What we’ve learned from the Equity Fund’s first round

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Over 22 years ago, Wikipedia entered the world with a radical goal: to bring the sum of all knowledge in one place for the entire world to read, share, and collaboratively document together. 

We’ve made an incredible amount of progress towards that goal, but we have a weakness: if knowledge hasn’t been documented, it doesn’t appear in our shared encyclopedia. For much of history, humanity’s records have left out knowledge from historically marginalized ethnic and racial groups. 

That’s where knowledge equity comes in. Just like Wikipedia, knowledge equity is a radical concept. It asks us to reconsider what we think of as “knowledge,” expanding it to encompass the voices of the unheard, and encourages us to bridge knowledge gaps for future generations and for the future of Wikipedia.

The Wikimedia Foundation launched the Equity Fund in late 2021, following the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and around the world. We conceived it as a way of beginning to address our weakness: we may not be in a position to capture all new knowledge ourselves, so we can support organizations that are working to achieve our vision. With these grants, we specifically focused on knowledge gaps around communities of color and marginalized communities around the world—people who have faced additional barriers to accessing and participating in knowledge. We gave grants to six nonprofit organizations to surface those overlooked knowledge gaps, documenting and researching them for Wikipedia and for the benefit of all.

Let’s take a tour around the world to meet these organizations, look at their work, and show why it matters to our broader free knowledge movement. We will start in Latin America.

Who are the Equity Fund grantees?

InternetLab exists to research, guide, and foster dialogue and debate between various sectors of Brazilian society. In a country where Black and indigenous knowledge has historically been placed right at the bottom of the knowledge hierarchy, InternetLab used its Equity Fund grant towards building an interdisciplinary team of specialists to continue studying this problem and developing academic research about the regional nuances of racial gaps in knowledge. Some of their participants were drawn from the Brazilian Wikimedia community. 

“In the case of [Internetlab’s] equity research, we have contributed to align their work with the culture and reality of the Wikimedia Movement in Brazil. Thus, the hired researcher [Fellow Stephanie Lima] progressively became involved with activities of the Portuguese-speaking community, acting directly in the organization and conducting sessions at WikiCon Brasil 2022, and in the co-coordination of events on equity and diversity with the Wikimedia community in Brazil. She has also acted in the consultation and in the mobilization of systematically underrepresented actors in our projects, especially Black and indigenous social movements, to discuss with them their challenges in acting in the open knowledge ecosystem. This has contributed to bringing these groups closer to our movement. The results of the research carried out in the context of the Knowledge Equity Fund are still preliminary; nevertheless the research process –carried out in a participatory way, coordinating between several actors– has already contributed to consolidating the strategic planning of our affiliate and of other groups of Wikimedia editors. It makes us very hopeful that the final results will effectively contribute to guide the long-term work of consolidating knowledge equity in the Wikimedia Movement in Brazil.”

João Alexandre Peschanski, Wiki Movimento Brasil Executive Director

One way to more widely share knowledge and cultural memory from Black and indigenous sources is for them to publish it on free platforms, according to InternetLab. They told us that “Wikipedia is seen as an ally in reducing unequal processes,” and stressed the importance of “bringing the platform closer to formal and informal education spaces … Wikipedia should be understood as a space in which it is possible to tension the barriers that exist in formal spaces for knowledge dissemination.” They used as an example the Portuguese Wikipedia article about the Purí people, which until a few years ago incorrectly stated that they had gone extinct. “Today, all those who access the entry about us, can read our history of survival and resistance,” Raial Orutu Puri, a member of the indigenous Puri people, told InternetLab.

But their research has also pointed out that better access to knowledge, including both hardware and internet, is sorely needed. In addition, what is defined as knowledge needs to expand in order to encompass the knowledge built by Black and indigenous people. Without these changes, the sights, sounds, and words of Black and indigenous people will remain under shared inside and outside their communities. 

“The research that InternetLab conducts as part of Equity Knowledge Fund sheds light on the importance of meaningful knowledge equity and intersectionality when discussing access to knowledge. From an advocacy standpoint, this evidence is crucial to show that any regulatory initiative also needs to create an enabling environment that allows for plural, diverse, and broad participation of people in digital information ecosystems, particularly community-led ones.”

Amalia Toledo, Lead Public Policy Specialist, Wikimedia Foundation

Let’s jump over to the Middle East and North Africa, where the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) are bolstering the knowledge, capacity, and ability of investigative journalists and fact checkers across the region, enabling them to improve the quality of their work and better serve their communities. They run over 50 workshops every year that benefit nearly 700 journalists, training them on storytelling, disinformation, personal/digital safety, and more; in addition to 50+ webinars and self-based courses that benefit thousands of journalists and fact checkers annually. In December 2021, they hosted the ARIJ 14 forum, which attracted over 5,000 journalists from over 50 countries. In Dec 2022, they hosted ARIJ15, which attracted over 3,000 journalists from over 60 countries. All of the forum’s sessions are translated into Arabic, English, and sign language.

The journalists ARIJ trained have gone on to publish investigative deep-dives. In 2022, ARIJ (in collaboration with the Washington Post, NBC News, and ICIJ) released an investigation that exposed the alleged abuses against migrant workers who serve food, repair vehicles and provide other services at U.S. military bases in the Gulf, in order to combat ‘modern slavery’ and ‘human trafficking’. (The full story is available on ARIJ’s website in both English and Arabic.) In-depth articles like these in English and Arabic form important sources and citations for knowledge that can be shared on Wikipedia. ARIJ has connected directly with the Wikimedians of the Levant Wikimedia user group. The organization is currently working on its AI Strategy in Arabic that will be out in December 2023, supported by the Google News Initiative. 

Despite these successes, ARIJ and its affiliated journalists still face significant challenges from governmental repression, surveillance and personal threats directed at investigative journalists and fact checkers—issues shared by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), another Equity Fund grantee. MFWA exists to further freedom of expression and media development across West Africa, but their job has only grown more difficult alongside rising insurgencies and radicalism.

Over the last year, MFWA has taken action to expose governments and individuals that act unlawfully in their dealings with journalists. They also hosted a conference dedicated to the challenges faced by women journalists in the region, helping over 80 of them share tested strategies for remaining safe while out in the field. Finally, they have also directly supported reporting work. For example, MFWA’s non-profit journalism publication, The Fourth Estate, published a story on the corrupt practices of a community bank in Bongo, Ghana. It led to a government investigation.

The work of ARIJ and MFWA-enabled journalists, forms the foundation on which knowledge gaps are bridged. Whenever something major happens in the world, Wikipedia editors bring together the stories of journalists published in outlets that have reputations for fact-checking and accuracy. More reporting being published means that those same editors can ensure that the articles they are writing and curating are as accurate and comprehensive as possible.

In North America, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund (REJ) from Borealis gives out grants to news organizations to benefit communities that have historically been underserved or underrepresented, both in established media outlets and across social media. As trusted messengers and employers of local community members, REJ newsrooms contribute both to greater community stability economically and socially, as well as stronger civic participation and opportunities for building capacity and strength within communities. News organizations that focus on these areas in the US often run into problems with securing funding; according to REJ, such organizations received only single-digit percentages of the total grant money disbursed into journalism between 2009 and 2015.

REJ is filling that gap. Organizations that receive funds from the cooperative also commit themselves to “building relationships with traditionally underserved communities; promoting community engagement; and supplying content and/or programming that strengthens civic discourse and participation in creative and innovative ways,” according to REJ. REJ tracks how Equity Fund grants as part of a larger fund, and their report offers examples of the crucial work their grantees do in local communities. 

We’ll be staying in North America for our next grantee: the SeRCH Foundation, short for STEM en Route to Change. It brings together people of different backgrounds and identities, all linked by their interest in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics (hence, STEM), with an emphasis on communities who have traditionally been omitted from these professions, and helps them advance in their education and into a career.

VanguardSTEM, SeRCH’s flagship initiative, used a portion of their Equity Fund grant towards a storytelling symposium where scientist-grantees were invited to share stories that fell at the “intersection of their scientific endeavors, personal experiences, and identity.” With the support of the Equity Fund, they were able to partner with the Story Collier to offer individual training and coaching to these scientist-grantees.

Investing in the future scientific careers of those who hail from historically marginalized backgrounds has the potential to bridge knowledge gaps across the scientific industry. Some are already there: VanguardSTEM grantee Shaquilla Hamlett used her funding to construct a habitat for octopi, an animal known for not doing well when raised in a lab, and study their memories. She went on to publish a master’s thesis on the topic. With the grant, VanguardSTEM has also just accepted the first cohort of students to their community mentoring program, Unbound, which seeks to build relationships across mentors in STEM fields and provide funding for educational materials and conferences. 

Our final grantee is Howard University’s Institute of Intellectual Property and Social Justice (IIPSJ), also based in the US. With the Equity Fund grant, IIPSJ launched a two-year Knowledge Equity Fellowship to explore the social justice and racial equity implications of intellectual property law. IIPSJ has a mission of equalizing access to and participation in knowledge, as part of their work empowering marginalized communities to understand the intellectual property concepts relevant to work they create.

IIPSJ’s inaugural Wikimedia Race and Knowledge Equity Fellow is Shreyanka Mirchandani Changaroth, a legal expert who has lived and worked in Singapore, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and is called to the Singapore bar. Shreyanka will lead work with IIPSJ to explore ways to impact IP policy in the US through community engagement. “We can now focus our efforts on tackling grassroots community education around intellectual property, something that goes to the very core of racial equity in the technological society,” said Shreyanka, when describing the new Fellowship. 

The various completed and upcoming research and community engagement projects address the Fellowship aims of increasing access to knowledge, tackling racial inequity, and empowering underserved communities through IP education and policy. For instance, one Fellowship project on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act emphasizes the importance of this policy in achieving greater access to knowledge, and how imposing liability on internet service providers for the speech of third parties could significantly restrict access to knowledge, especially for marginalized communities. Additionally, IIPSJ’s ongoing webinar series, IP for the People, is intended to educate non-IP and non-legal audiences in the US on intellectual property rights. The webinar held in September last year provided audiences with an overview of intellectual property in daily personal, professional, and creative work. The audience learnt about how they may hold IP rights in their everyday creations; an upcoming webinar in April is intended to provide early-stage creators with an overview of intellectual property, including the use of free licenses in their creative work. 

Lessons learned from the Equity Fund so far

The Equity Fund began as a pilot program, something we’ve never tried before, to build a network of allies who are committed to closing the gaps in knowledge alongside our movement as part of our strategic direction. As a new initiative, we learned a lot over the course of our first round. These learnings have led to some important changes in the fund in response to the valuable feedback that we’ve heard from community members.

1. More input and connections with the Wikimedia movement

In open conversations before we launched the first round and through on-wiki questions, we heard from many community members who were seeking to understand how the community could be part of the Equity Fund and the decision making processes around Equity Fund grants. As a result, after Round 1 we opened up the nomination process for community members and Foundation staff to nominate organizations for future rounds of funding. Our next round of grants will be chosen from the nominations that we received from across the movement; we received more than 40 nominations and the committee has spent a significant amount of time vetting the nominations.

We also added additional community members to the Equity Fund Committee to advise how we could identify allies and grantees who were aligned with the vision and goals of the movement. With these new additions, we ended up with five total community members on the Equity Fund Committee, each with expertise working on racial justice around the world:

  • Biyanto Rebin, an editor on the Indonesian Wikipedia since 2006 and active contributor on several Wikimedia projects. He is interested in language, culture, and taxonomy topics. He was previously working with Wikimedia Indonesia and has various projects to empower the local languages community and bridging the knowledge gap for the underrepresented topics in Indonesian community projects, including women, gender, and minority languages. Currently, he is currently studying for a Master in Digital Humanities at Uppsala University in Sweden.
  • Maari Maitreyi (she/they)is a feminist, artist and scholar interested in digital knowledge making cultures. She is exploring questions around free, collaborative and peer-produced knowing and knowledge especially in relation to the global south. She is presently working as the Epistemic Justice Researcher at Whose Knowledge?.
  • Gala Mayi-Miranda is a Dominican art historian and co-founder of the Wikimedia project Noircir Wikipédia (Blackening Wikipedia). She is committed to reducing racial and gender gaps in Wikimedia, and decentralizing studies of Art History around the world. She has lived in Honduras and in Brazil, and now splits her time between the Dominican Republic and Switzerland.

Finally, we explored ways to better connect the organizations receiving Equity Fund grants with Wikimedians and local communities. Three of our Round 1 grantees joined a virtual conversation at Wikimania 2022 to share their learnings and answer questions from Wikimania attendees. Grantees like InternetLab were also part of a session at Wikicon Brasil, the first in-person conference in Brazil since the pandemic.

2. Increased visibility into the activities of the Equity Fund and grantees

As a pilot initiative with no dedicated staff at the Wikimedia Foundation, we recognize that we have not been able to consistently meet our timelines for sharing information and reporting. For Round 1, we published annual report from each of our grantees on Meta, sharing more information about the work they have accomplished with the Equity Fund grants. Three of our grantees have two-year grants, so we will share additional information on their progress soon. As we move forward, we will include regular check-ins with grantees on a bi-annual basis to share stories on how their work is progressing.

We will also be moving the Equity Fund grants from Tides Advocacy back to the Foundation. Future Equity Fund grants will be given by the Wikimedia Foundation to clear up any confusion around the structure, finances, and decision-making process for the Equity Fund.

Finally, what’s next? The Equity Fund will be sharing more information about a second round of grantees in the 2023 calendar year, building on these lessons learned with a goal of creating more clear connections and benefits to the Wikimedia movement and vision.

– On behalf of the Equity Fund Committee

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Thank you for sharing this blogpost. Indeed, this committee has been somewhat obscure to community members and I appreciate a clear analysis of what it intends to achieve, as well as what has been learned so far.

I also remember that when it was launched, Race and Social Justice were buzz words, and I wonder if the committee still believes that this fund can help us as a movement deal with this serious topic going forward?