Rajasvini Bhansali: Democratic Future of US Not Guaranteed

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Rajasvini Bhansali, Executive Director of Solidaire Network.

Rajasvini Bhansali
Rajasvini Bhansali, Executive Director of Solidaire Network (courtesy of Rajasvini Bhansali)

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

I wish I had known to counter any external and internalized messages about individual leadership accomplishments with the recognition that we are deeply interdependent on others for our success. I would have been even more vulnerable and drawn strength from my community and led in a way that created conditions for even greater connectedness amongst different organizations, networks, and alliances. Sometimes I focused on my own team and organization’s needs over all sectoral, movement building and ecosystem level concerns.  But if the ecosystem doesn’t thrive then each organism within it also suffers. So as feminist leaders, we have to continuously nurture the whole ecosystem.

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

My greatest challenge currently is to grow the pooled funds we initiated at Solidaire in response to the racial justice uprisings and sustained movement-driven efforts to build lasting infrastructure.  We have to ensure that we are resourcing our movements at the scale, capacity, and imagination at which they are operating. Our Black Liberation Pooled Fund seeks to fund a powerful ecosystem of Black-led social change organizations around the country. Through multi-year grants, the fund seeks to fortify Black resistance organizing, embolden the imagination and creation of liberatory Black futures, and invest in the development of Black movement infrastructure.  Similarly, our Movement Infrastructure Fund seeks imaginative, creative solutions that lift human dignity and agency. We believe there is no shortage of grassroots genius, innovation, and agency. What is missing is the right investment in the long-term infrastructure that movements need to win.

3. What inspires you most about your work?

Learning from social movements, grassroots organizers and the donors who stand with them is the greatest honor of my life. I feel so blessed to work with aligned donors who are ready to flank movements for a generation of systemic change and lasting social transformation. They are ready to put not only their grantmaking dollars but their assets, endowments, and investments in service of Black, Indigenous, communities of color to repair the harms of white supremacy, extraction, exploitation, and coercion of all forms.

4. How does your gender identity inform your work?

I am a queer immigrant desi femme who is passionate about racial, economic, cultural, and ecological justice.  In order to live a liberatory life, I have had to be authentic, honest, and fierce in upholding my dignity when no systems would.  This allows me to live and lead with compassion, love, and integrity. It propels me to work for a world where all people have power to shape the decisions that affect their lives and to flourish. 

5. How can philanthropy support gender equity? 

As my colleague Tarso Luis Ramos and I recently wrote in an article, with weakened democratic institutions and an energized far right, a democratic future for the United States is by no means inevitable. It depends on the decisions we make now. Change on this scale – the kind of change that can avert authoritarianism and build genuine, multiracial, feminist democracy – requires powerful social movements that can leverage culture change into governing power. There is no future for U.S. democracy that isn’t multiracial, feminist, and pluralistic. It’s not enough to reject bigoted and exclusionary ideas about who is a real American, deserving of recognition, rights, and representation. We must invest in the transformational power of social movements that are modeling, mobilizing, and calling into being a democracy worthy of the name. Philanthropy must follow the courage of our movements and align our practices and processes to resource the dreams and plans of our movements at scale and in better coordination as a whole.  Our democracy and our lives depend on it.

6. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?

In 2019, with new leadership at the helm, and anticipating the challenges and opportunities emerging, Solidaire engaged in a Strategy Evaluation and Theory of Liberation (ToL) process to define its strategic direction—and outcomes—for the next three years (2019-22). We made a commitment, with a 10-year goal to move $1 billion to social change movements so that grassroots organizers have more of the resources they need to win. This means the revenue streams of social movement organizations in the United States are growing less dependent on traditional philanthropy and foundations. And, resource holders are transformed into donor organizers, moving new and unprecedented amounts of solidarity and support to the frontlines of intersectional social movements for racial, gender and climate justice. I see gender equity and related movements leading us towards greater liberation, justice, and dignity for all. I see our movements changing the cultural narrative so that a multiracial, pluralistic, feminist democracy becomes not just an aspiration but reality.

More on Rajasvini Bhansali:

Rajasvini Bhansali (she/they) is the Executive Director of Solidaire Network, a community of donor organizers mobilizing critical resources to the frontlines of social justice.  She is a passionate advocate for participatory grassroots-led power building and a lifelong student of social movements. In her wide-ranging career devoted to racial, economic and climate justice, she has previously led an international public foundation that funds grassroots organizing in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; grown a national youth development social enterprise; managed a public telecommunications infrastructure fund addressing the digital divide in the Southern United States; and worked as a community organizer, researcher, planner, policy analyst and strategy consultant. Born and raised in India, Bhansali earned a Master’s in Public Affairs with a focus on telecommunications policy from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and a Bachelor′s in Astrophysics and Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities & Social Sciences from UC Berkeley. Bhansali also spent several years working in rural Kenya with community leaders, an experience she credits as having inspired her to work to transform philanthropy.  To that end, she currently serves on the Board of Directors of Tides Advocacy, Swift Foundation, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Bhansali teaches about solidarity and movement building approaches to leadership through the University of Vermont’s Master’s in Leadership for Sustainability Program. She is also a published poet, essayist, popular educator, yoga instructor and leadership coach. When not engaged with community organizations, Bhansali can be found nesting with her family in Richmond, CA. 

This interview has been minimally edited.

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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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