The Right to Dignity and Respect: What Funders Can Learn from Rural, Immigrant Community Organizers   

While some progressive funders acknowledge the power imbalance between funders and practitioners, naming the problem is only the first step towards fixing it. Instead, funders can learn from organizers by being responsive to community needs, rather than being prescriptive in their funding practices. Funders should ask themselves: how can we be flexible to meet the needs of the communities we are investing in? How can we build trust with grassroots leaders so that they can ask for what they really need, not just what we want to hear? What context are we missing that directly impacted people are experts in? It is impossible for every organization to fit into the boxes funding institutions have created. Long-term change is only possible when we get creative and adjust to meet the needs of those we are investing in. GSP recently spoke with Migrant Equity Southeast (MESE), a Latinx, immigrant-led organization advocating for migrant and refugee communities in South Georgia to learn more about how funders can best support organizations in rural places. 

Headquartered in Chatham County, a 4-hour drive away from Atlanta, MESE was born out of a need to protect its community members. While there is growing infrastructure in the capital to support immigrants and refugees, those resources are almost impossible to access for folks who live outside of the city. Daniela Rodriguez, MESE’s Executive Director, says that she knew something had to change when she saw how difficult it was for her family to access the resources they needed to live. “People have to drive to get themselves to work, their children to school, and to buy groceries. Public transport is not good, and if they get caught without a license they are at risk of deportation,” said Rodriguez. Undocumented people are ineligible for drivers licenses in Georgia, which has the fourth largest population of ICE detainees in the country. MESE works around these barriers to try to bring the resources folks are unable to access elsewhere and bring them right into their communities.  

While their organization may be small, MESE has made a substantial impact across the 17 counties they support, and their work runs the gamut. When community members could not drive to doctors’ offices to get the COVID-19 vaccine, MESE organized so that nurses could go directly into communities to provide vaccines to over 1000 people. When immigrants were facing food insecurity and lost wages during the pandemic, MESE provided rent assistance and distributed culturally appropriate food boxes to over 350 families. Rodriguez said “We want our communities to have access to resources, but they also deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Immigrants deserve to be seen as human beings.” In other words, simply meeting people’s needs is not enough. People deserve access to resources that reflect the context of their lives too. Quelling a hunger pang is one thing, making sure people are satiated is another.  

While direct services are an important part of MESE’s work, the organization stresses the importance of empowering the community by educating them about their rights as well. They know that long-term change happens through addressing problems at the root and by showing community members how to advocate for themselves and each other. In 2022, Georgia’s state senate committee held a hearing around school funding for students in poverty. When MESE learned that an interpreter would not be provided for the hearing, organizers ensured that the testimonies of Hispanic parents would be heard by providing translation services themselves. MESE also regularly organizes around labor rights, letting community members know that if employers refuse to pay them, they can sue them in response; if workers get hurt on the job, they are entitled to compensation. While this may seem like common knowledge to many people, immigrants who have been threatened and abused by the system often do not know that they have rights, which works in favor of a system designed to keep them poor and disenfranchised.  

MESE’s ability to build trust with their communities is foundational to their ability to serve them. When asked what support they need from funders to ensure their success, the answer is the same. “Funders need to trust us and invest in our work because we have the knowledge. What works in bigger cities does not always translate to rural areas,” said Rodriguez. Indeed, when MESE needed to access the VAN (Voter Activation Network) to help canvass around the census, provided maps in the software left out entire neighborhoods MESE services. It was precisely because organizers were local and had ties to the community that they were able to reach people and ensure they were counted. Likewise, organizations in bigger cities often get more funding than organizations that are based in smaller and rural areas. Rodriguez said “Because we are in a smaller town, funders think we deserve less. People outside our communities get to decide what they think we need instead of hearing it directly from us and that needs to change. 

For more information on how to support BIPOC-led movement work in the South and to get connected to folks already doing this work, reach out to us!