Women Must Have a Seat at the Table in Funding Coronavirus Relief Efforts

Women Must Have a Seat at the Table in Funding Coronavirus Relief Efforts
This crisis requires swift, targeted actions that are driven by, and responsive to, the needs of each community—not a one-size-fits-all federal aid package.

Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to U.S. Congress, once advised, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

This feels especially prescient for women and other marginalized groups as Congress continues to negotiate aid distribution for a $2.2 trillion funding package—the largest fiscal relief measure in our nation’s history—in an effort to help offset the effects of the coronavirus crisis.

Even as families are starting to receive their relief checks, we know it won’t go far enough. A one-time relief package in the midst of a crisis neither addresses the many challenges that lay ahead in a world profoundly changed by this pandemic, nor the existing economic, gender, racial and societal inequities that underlie and are further compounded by the COVID crisis. 

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released COVID-19 hospital data broken down by race, which revealed that a third of the people hospitalized for coronavirus were Black—despite African Americans representing only 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Independently released data from individual state and city governments painted an even more disturbing picture of underlying racial health disparities. Louisiana, for example, reported Black patients accounted for 70 percent of coronavirus deaths—in a state where African Americans constitute only a third of the general population.

The coronavirus crisis has both exposed and further exacerbated racial, economic and gender inequities impacting marginalized communities. These inequities must be addressed and accounted for in all funding decisions and relief efforts.

That’s where women’s foundations and gender equity funders can play a critical role in bringing women and our needs to the table—giving a voice, decision-making power and critical resources to women and their families, ensuring women and their needs are prioritized in their communities, even in this unprecedented and uncertain time.

And once women have that seat at the table, local women’s funds also help ensure they stay there, by constantly pushing on the issues that matter to us most. They provide a gender lens to the work of those that hold those seats of power, without which women are erased from the conversation and, in turn, from the economic and funding equation entirely. 

For example, when the United Way of Rhode Island and The Rhode Island Foundation announced the co-creation of the $5 million (and counting) Rhode Island COVID-19 to assist local nonprofit direct service programs impacted by the pandemic, the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island sent each organization a letter offering their support providing a gender lens to their work. They reminded funders not to forget that, because of existing systems of inequality in this country, women—especially women of color—are not going to be seen without keeping equity at the forefront and that these populations must be represented by actively participating in the conversations where decisions are being made.

The fund is also working to keep the pressure on elected officials and philanthropic decision-makers to similarly adopt an equity-centered approach to funding going forward, authoring op-eds in local papers and developing a set of demands regarding economic justice for funders at the federal and local level. 

Despite managing financial loss and COVID-19 illness within their own institutions, women’s funds and foundations are also committing grants to support women-owned businesses and offering immediate access to other resources so that Mainstreet can stabilize through this crisis. They are also filling gaps in the coronavirus relief law to support women who are experiencing intimate partner violence and those who need childcare. 

In Alabama, the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham partnered with every childcare contractor in the state to develop the Rapid Operating and Relief (ROAR) for Women Fund, an emergency relief fundraising and targeting resources for at-risk child care centers serving essential workers to provide funding and technical assistance in order to reopen. 

Women Must Have a Seat at the Table in Funding Coronavirus Relief Efforts
Supporting childcare for essential workers during COVID-19 is the focus of the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham ROAR fund. (Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham)

While many of the more than 100 local gender equity funders and women’s funds across the country are launching rapid relief funds to support similar measures, they recognize that the complex current and long-term fallout from COVID-19 is a multi-faceted problem that won’t be solved through a one-size-fits-all solution like a federal aid package—rather, this crisis requires swift, targeted actions that are driven by, and responsive to, the needs of each community. 

Large national foundations and traditional funders need to make a concerted effort to include state and local women’s funds and foundations in their COVID funding plans.

But individuals can play an important role in these efforts too, by personally stepping up to help women and girls get the resources they need. Make a donation or volunteer your services to help your local women’s fund or foundation today to ensure they can support women and girls during the COVID-19 crisis and promote women’s and girls’ empowerment now and in the future.  

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving. During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.


Elizabeth Barajas-Román is president and chief executive officer of the Women’s Funding Network. You can follow her on Twitter at @FuturePresente.