The Feministing Five: Rye Young

Rye Young is the Executive Director of the Third Wave Fund, the nation’s only activist fund led by and for women of color, intersex, queer, and trans folks under 35 years old. 

Founded in 1992, the Fund works nationally to support young women, trans, and GNC youth through strategic grantmaking, leadership development, and philanthropic advocacy. The Fund has supported reproductive justice initiatives, provided scholarships for women and trans activists, and funded many emerging gender justice groups over the years.

Since the November 2016 election, The Third Wave Fund has received more than four times the amount of emergency grant requests from young progressive leadership across the country working to fight for rights, equality, and justice.  

Rye, himself a young trans leader, strives towards a gender justice movement that is strong and interconnected across other social justice movements. He is passionate about expanding opportunities for communities who are most affected by oppression yet remain marginalized in our movements and in philanthropy. For this week’s Feministing Five, I caught up with Rye about the shortcomings of mainstream philanthropy, working to disrupt cycles of violence in organizing, why we can’t only aim for policy wins, and more. Catch Rye on Twitter @RyeYoungster.

Senti Sojwal: One of the foundational beliefs of the Third Wave Fund is that “we only achieve deep and lasting change if we address the root cause of an issue.” Can you talk more about what that means to you and how philanthropy can miss the mark on that?

Rye Young: I think that philanthropy has so often focused on addressing the needs of individuals and not really providing resources for, and even undermining, the communities that need them. The example that comes to mind is research about radical feminist organizing, and how much of that came from anti-domestic violence work and creating a movement that could challenge patriarchy in the context of addressing domestic violence. So, it’s a model of using services and care in the service of domestic violence survivors, and having the whole community benefit from that and subsequently create ways to change the dynamics that allow that violence to exist. That was something that was really common, and something that philanthropy systematically defunded and underfunded over many years. Now, many domestic violence organizations work under social services and charitable models, and much of the energy and power that was being built previously was tied to challenging systemic oppression, not individual needs. An additional example is that we see reproductive rights funders only focus on abortion, forgetting even why abortion is such a politicized issue. The call to expand the definition of reproductive justice is ignored. We know that reproductive justice is gender justice. There is a fear of women, trans, and queer folks having bodily autonomy. That fear is particularly potent when it comes to queer and trans people of color and women of color having bodily autonomy. As a funder, the space we provide at Third Wave Fund is a way to build collective responses that have the power to actually change conditions.

Senti Sojwal: In a recent piece you wrote for The Advocate, you talk about the tendency of social justice movements to mimic and recreate our society’s existing power structures. As a movement leader, what are the most critical ways you work to disrupt that cycle of violence in your own work and organizing?

Rye Young: I think that one way philanthropy works to recreate hierarchies that we see in our society at large within movements is by actually requiring organizations to already have built power in order to get access to money. The practical ways that that plays out is that you need to already have money to build a big budget. The only people who can do that are people who already have access to wealth, the people who are least oppressed within the movement, the people who have economic privilege, and the people who are very visible. I think with Third Wave, we’re not funding where there’s already existing scale, but where communities are really trying to build. There needs to be more space for work to emerge from communities, not because some foundation funded one project or because someone went to grad school and had wealthy parents and put it into starting a nonprofit. We want to make sure communities can access all the riches that are available when you break into philanthropy. We also work to build that in our organizational structure. At Third Wave, we take into account that your experience has to be enough. The things that we bring to the table as individuals, separate from privilege, have to be enough to work in this movement. We hire people whose main experience is activism and organizing. We don’t require specific degrees. We are asking people to demonstrate commitment to the work rather than signifiers that they can do it based on previous level of access to education or particular kinds of jobs.

Senti Sojwal: The Third Wave Fund has an awesome primer on the issue of gender justice on your site. In it, the organization discusses prioritizing access and lived equality, not just policy wins. Can you talk more about why it’s so important that we move beyond a model of rights and justice that only focuses on civil rights and legal protections, and what goes missing in that framework?

Rye Young: The idea that rights will protect people depends on the idea that the state is able to protect our people. Even if laws are passed, even if they’re taken seriously, there’s this idea that we live in a benevolent state that’s just waiting for the right opportunity to do its job of serving and protecting folks who are oppressed. It confuses the fact that it is actually the job of the state to oppress us. Even if we pass certain policies, there will be workarounds, there will be loose ends, and we must recognize that the only way we create change is by creating community pressure. The goal is combining policy with movement power and systems of accountability that’s greater than just the state apparatus. So if movements achieve policy wins but then lose power as a movement, that accountability does not happen. I think a really clear example of the use of law to protect is the fact that there are so many murders of trans women of color and if policy were sufficient, this wouldn’t happen because murder is illegal. The laws on the books are technically supposed to be enough but we just know that they aren’t, because racism pervades our system. I think policies are often unequipped to handle the issues faced by communities that experience multiple oppressions. When civil rights law is created based on different categories that are never seen as overlapping, then there are many types of experiences that are never going to be covered by the law. If we look at civil rights law, we have discrimination around sex or race, but there is nothing specific to women of color. There are are so many communities that experience multiple kinds of oppressions. For us as a grant provider, we’ve seen how many policies that were passed under the Obama administration have been overturned in the blink of an eye. We have a Department of Justice that is not going to protect many things that were hard won at the state, local, and national level. What we see as a funder is a need to provide and invest in what’s left when policy is gone. That’s what we believe in putting our resources in. We believe in policy change and know it’s so important, but it is not the end.

Senti Sojwal: Can you talk about the Third Wave Fund’s Flush Transphobia Fund?

Rye Young: We launched the fund in the spring of 2015 because we were getting a huge number of requests to help fund trans women and trans youth. We see this time and time again, where the people most equipped to do the work are the least funded. In this situation, these were communities we really cared about coming under attack in very serious ways. You need a lot of leadership skills to fight bathroom bills, and many organizations doing the work were large scale organizations that were not very diverse. We want to show what happens when philanthropy supports people who are super vulnerable to these kinds of attacks. There was a direct line between the places that needed funding and where these state bills were the worst. When you see a place like North Carolina, we saw that in the year prior, there hadn’t been a single grant made to a trans organization. What we also wanted to do is shake up the narrative that philanthropy is really big or that the LGBT movement is really big. The right is honing in on these huge gaps in infrastructure, and using those gaps to attack vulnerable communities. We see this in the reproductive rights movement as well, where some of the worst policy attacks are happening where philanthropy hasn’t invested in building infrastructure. Those attacks can then move forward very quickly.

Senti Sojwal: Can you share the work and advocacy of one particular group or young activist right now that you’re particularly inspired by and our readers should know about?

Rye Young: There are so many! I think that the Black Mamas Bail Campaign was a phenomenal campaign. It did so much to draw connections between how we can support poor folks in our community who need it most and how we can support activism that is fighting to change the system and that is leading with the heart. We’re the type of funder who will be the first to fund that project. That’s often what we’re doing with our rapid response fund – getting the ball rolling for work that has yet to be seen as “legitimate” or large scale. Something else that really comes to mind is the Urban Survivors Union in North Carolina, who we made a couple of grants to. It’s led by a group of people who are drug users and who have been kicking ass when it comes to harm reduction policies. It’s such a stigmatized idea. They were able to work for policy that actually reduces criminalization for drug use and they worked on a campaign that legalized needle exchange in the state. No one ever thought these kinds of policies would be possible there. We have so much to learn from them.


Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She is currently pursuing her MPH at NYU's College of Global Public Health and works as Communications Coordinator at Planned Parenthood of New York City. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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