This project is an engaged research collaboration with the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, a refugee services organization. In November of 2014, Scalabrini Centre launched a new initiative to build a Women’s Platform, a network of refugee, immigrant, and South African women’s community groups that would provide mutual support, training, and networking opportunities. Seven nationality groups currently participate in the platform, coming together across differences in migration status, religion, socio-economic class, and language to fight the isolation often caused by migration and eventually to support the development of small businesses and social entrepreneurship. My still ongoing qualitative research with the Women’s Platform examines the factors leading women to engage in such organizing structures, the cultural specificity of their engagement, and the habits and practices that make particular support strategies successful. I am particularly interested in how civil society organizations can successfully engage with migrants as agents of change rather than recipients of services. Here, I attempt to anticipate challenges that may arise as the group moves from primarily social support into micro-finance and entrepreneurship. Critics of micro-finance organizations have argued that such structures may commoditize women’s social relationships in ways that jeopardize their effectiveness in providing social support. How might the Women’s Platform be building the trust, collaboration, and leadership necessary to make that transition successfully?
Leah Mundell is currently a visiting scholar at the Centre for Social Science Research of the University of Cape Town. She is an instructor in the First Year Seminar Program at Northern Arizona University and until recently was Director of Organizing for the Northern Arizona Interfaith Council, a broad-based community organization working for social change on issues such as immigration and public education. She received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2003.