Co-creating feminist innovation: Lessons learned from the Roots Lab design process

Chloe Safier Gender

Roots Lab is an exciting new social innovation lab for young women’s rights, created in partnership with FRIDA | The Young Feminist FundGlobal Fund for Women, Oxfam, and the Young Foundation. Chloe Safier takes us through how and why it came about. 

“My mom was a fighter, she taught me to believe in other women. I believe in every single woman in this world. I know they can overcome challenges they are facing. As activists, we need to believe in ourselves…Women are strong and they can achieve anything.” – Young Lebanese activist, Beirut Roots Lab consultation, October 2015

Over the past year, FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, Global Fund for Women, Oxfam, and the Young Foundation have been working together to build The Roots Lab, a new social innovation lab for young women’s rights. Through the process of creating this new program, we’ve learned a lot about what it means to create spaces that are innovative and feminist, flexible and responsive, and true to our values as gender equality activists and allies. With thanks to generous donations from The Open Society Foundations and The ShineMaker Foundation, the first Roots Lab pilot program will kick off in Lebanon next month.

The Roots Lab, once fully operational, will support teams of young activists to work with experts in various fields (technology, media, women’s rights, and more) in their countries to collaboratively design and develop new solutions that respond directly to the priorities and experiences of young women in their communities. Like Harassmap in Egypt, or the Global Fund for Women’s 2015 Hackathon, the Roots Lab recognizes the power of supporting locally led, innovative solutions to locally experienced problems.

The Roots Lab provides a good case study for what works well and what doesn’t when four organizations come together to co-create an innovative, feminist global program. Complex consortiums and partnership arrangements can struggle to be nimble, agile, inclusive and effective, especially when the capacity and the remit of the partners vary. Our collective design process faced challenges, but ultimately led to robust partnerships amongst organizations that had previously not worked together before.

Our collective design process faced challenges, but ultimately led to robust partnerships
The partnership began when Oxfam approached FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, Global Fund for Women, and the Young Foundation with the idea of co-creating a feminist social innovation lab. All were excited by the idea and felt it was a good moment to link social innovation and women’s rights. The title “The Roots Lab,” was based on an AWID study from 2013 called “Starving the Roots, Watering the Leaves” which found women’s rights organizations are struggling for core support and sustainability, despite the global attention the issue receives. In a context where the median annual income of women’s organizations is USD 20,000, there is little room for these organizations to be responsive, flexible, and to set their own agendas outside of donor driven priorities.

We then set out to identify relevant knowledge from within our organizations, asking ourselves- what resources do we already have to do this work? We undertook dozens of consultations, in Johannesburg, London, Beirut and San Francisco, with anyone who was willing to talk about social innovation and innovation as it relates to women’s rights.  We spoke to women’s rights and feminist organizations and we talked to feminist activists around the world, and met with groups of young feminists and their grassroots organizations in the UK and Lebanon. The lab’s core ideas and content shifted organically as we learned from these conversations.

We considered many countries for an initial pilot but ultimately, Lebanon met all the logistical and technical parameters we were looking for. The political moment was also important: Lebanon’s 2017 elections, and the fact that the country recently scored second only to Qatar in the Global Gender Equality Index rankings for women’s political participation, demonstrates a clear need for innovative, smart and powerful ways to make decision-making spaces more inclusive for women at all levels.

Our partnership was effective for several reasons. At the outset, strong interpersonal relationships that went beyond meetings and emails were at the foundation.

At the mid-point of the design phase, we developed a survey to circulate to partners about their experience of working in the consortium and what could be improved, and spoke to the partners in Lebanon about what worked for them and what didn’t.

But there were also challenges. A moment of tension within the consortium arose when Oxfam was not fully transparent about how they were taking decisions within Oxfam, even though those decisions affected all the partners. In response to feedback, and as Oxfam’s trust in this new way of working grew as it saw the benefits more clearly, we moved to a clearer and more direct model of decision-making, with one coordinator managing the project. This not only made decision making easier, but it built trust amongst partners. 

we hope it will inspire other institutions to be more creative and collaborative in their approaches to development.

This demonstrates how difficult it can be to model innovative and responsive processes and governance, within systems that are not necessarily set up to do so.

Despite these challenges the overall collaboration was a success and we were learnt from the experiences. In some cases partnerships were extended to other projects or areas of work.

As we begin implementation of The Roots Lab, we hope it will inspire other institutions to be more creative and collaborative in their approaches to development. We’re looking forward to bringing this project to fruition, and to continuing to learn from each other and from the young women fighting for their rights who inspire us to do this work.

For further information about The Roots Lab model or suggestions for innovations and collaborations to secure further funding for the Roots Lab then see here or contact Roots Lab Coordinator, Emily Brown, Gender and Governance Advisor, Oxfam

Read more about Roots Lab

Kwesi Obeng