Defying patriarchy and other power dynamics: our experience at GRAIN

by GRAIN | 29 Apr 2022
GRAIN staff in 2018

It started off one late afternoon in Casamance, Senegal, back in 2019. The staff of GRAIN were wrapping up an annual week-long planning meeting and someone suggested we articulate a GRAIN position against patriarchy. One thing led to another and instead of writing up a short paragraph for our internal use – just to clarify our positioning, especially for newer staff – we embarked on a long and sinewy process of self-examination, learning and change. This note is to share where we are in that process and invite any feedback.

People’s struggles for community-led food systems are entrenched in diverse cultures and social fabrics. In many parts of the world, that means relationships shaped by capitalism, where inequality, violence and exclusion are an internalised norm. In our day to day work as GRAIN, we denounce violence against women around industrial oil palm plantations, support campaigns to stop land grabbing fuelled by pension funds and development banks, and join in collective research and action to promote peasants’ own seeds systems. All of these struggles are taking place because of ongoing exploitation and discrimination. So to what extent are we ourselves, our partners and our funders influenced by these norms and reinforcing these dynamics? Can we grow more aware of, and assertive in, our role to overcome them?

At GRAIN, we were quick to acknowledge that we can’t just focus on patriarchy, or the domination of men over pretty much everything else. We have to directly and openly look at racism, ableism, ageism, colonialism, imperialism and other injustices at the same time, because in our lived experiences they are inseparable. (We called it “patriarchy+” for short.) We also acknowledged early on that these are structural social issues; it would be misleading to think of them as individual or personal flaws.

Diving in

The first thing we did, as a staff team, was agree that we need to look “inward” as a starting point. We spent time sharing our own experiences of patriarchy, sexual violence, religious discrimination, oppression from social structures, racism and different forms of social exclusion whether at work or in our personal lives. This levelled the playing field among us, to a certain extent. We then drew up a list of areas where we could check how much gender-based inequality and other biases are playing a role in how we function as a collective, and come up with some solutions. We formed small groups to explore these different areas and got to work.

Over the next two and a half years, a lot got done. We raked through the way GRAIN is internally organised to find biases and collectively figure out how to deal with them. While this is a work in progress, here are some examples of what we have found so far and learned.

  • Looking inward as first priority: It has been very useful for us to examine our own selves and organisation first before taking external action.

  • Decolonising language: Language is crucial to how we communicate. At GRAIN, we are painfully aware of our language shortcomings. This starts with our own use of English as a vernacular inside a team which we want to be diverse. It continues with our commitment to English, Spanish and French – all colonial languages – as the languages we use systematically for our publications because of their wide global reach. Some counter measures we use to take the edge off these biases: being aware of privilege when speaking in one’s own native language (speaking slowly, using words people know); being proactive in creating spaces where English is not the only language; and being quite open to translating publications into further languages such as Hindi, kiSwahili or Bahasa Indonesia.
We also struggle a lot with terms like North/South, industrialised/developing, Middle East and so on which are unbearably colonial and imperialist. So far, we have not found alternatives we can commit to, other than saying West Asia instead of Middle East. One change we were quickly able to understand and adopt was the need to use the word “they” instead of the binary “he/she”.

  • Changing leadership: In our discussions, we agreed that the best way to foster young female leadership is to create space for it. GRAIN will be going through a transition next year, as our coordinator of more than 30 years will be retiring. In that process, we will move to a more diverse and collective leadership. This involves adjusting and deepening our practices in coordinating GRAIN through a team approach. We know from experience in doing this for two decades already that gender balance, diversity and transparency are key for this to work well.

  • “Equity review” of our staff policies and practices: GRAIN spent a long time going carefully through its staff policy, and how we have implemented it over the past decades, to see if there are biases. This includes structural things like salaries and benefits, but also discretionary things like who is taking how much time off. In this process, we were able to have an expert come in and give us an outsider’s view. We learned that we are doing quite ok. Our pay differential was no more than 4% in favour of men. (Right now it is 7% in favour of women. These things change, of course, but we have learned how to measure and monitor it now.) Our benefits showed no bias for age, geography or gender. We had a debate over our hiring practices: how do we walk that fine line between discrimination (e.g. wanting to hire certain people) and fairness? In the end, we kept to our long held practice of being non-discriminatory while strongly aiming for diversity and relevance. We also agreed to bring upfront questions about power and anti-oppression into our staff performance reviews.
As a result of this exercise, and our wider discussions, we updated GRAIN's staff charter, which is our core document outlining staff rights and responsibilities. We did this together with our board, who are accompanying this process.

  • Being proactive: An important learning about how to deal with these issues is understanding that we have to keep going at it. This means being proactive, checking privilege all the time, keeping the conversation alive and moving within GRAIN. We have created a space for women in GRAIN to talk, share and support each other. This group is currently leading the staff in monitoring how this work is going and helping it advance.
Next steps

After looking “inward”, we are now starting to look “outward”. We have just completed a complex and very challenging task: trying to figure out whether and how to shift to gender-inclusive language in GRAIN’s official publications. This is a very big decision and we have taken it with careful thought. We have developed a guide for writers, editors and translators and will start implementing gender-inclusive writing in the next few months. We know it won’t be perfect, but we are committed to changing how we express things to promote inclusiveness and justice. This will later extend to the images, infographics and videos we use or produce as well.

Another area in which we still aim to build and share skills is the facilitation and conduct of meetings, both online and offline, where all sorts of power dynamics come into play. Our concern is not to ensure the “formal” participation of women or minority groups, but to learn how to improve real participation and expression. For a small group like GRAIN, which works internationally, this will be extremely helpful to improve decision-making and the construction of collective action.

We are happy to share details about any of these learnings, and some of the tools we have developed over the journey, with friends and allies alike. We are also very interested to learn from others. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions or ideas to share.
Author: GRAIN