They arrived as friendly competitors. They left as collaborators and comrades. And that was kind of the point.
It’s only been two short years since the inaugural Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership Global Prize competition in the fall of 2013, but the event is fast becoming a sought after platform for grassroots social justice organizations from the United States and around the world to showcase their work and learn from like-minded organizers.
For a weekend this past October, 10 finalists from five counties, including the United States, gathered at the ACSJL on the Kalamazoo College campus to present their projects to a panel of judges comprised of social justice advocates from the local K community and leaders in the movement, each vying for the $25,000 Global Prize. Almost 90 social justice organizations submitted their projects to be considered as a finalist.
Projects ranged from a Ugandan group working to empower youth and reunite them with their tribal pasts by using elements of modern, popular arts and culture, to a Chicago-based organization trying to expose the darker sides of the foster care system, to a grassroots effort in India seeking to protect the language and way of life of indigenous people from the steady march of technology and industrial-based progress.
But there could be only one winner, and Familia: Trans Queer Liberation, the only national LGBTQ Latino organization that focuses on racial justice through a trans and queer lens, took home the prize of $25,000. For Jorge Gutierrez, national coordinator with the Los Angeles-based organization, the award was less about the money than the exposure and cooperation seen at the biennial global prize event.
“These spaces are needed – global or not – to showcase the work that’s being done,” says Gutierrez. “There are big obstacles in front of groups like those who attended the competition. They don’t have the big name connections or access to millions in funding or staff with the grant writing skills that many large, non-profits do. Events like the Global Competition level the field.
“The weekend provided a platform where everyone could be seen – even small, grassroots groups like ours – and showcase the fact that important work is being done by social organizations that are not in the headlines.”
Of course, the money helps, he says.
The prize money means that Familia will be able to hire more fulltime staff and broaden their reach in to the communities they serve, while at the same time leveraging the award as a means to raise more funding.
“These types of events are vitally important for grassroots social justice groups, which often do not have a fundraising department or dedicated staff tasked with drumming up money,” Gutierrez says.
Two organizations won an Audience Choice Award of $2,500 each: Mujeres Lucha y Derechos Para Todas A.C. (MULYD, “Women, Struggle, and Rights for Everyone”), a Mexican-based organization that works to educate and empower indigenous women about health and reproductive rights; and the Association of Injured Workers & Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores (ASOTRECOL), a group working to draw attention to the plight of employees injured at a GM plant in Colombia.
In an example of the cooperative spirit nurtured at the conference, Gutierrez – who had become close with representatives of MULYD during the weekend – announced that Familia would donate $5,000 of its prize to the organization.
“We were inspired by their work,” he said. “We have been helped by the award, and in a way, it’s our responsibility to help others, too.”
Frank Hammer is the lead organizer with ASOTRECOL, a group of injured GM workers who for years have lived in tents outside the U.S. embassy in Bogotá to shed light on the unfair treatment of workers at the auto plant there. Some have sustained work-related nerve damage; others suffer with spinal, hand or shoulder injuries. The workers have undertaken four hunger strikes, some even sewing their mouths shut with needle and thread to protest GM’s treatment of workers at the plant. Some hunger strikers endured several months without food.
“The Audience Award helped stabilize our financial needs and sustain the direct actions of the guys in tents,” Hammer says. “It’s so hard for us to keep fighting. We have so much gratitude for the award we received. The guys in Colombia are ecstatic.
“Such a unique event,” he adds. “It’s our version of the Oscars. It’s not a competition against each other, but rather a competition to excel. Even if there was not a dime to be won, we would still have attended. It was such an elevating event. It was award enough to be around so many inspiring people.”
In many ways, that was the main point: the value of the cooperative spirit that emerged from the weekend, as well as the wellspring of mutual inspiration.
“It’s less about the money and more about the visibility. It’s about giving social justice advocates a platform for their work and to celebrate them,” says Lisa Brock, academic director of the ACSJL. “There is an energizing atmosphere at the competition. It’s a special event where like-minded people gather to learn from one another. Opportunities for collaborating emerge organically.
“The quality of the groups and their work is what we value at the Center. They get exposure, and the Center is better known in the social justice community.”