ABORIGINAL WOMEN WEAVE CULTURE IN PHILANTHROPY

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Fund (ATSI Fund) was launched in Australia recognizing the need for indigenous women to have autonomy and leadership in philanthropic models that integrated their cultural knowledge and values in funding practice.
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Photo credit: Toby McLeod

Written by Rucha Chitnis
Renowned indigenous scholar and human rights advocate, Dr. Megan Davis, noted the need for Aboriginal women to lead from the front and hold positions of real power and decision-making. “So long as routine interpersonal violence continues in the daily life experience of Aboriginal women, they can never reach the threshold of what is required to live a dignified human life. Self-determination can never be achieved if half the population is left behind,” she said.
In 2014, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Fund (ATSI Fund) was launched recognizing the need for self-determination in philanthropic models as well that integrated indigenous cultural knowledge and values in funding practice. ATSI Women’s Fund was founded by nine Aboriginal women from Northern Territory in Australia, who saw a gap in philanthropy that ignored their cultural values and leadership. “There are diverse tribes and languages in Australia. It was important for us to be careful and respectful on how we built the Fund,” said Lenore Dembski, Chairperson. While the philanthropic community in Australia has made efforts to support the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, there wasn’t a fund that was led entirely by indigenous women.
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Photo credit: Toby McLeod

The seeds for such a fund were planted initially by Jane Sloane, former Vice President of Programs at the Global Fund for Women, also an Australian who saw the potential and need for this new initiative. “The ATSI Women’s Fund is an important new fund, the first of its kind in the Pacific, and provides a critical means for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to attract and disseminate funds and elevate their voice in key forums so that they can lead the change in transforming the lives of Indigenous women and their communities,” said Sloane.
Dembski shares that the ATSI Women’s Fund’s core members didn’t rush to set up the infrastructure. “I looked at constitutions of nearly 140 women’s organizations, of which only 34 remain in existence because of financial reasons,” she said.  While ATSI Women’s Fund has taken a few years to build its governing and financial regulatory infrastructure, Lenore notes that Aboriginal women continued to give their time and advice to support women. “We are philanthropists of our time and knowledge,” she said. “It’s taken us time to set up the organization, but we have been supporting activities all along. This is often ignored and not documented, but it’s an important way of serving and mentoring our communities.”
Over the past few years, Dembski has mentored many Indigenous women, who are engaged in textile and clothing businesses. She coordinated a workshop, ‘Significance of Indigenous Textiles to the Northern Territory Economy,’ to raise the profile of Aboriginal women and promote their enterprises. “The workshop was attended by a number of Indigenous women involved in the textile industry and also policy makers and potential funders.  It was also a way to show Indigenous women the potential for increasing their economic income, as well as improving their skills,” shared Lenore.
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Photo credit: Toby McLeod

This year, ATSI Women’s Fund is ready to raise resources for their grantmaking and general operating support. Their grantmaking will support indigenous women’s efforts for cultural and language revitalization, including protection of sacred sites; economic and leadership development of women; support to strengthen indigenous men’s groups; ecological stewardship of land and natural resources and promoting LGBTQ rights, among other activities. Indigenous women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalized as a result of domestic violence than non-indigenous women in Australia.  One of ATSI Women’s Fund’s key objectives is also working towards zero violence and prioritizing individual and community safety.   
Sarina Jan, an active volunteer of ATSI Women’s Fund, shares struggles of “Sistergirls,” who are Aboriginal trans women in Tiwi Islands. Sistergirls experience deep social stigma and have high rates of suicide in Northern Territory. “We have to acknowledge that they exist, and let them know that they have a place in our community. They have suffered for centuries,” she said. Sistergirls have a dream of having their first float at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. Many of them have never traveled to Sydney, and Jan is supporting their resource mobilization efforts.  
 “This fund provides Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women the opportunity to create a genuine social movement of Indigenous women determined to shift power and resources in order to change the course of history,” summed up Sloane. 
To contact ATSI Women’s Fund, email atsi_womens_fund at bigpond.com

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