7 September 2023

Intersectionality beyond the buzz

In the area of inequality, intersectionality has become a well-established framework used to analyse and work on the multidimensional nature of inequalities. The term was first coined by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the specific experience of discrimination faced by Black women in the United States. An intersectional lens emphasises the interplay of different social identities, which produce distinct experiences of inequality, such as gender, race, age, ability, religion and class. It helps us to understand why groups and individuals experiencing multiple forms of disadvantage often fall through the cracks, as policies and programmes are often designed to address one single dimension.  Crucially, an intersectional lens also invites us to understand the root causes and structural factors behind those disadvantages, specifically imbalances of power – what produces them, how they manifest, and how to challenge them.

Three years ago, the Robert Bosch Stiftung began an experiment by developing a programme focused on addressing inequalities through principles and practices associated with intersectionality. It was an experiment for us not only because we were new to the field and did not know what to expect or what it would mean for us to work with an intersectional lens. At the time, there were also few examples of applying intersectionality in philanthropic practice (most were within the feminist space). Although we felt some hesitancy, our confidence quickly grew as we consistently heard positive feedback from our peers and grantee partners. However, we also met with some disbelief in the field – people who had been working on inequalities for a long time felt that our support programme “Reducing Inequalities through Intersectional Practice” might just be another one of those crazy donor ideas, and our commitment to intersectionality a buzzword-driven fad.

Through the Support Program, we worked with 11 partners from around the world – bringing different geographies, issue areas, and approaches to the table. Together, we spent more than one year exploring, both within our respective organisations and collectively, what it means to embed an intersectional lens into tackling inequalities. The programme was deliberately structured to enable joint and individual learning. Grant funding was offered to support partners to deepen their intersectional practices, in whichever way it would be most appropriate to their own contexts. This was combined with a co-designed learning journey, with partners coming together to deliberate on common questions and challenges when putting intersectionality into practice. Looking back, partners highlighted the collective learning space as the most important feature of the programme.

What we learned and how we evolved

  • An intersectional lens can be applied to any context and issue area. Whether you work on climate change, education, health or conflict – there will be groups who are more impacted than others. To truly understand the complexity of the communities and contexts in whichever area you work in, you will also need to understand how power dynamics operate to unlock meaningful change. Intersectionality is a highly effective lens for this.
  • There’s no one way to apply an intersectional lens. While it builds on key underlying principles, it is highly contextual and you yourself must figure out the appropriate way to apply them depending on the communities, issues and dynamics you’re engaged with. This process takes time, requires deep listening and engagement, and flexibility.
  • This can be a challenging process for everyone involved, but in particular for a foundation. It will very likely provoke difficult and uncomfortable questions. Some of them will concern the role, power, and legitimacy of the foundation model of philanthropy. Others may challenge staff members on a personal level to reflect on their own power and privileges. Be prepared to build in support from others who have been on similar journeys and create spaces for the team and the organisation to reflect and address the questions that come up. For complex organisations, intersectionality may not find resonance across the board. Be prepared to work with this, and consider the value of having a plurality of approaches that may co-exist within one organisation.
  • There is much to be gained. For ourselves and our partners, it has led us to look more closely at how our programmes are authentically building power and changing the life prospects and status of those who have been traditionally excluded. We’ve also transformed our own grantmaking practices and how we relate to our partners.  We believe both set us up to become a more equitable funder with a stronger potential for achieving greater, long-term impact. 

Since we initiated the Support Program, intersectionality has become popular within our sector. We have experienced a lot of interest for our work, and we see intersectionality being integrated into more grantmaking strategies.  Overall, it’s exciting that intersectionality is finally moving in from the margins, as this creates a lot of meaningful opportunities to engage with the concept. However, such a broad application also carries the danger of it being misunderstood or misrepresented. During the Philea Forum 2023 I witnessed that intersectionality was often equated with working across issues, in response to the “polycrises” humanity and the planet now face. While I don’t want to claim that we are in any position to define the term, there is one thing that I have learned and that has been central to every partner we have been working with: that intersectionality is ultimately about how power systems affect vulnerable groups and create and perpetuate inequality. Drawing on this experience I feel that the term should only be used where critique of power and structural exclusion are key elements of the work. Otherwise, we risk turning it into a “catch-all” phrase for any kind of interconnection between different challenges or issues. This would hollow out the concept and deprive it of its radical content and transformative power.

It would also dishonour the decades of organising, struggle and knowledge production around intersecting inequalities carried out by marginalised groups, first and foremost by Black feminists. Inadvertently, the over- use of “intersectionality” would lead to reinforcing the injustices that we are committed to working against.

There is no doubt – philanthropy must go beyond the siloes of issue-based work to address the interlinked challenges of our times. But there are other, more accurate words to describe this work – interdisciplinary or cross-thematic come to mind, but others might work as well.  Let’s keep intersectionality for the struggle against multidimensional inequalities that are often embedded into these challenges. It has the potential to produce the deep transformation that leads to greater equity, which is so deeply needed in our increasingly unequal world.


Atje Drexler
Senior Vice President Global Issues, Robert Bosch Stiftung