Philanthropy’s momentum shifting power to local communities: Q&A with Mallika Dutt

Women community leaders meet with local religious leaders to discuss issues relating to women's rights, reproductive health and family planning. (Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment)

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Mallika Dutt recently joined the foundation as program director for Gender Equity and Governance. We spoke with Mallika about her trajectory, the importance of listening to the people who are most affected by the systems we are trying to change, the role of philanthropy in the ongoing efforts around “shifting power” and “localization” in international development, and her experience of the foundation as a community of practice.

You’re a longtime advocate for gender equity. What drew you to this work?

I’ve been focused on advancing equity for women and girls, and for all of us, from the time I was a kid. I grew up in India with a brother and two boy cousins, and I was often confronted with the distinctions between us as boys and girls. The limitations placed on my actions irritated me so much that I became a rebellious tomboy to have the freedom that I felt I deserved.

It was clear from the outset that the family business, the house that I was growing up in, and all financial assets were going to go to the boys. A common refrain was “when you get married and go to your own house, then you can do” — whatever it was that I wanted to do. That narrative combined with the discrimination and treatment of the women along with unhappy marriages made me determined that I would follow a different path.

When I was 18, I had the opportunity to apply for scholarships and study abroad. In order to live the life with the freedom and agency that I desired, I knew I would have to leave home and forge a new life.

I joined a wonderful college called Mount Holyoke, the oldest women’s college in the United States. Mount Holyoke gave me a way of understanding the anger, irritation, and frustration that I had as a young girl. It provided me a lens through which to understand systemic structures that discriminated against women. It gave words to my experiences and allowed me to find a community of extraordinary women pursuing their dreams and crafting their own vision of who they wanted to be in the world. It was a very exciting period in my life.

My first college internship was with an organization called the International Women’s Tribune Centre, borne out the of UN World Conferences on Women. It was a seminal experience because it showed me practical pathways to act and become a part of the global women’s movement, almost immediately.

That’s what set my trajectory to becoming a gender equity advocate, a human rights advocate, and understanding the many intersections that we need to pay attention to achieve true equality for all people.

As you think about that trajectory, what are some of the key learnings that you want to bring to your role as Gender Equity and Governance program director at Hewlett?

One of my core values is the importance of listening to and being led by the people who are most affected by the challenges and the situations that we’re trying to address. Whether it’s in philanthropy, social justice, law, the economy, or politics, it is absolutely essential to be grounded in the experiences of and the wisdom of the people that are the most directly affected by the systems that we’re trying to change.

We often create and prescribe laws, policies, and regulations, without the voice and leadership of the communities that are the most affected by them. Thus, we end up with policies not being implemented, not having the outcomes that we want, or not really providing for the well-being of the people that we care about. Proximity to and with and listening to the voice of communities is a non-negotiable principle. We must start there.

Another key learning and non-negotiable is the importance of an intersectional power analysis. This requires us to locate and understand the multiplicity of issues and identities at play that affect a person’s lived experience in the world. Even if gender is the lens through which I orient, it is very important to me to ask, what are the other identities at play? How is race affecting the situation? How is class affecting the current situation? How is the geography, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or ability of the people affecting the situation? What is the history? What is the context? What is the larger set of issues at play? Power dynamics and how they impact individuals and communities, and entire countries must be considered when one is trying to come up with a strategy, come up with a plan, or make decisions about grantmaking.

Using an intersectional power analysis is foundational in my work. I’ve been co-teaching a women’s leadership intensive at the Omega Institute for the last 10 years where I focus on power, privilege, and intersectionality. Without a clear power analysis, we can tend to repeat the same patterns that we’re trying to change.

What is the role of philanthropy, and specifically the Hewlett Foundation, in power analysis and in the ongoing efforts around “shifting power” and “localization” in international development?

While we have talked about these issues for decades, it took the combination of the COVID pandemic, our collective witnessing of the death of George Floyd, along with the Black Lives Matter movement to force philanthropy to change how it does business in the United States.

We have demanded change for decades and met with a great deal of resistance. I want to honor this historical moment for creating such a significant shift and momentum. People finally understand the need to put resources into the hands of people who are most proximate to the issues that we are addressing.

There has been a shift to understanding that the true transformation of power requires a completely different distribution of resources.

We refer to one of these shifts as “localization.” Localization puts resources in the hands of the people who are closest to the problems. It encourages us to follow their leadership in identifying community needs and systems change. It is from the lived experience and wisdom of communities that we need to create global norms and international standards. Our best chance at systems change is a dynamic process of engagement, of listening, of sharing, of wisdom, but always remaining true to the values of voice, agency, and leadership of those that are closest to the challenges that we are tackling.

Hewlett has been a welcome surprise since I came on board as a program director. The commitment to practicing and operationalizing equity within the foundation as well as how it does grantmaking has been a revelation. I am excited to be part of a community of practice and learning to shape a world where equity and well-being are central to the culture and the mission of the institution.

What excites you most about your new role?

I am elated to join a community of practice where the entire organization is committed to practice the values, the principles, the processes of what is required to be in alignment with diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice. I don’t have to advocate for any of these things; they already are an integrated part of the very culture of Hewlett. That’s madly exciting!

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