend of ‘accidentally’ stumbling upon philanthropy, even with The Foundation’s very own President & CEO, Ana Oliveira. I wanted to highlight this because I wondered if ‘accidentally stumbling’ upon a career is really another way of reiterating the phrase ‘it’s who you know, not what you know’.

Philanthropy is important work and more people need to know about it as a career. I am proud to say that The Foundation recognizes the need for younger generations to look at philanthropy the same way children think about being a doctor or a lawyer and will continue making strides to make that a reality. The GIG program is a great way to expose young people to this exciting and fulfilling career option.

2. Philanthropy looks different for everyone

Philanthropy is a field where one’s experience is unique. The process of grantmaking, development and operations look vastly different in every foundation. The Foundation, for example, practices participatory grantmaking to receive guidance directly from the communities being served and work directly with them to decide on the allocation of funding. The Foundation believes that the people who live in these communities know what is best for their community. There is no limit to who can contribute their ideas in these conversations. My experience being both a GIG Fellow and GIG Intern has taught me that philanthropy offers different lenses. GIG prioritizes ideas from young people by giving them a chance to be a part of decision-making processes, creating more progressive moves for the community. Taking this initiative opens the potential for other foundations to take after and implement more decisive programming catered towards young people, particularly young girls of color and gender fluid youth.

3. Grantmaking decisions can be burdensome and difficult

Last year, when I was told I would have the opportunity to weigh in on grantmaking decisions, I was euphoric. As a 17-year-old, that was exciting. I didn’t really think about what that meant until the time came to negotiate and decide amongst my cohort, who should we fund and how much? My cohort had great experiences at our site visits and really enjoyed getting to know these organizations but ultimately, making funding decisions can be tough. My cohort came with different stories to share and different issues to flag, and while that made us a spontaneous, unpredictable and passionate group of young folks, it also made it difficult to compromise. We each felt very connected with the organizations we had site visited, but we couldn’t fund all of them. This year’s cohort faced a similar challenge where Fellows had difficulty agreeing on an amount to fund. This dispute occurred because each Fellow had a different interpretation on what to prioritize when making decisions representing The Foundation. To address this issue, I suggested they approach this situation with questions such as, “Do you think funding this organization and their mission will be able to benefit young girls, women, gender-fluid/TGNC folks within the community?” “Will they be able to support their vision without us?” I have continued to learn throughout this internship that asking these types of questions are vital in making efficient, thoughtful decisions because at the end of the day, these decisions are making some form of impact on other people’s lives.

Philanthropy’s ability to be compassionate comes with the necessity to be clear and not be clouded with any biases. Both the Fellows and I were given exposure early in our philanthropic careers to absorb this reality. That alone is an accomplishment we should all be proud of.

4. Roll with the punches

When I first accepted this internship, it was difficult to imagine how it would unfold. Being a 2018 Fellow, I was oblivious to the amount of laborious work and time that had been put in by my supervisor, program officer Bianca Alston, and the rest of the Programs Team. Now that I was going to be helping out with the Fellowship, the tasks piled up extremely quickly, and all I could do was ‘roll with the punches.’ I went from supporting administrative work like copying, to creating presentations for GIG sessions, leading icebreakers and preparing Fellows for their site visits. I even collaborated with grantee partner Harlem Birth Action Committee and invited them to come speak to our Fellows about maternal and fetal morality. I put in everything I could to support the fellowship as best as I could, but it wouldn’t have been possible without my great supervisor and the Programs Team to lean on. Most importantly, I was willing to be flexible. For anyone reading this about to start an internship, I want to say that I hope you get an awesome supervisor, are surrounded by amazing, passionate workers, and are willing to adapt to whatever is necessary. Keep sticking through with it because you’ll be greatly rewarded!

Building Survivor Wealth: Lessons From the Inaugural FreeFrom Survivor Wealth Summit

This summer, Vice President of Programs Camille Emeagwali participated in a panel discussion at Me Too Fund grantee partner FreeFrom’s inaugural Survivor Wealth Summit. The groundbreaking two-day event explored the concept of survivor wealth and what is needed in communities and across various sectors to develop a deeper understanding of financial trauma and healing. Camille joined an all women of color panel of dynamic funders and thought leaders to discuss the importance of survivors of gender-based violence building wealth. She reflects on the experience in a Q&A below:

Tell me about your experience at the Survivor Wealth Summit.

It was wonderful to see a room full of people from a variety of backgrounds—from community-based organizations, philanthropy, government and survivors themselves—talking not just about how to end gender-based violence, but also about creating new beginnings for survivors of violence. Often when people talk about gender-based violence, they’re referring to the physical, emotional and mental toll that the violence can take. However, there is financial and economic violence that also happens to people. Many survivors of violence are in situations that they may want to get out of but are not in a financial position to do so. Some survivors of violence may not be able to have their own bank account or work outside the home. Money that they do earn may have been taken by a partner or a perpetrator of violence.

This is not necessarily always in a romantic relationship. For example—and to be inclusive of all communities that experience violence, and that were represented at this conference, such as sex workers—economic violence is to keep women in situations where people may be exploiting them, for example. I think it’s great to have the visibility of this conversation because oftentimes the work around gender-based violence focuses on the immediate needs, like housing, shelter and services. All these needs are critical, but we need to think long-term. There are many facets to this issue and economic justice is an enormous part of that.

Sonya Passi, the founder of FreeFrom, has taken a unique approach to combatting gender-based violence. How has The Foundation also taken a similar approach throughout its 32-year history?

Sonya is inspirational. From the beginning, she has connected the issues of economic justice and gender-based violence together. In the 32-year history of The Foundation, we have always invested in organizations that do economic security work and work with survivors. Examples include workforce development programs that are inclusive of survivors and domestic violence organizations or intimate partner violence organizations that do financial coaching with survivors. Many groups have one particular area of focus and add the other issue area to compliment their work. But Sonya brought those two conversations together from the very beginning and that is why I think  the organization has been so successful in growing support so quickly.

What was the greatest takeaway from your panel session, Investing in Survivor Wealth?

One thing that was striking was that the panel was comprised completely of women of color in philanthropy and all but one of the organizations represented were women’s foundations or women-focused foundations. That is something you don’t often see, and it was very powerful. One of the main takeaways was that women’s foundations have been at the forefront of the intersections of this issue from the beginning. Further, we see each other as critical partners, whether formally or informally, on how we can not only invest in this work but advance this as an issue that all funders need to be focused on.

There’s a real need, and The Foundation has been at the forefront of working at the intersections of these issues. Grantees or potential grantees in the audience asked, “how do I get funding? How do you fund my work?” I want them to recognize that The Foundation already funds that kind of work because we don’t take a siloed approach. We obviously have issue areas that we focus on, but we want to fund organizations who think about all these issues simultaneously. We want to fund the economic justice movement and the gender justice movement and anti-violence movement all together, because we recognize that they’re all connected and they impact the same people.

The bottom line is that there’s more money and attention that needs to be brought to these issues. The New York Women’s Foundation in particular has always been perceived as a risktaker. However, we don’t think it’s risky to fund those on the ground, community leaders who know this work; who face these issues every day. With the right resources, they can figure out the best solutions  and make changes on these issues. What we need to do is bring other funders into the fold.
Another take away is that we are a local funder, but it was clear that there is national impact with our dollars. Through The Fund for the Me Too Movement and Allies, we fund across the country, and that includes FreeFrom which is based in California. We were able to do that in partnership with The Women’s Foundation of California which has its own network of funders and donors that they collaborate with. Funding in this way, in this approach to our grantmaking, only deepens our impact on this issue.


You mentioned the Me Too Fund as something that has taken The Foundation’s impact on a national scale. What would you say specifically helps The Foundation stand out in the field of philanthropy when it comes to supporting survivors?

I would point to how we partner with community in our approach to grantmaking. FreeFrom is a great example. Sonya and FreeFrom were recommended to us by Tarana Burke (Tarana Burke, the leader and founder of the ‘me too’ movement co-founded The Fund for the Me Too Movement and Allies with The New York Women’s Foundation). Tarana is part of this community and—more so than The New York Women’s Foundation—is close to the ground in what’s happening and knows local and national leaders who are really pushing the needle on ending gender-based violence. She knew Yolo Akili (founder and executive director of the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective, or BEAM), another grantee partner of the Me Too Fund, who was also at the summit talking about healing justice and its connection to economic justice. Tarana knew that these were national leaders who are not yet nationally known. They are folks who are having local impact that needs to be on the national level and need investment to do that.

As we do with all our grantmaking, we see our grantee partners as experts. We follow their lead. Some funders are afraid to do that or require a plethora of evidence to feel comfort and security in knowing that’s the step they should take. The Foundation’s comfort in following community lead makes us unique, allowing those who are doing this work the freedom and the dollars to do what they need to do. Whether it’s direct service, policy and advocacy, movement building, developing strong collaborations, building their capacity as leaders, we think it’s all important.  Recognizing partnership in all layers, so partnership of community, partnership with other women’s funds who share our philosophy in funding leaders in this way and having a real participatory approach to grant-making.

One point Yolo Akili of BEAM made during his speech at the summit is that “healing is expensive and healing is a privilege.” Is that something you think can be shifted, say through our grantmaking or through culture change?

Yolo talked about it not just in terms of the work we do, but of how we work. At The Foundation, for the most part we give general operating support and try to be as flexible with our dollars as possible because we know that organizations need to not only resource the work that they do but need resources to work on themselves. Many times people come to this work through personal experience or because they have such deep compassion and empathy for those who have experienced issues or challenges in the community. It’s hard work. Sometimes, some of the same systems that we fight against for one reason or another replicate in our spaces. Oftentimes, it has to do with funding structure. Yolo spoke to the fact that healing justice is an essential part of all the work we do. Not only for the people experiencing these issues, but for the people that are doing the work. At The Foundation, we wholeheartedly agree with him. We have always provided capacity building and leadership development support. We see our partnerships as going beyond grantmaking to developing trusting relationships with grantee partners, where they can share things with us in a no judgement environment.

Again, this is where The Foundation has really shown great leadership and can continue to grow the resources that we invest in capacity-building. It is the same thing we want to do with our collaborative funds as well, making sure that we are not just finding this work, but are funding and supporting the people that are doing this work. At the end of the day, this is about human beings. We very much value the human beings who are doing that work and we demonstrate that through our grantmaking approach and our relationship management approach.

To learn more about FreeFrom and the movement of building survivor wealth, please click here

A Look Back at Beyond the Bars: Centering System-Impacted Women & Families

It was once a radical concept to see the American criminal justice system for what it is—a system largely built on disproportionately criminalizing minority communities and the poor. But now, discussions on dismantling mass incarceration have moved from the margins to the center, with the closing of the infamously violent and dysfunctional Rikers Island in sight. Yet with this shift and growing public consciousness is a glaring exclusion that begs the question: where are the women?

Mobilizing for criminal justice reform can’t be done without creating a paradigm shift that centers the experiences of women and families. The New York Women’s Foundation has applied a gender and racial equity lens to this crisis to truly pave the way forward to justice, safety and the overall wellbeing of communities across New York City.

The role of philanthropy in this movement is one that can’t be underscored; those most impacted by systems of incarceration are also closest to the solutions, and therefore their voices must be heard in all aspects of advocacy.

These principles were put into practice at the 9th Annual Beyond the Bars Conference from at Columbia University, where this year’s theme Until She’s Free bolstered efforts to challenge the impacts of incarceration and criminalization on women and girls. Foundation President & CEO Ana L. Oliveira moderated the discussion A New Path to Justice: A Philanthropic Conversation on the Intersection of Gender Equity and Criminal Justice Reform, featuring Pamela Schifman, Executive Director, NoVo Foundation; Aleah Bacquie-Vaughn, Director, Circle for Justice Innovations; and Christina Voight, Program Associate, Open Society Foundations.

Setting out to demystify the culture and inner workings of philanthropy, the panelists provided a breadth of experience as experts of the field, committed to using philanthropy as a tool to resource the initiatives, organizations and leaders on the ground. “It’s more than money,” Ana Oliveira said. “It’s a concept of solidarity and creating the destiny of our grantee partners on their terms.” Solidarity also includes not only centering the needs of system-impacted individuals through funding, but in changing the culture of philanthropy to ensure formerly incarcerated people are given opportunities to hold decision-making positions. This principle is personal for panelist Christina Voight at the Open Society Institute, who is one of the few formerly incarcerated women to work in philanthropy. “Until I see more formerly incarcerated people in power positions that can actually take the money and say this is what we’re going to be funding, I’m not going to stop,” she said.

Part of demystifying philanthropy also means recognizing that the problems and solutions of a community live together. While allies and collaborators are needed in the fight, it should never be at the expense of those who are closest to the issues and have been system-impacted, Aleah Bacquie Vaughn of Circle for Justice Innovations suggested. “It’s not a terrible thing that someone who has had a great deal of privilege be involved in helping to solve a problem,” she explained.

“If you center the focus on the people who are experiencing the problem, they will tell you what the priority is. Our job is simply fund and resource that work so that the movement continues to grow.”

While philanthropy has made strides in funding some criminal justice reform initiatives—such as ban the box and outlawing shackling women during labor—there’s a still gap between needs, resources, response time and action. And when it comes to meeting the needs of cis and trans women and girls of color, particularly those impacted by the system, resources are often funneled away from them, Ana Oliveira said. “Changes are happening in philanthropy. We are constantly fine tuning ourselves to be able to do them faster and to be able to do them even more.” Pamela Shifman of The NoVo Foundation echoed these sentiments, as she detailed the awareness gained of scanning the field of philanthropy and finding how few resources were dedicated to women’s criminal justice reform. “We realized the ways in which we were not resourcing formerly incarcerated women and their leadership, and that was a real gap for us—and that is not acceptable,” she said.

The Foundation continues to drive this change in philanthropy with the Justice Fund, launched in 2018, supports community-based organizations working to advance the closure of Rikers Island, and related improvements within the local jail system through efforts that will give voice to a wide range of system-impacted community members. We are proud to count the Art for Justice Fund, Ford Foundation, Frances Lear Foundation and The Pinkerton Foundation among our partners in this urgent social action and advocacy effort.

Through The Justice Fund, justice-involved individuals, women and their families will be heard at all levels of government and supported by the organizations most closely in connection to them. “This is our own wanting to catch up with the incredible work that you all have been doing,” Ana Oliveira said. By working alongside community-based organizations, The Foundation can more successfully join forces to dismantle mass incarceration, and its effects on women, girls and TGNC communities.

To watch the full panel, please click here. To learn more about The Justice Fund, please click here.