Diversity never comes easy
Right from the beginning, Mama Cash tried to maintain a diverse organisation with staff of various ethnicities, sexual orientations, age groups and social backgrounds. Founder Marjan Sax reflects: ‘I’m convinced this was, and still is, one of Mama Cash’s most important achievements. Our younger staff have a different world view and they have different contacts. They use Twitter and Facebook and show Mama Cash from another angle. To the groups requesting grants it is important they are represented in an organisation, understood and welcomed. Every organisation goes through a lot of trouble to maintain this level of diversity. Diversity never comes easy’. (watch interview)
As women of many and few resources, with and without children, lesbians and heterosexuals, white women and black women, discussions could get heated at times. In the 1980s, the women’s movement in the Netherlands thoroughly debated the differences between rich (known in Dutch feminist circles as ‘Mrs. Philips’) and less well to-do- (‘Mary goes to school’) women, and lesbian and heterosexual women. The term ‘black’ was used by feminists in a political sense to indicate people who were non-white and non-western in their origins. For instance, Turkish and Moroccan immigrants were considered black. Since then Mama Cash has used the term ‘black’ rather than ‘women of colour’, in keeping with the language used over the years by women involved in the diverse Mama Cash community in the Netherlands.
Founder Lida van den Broek came from a working-class background and often felt the distance between her class and that of the other Mama Cash women. Johanna, a major donor who lived in the countryside and a member of the network of Women with Inherited Wealth observes: ‘Mama Cash was so Amsterdam, I often felt provincial’.
Black and white debate
In the 1980s, the women’s movement had just started to realise that the ‘black and white’ distinction had also created an inbalance of power within its own ranks. When Lida van den Broek was asked to co-found Mama Cash, her one condition was that black women had to be a part of the organisation. Van den Broek: ‘I explicitly wanted to work with, and for black women. I wanted all women in the women’s movement to be represented in Mama Cash’. Tania Leon, a black woman from South Africa, was asked to join the Board, thus completing Mama Cash’s team of five.
Van den Broek and Leon initiated the ‘black and white’ debate within Mama Cash. ‘Breaking the socially accepted, white, western norm’, as formulated in the mission statement of Mama Cash, turned out not to be enough. Black women accused Mama Cash of thinking and acting ‘white’. They did not feel included in a women’s movement that was dominated and determined by white women. Tania Leon left Mama Cash in 1984 because she did not want to remain as the only black woman on the Board, feeling duty bound to keep the black and white debate alive.
Leon’s decision to leave shook up her white fellow Board members. ‘Our differences of opinion kept revolving around the black and white issue’, says Lida van den Broek. ‘One of the problems we addressed was how to become aware of racism, and realise when women were being excluded. For instance, during job interviews, Mama Cash had to be aware of her racial biases’. Tjheng Hwa Tjoa, succeeding Tania Leon as Board member, remembers: ‘Even though we sometimes disagreed, there was a lot of room for debate within Mama Cash. The organisation was involved with multi-culturalism very early on’. Hwa left the Board in 1987 in protest because an article about Mama Cash was to be published in the Telegraaf, a right-wing newspaper. Hwa thought it would undermine Mama Cash’s ties with the left-wing movement, a view not shared by the other Board members.
Choices and concessions
Marjan Sax: ’With so much in-house diversity, we had to find an organisational culture and define feminist policies with which everybody could identify. At some point, we had an African employee who was against abortion and lesbianism. Some women wanted to be seen as a womanist instead of a feminist. For them, the word feminist had a negative connotation, as in their view, it was a term from the West’.
These were delicate matters. Entrenched positions, both among black and white volunteers and staff, tended to get in the way of coping with the differences. Many white women felt a sense of guilt because of the colonial history of the Netherlands and were ashamed of the air of superiority of the Dutch. Some black women referred to their historical role as victims, or struggled with a low sense of self-esteem. These conflicts forced the women of Mama Cash to make choices as well as concessions. Marjan Sax: ‘If we wanted to hire a specific person, we sometimes had to prioritise her colour over her opinions. One time we even published a brochure in which we used the word womanist instead of feminist’.
Priority to the requests of black women
During those first years, Mama Cash deliberately promoted herself with migrants’ organisations in the Netherlands. From 1984 onward, she had already started to fund many initiatives led by and for black women. The money funded radio and television programmes, March 8th gatherings, health centres, helplines, festivals, courses and trainings. From 1995 onward, the Guarantee Fund gave priority to requests from black women. In 1997, Novib provided additional financial resources to recruit Turkish, Moroccan and other new entrepreneurs from sub-Saharan Africa.
Workshops on cultural differences
Mama Cash was also consciously looking for women of colour to hire as employees. The first paid employee ever was Jos Esejas, a Dutch Surinamese woman. Women of colour were represented on the Boards of the various funds that made up Mama Cash: the Guarantee Fund, the Culture Fund and the Fund for the Global South. These included Lin Chew, originally from Singapore, and Leila Jaffar from Palestine. Lida van den Broek gave workshops to volunteers and employees on ‘dealing effectively with cultural differences’. Her goal was to create room to work in a different way, based on cultural diversity. Van den Broek: ‘Mama Cash systematically turned her attention to what she first called multi-culturalism and later diversity. We thought this was important’. (watch interview)
Predecessor of diversity
The second generation of employees benefitted from the specific focus on diversifying staff. Nancy Jouwe, who became Manager of the Mama Cash Culture Fund in 1998, met at her interview four passionate witty women, both white and black women. Jouwe: ‘Skin colour, to me, is politically and emotionally charged, since I grew up in a family of political refugees. It was clear that consciousness about black and white had its place at Mama Cash. Even though the organisation did not work with quotas, she did make sure that black women were welcomed. I thought it courageous of Mama Cash, not to choose the easiest way out. She was one of the first organisations to embrace diversity. Mama Cash was really ahead of her time, and she did a rather good job’. (watch interview)
No cultural relativism
Mama Cash also had to deal with cultural differences within her worldwide network of advisors. Some matters, however, were not negotiable. Will Janssen, Manager of the Fund for the Global South during the 90s: ‘We did not want any cultural relativism. That was a slippery slope to us. For instance, we did not want to leave any room for doubt about our position on female genital mutilation: we were against it. A country such as Kenya criminalized homosexual relationships. We did not make any concessions there either. If we found out that Mama Cash had been supporting an organisation that refused to include lesbian women, that organisation would have a hard time receiving any more grants in the future’. She adds: ‘Of course it was not only about cultural differences, but also about power relations’.
Difference in power
The next generations of women saw cultural differences as less of a barrier. Jessica Horn, Board member of Mama Cash since 2006, points out that arguments about cultural difference are often used by conservatives to block a conversation about feminism. Horn: ‘It’s not about differences in culture, it’s about difference in power. Progressive women in Africa have their own platforms now, and they set their own agendas within their organisations. Take for instance the African women’s funds, they decide for themselves which issues to fund’. (watch interview)