In March 2010, the first Latin American Camp for Young Social Activists took place in Uruguay, organized by the Open Society Foundations Youth Initiative and Fundacion SES of Argentina, with the support of the Open Society Foundations Latin America Program and Ashoka. The JAS 10 Camp aimed to foster peer-based partnerships among social activists and explore possible bridges between open society and social activism in the region.
What does it mean to be a global donor in Latin America tied to one of the world’s wealthiest men? Having given away more than $7 billion dollars to support issues like justice, education, and public health may not guarantee a warm reception from local activists for the Open Society Foundations. Those who, in the words of one JAS 10 Camp participant, are used to “being recorded… filmed and represented by someone else,” are often skeptical of the motivation behind our funding.
The camp in Uruguay brought together 117 very different young people. Some came from HIV/AIDS activism groups. Others came from poor, urban neighborhoods, and from Afro-Latino communities throughout the region. LGBTI activists stood side by side with representatives of indigenous communities, and with women from conflict or post-conflict areas.
These activists are used to mainstream discourse and language that is inherently discriminatory: their identities aren’t recognized, many of their languages are downgraded to dialects, and their causes are often lumped together into amorphous groups despite the fact that their issues, cultures, and struggles are very different. Worse still, most are used to their struggles being ignored by traditional human rights groups.
But by and large the group shared two things in common: their activism comes from necessity, and they oppose a global economic and political system perceived as oppressive.
Although the camp was not designed to produce common statements or joint strategies, the common suspicion of economic liberalism as the cause of inequalities and social injustices in Latin American countries was a clear concern for many of the participants. And so where did this leave us, the camp’s sponsor?
It is not surprising that, despite the recognition of the camp as a fair and open space, the activists identified the Open Society Foundations more by what its wealthy donor represents to them than by what the organization does or could potentially do for their cause.
The camp’s participatory governance and coordination allowed for several open plenary discussions with facilitators chosen by majorities. There, some raised concerns about our agenda and reasons for supporting the camp. Others shared personal experiences of being used for unrelated fundraising purposes by organizations, or the fear of being co-opted by businesses and politicians to gain legitimacy.
The openness and horizontality of the camp did not change the minds of many about sharing spaces with institutions like ours. Shortly after the camp, a highly critical article citing an anonymous participant was posted on the Internet. The article doesn’t make distinctions between George Soros and the Open Society Foundations and focuses on the tensions surrounding their role in the gathering. The author questioned whether the camp was legitimate if backed by a so-called financial speculator and blasted the event for allegedly advancing a global political agenda to destabilize anti-imperialistic democracies globally.
The ideas in the article contributed to a heated debate at the camp about essential issues of social activism, such as the criteria for funding sources. Some participants highlighted the need for clear terms between donors and grassroots groups to make possible partnerships, as well as to be better informed about the sources of money in order to make proper judgments. In recognizing the fairness of the terms and the transparency of our proposal for the camp, many of its participants acknowledged the potential benefits of partnering with donor institutions, when the conditions are clear. This transparency was outlined in a subsequent article:
JAS 10 was presented as a horizontal space, open and democratic. Starting from the self-organized process of creation of a documentation team, and the absence of a scheduled agenda at the beginning, we were faced with the challenge of concretizing JAS collectively. We made the agenda, we defined the themes, as well as the spaces for collective creation, and we put our efforts so on Thursday 25th, the last day of the camp, we could decide the future of JAS through a plenary meeting, and undoubtedly, our stand towards the financing of the Soros Foundation to JAS. This criticism was built little by little. Many of us did not know who they were, and some of us decided to protect the democratic principles of the camp and to raise our concerns and criticisms from within, recognizing that not only information from the camp, but also the symbolic value of our work could be used to cover up dishonest deeds.
Participants defended the camp as a legitimate space. The importance of a peer-supported community is crucial for these activists; possibly much more than for other more organized civil society institutions that can count on access to financing. For them, that mutual support is the only external resource they have access to. This is why most post-camp proposals aimed at preserving this aspect of JAS, by keeping the virtual spaces for peer interaction active and by supporting communication produced by participants. Social activism is not a source of income for most of these young people: the majority have other jobs, and little knowledge of how donors work. Some actually highlighted that they aren’t looking for institutionalizing their efforts, or earning a living from them, simply because that wouldn’t be right.
The experience opened for many a dialogue that could bring better understanding and, eventually, partnerships with international organizations:
this experience constitutes a collective lesson on the relations between the social movements and the international cooperation, and their limitations. We need to reflect on every step about where is the financing coming from, and where does it go after; we have to make sure that our knowledge is really producing emancipation.
The experience created, almost inadvertently, conditions for many of these activists to review their stand regarding private foundations and other donors. Some of them may even find themselves working in the future alongside or even within the organizations they reject.
For us at the Open Society Foundations, it is important to take experiences like this one to review misperceptions regarding youth social activism and their movements. Often, we assume that sharing their goals and aspirations is enough to be seen as trusted partners. However, the asymmetries between us define how we relate to grassroots and all other civil society organizations. We tend to overlook the fact that, at the base of our power for change, there are earnings widely identified with global financial inequalities that affect those on behalf of whom we advocate.