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The Boston Women’s Fund is celebrating 40 years of radical giving. But like many landmark occasions, this one has modest beginnings. BWF was not established through the wealth of one family, or pooled funds from wealthy individuals — it was started by a group of everyday women, connected by their ideas and political and social commitments as feminists, and a conviction that a better world was possible.

Shirley Chilsom famously said, "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a

folding chair." Perhaps in that same spirit, in 1981, roughly 70 to 100 women gathered in a basement on Hampshire Street in Cambridge at New Words Bookstore, the only feminist bookstore in Boston, to discuss the idea of starting something new.

scan of a worn bookmark with green text from New Words Bookstore in Cambridge, MA from 1980
Bookmark from New Words Bookstore, 1980.

M. Brinton Lykes was one of those women and is today among the seven we recognize as Boston Women’s Fund’s founding mothers.

“It was women from all different parts of Boston, white women, women of color, lesbians, straight women. Women who knew each other and women who didn’t know each other at all,” she said. Some in the room had been connected with the Ms. Foundation and other national efforts to start women’s funds, but all were aligned about the need for change in support for women in the greater Boston communities.

Two women, Rachel Burger and Molly Lovelock, who worked at Transition House, a nonprofit serving women, were in attendance, as well. They spoke about how difficult it was to get funding for Transition House. They were constantly being turned down by funders or asked to submit longer proposals. The idea arose to create a foundation run by women for women.

“A lot of people at that first meeting were enthusiastic and said ‘Yes, this should be done!’ And a much, much smaller number of women said ‘Oh yeah, we should do this.”

Ten to 15 people met again to find out if they were on the same page. Though united by an overarching goal to support women’s grassroots efforts in Boston, the differences among them emerged over time. Brinton describes those early days as including many meetings and long conversations before the group had built an identity for the fund and how it would operate.

There were a few things they did know:

  1. The group wanted to fund women’s organizing in Boston and initiatives that would support a number of women, not single individuals.

  2. They prioritized projects working across race, class, abilities, marginalizations, and diversities (intersectionality).

  3. They wanted to support access to services that could foster women’s ability to drive change in their communities.

  4. They wanted the fund to be run by a racially and socioeconomically diverse group of women.

  5. They were deeply committed to providing seed or startup money for groups that didn’t have access to other foundations.

  6. Supporting grassroots women was their priority. They were not locked into particular issues or interest areas.

“We were new, we were the only thing around at the time that was committed to giving money to girls and women, and to prioritizing low-income women and women who were the most marginalized,” said Brinton. “There were other groups around that were doing things with particular focuses, but we said, we will give to ANY women’s group in the Greater Boston area.”

(Brinton acknowledges that they used the word “women” because, at the time, they perceived that as inclusive of all who identified as women; had the group been differently constituted or had a greater understanding of nonbinary and trans-identified individuals, they may have chosen different words to capture that inclusivity. Today, the Boston Women’s Fund is dedicated to supporting women, girls, and gender-expansive individuals.)

The Team

The group created a coordinating committee comprised of Brinton, a professor of community psychology; Renae (Scott) Gray, staff person at Haymarket People’s Fund, Jean Entine, from the Boston Foundation; Marion Lill, an attorney; Kip Tiernan from the Poor People’s United Fund and Rosie’s Place; and Cindy Chin, Director of the Massachusetts Coalition of Battered Women’s Service Groups.

This group was largely white, however. So the leaders created an advisory board that was more diverse and included, among others: Margaret Burnham, an attorney; Ruth Hubbard, professor of Biology; Karen Lindsey; a poet; Barbara Gray, a state representative from Framingham, and Beverly Smith, a Black lesbian feminist who was a part of the Combahee River Collective.

They could afford to hire just one staff person. Everyone else was an unpaid volunteer.

Building Founding Principles

Each woman was involved in community work that informed their priorities for the fund. Brinton, a New Orleans native, moved to Boston for graduate studies and was involved in starting a women’s studies program at the Harvard Divinity School. She’d been trained in antiracism work and had learned from women of color how difficult it is for those who have benefitted from white supremacy to create anti-racist organizations. To her, building a diverse fund on anti-racism practices was vital.

“I feel like we lost a few white women because they were tired of talking about undoing racism as a priority agenda,” Brinton shared.

Brinton Lykes smiling holding a rectangular sign that frames her face and torso, which reads "environmental, economic, racial, social, justice"
M. Brinton Lykes

The group was also made of women of varied socio-economic statuses. Brinton describes that Kip Tiernan, another woman in this early group, was very connected to poor women of all races and ethnicities. She and others felt strongly that this fund had to be for all women, and also welcome all women contributing at whatever level they could. Even if someone could only give $1, the team welcomed the contribution and the involvement of these donors.

Many funds around the country at the time had been started and run by wealthy white women, but BWF had different intentions, said Brinton. “I think from the beginning, the idea of this fund was ‘that’s not who we are; that’s not how we want to start. That’s not what we want to prioritize,” Brinton said.

The group wanted a fund created by and for those who had been persistently excluded. “We wanted to prioritize what today people would call intersectionality, being very clear that the people who are at the top of our list to support are the people who are the most marginalized, the people who have least access to material resources —- but deep and longstanding access to knowledge and skills for organizing.”

They debated everything from whether or not to have an endowment fund, how to build a decision-making structure that wasn’t hierarchical, to what “Greater Boston” entailed.

They were in agreement, however, in their frustration about mainstream grant application requirements and that foundations didn’t often fund women. Completing the applications required a certain level of education and vocabulary that the group found exclusionary.

So they made a strong commitment to create a simple application process and to offer technical, skill-building assistance, too.

They also established an allocations committee that included community members so that the people issuing grants extended beyond those running the fund. This method, which BWF still uses today, was influenced by practices that some in the group had participated in at Haymarket People’s Fund, Brinton noted.

In Practice

By June of 1983, Boston Women’s Fund was incorporated, and in 1984 gave out our first grants to the Coalition of Basic Human Needs, Finex House, Traditional Childbearing Group, Chimera Anon, and Massachusetts Women of Color Organization. Years later, BWF launched the Young Sisters For Justice Program which brought in young women across backgrounds, taught them critical skills, and empowered them to make funding decisions. Today, BWF’s youth focus lives on as the GROWUP LeadHership initiative.

a black and white photo of seven girls of color in BWF's Young Sisters For Justice program smiling and huddled together
members of Young Sisters for Justice

The Boston Women’s Fund was born out of a desire to create a foundation that was more inclusive and equitable, a reaction to the challenges these founding mothers experienced and witnessed themselves. It was a space that always put people first, valued the collective, and sought genuine partnership with those they funded, principles BWF still holds today.

“We wanted women who received grants to feel like they owned the fund. Not that the fund was donating to them, but rather that the fund was all of us,” Brinton said. “A lot of women’s funds that were started at the time didn’t have that commitment.”

To date, BWF has invested over $7.6 million dollars in more than 385 grant awards.

M. Brinton Lykes, Ph.D., is a professor of Community-Cultural Psychology and co-director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College. Lykes is also a co-founder and current or former board member on several NGOs in addition to the Boston Women's Fund, including Women’s Rights International, Impunity Watch, and the Ignacio Martín-Baró Initiative of Wellbeing and Human Rights at Grassroots International.

Ten members of Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition staff and steering committee dressed up, smiling and posed together in a photo at the organization's event.
Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition staff and Steering Committee at their Professionals for Trans Rights Fundraiser in May 2023.

The Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC) works to ensure the well-being, safety, and lived equity of all trans, nonbinary, and gender-expansive people in Massachusetts. Dedicated to ending discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression, MTPC develops leaders and builds coalitions, broad-based participation, and community power.

MTPC is a recipient of our 2023 Community Impact Grant. We spoke with their staff, including their Executive Director, Tre'Andre Carmel Valentine, about what drives their work and where MTPC is headed next. Boston Women's Fund: What led you to take this leadership role? Can you tell us about your connection to this work and the specific need you saw for women, girls, and gender-expansive individuals?

Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition: After being involved with MTPC’s Steering committee and events, when the executive director role opened up and I was asked to take it, I initially didn’t want the job. The organization was focused purely on policy and legislative work for 10 years, and leading in that area wasn’t something I was excited about. I didn’t feel connected to it.

But when I heard the organization was looking to do more to respond directly to the needs of our community, I saw this as an opportunity for MTPC to make a difference in a new way. I wanted MTPC to not only advocate for trans, non-binary, and gender-expansive people, but also be a place that lives up to our values, a place of employment for trans people, and a place where trans people can be seen, heard, and valued.

For me, that comes from witnessing domestic violence in my home, witnessing violence against women and girls nationally and globally, and from trans femmes and nonbinary femmes being cast aside and not seen for their humanity, the light that they are, and what they contribute to our society.

Also, when I joined, we were just a staff of one, which is not a structure that leads to equitable work. For an organization that talks about equity a lot, we needed to embody that. Part of taking this role was also about laying the foundation for MTPC to walk its talk — not only externally but internally, as well.

How is MTPC working to build power within the communities you serve?

From our community programming to our capacity building services, we aim to build transgender power in all things we do. We see trans power as wellness, lived equity, and access to economic, political, and cultural power for all transgender and nonbinary people in Massachusetts and beyond. This looks like envisioning and actualizing new futures through our community programs, including:

  • Trans Leadership Academy that uplifts low-income, BIPOC and/or formerly incarcerated individuals to be in positions of leadership.

  • Identity Document Assistance Network that removes barriers for trans people legally changing their name and updating federal and state identity documents.

  • G.E.A.R. program that centers comfort and joy by providing affirming garments and products to trans people at no cost to them.

  • REACH Emergency Funding that alleviates financial hardship.

As a for trans, by trans organization, building trans power is at the heart of our mission, values, and work.

What’s one thing people might not know about your organization?

MTPC is the oldest active trans-advocacy organization in the United States! We were founded in September 2001 by a group of trans activists and lawyers who came together to build momentum around the fight for trans rights in Massachusetts. In the early days, MTPC was primarily centered on community building and education, hosting events and town hall meetings across the state to gather feedback about trans needs and experiences.

Our big policy wins include Boston’s “Ordinance regarding discrimination based on gender identity or expression” in 2002, followed by the Commonwealth’s Transgender Equal Rights Bill in 2012, and An Act Relative to Transgender Anti-Discrimination in 2016. In addition to advocacy work, MTPC has also created the “I AM: Trans People Speak” awareness-building video campaign, hosted legal clinics throughout the state, and continues to hold trainings with businesses, schools, healthcare facilities, and other groups to be inclusive of and affirming for transgender and nonbinary people.

What’s next for you? What project or goal is MTPC working on right now?

The Trans Leadership Academy (TLA). The inaugural cohort of the TLA celebrated their graduation in July 2023 after completing a three-month leadership and job-skills development program with a 91% graduation rate. The TLA Reflections and Impact Report can be found here. In addition to running the next TLA cohort, MTPC will be working on developing the TLA Network, a two-fold program element as part of the overall Trans Leadership Academy program that incorporates further community, alumni, and participant involvement, as well as business and corporate partnerships, career workshops, coaching, and more.

MTPC’s focus has shifted to developing programs to respond directly to community needs since successfully advocating for legal protections and rights statewide and in various municipalities. As anti-trans sentiment and trans-antagonistic violence and erasure move throughout the US, Massachusetts is not immune. We continue to see anti-trans arguments in court cases, school board meetings, and municipal politics in the state. Despite our prior work to deconstruct this political violence and oppression, MTPC does not currently have the capacity to address the rising tide of discrimination. But we are seeing the need to re-engage and enhance our advocacy work to ensure that trans communities and trans rights continue to have a strong defender, while providing critical support for our trans and nonbinary and gender expansive community members.

Continuing to sustainably and responsibly scale our organization will be both the biggest challenge and opportunity we will encounter. This will encompass many issues including increasing our revenue, growing our programs and services to meet the needs of our constituents, hiring new staff, appropriately compensating all employees, and beginning our next strategic planning process.

What does liberation look like to you?

Liberation looks like radical love with authentic accountability. Radical love is self-love intrinsically intertwined with a love for all humanity and our planet. It’s a love that honors our identites, our histories, our experiences, our trauma, and our needs, coupled with authentic accountability, taking ownership of the hurt or harm we all cause, and deep dive self-reflection about who and how we are. It’s being responsible for the impact of our words, our actions, and our ways of navigating the world. It’s acknowledging and being responsible for the ways in which we have benefited from the oppression of others and actively pushing to dismantle the systems of inequity that continue to be upheld.

Liberation means living in a world where there is a culture of intersectional and multigenerational learning, where we build and share community power. Liberation is freedom from all of the chains that bind us mentally, emotionally, spiritually, socially, culturally, and systemically.

For MTPC, liberation is when trans, nonbinary, and gender expansive people have ALL of the tools, resources, and support to thrive in life. Although MTPC’s work focuses on the well-being, safety, and lived equity of all trans, nonbinary, and gender expansive people; ultimately, our work is inherently tied to the collective liberation of all oppressed peoples. We acknowledge that we may not achieve the full vision of trans liberation in our current lifetime, but it is our intention to create a safer world and new vibrant futures for all trans and nonbinary people.

Big thanks to MTPC for sharing their story! Support Massachusett's Transgender Political Coaltion's work here.

We are beyond honored to share that the Boston Women’s Fund is turning 40 and is fiercer than ever. In 1984, seven radical women, met in Cambridge to talk about the urgent need for a philanthropic organization like BWF — one that recognizes women and gender-expansive people’s power and prioritizes leaders working in their own communities to make radical change.

In creating BWF our founding mothers established commitments that still guide us today:

  • We work to create a radically better world for women, girls, and gender-expansive people.

  • We believe that meaningful change originates with the work and ideas of women, girls, and gender-expansive people in their own communities.

  • We do philanthropy differently: democratically, inclusively, and in partnership with communities and grantee partners.

In the decades since, thanks to your unwavering support, BWF has awarded over $7.6 million in over 385 grant awards. We’ve gone beyond funding to build skills, power, and connections among today’s movement leaders across generations, and we’ve pushed the philanthropic world to do better by grassroots leaders who have been persistently excluded from the table.

We are only interested in lasting, radical change. Alongside our innovative grantee partners, we’re driving a freedom train for women, girls, and gender-expansive folks. And our next stop – our only stop – is liberation.

This year, we’ll honor the many women who have boldly fought for justice in Greater Boston.

Be on the lookout for:

  • A celebration event in September 2024 bringing our community together along with special guests.

  • A series of Getting Proximate Conversations featuring today’s progressive grassroots leaders.

  • A public honoring of 40 changemakers who’ve contributed outstanding work toward justice in Greater Boston.

Please bookmark this 40th anniversary page on our website to keep up with the events! We are so grateful for your support and look forward to being in community with you this year and in the years to come.

In Solidarity,

Akosua Ampofo Siever, Chair Claudia Thompson, 40th Anniversary Chair Natanja Craig Oquendo, Executive Director

P.S. Boston Women’s Fund has led 40 years of radical giving in Greater Boston. Help us march toward 40 more and give today.

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