One fellow is working in Sierra Leone to facilitate remembrance around the country’s civil war and help girls attend school. Photo: Robertonencini/shutterstock

As part of its longstanding efforts to support individuals and institutions tackling inequality, the Ford Foundation has announced the next set of participants in its flagship Ford Global Fellowship program. Launched in 2020, the program’s aim is to identify, connect and support leaders who are working to address global drivers of inequality. The program builds on Ford’s previous International Fellowships Program, which ended in 2013. It’s separate from the foundation’s six-decade-old Ford Fellows program, which backs scholars from underrepresented groups in academia.

As we’ve discussed many times over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has both highlighted and exacerbated inequality. While billionaires have seen their fortunes climb further, communities that were already struggling have faced even greater difficulties.

In light of the pandemic’s compounding effect on inequality, the Ford Foundation has doubled the number of fellows in the program, bringing the total from an initial 24 to 72. In addition, the inaugural fellows will have their fellowships extended for an additional two years.

“We are scaling the Ford Global Fellows faster because this crisis requires bolder commitments to creating a more just and equitable future,” said Ford Global Fellowship Director Adria Goodson in a press release. “More than ever, these emerging leaders across the globe need each other to strengthen and accelerate their ideas. We aim to support fellows as they build lasting networks and institutions to carry the work forward.”

In Ford’s original vision for the fellowship, fellows would travel to regions around the world and learn from other fellows about how they are working to address inequality. The fellows would then take what they learned back to their own communities.

Then COVID hit, mere months before the fellowship was set to launch.

Rather than postponing the program, Ford decided to move forward virtually. According to Goodson, there are plans in place for the fellows to travel when it is safe to do so.

“The pandemic only exacerbated the inequalities that we see in the world,” Goodson said. “Many of them pre-existed the pandemic, but they became even worse… how [the pandemic] affected people was disproportionate depending on their access to resources and medical care, and also depending on the politics of their particular country.”

Ford’s $50 million investment in the Global Fellows program will span the next decade and is set to end in 2030. While the original cohort hailed from four regions, these new participants come from 11 regions where Ford operates. They are: the Andean Region; Brazil; China; Eastern Africa; India, Nepal and Sri Lanka; Indonesia; Mexico and Central America; the Middle East and North Africa; Southern Africa; the United States; and West Africa.

A community of practice

Ford Global Fellows will receive a $25,000, no-strings stipend, and notably, they don’t need to report back to Ford about how they used the money. Ford also offers fellows the opportunity to apply for an additional leadership flex grant of $7,500, which is designed as a way for Ford to learn with fellows about how they use those resources.

The first cohort of fellows already received the additional grant and will report in June about what they learned with the grant and how it supported their leadership. “Our assumption is that we don’t always know exactly what they need to support their leadership and that they know best,” Goodson said. “So our strategy is to learn with them how they use those resources.”

In total, Ford hopes to build a network of 240 fellows over the course of the decade-long program, building a community of practice consisting of past, present and future cohorts and grantmakers. The community will facilitate opportunities for learning, collaborating and sharing knowledge and practices so leaders can accelerate their work, both individually and as a group.

“So we’re building this not as a credential or class that they take for 18 months, and then they’re done,” Goodson said. “We are actually building this so that they can be in relationship with each other, all the way through… 2030.”

The program will also provide fellows with coaching to help them grow as leaders and reach a wider audience, including the philanthropic sector.

Members of the sophomore cohort of fellows include Indonesia’s Aisyah Ardani, who works to build inclusive platforms where people with and without disabilities can exchange knowledge; Guatemala’s Andrea Isabel Ixchíu Hernández, a Maya K’iche’ woman who develops communication strategies, narratives and technologies for the defense of Indigenous communities across Latin America; and South Africa’s Murendeni Mafumo, the founder and CEO of a social enterprise that works to ensure equitable access to clean drinking water and sanitation for communities in Africa.

Other fellows’ areas of focus include restoring voting rights for formerly incarcerated individuals, advancing LGBTQ rights, justice system oversight and advocacy for domestic workers’ rights.

“There’s people who are bringing in multiple different perspectives, and that is actually one of the things that’s key to the fellowship itself… that we believe that all of these perspectives are necessary for challenging and changing inequality,” Goodson said.

“It’s not just advocacy,” she added. “It’s also not just social entrepreneurship. It’s all of those things. And if we have all of those perspectives in the room… then the fellows will be able to hold those perspectives in their own work and develop both more complexity in their analysis of what needs to happen, as well as more different action steps that they can take forward in their own work.”

One fellow’s quest for remembrance and education

Another member of the sophomore cohort of global fellows is Joseph Kaifala, who founded two organizations in Sierra Leone: the Center for Memory and Reparations and the Jeneba Project.

The Center for Memory and Reparations facilitates remembrance and common narratives around the civil war in Sierra Leone, which lasted from 1991 to 2002. As part of its work, the center maps and marks mass graves. According to Kaifala, it’s estimated that there are more than 100 mass graves and sites across the country.

Kaifala is currently working with the Sierra Leonean government and seeking additional resources so that the center can quickly mark and protect the mass graves that have been found so far. This, Kaifala said, is especially important because many Sierra Leoneans no longer remember where the graves are located.

“We are really racing against time in terms of the protection of mass graves and facilitating memory and remembrance in the country in general,” Kaifala said. “We need to learn from our past in order to be able to avoid some of the errors of that time.”

Kaifala also founded the Jeneba Project to provide educational opportunities for adolescent girls in Sierra Leone. The project originally provided scholarships and school materials to help girls remain in school. About four years ago, it pivoted to establishing a secondary school for girls called the Sengbe-Pieh Girls Excellence Academy.

“When I lived through the civil war, I realized that if I wanted to help my country, I needed to concentrate on righting the kind of discrimination and inequality that I find to be very obscene, and that is the discrimination against women and girls,” Kaifala said.

Kaifala realized that discrimination against girls was most manifested in the denial of their education. He decided to use his education and position as a community leader to try to make a difference beyond advocacy. “I kept saying I was tired of discussing problems without solutions,” Kaifala said. Rather than awarding individual scholarships, Kaifala sought to create a school where girls could learn without worrying about their basic needs.

“We wanted to create an institution that basically provided a dignified learning space for adolescent girls to be able to go to school,” Kaifala said. The school eliminates many of the obstacles that can keep girls out of school, including school fees and a lack of textbooks, uniforms and menstrual products.

Kaifala, who has until now been the central force for fundraising for the institution, is hoping to make the school sustainable so that it can function with or without him.

For Kaifala, the community aspect of the Ford Global Fellowship is particularly effective. “Sometimes, doing this work in isolation can be quite difficult,” Kaifala said. “But when you are in a community of people who are doing the same thing, interested in the same values, and sharing ideas, I think that can help me improve the work that I’m doing in my own community over here.”

“Someone said recently that we can never win the fight against inequality,” said Kaifala. “Perhaps they are right. Maybe we are bound to be unequal one way or another. But there are inequalities that are obscene, and I think we can eliminate those. I believe that there is no justification whatsoever for discrimination against women and girls. And that is one area [where] we can work together, universally, to make sure that equal rights and opportunities are given to every member of society… even if we cannot eliminate other forms of discrimination. This I know, and I believe we can eliminate.”