Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

I come to be the founding director of the Children’s Rights Innovation Fund as a long-time girls’ rights activist, advocate, and funder. As a girl I organized with other girls. As a youth worker, I started organizations and designed programs for girls.  As a philanthropic practitioner, I funded girls’ work and advocated for more resources for their leadership.  And still, the field of children’s rights never felt like an ideological and political home expansive enough for my commitment.

As I embark on this new role, I sit with the critical question of what will ground my work. Over this last year, I’ve learned that this question is not only a pressing one for me, but key to a conversation that is long overdue for the children’s rights field.

What has come before 

The struggle for children’s rights is a critical one with a long history of struggle, organizing, sacrifice and important wins that have taken generations to get us where we are today.  From labor protections and educational advances that enshrined childhood as a site of care and investment—to advances in nutrition, healthcare, and policy that ensure more children make it into adulthood than at any time in human history.

Yet along with progress have come deep limitations.

Children’s rights policy platforms, like the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Sustainable Development Goals, are by their very nature a compromise, mired in practicalities of what is presently possible. Fundamentally, they rely on the powerful to ratify and thus validate any vision. While important, they cannot provide a deeper, more expansive moral compass or activate our radical imaginations.

Laws and policies are also perpetually vulnerable, particularly in these volatile political times. They can remain unratified (like the CRC in the United States) or be suddenly devalued, reversed, rescinded, or reframed. At the same time, local and national child protection laws and policies are also, at their core, just tools. Tools with inherent limitations. We see in the United States, for example, how the child welfare system disproportionately targets and compounds harm for poor and racialized communities.

Currently, the professional practice of children’s rights relies on legal and programmatic interventions to safeguard the rights of children, grounding its work in best practices, conventions, treaties, and laws. Such interventions are, at their core, tools of the powerful. They are adopted by, shaped by, and ultimately dependent upon those who already hold the political, cultural, and legal power to enforce them, often against those with the least political power.

For many of us who have committed our lives and careers to creating a world where all, including children, thrive, legality is an anemic moral standard for what children deserve. It scrapes the bottom of the barrel and establishes only bare minimums. Whether as a parent or a practitioner, I’m not alone in wanting much more for my child, and all children, than the lowest legal floor. Together, we are yearning to reach higher.

Grounding in community

Our field’s sole reliance on legal and programmatic interventions at best overlooks and too often diminishes traditions and practices of communities who have long faced systemic oppression, like racism and colonialism, and therefore whose children are most at risk of having their rights denied.

There is so much to learn in the approaches of communities who have raised children amid generations of systemic oppression and deprivation, supporting them under the most heinous of conditions. There is so much power rooted in children and youth themselves who have fought against the odds to claim and protect their own safety, since being denied the structural safety that comes with political, economic, and environmental stability. And there is so much wisdom and resolve in parents who have had to sacrifice their own safety and the prospect of raising their children for the mere chance of their children’s safety.

These innovations—tools, traditions, and skills—endure despite efforts to force them underground by state and political power. They are found in extended and chosen family structures; healing herbs and foods; in rites of passage that ground children in culture and political movement; and relationships that provide a sense of belonging and purpose.

Communities living under oppressive conditions do not have the luxury to shield their children from state violence and repression. Instead, they may build their children’s political consciousness as a form of protection to help them better channel their resistance. In the worst cases, they must do this to prepare their children for the violence they will inevitably encounter.

The lessons we take to the design a new fund

As a new grantmaking and learning fund, the Children’s Rights Innovation Fund approaches the history of the children’s rights field with curiosity, respect, and a spirit of learning. We also bring impatience and a deep commitment to justice. We are driven by a fundamental commitment to the children and youth whose needs, and whose power, have long been intentionally sidelined.

Through this lens, the deep limitations of an approach that relies on legality alone cannot be ignored.

Rooted in solidarity and accountability with communities, we will work together to invest in the vibrant and ongoing creation, expansion, and iteration of community knowledge and tools. And we seek to resist ideology that would hold that strong community-rooted child protection is somehow at odds with building youth power. In fact, the latter can’t exist without the former.

Through it all, we will bring a pragmatic and emergent approach to this work. We know that the legacies we uplift here are imperfect and in flux. Our communities are not always successful in their efforts and lessons are in constant evolution. Rather than penalize and admonish, we want to stand with our people and communities and do our part to build a way forward.

Our purpose is to uplift, center, and learn from this wisdom that has been honed over generations. It is about strengthening, fortifying, and deepening this work by centering those who have always led it. It is about sparking a transformation in the children’s rights field by building power with children, youth, and allies whose imaginations and radical visions hold the direction this field sorely needs.

A challenge to reinvigorate the field

CRIF is one actor in a large and well-established field, and true transformation will be the result of many leaders coming together over many years to build and push for a new way forward. Fortunately, over the last year, I have been encouraged by the growing number of leaders—funders, advocates, and practitioners alike—who are yearning for a more courageous approach to engaging children and youth.  One that embraces participatory practices, rather than avoiding the conversations about power, race, and colonialism that are happening across our broader sectors but remain rare in the children’s rights field. One that is grounded in trust and a commitment to building power with the movements and communities who have long led the most innovative work, and whose wisdom is fundamental to achieving our highest goals. One that reaches beyond limited legal victories to acknowledge and advance what we really face: a moral fight to ensure that our children not only survive, but thrive.

This is a time that demands collective learning, provocative conversation, and deep experimentation across our field. We know we do not have all the answers—but we must be more willing to ask the questions.