Martin Luther King Jr. and Thousand Currents’ path for social justice

By Rajasvini Bhansali, Thousand Currents Executive Director

The temptation to self-aggrandize and self-congratulate when a process of consultation and participatory evaluation results in a new revised theory of change is strong. But as we launch our theory of change in this blessed month celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr., we are guided less by our own ambition and more by our desire to build collective strength; to learn, grow, and act with our community of philanthropic partners, in the words of the late Dr. King, towards “a true revolution of values.”

Thousand Currents exists to effect systemic change, shift unequal power dynamics, influence giving to adopt egalitarian practices, balance learning between the global south and north, and facilitate connections. We believe that this values based approach can manifest a vision of fairness, equity, justice, and dignity for all.

We are driven by a commitment to international solidarity, this incredible idea that standing alongside change-makers and revolutionaries is more powerful than acting upon them with an external agenda.  To act in solidarity requires relinquishing control, sharing power, and collaborating with humility towards a common goal for social transformation.

Even with a 30-year track record, we are relative novices in the long work of social change. We are still learning how to practice interconnectedness in our international work, where many structures and systems are, in fact, set up to act with distrust and suspicion towards those in the Global South. As we put into practice our new theory of change, the integrity, courage, and leadership of MLK and many other visionaries like him guides.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring… a true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, ‘This is not just.’ The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

MLK reminded us that we cannot forge solidarity without humility. We cannot build lasting linkages with a short-term objective. We cannot achieve social change without working at the root causes of injustice, discrimination, inequality, and poverty. It is still as true as it was when MLK said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The Thousand Currents Theory of Change not only surfaces our assumptions about the injustices that our grassroots partners encounter but also lays out a pathway to transformative social change in four areas of concentration. Thousand Currents and its grassroots partners together work towards community self-determination, organizational resilience, and global solidarity. In addition, Thousand Currents also works in a fourth area of concentration, which is advocating for increased and smarter international philanthropy, primarily in the Global North. Through our work on community self-determination, we envision communities that are organized to access resources; embrace their socioeconomic, ecological, cultural, and political rights; and are empowered to live free from poverty and all forms of discrimination. Through our work on organizational resilience, we envision robust civil society organizations in the Global South that are building new, alternative systems and ensuring that governments are working for the excluded and marginalized. Through our work on global solidarity, we envision community-based organizations that are working in alliance regionally for rights-based national policy change and participating in global movements for justice.  Through our work on social justice giving, we envision donors, affinity groups, and foundations each changing their respective attitudes, languages, skills, and knowledge to mobilize resources in favor of the grassroots and social sector.

We strongly believe in “walking our talk” because as the late MLK Jr. encouraged: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.” So the four areas – self-determination, organizational resilience, global solidarity, and social justice giving are also an internal practice.

We have a staff team that comprises of seven hard working individuals who are empowered to organize and shape their day-to-day work in service of our partners and long term vision. All of this work would not be possible without our volunteer corps that is truly awe-inspiring. Our volunteers help with everything from administration to program evaluation and from media to fundraising.  Additionally, our young professionals group is now 500 members strong and growing organically to become a terrific base of member-ambassadors for the Thousand Currents model and approach. Our diaspora members are growing and challenging us to experiment with new models of sharing information and access to resources with our partners. These diverse, brilliant, committed group of stakeholders inspire us to keep believing in the immense collective wisdom of people. This is self-determination in action.

While we fund and support robust civil society organizations in the Global South to build their capacity, we also work on our own resilience to change. Our board of directors governs through policies and processes that are aimed at long-term sustainability of the Thousand Currents approach. Our alliance of advisors are sector leaders that have guided our growth. Through difficult times during the recession, we applied the principles of organizational resilience that we have learned from our partners – instead of pushing our meaningful relationships away and shying away from truth telling with our funders and donors, we leaned closer to them and brought them in to problem solve, strategize, and help refocus our energies so that we could bounce back once external conditions improved. In other words, we took our hardest years to learn and adapt and invest in long term viability.

As we work on global solidarity, we understand it more and more as a practice of relationship building with each other and all our stakeholders, imbued with attention, deep listening, and critical inquiry. A global solidarity approach is a slow, deep-acting method. It can’t be rushed. It requires time, patience, receptivity, and restraint. Experimentation is – and should be – part of learning and development. Skinned knees are inevitable. These are conditions which Thousand Currents accepts and embraces.

To exercise this experimentation, the Thousand Currents team has daily, weekly, quarterly, and annual practices. Weekly, we reflect on what we are learning – especially from the grassroots groups and social movements we get to support – and how we best we can incorporate these learnings into a daily practice. When a visitor comes from one of our partner organizations, we engage in a coyuntura, a process of collective contextual analysis to help us learn in current conditions and adapt strategies to the realities on the ground. Quarterly, our staff team participates in retreats to assess and evaluate our risk and resilience in our work. We use the information that emerges from these reflective opportunities to learn and reshape how we do our work in greater alignment with our theory of change. Every six months, we go on a breakthrough week where we attempt to put our ideation into action – some high-level idea, concept, or thought that can benefit from dedicated time to be brought forward. We ensure that our personal ecology and sustainability as well as that of our families, communities, and sector are integrated into our annual performance management systems. All in all, our attempt is to build the community internally that we aspire for externally.

MLK reminded us that “philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” Our social justice giving approach employs knowledge production – thought leadership to ensure that we use our three decades of learnings to help others in philanthropy exercise effective international giving and partnership. In the process of grant-making, we have the immense opportunity to right the wrongs of economic injustice and redistribute wealth to those local innovators that are growing solutions to local challenges.

And so this theory of change is not just a linear tool, a bureaucratic burden, or a tedious exercise. We use it to refine who we are, where we want to grow, and how we learn. We use it to build partnerships in the U.S. and in the Global South. We use it for accountability. We offer this tool to whoever finds it useful – share it, enjoy it, engage with us, tell us what you think, how we can work together. We invite you, in MLK’s “fierce urgency of now” to join us in building a community of practice so that together we can achieve just, compassionate, and dignified lives for all.

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