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

Nina Rodgers Coordinator, Communications and Marketing
September 26, 2019 News

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

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