by Synergi Communities and Grants Coordinator, Alaina Heath

In January 2023, we launched our first grants programme, welcoming applications from groups led by and for Black and People of Colour with lived experience of mental ill health, distress and/or trauma (which you can learn more about here).

This is the first of a series of blogs with Synergi grantees reflecting on the work they do and their experiences of our grants programme.

Synergi reflections

As a grants officer, I made collective decisions with the team about which applications progressed to the next stages. The inherent power imbalances of grant-making made this role very uncomfortable and challenging at times, especially as we were processing applications for work that is historically underfunded and under resourced.

There was also a real emotional impact on the team, as applicants spoke to our own lived experiences. This process demonstrated to us the challenges of doing lived experience work within a third sector framework. We are taking our learnings into our next round of funding in 2024 (join our monthly newsletter and follow our social media to keep updated)

Despite these challenges, we have been able to connect with incredible groups across the country resisting and building alternatives to the oppressive systems that harm our mental health. In September, I spoke with a representative from Ad’iyah Muslim Abortion Collective – a supportive community led by and for Muslims who have experienced abortion and pregnancy endings. She shared her reflections on Ad’iyah Collectives’ work and the Synergi grants process.

Ad’iyah Collective’s journey so far

Like many grassroots groups working at the intersection of racial justice and mental health, the Ad’iyah Collective was formed in response to a lack of cultural competency for People of Colour in mainstream services and movement spaces.

In the case of Ad’iyah, this was the failings of both NHS abortion spaces and reproductive justice circles to support Muslim people through their experiences of abortion and pregnancy endings, and the impact of these failings on their mental health. ‘Most abortion work is centred around white, cishet, able-bodied women, who have easy access to services and care.’ They found that accessing resources and information on reproductive health was made to be very difficult for their community, leading to misinformation, stigma and shame. ‘A lot of Muslims feel their pregnancy ending journeys are distant from their faith because of the shame, stigma and how the healthcare system operates. But faith is really important when going through something like a pregnancy ending and the trauma that can surround it.’

After training to become an abortion doula with an organization called Dopo, the Ad’iyah representative attended a reproductive rights protest responding to the overturning of Roe V Wade. Her experience at the protest ending up becoming a catalyst for forming Ad’iyah. ‘I just had this moment where I looked around and no one in the crowd looked anything like me and, prior to the protest, there had been no mention about the police presence.’

She thought ‘I don’t feel safe in this space, I don’t feel welcome, this is not for me’

When discussing the ways in which we talk about reproductive rights in mainstream movement spaces, the Ad’iyah representative said ‘As someone who is of mixed race black and brown heritage, as someone who is Muslim, I really struggled to believe in this argument that reforming law was going to result in a vision of freedom that meant anything to my communities.’ She explained how sharing your experiences of abortion as a marginalised person in mainstream spaces can often lead to your story becoming a ‘bolt-on point’ for someone else’s argument in order to push a political agenda, rather than to create anything caring or meaningful for Black and Brown people and their mental health.

As People of Colour we often come back to this question of ‘do we want a seat at the table or do we want the table to be gone?’. The building of alternatives to traditional systems to create spaces of real care is central to grassroots racial justice and mental health work. After becoming exhausted by ‘trying to find a seat at the table that doesn’t want me here’, Ad’iyah’s representative began to explore alternatives for their community.

I’ve always been very interested in exploring reproductive justice from an Islamic point of view as someone who is Muslim, but also as someone who really believes that Islam advocates for reproductive freedom, and that our Islamic values are what grounds us in this fight for reproductive justice’

‘When I started hearing more about other people doing this work in the community, it felt like a light bulb moment – there is another way to do this where we can explore what it actually means to have resources and support that are accessible, competent and safe.’

The term and framework of Reproductive Justice was first coined in 1994 by Black women activists to advocate for an inclusive, nuanced approach to reproductive rights. This was in response to the exclusion of Black women, as well as other marginalised groups, from the reproductive rights movement. Reproductive Justice is centred around intersectionality and the role it plays in people’s access to reproductive care and freedom.

‘Ad’iyah was made out of love for Muslim communities and the desire to have a space to talk about our experiences and centre our own healing.’ Those involved come together to explore their experiences of pregnancy endings using an Islamic framing through community care, storytelling, healing circles, resource creation and knowledge sharing. Their work has had huge interest from the community, and they have been able to collectively explore what reproductive justice means for them.

The Synergi grant

The Synergi fund was shared with the Ad’iyah Collective by their community. Their representative said it was exciting to see money being ringfenced for black and brown organizations, and the prioritization of Muslim communities was something they had never seen before from an organization that isn’t specifically Muslim. She explained how they ‘exist in that intersection of experiencing racism, Islamophobia, misogyny and everything else that comes with [it]’ and they valued Synergi’s recognition of this.

Ad’iyah’s representative explained ‘when we apply for funding, we are expected to continuously justify why we exist, however this was not felt when applying for this grant as Synergi centred around racial trauma. We recognize abortion itself isn’t necessarily a traumatic experience, but it is the systemic racism we face that causes the trauma when trying to access care’.

Some grant applications feel dehumanizing, but the Synergi application questions felt relevant, fair and accessible. The phone call with grants officers meant we could convey the need for this work in other ways, and I wasn’t made to feel like we needed to ‘prove’ ourselves.’

The focus of lived experience led work at the centre of the grants programme was affirming. ‘More traditional funding applications often ask about things like ‘service user integration’ and steering groups which sometimes just really doesn’t mean anything other than a tick box activity to show that we’ve asked for feedback’.

Being run by and for Muslims who have experienced pregnancy endings is so crucial to the work that we do because we recognize the power of holding these spaces and can do it a way that is safe for us and our mental health. What we’re doing is a direct response to what our community is asking for’

With the Synergi grant, Ad’iyah Collective were able to have their first big in-person event in May and get people together with similar interests and shared experiences. They are also creating more resources, including a series with trans Muslims.

Ad’iyah have valued opportunities to meet with other Synergi grantees.

We’re all doing such different things, but there is a link between community, working together, and recognizing the complexities of trauma that is present with everyone involved with Synergi’

Ad’iyah Collective’s reflections

Ad’iyah’s representative spoke on sustainability, and how she has really come to recognize the need for core funding. When I started the collective I just really wanted it to exist in the world, but now I am thinking about what we need to actually stay around to exist.’

She spoke to the value in making space for reflection and intentionality when doing racial justice and mental health work and, where we can, resisting the pressure for urgency. She reminds us that we are a both part of and building a legacy much bigger than us, and the work is about ‘passing it on rather than about an individual or a moment in time’.

The movements will continue with or without us, but ideally with us. If we want them to continue with us we have to move in a way that is nourishing, sustainable and economically viable for everyone involved’

‘I feel sometimes that being overwhelmed is so intentionally created by the state and the world around us. There’s so many things going wrong that we don’t have time to mobilize, get together and build community because it’s just continuously putting fires out. This is why it’s so important to move more gently toward the things that you want to see in the world. 

With Ad’iyah, I don’t want to resemble any of the reproductive healthcare organizations that I’ve interacted with, both as a service user and a worker. In order to do this, we must think about what fair reproductive care looks like beyond the current ideas we have in society. It takes time to reimagine and to be hopeful because what we’re really imagining is something that literally doesn’t exist so how can you rush that?’