Magic Awaits: Swatee Deepak on Girl-Led Change

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Swatee Deepak, director of With and For Girls (WFG), a collective that gives financial support to girl-led and -centered groups around the world and engages young women in participatory grantmaking panels.

Swatee Deepak (courtesy of Swatee Deepak)

What is your current greatest professional challenge?

How to best support mergers in the philanthropic sector adhering to the same values and care we place across our work.   

With and For Girls was initially incubated within a private foundation, Stars Foundation. In 2018, as a collective, we worked together with adolescent girls to identify a new home and chose Purposeful. What followed was a merger of WFG from Stars to Purposeful. Progressive philanthropy is filled with discussions about shifting power. Here we are, a funder collaborative, working globally across the global north and south and made up of established funders now being held by a grassroots-based organization with headquarters in Sierra Leone. 

WFG and Purposeful have aligned missions; collaborative, participatory decision-making, amplifying girls’ voices, further bolstered by Purposeful’s global south-led and locally-rooted approach. We are reimagining philanthropy and movement building support from that lens, which is exciting, but comes with its own challenges, such as how we can align our grantmaking processes, learnings and timetables. We are all reluctant to slow down when momentum for girl-led movements is so desperately needed.

The sector is very opaque about business structures; there isn’t a lot of talk in philanthropy about how best to do meaningful mergers. Hopefully, this means we’re leading the way!    

What inspires you most about your work?

I am consistently blown away by the resilience, brilliance and sheer enthusiasm of girls and grassroots leaders who are organizing. Switching on the TV, opening a newspaper or scrolling your feed at times can be deeply depressing. I’ve often looked on in horror, paralyzed and helpless as lives, civil liberties and rights are lost or threatened. 

My work has given me the chance to work with, meet and see first hand some incredible grassroots and community leaders, organizers, activists and artists doing much needed impactful and necessary work. Resilient in the face of issues we are blind to, can’t comprehend or refuse to believe. If I can continue to work with them, learn more from them, create with them, amplify their work, their message and voice and move more of our own resources and catalyze more of philanthropy to do the same, I know magic awaits. 

How does your gender identity inform your work?

In my family, the priority is to get married. You can be educated, but only so you attract the right partner; you can work and be successful, so long as you’re not too independent, lest you scare someone off. You need to learn how to cook, to be the good Indian girl; smile, nod, serve elders in your company, cover up, get over the unmistakable, piercing gazes of men or the misplaced hands on your intimate parts when moving through crowds because that’s just how it is. 

In a recent poll on whether my family would be more proud if I became United Nations Secretary-General or if I got married, guess which one had 100 percent of the votes. Never mind what my peers might face, should they not be heterosexual. 

When I’m with our winners and the girls, they are always surprised that we have so much in common when we navigate the world, that an individual’s age, country or perceived success doesn’t change the deep-seated norms we seek to address; only collective action and solidarity can do that.  

Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?

Like race, my gender is a key navigation point of my work. It shows me that a lot still needs to be done, that legislative or policy changes or individual action do not often make the large, sweeping style change we all want to see in reality; that movements are really needed to change norms, behaviors and harmful cultural and religious practices to achieve policy and legislative changes. 

Being a brown female also reminds me that sometimes I need to drag my seat to the table to represent those views when the audience is all white or cis male. I also need to pass the mic to girls, gender non-conforming people and grassroots leaders to represent their realities when I cannot. 

How can philanthropy support gender equality?

Listen to and amplify the voices of activists.

“I’m tired of being unheard and left out so I want you, everyone, to put down their cup of coffee and actually make us a seat at the table and listen to us because we are working where you want to be working and we can help you as you can help us,” a girl activist in Poland said.

Last year, girl activists from around the world shared their own realities and presented 10 pledges they wanted funders to commit to together with a video on what they want funders to know.  

Embrace intersectionality and apply a gender lens across all parts of your work. It isn’t just about funding in the gender justice space but ensuring that it is embedded in all work. WFG Award winners work across a multitude of issues, from health, climate change and disability rights to racial justice and STEM. Don’t reduce gender to a silo, encourage grantees to do the same and fund them to understand how gender affects the approach they should take across their work.

In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?

If resourced in the right way, with and to the grassroots, toward large scale transformative change for women, girls and gender non conforming folk! 

I’m deeply excited by change that is led by bold, grassroots leaders centering the voices of those most marginalized in society; people of color, girls, LGBTIQ folk, indigenous groups. Unlike many reports that say gender equality movements such as #MeToo have failed, fizzled or gone too far, I believe, alongside my peers in the movement, that we are only just getting started. 

In the words of Arundhati Roy, ”Another world is not only possible, she is on her way… on a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” 

What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

As a privileged and relatively young person of color who has run a private philanthropic foundation funding worldwide and now manages a unique global donor collaborative fund, I have the opportunity to get a seat at the table in global settings. It’s sad just how little representative voice there is, and how much more you have to substantiate, justify and legitimize yourself in those settings, especially since they should represent the communities the work seeks to target and support. 

There is not enough reflection or discussion on how privilege, power, money and connections materialize action in philanthropy, [or] brave innovation. [There is] little discussion on what we are truly doing to champion local voices and give up our seats. It reinforces the need to have more solidarity with grassroots leaders and that more work needs to be done to address power. 

Contrarily, I have also felt immense solidarity, support and commitment to holding one another in deep care and service to further the work with others in the space that is unlike any other sector I’ve worked in. 

More on Swatee Deepak:

Swatee Deepak is the director of With and For Girls. She oversees the programs, partnerships and activities of this unique donor collective focused on increasing resources to adolescent girls around the world and amplifying their voices into the corridors of power.  

Swatee was previously Director of Stars Foundation. Prior to joining Stars, Swatee worked at Marie Stopes International, UNICEF, UNWomen and International Planned Parenthood Federation.  

With a career straddling policy, business development and implementation of programes within multilaterals, bilaterals, international agencies and donor agencies, she is passionate about development with specialist experience working in youth engagement; sexual, reproductive, and maternal health; human rights; and gender justice. 

Swatee is a board member and advisor to a number of international development agencies, start-ups and funder affinity groups. She also co-founded a social enterprise that runs music, arts, and cultural events in the UK and worldwide; a record label; and a glamping business. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions

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Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.

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