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Archive for the ‘Conscious Social Change’ Category

Women Leaning In and Leading from Within at the “G-Level”

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women Work and the Will to Lead rightly encourages women to engage more intensely in claiming their place at the table on the road to leadership positions in corporate America. Granted, more female leadership at the highest echelons of the private sector would go a long way to transform the institutions that drive our economy. But readers would be amiss to assume from Sandberg’s chosen spotlight that to achieve widespread gender equality the primary driver is for more women to aspire to the C-Suite. In fact, women can and do lead in whatever endeavor they have chosen. Sandberg’s call for women to rise to their potential is applicable far beyond our stereotypical vision of corner office success. There is no better example than that of a disadvantaged woman rebuilding her country after war.

I founded and run a global non-profit, called Global Grassroots, which is focused on identifying change leaders at the grassroots level, shall we say “G-Level”, among the world’s most marginalized women and girls. We operate a social venture incubator in Rwanda and Northern Uganda that provides mindfulness-based leadership practices and social entrepreneurship skills to help these women develop sustainable micro-non-profits to advance their own ideas for social change. Some of the most extraordinary leaders I have ever met, I have found among the ranks of undereducated subsistence farmers, war widows, the rural poor and survivors of horrific violence. There are three reasons why grassroots women’s leadership is crucial for gender equality: First, women have inherent wisdom and insight into what is most needed to evolve society especially with respect to issues that directly impact women and their families. Second, once women have a successful experience leading change, they are likely to continue solving problems especially benefiting the most vulnerable. Finally, true gender-equality will be built on women achieving parity at all levels of society, especially among the most marginalized, because that is where women are most deeply affected by inequality.

Take Global Grassroots venture “Hard Workers” for instance. In 2007, in a rural and mountainous Rwandan community called Gahanga, a team of 19 women including their leader Seraphine Hacimana, were troubled by the three mile journey women embarked upon each day down a hillside to collect water at a contaminated valley creek just to meet their family’s basic needs. Collecting water at remote access frequently points puts women at risk of sexual assault. Further, many of those who were left physically disabled by the war and those who were elderly, blind, pregnant or HIV positive were too weak to make this journey. Some would send their daughters to collect water instead of school. Others would hire men to deliver water on a bicycle. But for those too poor to pay for help, many ended up being pressured to exchange sex for water delivery daily, just to provide for their children.

With our training and an initial $2600 seed grant, the team designed their own non-profit water solution. They installed a water tank next to a church within close walking distance to collect and purify rainwater from the roof. Hard Workers launched their operations in August 2007 to serve 100 households (totaling between 800 – 1000 people) with fresh clean water daily. The organization is focused not only on ending sexual exploitation for water, but also ensuring the elimination of water-borne disease and protecting girls’ ability to attend school. The revenue generated from those who can afford to pay ensures the most vulnerable always have water for free. Further, the team uses any profits to pay orphan school fees and provide annual health insurance for women and their families. Given women were now freed up from water collection for other economic pursuits, the organization later established a small revolving loan fund for the poorest women to start their own businesses. Today, the venture is operating sustainably, has expanded to three additional sites and now serves close to 9000 people. To save the cost of hiring guards, team members, some even widows in their late 70s, sleep on the ground alongside their tanks in shifts each night to prevent people from stealing their water.

Gender relations have already begun to change. Village men have asked to join the project, and occasionally when a woman is sick, her husband will take her shift guarding the tanks at night. Women from as far as three hours away have since traveled to visit the team to learn from them. Project leader Seraphine Hacimana has spoken on the radio about water issues, was been invited to Kenya to share their work, and was recently recognized by government officials as an example of women serving other women. But what is most remarkable about this team is that of its 19 members, only seven are literate. Founder, Seraphine is a mother of eight children in her 40s with only a first grade education. Once living on the edge of survival, Seraphine is now a community change leader. This is the potential of G-Level leadership to transform individual lives and whole communities.

Hard Workers succeeded because they not only leaned in, but they led from within. They identified what they felt most passionate about, then leveraged their own skills, capabilities and courage to initiate a solution of their own design. Most of all, they were united by a common vision that came not from aspirations defined by dominant culture, but from an inner sense of purpose. Anyone who wants to lean in and lead from within can start by identifying what issue or realm of work you are most passionate about, what you are uniquely capable of doing, and what your exclusive insights are from your unique life experience, and then cultivate and contribute these assets in partnership with others who share a common purpose.

Sustainable, systemic change has to be driven by women from all levels of society, especially given women’s inherent wisdom as marginalized care-takers of community. In order to achieve gender equality, it is thus critical that we facilitate leaning in at both a grassroots level and at the top of the economic pyramid for women’s future leadership worldwide.

When communities get smart, girls don’t drop out

Sunday, May 15, 2011
Almost one year since we finished college and it’s graduation season again.  We attended a graduation party here, back in September (see Christina’s post), for the elite all-girls school Fawe.  Since then, I’ve realized all the factors that conspire against Rwandan girls who want to graduate. According to a group of primary school teachers we are working with in rural Mahembe, a suspicious number of girls disappear around puberty. In Rwanda this ‘coincidence’ isn’t suspicious at all, and it is reported in rural schools around the country. Christine, the president of the team that calls itself “Perseverance,” explained that girls drop out of school for many reasons related to puberty: they want to escape harassment from boys, menstrual periods are hard to manage away from home, and, just like in the US, teenage girls get pregnant. Christine, Marie-Claudine, and Marcelline noted the inadequate facilities at school for menstruating girls.  There are no sanitation supplies available, unlike in the US where tampons and pads wait neatly next to the sink or in a metal dispenser on the wall.  There is no water for the girls to wash out their rags, clean their stained clothes, or even wash their hands of embarrassing evidence.  There is no place to rest when cramps become unbearable. Most importantly, there is no privacy.  Boys and girls share the same latrines— a mud outhouse with a hole in the ground and a feeble wood-plank door that seems perfectly designed for enterprising boys who spy and squeal while a girl spends extra long in the latrine. The teachers are raising money to build a separate latrine for girls and a private area with a spiket for washing.  They also hope to provide pads every month.* This measure will ensure that girls continue to attend school through menstruation; their goal is to decrease the number of girls who stay home during menstruation to just 40%. But the problem isn’t solved with a few pads and a better bathroom. The teachers know that menstruation isn’t the only reason girls drop out around puberty. Teenage pregnancy is a great concern in this predominantly Christian country.  Rwandan schoolgirls end up pregnant for many of the same reasons as American girls, and for other ones, too. Sometimes they don’t know the link between sex and pregnancy. Other times, they fall prey to “sugar daddies” who offer them candy or spending money in exchange for sex.  In Kigali, sugar daddies are usually well-dressed men with cars. At Mahembe School, they are young boys with bicycle taxis who hang out around the school. These older boys tempt the schoolgirls with coveted fried donuts and rides to and from school. Girls don’t think they can attend school while pregnant, much less with a child, and so after their mistake, they drop out. There were ten such cases last year.

These billboards dot the country, warning against Shuga Dadi. Some girls are lured in by rides or candy, then get pregnant and drop out of school. "Sinigurisha" means "I am not for sale."

Not all who drop out are pregnant. Boys harass girls with mature bodies, and sometimes it’s just easier to stay home. Parents know that this harassment happens, so they take preventative measures. One study of rural schools in Tanzania found that girls’ performance started lagging behind boys’ around puberty because they weren’t allowed outside the home after 6pm and couldn’t participate in group study sessions.** According to the Mahembe teachers, parents don’t see much value in educating girls.  “They think that if she goes to school, she’ll get pregnant and drop out, and then they’ll lose their money [from tuition].” And the loss of money is nothing compared to the loss of family pride. It is not uncommon for a single mother to be beaten by her brothers and kicked out of the house.*** The team’s comprehensive solution includes workshops for girls, taxi-bikers, and parents. They will emphasize to fathers that it is just as important to educate girls as boys, and that their daughter is not guaranteed to “waste” their money by finding a boy and getting pregnant. The pesky taxi-bikers will learn about safe sex, and the girls will be educated on the myriad of issues they face so that they will be better equipped to make good decisions. Christine, Marie-Claudine, and Marcelline are also introducing a reproductive health curriculum for all Mahembe students aged twelve to eighteen. They will partner with the local clinic to hold open public workshops about HIV, promoting condom use. For the girls who have already left school, community social workers are being dispatched to follow their cases and work with the family to re-enroll the daughter. “If people are educated about reproductive health,” a team member told us, “the number of unwanted pregnancies will decrease, and fewer girls will drop out of school.”  Fewer drop-outs means more graduations, more parties, more women in skilled jobs, and one more step towards gender equality. The Stats 73.2%:  US high school completion rate 75%: Rwandan ninth grade completion rate (after 9th grade, education is no longer free) Neither country reported a notable sex difference. I maintain that in Rwanda, there is an inequality in real opportunity for education; more girls would graduate if the system were different and they felt safe at school, were supported by their parents, and understood how to prevent pregnancy. (The US data was taken from the most comprehensive report I could find: High School Drop-out and Completion Rates in the United States: 2007, by the US Department of Education. The Rwandan data was taken from the results of a study by the Ministry of Education, which were published in the government newspaper The New Times on April 22, 2010.)

According to our team, some Rwandan girls don't go to school, even though they want to. They fear harassment from boys, there is no place to wash when they are menstruating, their father believes it is a waste of money, or they have gotten pregnant.

*For a creative, local solution to the exorbitant price of sanitary pads, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) is engineering sanitary napkins out of banana fiber. http://www.sheinnovates.com/ourventures.html **From an interesting paper recommended by a friend: Sommer, M. (2010). “Where the education system and women’s bodies collide: The social and health impact of girls’ experiences of menstruation and schooling in Tanzania.Journal of Adolescence, 33, 521-529. ***This is according to another Global Grassroots team, A Friend Indeed, which provides support to unwed mothers and their stigmatized children.

A Saddening Statistic

Monday, February 14, 2011

Is domestic violence legal in Rwanda? Absolutely not. Unfortunately, in this case the law is more progressive than customary practice.

The team “Build a Family” witnessed overwhelming amounts of gender-based violence in their community, both between couples and between patriarchs and female domestic help.* Global Grassroots is currently helping them implement their envisioned solution. Community members will change their traditional mindsets through workshops on laws and ethics of abuse. “Build a Family” will also form an association for domestic workers to advocate to their employers. By creating a sewing cooperative, domestic workers and wives will gain the confidence or economic power that often ends the violence. (A husband is less likely to beat his wife if she contributes to the family’s income.)

*Many Rwandans support the economy by providing employment to young men and women as housekeepers, guards and nannies. The worker is expected to live at the house and is rarely permitted time off to see friends or family. Typical salary is 8000 RFW ($13.34) per month for a nanny or housekeeper.

As part of our goal to increase the efficacy and sustainability of Global Grassroots projects, we helped “Build a Family” create a survey to evaluate the current state of gender-based violence in their community. Their planned trainings will emphasize the most relevant topics as identified by the survey.

Sixty-five percent of wives reported that their husbands had recently beaten them. 100% of wives felt that women are undervalued in their community. Ninety-five percent of domestic workers feared being raped by their employers, and 79% reported suffering from daily verbal or emotional abuse. The team surveyed local authorities, who reported that it is common for domestic workers and wives to be thrown out of the house one evening, without a place to stay, after offending their boss/husband. If life is bad in a house with one dominant male and small bit of his salary, imagine life on the street with many single males and no money.

We explained how to tally results and gave a crash course on calculating percentages. The numbers made me cringe. For me, a woman from a liberal environment who never doubted that men and I deserve the same respect, the worst result was the opinion of the Rwandan women.

  • Does a husband have the right to beat his wife: Yes- 0% No- 100%

But our now survey-savvy team followed up:

  • In what circumstances do you think your husband has a right to beat you? (You may mark more than one answer.)
    • 10% When you do not respect his orders
    • 0% When you come home late
    • 0% When you have wasted money or property
    • 90% When you cheat your husband

Eighteen out of the twenty women surveyed said that their husband had a right to beat them if they were unfaithful. How deep those patriarchal roots run.

From left: Team Leaders Rahema, Jeanine, & Vienny, fellows Caitlin & Christina, GG intern Josiane. Meeting to create a survey to assess domestic violence in a Rwandan community.
Team leaders Jeanine and Vienny take notes at a training on legislation about domestic violence, equal inheritance, and polygamy among other misunderstood laws. Five team members were trained, and they will now train 20 couples and 20 female domestic helpers in their community.

The Stigma of Mental Illness

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

One afternoon I was walking to the bus with Christina and our co-worker Marlene.  A man with what was probably schizophrenia approached Marlene and started talking in a garbled way, asking for money. Marlene, who in her words “loves to talk to the people,” chatted with him for a while, probing his story, before we gave him a coin. He ran away with a giddy hitch in his step. The villagers around us laughed at his departing image and bombarded Marlene with questions that basically all asked, “Why did you talk to that fool?”

One of our newest Global Grassroots teams is a group of mothers who started a boarding school for children with disabilities– to our knowledge, the only institution of its kind in the country. As a budding psychologist I was excited to see the Rwandan equivalent of special education.

Packed-mud rooms contain bunks for the children, who have ample space to play outside on the cement and grass.  Uphill, a cooking hut leaks charcoal smoke, and adjacent sits a wooden structure where children and teachers eat beans and rice. As I approached the school, an adorable deaf girl in her blue uniform dress spotted me.  Grabbing my hand, she pulled me on a tour of her own bunk room, small and bare classroom, and squat toilet, where she crinkled and held her nose, yanking me quickly past.  She dropped me at the well-decorated and electrified office of the director.  During our meeting, an older girl with mental retardation opened the door, plopped down on the couch and struck up conversation with our translator for a few minutes before she was gone, as abruptly as she’d come.

On our way out, the director scooped up a crying infant with a deformed face and a mass the size of a baseball over one temple.  A child with withered legs was propped in a wheelchair, his head leaning listlessly to one side, his eyes not recognizing our smiles.  My original tour guide introduced me to her friend, a girl who motioned towards her lips that she couldn’t speak, while a boy with an adult-looking face and a giant smile streaked by me in energetic laps around the lawn.  They are all classmates.  Diagnoses would be difficult to translate into English, but our co-worker Marlene was spared: we’ve been told there are only seven psychologists in the country, so most of these rural children have never been labeled.

Even if clinical services were available, I am doubtful that parents would willingly take their children. A mother who bears a child with a disability is usually ostracized or even rejected by her family. They might say that she is possessed by evil spirits and blame her for giving birth to a child who will consume the family’s resources and never contribute. She may be forced to work a full-time job and simultaneously care for her child, without help.  The directors of the school– all mothers of at least one child with special needs– applied to be Global Grassroots social change agents because they want to help other women in their position. They hope to do educational outreach to families to teach them how to care for their child with special needs, and maybe even love him/her as their other children.  They plan to teach sign language to mothers of deaf children, and their community awareness campaign will work to dispel the myths.

Last, to combat the notion that these children and their mothers only drain family resources, the team will set up a small grocery store. Mothers who face severe maltreatment from their families will collectively manage the store and market their home-grown produce there. Through the store they will generate income, which the team hopes will raise their familial status and put an end to the ostracizing. It even solves the problem of childcare while at work: Their children will socialize at the store, and those who are able will restock shelves, thereby dispelling the myth that they are unproductive members of an unsympathetic society.

Leonice, president of the school for children with special needs, and a young child with a tumor over his temple.
The girl on the left gave me a tour of the dorms, classrooms, and bathrooms, and then introduced me to her friend on the right, who is also deaf.

TEDWomen – When and how do women act?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

This month I had my first TED experience. And it was a first for TED too – TEDWomen. Whether or not we still need separate events dedicated exclusively for and about women is a debate worth having, but that I will reserve for another post.

I went to TEDWomen out of curiosity in the intersection of innovation, ideas and women. I went to engage with and to explore the diversity of who attends such events – from artists to athletes to politicians to activists. And I went for inspiration and new possibilities for collaboration. I found all of the above, but I also left embracing the paradox of discontent that comes from a gathering of still largely well-educated, privileged Westerners celebrating their roles in the world, largely without the voices of the disenfranchised. Again I am asking the question – who and where are the change agents? I found several and I found several missing.

I was deeply inspired by Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of the Omega Institute, who spoke of being both a mystic and a warrior and called on us to eliminate the orientation of “otherness”, which continues to enforce a paradigm of separation, of us vs. them. We need more examples of mystic warriors.

I was mesmerized by Joan Halifax, Engaged Buddhist and spiritual teacher, who spoke of the multiple dimensions of compassion, including both strength and a soft heart. She spoke even of the wrathfulness of compassion that does not tolerate delusion, and that calls upon us to witness and then act upon suffering in the world. Why are we not teaching our children compassion, voting on the basis of compassion, she asked. Why does compassion not drive us in every action?

And I was enamored by Caroline Casey, a legally blind elephant handler and social entrepreneur working on behalf of the disabled, who called on each of us to believe in the right thing and embrace your unique self.

During one particular session, I was delighted to sit between two significant leaders of change for women. We listened to a surprise speech by Hillary Clinton, where she proclaimed the empowerment of women and girls was a core tenant of her foreign policy. She explained that she saw it as a national security interest, because countries that embrace the empowerment of women were both more prosperous and more stable. While this is an important priority, I was dismayed that we still have to use arguments aligned with national security to uphold the human rights of women. Things have yet to change as far as needed, if that is still our primary rationale as a nation. Expressing this to my two neighbors, the NGO leader indicated her satisfaction with the argument so long as it enabled the outcome. The other, a long-time feminist activist, refused to stand during the ovation, and commented that the US was very good at putting its finger on the success of women in the world.

I mentioned to both of them that right then, while we were sitting in our comfortable auditorium in the exquisite International Trade Center, Lisa Shannon, activist for ending sexual violence in the Congo, and four other dedicated individuals were holding a 24/7 vigil for five days straight in the freezing cold out in front of the State Department. They were calling upon the administration to assign a special envoy for Congo and to work with the international community to spearhead comprehensive security sector reform to ensure the perpetrators of the violence are brought to justice and women are protected. What if, I proposed, we could get a cohort of attendees, including some relatively well known women leaders, to take a quick cab ride over to the State Department and stand with Lisa in solidarity? The NGO leader responded with practical hesitation, albeit no precise objection, advising us to have a concrete call to action first. The other jumped at the opportunity to walk the walk of what we were there at TED to support, and quickly moved to create a flyer and press release, coordinate logistics, and mobilize people to respond.

As the two of us handed out notices between speakers, I was shocked when one woman muttered at me, “That’s so annoying.” Well, it’s also so annoying that women are being raped repeatedly in the Congo, I thought to myself after I recovered. I felt a momentary reprieve when later Madeline Albright declared that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” And then I recognized myself “otherizing” again.

After passing out 400 flyers, the two of us were able to mobilize just three other people to join us in a cab for a quick trip through traffic and a five minute visit to Lisa’s vigil, before returning to the evening session of speakers. I was so grateful for these four other women who felt a sense of duty and delight in responding to a simple call for action. I felt such disappointment that within a conference for and about women – where people had expressed their interest through an application process and paid thousands to attend – we could not convene more willing to take such a simple step. Then I reminded myself that we each have something we are called to do, and it is not always the same. And perhaps I should be aware of my own orientation when one declares an event on behalf of women – TEDWomen was not actually TEDWomensIssuesandActivism, after all.

As we jumped from the cab and crouched together to take a photo with Lisa and her colleagues, I felt a level of guilt sinking in my gut – what in the world did our brief action offer the cause, and why do we feel we even deserve a photo documenting our 5 minutes of attendance? Later, my new activist friend remarked with content that we have to be satisfied that for every one person that shows up, you usually reach 100 others with the message. I suppose that is the hard work of activism.

One of my mentors, a Vietnam Vet, practicing Buddhist and mind-body practitioner once told me: “It is not the magnitude of the task, but the intentions that matter most”. Joan Halifax says that we can have no attachment to outcome. The NGO leader I sat next to was willing to accept less than optimal intentions if the outcome was realized. And the activist was satisfied with the action and potential exposure, despite the outcome in numbers.

So what does really matter for change to happen? The intention, the action or the outcome?

The next day I went back to spend a few hours with Lisa and her colleagues. I asked her what she thought. She responded that she’s always been surprised by the outcome when her actions are in line with her beliefs and when she’s simply put her best foot forward. The results have always been so much greater than she ever imagined. Here, her theory was proven again. Though she was just one of five people who were camping out on the State Department steps, she had ended up getting a meeting with the head of the Africa Division later that afternoon.

I suppose the formula is different for each change agent. Certain circumstances will move us, outrage us or motivate us, often without warning. And some will not. A vision of change for the common good will likely inspire and set our direction. Our role then, I believe, is to listen deeply to identify what our most unique contribution might be. Sometimes we don’t always have to act. But when we feel we must, we must also ensure our response is aligned with our highest intentions, and double check that our intentions are in service to that vision, not our own egos. Finally, we must let go of the results. For we are just one piece of a larger landscape of interconnected parts moving collectively toward an emerging reality that we cannot yet see.

No Woman Should Ever Have to Trade Sex for Water

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Let me tell you about an extraordinary Rwandan woman and water change agent, Seraphine Hacimana, a 39 year-old mother of seven children, who I first met in 2007.  Seraphine first became aware of water issues when working on her father’s farm and fetching water as a child.  When she later married, she moved to the rural village of Gahanga, where she experienced first-hand the 3-4 hour walk women have to make down a hill to collect water from a contaminated, hand-dug well.  As with other such water holes that serve thousands in the surrounding area, it was not uncommon for the women to wait in line for hours, and occasionally fights would break out between them.  Some would even wake in the middle of the night to get to the water source first, before it got too crowded, the water murky with activity.  Walking alone in the dark, these women would face the risk of attack or sexual assault.  For others, the long and grueling return hike could further serve as a trigger for domestic violence, as their husbands waited angrily for the water they needed to bathe or for tea.

But what Seraphine was most concerned about were the women for whom this journey was almost impossible.  The women who were blind, pregnant, elderly, physically disabled or HIV + and too weak to carry large jerry cans back up the hill each day faced two impossible choices:  if she had children, she could keep them home from school to manage the task or she could pay for water to be delivered by a man on a bicycle.  Most women know how important it is to keep their kids in school.  And the latter is only an option if you can afford to pay.  One woman told us on condition of anonymity: “If your children are coming home from school and you need water to cook them rice and beans, you do what you have to do for that water.”  Women throughout Seraphine’s community were left with no choice other than to trade sex for the water they needed each day.

HardWorkers

Seraphine recruited a team of 18 other women, who now call themselves Abanyamurava or “Hard Workers”, to design their own water solution.  Of the team of 19 women, only seven are actually literate, and their leader, Seraphine, only has a first-grade education.   With a little social entrepreneurship training and a small $2600 grant (provided by my organization, Global Grassroots),  Hard Workers embarked upon a project to install two large water tanks right in the middle of their village.  The venture collects rainwater off the roof of a church during the rainy season and orders water delivery by truck during the dry season.  They purify and then sell water to those who can afford to pay, so that they may give water away for free to vulnerable women.  Now in their third year of sustainable operations, the project is serving 800-1000 people daily, and has eliminated sexual exploitation for water in their community.  With their proceeds, they have further been able to buy health insurance for women, pay school fees for local orphans, ensure girls stay in school, combat water-borne disease and even reduce incidents of domestic violence.  The women even guard the tank themselves, taking shifts in twos each night, sleeping beside the tank to ensure no one steals their water.  The project has become such a recognized value to the community that now, when a woman gets ill and cannot cover her shift, sometimes her husband will offer to do it for her.

Their influence is gaining.  Hard Workers’ project has been visited by women on the other side of the country, via a three-hour bus ride, to see how rural, uneducated women were able to launch their own water venture.  Seraphine has been invited to speak at both local meetings and on the radio about water issues.  This year, Hard Workers is expanding to a second site to serve another 800-1000 people, and men have since asked to join the venture.   These amazing women change agents, some even grandmothers in their late 70s, are now seen as the first to bring development to their community.

I have seen time and time again, in my work at Global Grassroots, that women are experts in their own experiences and know exactly what they need to do advance their lives.  They have viable solutions to those critical issues, though they also have the least access to the education, skills and resources necessary to advance their own ideas.  The issue of sexual exploitation for water is almost invisible to outsiders, so it is critical that we trust local women’s ability to identify their own priorities, and then serve as their partners while they take the lead.

I share this story for three reasons.  First, in addition to microcredit for women-run businesses, we also need more resources for micro-social enterprise, or women-operated non-profits.  As Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn proclaimed in their best-selling work Half the Sky, grassroots women are the solution.  Not only can education and economic empowerment enable women to find their voice and achieve gender equality, but facilitating their work as change agents ensures they will build civil society, advance human rights and lead systemic social change too. These grassroots women are radical innovators within their local or cultural context, even if their ideas are not always new in a global context.  Unfortunately, the larger social entrepreneurship arena does not always recognize these women as social entrepreneurs.  Similarly, the international development world does not often trust that local women have the ideas or know-how to advance change themselves, thus investment in and the participation of women at the grassroots level is minimized.  I firmly believe a woman with the courage, resources and skills to advance her own solution is the greatest lever for social change in the developing world.

Second, when women have the opportunity to serve as change agents, it facilitates healing from the wounds of war and conflict.  In Rwanda, DR Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries where sexual violence was used as a tool of war, women experienced not only a terrifying physical violation, but a failure of their community to protect them.  Many of these women now not only struggle with significant post-traumatic stress, but they feel utterly devalued by society. At the same time, they are most often tasked with rebuilding civil society post-conflict.   Experiencing the success of advancing social change locally supports a woman’s sense of agency, sovereignty, dignity and power in her own life and her community.  Not only can she transform the social issues she faces (often silently), but she can also come to see that she is valued by society and has something to offer.  “Restoring the connection between survivors and their community” is one of three primary phases of the trauma healing process, documented in Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, and an integral component of our work fusing personal transformation and social change.

Finally, as we can see in Seraphine’s story, water access is one of the most critical issues facing women throughout the developing world.  Ensuring women have control of and affordable access to clean water allows girls to stay in school, decreases incidents of violence, combats water-born disease, increases women’s productivity by freeing up a significant portion of each day, prevents sexual exploitation for basic needs, enables women’s change leadership and provides a means for alleviating poverty through social micro-enterprise.  Not only should clean water access be a right of every human being, but clean water ventures are an opportunity for women to ensure their equality and security in several other spheres as well.

Grassroots communities throughout the developing world, especially across Africa, are now joining this new “women for water” and “water for women” movement.  Encouraged, Seraphine and I await the day, where every woman globally may sip a cool, clear drink of water in safety and solidarity together.

To listen to Seraphine, who was just nominated for a CNN Hero Award, talk about water and to learn more about her work, go here:

http://www.youtube.com/user/globalgrassroot#p/a/u/2/gwh5WNOUEAY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9aCDCC9nFI

http://www.globalgrassroots.org/abanyamurava.htm

The Politics of Power

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I recently came across this fascinating article about the how power affects us by one of my favorite science writers, Jonah Lehrer. It brought to mind something that happened at the Academy of Cnscious Change this summer.

In essence, the article tells us that contrary to the phrase “nice guys finish last”, science is finding is that nice guys actually finish first. But then, once they get that promotion, win the election or start that organization, they often lose all the nice-guy qualities that got them there to begin with.

“It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” Mr. Keltner says. “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making.”

We’ve seen that idea play out over and over in everyone from Google to politicians to priests.

While the article presents a rather bleak picture, it got me thinking back to a day at the Academy where we did some role-play exercises around the idea of power. One thing that struck me was that our Rwandan participants had a very easy time describing what it felt like to be powerless, but when in the power position, seemed to be more concerned with how their powerless partner must be feeling.

However, as they start their organizations, they will increasingly find themselves in more powerful leadership positions within their community. It suddenly struck me as not only socially, but neurologically sound that the next part of the academy emphasized increased self-awareness and compassion as they rise in stature.

I wonder if the CEO’s of the world might like an Academy of their own….

What Would She Do?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I was recently asked by a friend to participate in an exciting experiment.  The instructions?

You are responsible for creating an organization in which people offer their greatest gifts. Describe it.

The purpose?

The instigators of this experiment propose: “Women will revolutionize how we think about work and have clear ideas for change.  Women have the most to gain from a new organizational model, so it is up to us to take responsibility for creating it… An organization intent on leveraging people’s “greatest gifts” will, in fact, be more effective, efficient, profitable and fulfilling to all stakeholders.”  Over the course of 365 days, they will be posting the viewpoints of 365 women and then working to explore and distill the patterns that arise.

Check this out as it unfolds: http://www.whatwouldshedo.blogspot.com/

And here is my contribution:

My dream organization has its center in a simple office in a natural setting, where the wall-length doors slide open during warm weather and where large windows allow a constant connection with the earth and sky. A shared kitchen with an eclectic mix of chairs, pottery and produce, harvested from a common garden supports individual wellness. Members of this circle connect virtually or in person to collaborate, create, innovate and engage around work that is aligned by a common purpose and has a broad social impact on a global level.

The organization measures its success in terms of its capacity to create systemic transformation leading to a more conscious society. It is inner-driven and outer-focused: individuals engage in their own work towards deeper self-knowledge, while striving collectively to advance positive change for the common good. The organization’s structure, operations, services and outputs are all designed to maximize social value creation, while ensuring environmental and economic sustainability. There is a code to do no harm. The circle does not seek simple consensus, but invites a diversity of perspective and debate for innovation. It engages stakeholders and beneficiaries in ongoing dialogue and evaluation. As a tribe, it recognizes it is a member of a universal, living ecosystem, and thus is open to its own evolution and even its own dissolution if that is the highest need.

Individuals invited and drawn to this collective are given time to explore, identify, nurture and apply their greatest gifts, passions, and talents. Then they commit to making their unique contribution towards the organization’s vision. Though there is a leadership structure that guides the tribe, there is participation at all levels in setting strategy, goals and objectives. Teams are formed primarily on a project basis for a specific scope of work, while ongoing operational and administrative needs are handled through shared responsibility with a spirit of service.

The organization insists on an equitable investment in both inner growth and outer work. It encourages daily practice for personal growth, and provides for structure and coaching along a path for professional development. When its members need solitude for renewal, reflection or creative processes, they can easily access the adjacent healing/yoga/ meditation rooms, organic garden, library, walking trails, and a musical/artistic white space – or not come in at all.

Core operational values include: integrity, open communication, human understanding, shared knowledge, active learning, and experimentation. Time schedules honor an individual’s circadian and creative rhythms, and so the space may have occupants at odd hours of the day and sometimes no one at all. People are compensated based on their social value creation, which may change with each project depending upon roles. Performance is assessed by the whole community, and trust allows colleagues to challenge and support each other in pushing beyond their individual growth edges. Collectively, the tribe is both a microcosm of and an advocate for a whole, just and compassionate society.

Principle FIVE: Leveraging Inner Purpose to Create Social Innovation

Monday, October 12, 2009

This is part 6 of 6 in a series of posts about the Five Principles and Supporting Practices of Conscious Social Change.

Principle FIVE: Leveraging Inner Purpose to Create Social Innovation
Have you ever been asked what you really wish you could be doing?  How many of us can say “I’m doing it!”  The final key principle in initiating conscious social change is to listen for an individual calling and then explore how to leverage it to create social innovation. Bringing this same presence to our social justice work allows for radical creativity. Clarity among conscious change agents allows for personal agenda to make room for the best ideas to move forward.  As an inherently interconnected and systemic approach, conscious social change invites collaboration with both the target population and the perpetrators. Finally, it ensures those working together are inspired by a common cause, and it energizes collective efforts by honoring individual needs for renewal.

Supporting Practice FIVE: Leveraging Gifts and Assets
I’ve actually posted this exercise as a downloadable workshop on this website under resources for Change Agents. The exercise is a simple method to engage teams in reenergizing the creative-problem solving process. Groups can work collectively to assess the specific gifts, capabilities, passions and assets the individual participants and larger community possess.  It can be used with youth, educators, organization staff, community activists, and change agents.  The first objective is to help participants see what tools they have to use in solutions-building by tapping into individual capabilities and passions. The second objective is to release the creative ideas of the collective body. By coming from a place of inner strength, the participants will be more likely to generate solutions that they will find inspiring and meaningful to pursue.  Having understood the gifts, capabilities and assets they bring to a solution, they then will be more likely to design solutions which will be sustainable long-term and which maximize social value creation.

Even without a structured exercise, you can take a moment to close your eyes and sit in silence.  As your mind quiets, then ask yourself a few of these questions and see what arises:

  • What do I really want to be doing with my life one day?
  • What am I seeking that I don’t have in my life right now?
  • What do I feel most passionate about?
  • What do I feel called to do right now?
  • What are my unique gifts?
  • What issue, activity, industry, type of work really moves me?
  • When do I feel most satisfied?

I do believe that we each have a gift or gifts that we can choose to cultivate and make use of in contributing to the common good.  When we do, in some way, we know we’re on the right path.  We feel more alive, we experience more joy and meaning, some people even reach those “flow” states.  Ultimately, we find out that we have everything we need to take each step forward.

But one of my teachers once shared a powerful teaching, that is worth keeping in mind:  You must practice deep listening to hear how you are called in every moment.  Because the calling could change.  It’s not about finding our single purpose on the planet.  It’s about listening to what feels like the highest truth or action (or non-action) in every moment.

If you are committed to creating change in the world, leverage this passion or gift to bring innovation, energy and creativity towards solving the issue you feel most passionate about.  I’ve met a number of people who have done this when they were horrified to learn about the Darfur genocide taking place.  Leslie Thomas, an architect and designer, saw a photo of a toddler who had been shot in Darfur.  Having a child the same age, inspired her to take action. She used her design talent and network to develop the Darfur|Darfur Exhibit, a digital photography exhibit about Darfur which has since traveled globally to raise awareness by projecting images on the sides of buildings.  Rebecca Davis, ballet dancer, choreographer and founder of the Rebecca Davis Dance Company, read The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur. She felt compelled to produce a ballet called Darfur, which offers a haunting and potent perspective on the crisis, and which is now touring college campuses.  A group of university students who loved video games designed Darfur is Dying, in collaboration with mtvU,which allows people to experience what it is like to be a Darfuri woman trying to escape from Janajweed militia members.  The possibilities are endless, when individuals combine deep personal transformation work, the cultivation of a gift or passion and societal transformation efforts.

Those of us who are called to advance a more just society, also have a responsibility to create change while embodying the same principles of integrity and justice we hope to see in the world. Conscious social change invites us to cultivate self-awareness for greater understanding of and compassion for suffering – even among our opposition.  It asks us work on the unexamined parts of ourselves that cause us to act unconsciously to avoid or end our discomfort. It necessitates that we engage in self-care to protect ourselves from fatigue and disillusionment.  It reminds us to use deep practice to stay attuned to the needs of those we serve before our own agendas. It allows us to transform oppressive structures by examining the underlying collective shadows. Finally, it opens us to our unique calling, and inspires innovation through an ever-deepening awareness. Thích Nhât Hanh, Buddhist monk and activist said, “Non-violent action, born of the awareness of suffering and nurtured by love, is the most effective way to confront adversity.”Consciousness-based approaches to social change, learned through direct experience, enable change agents to advance social justice more effectively, creatively and transformationally.

Principle FOUR: Attunement for Conscious Action

Monday, October 12, 2009

This is part 5 of 6 in a series of posts about the Five Principles and Supporting Practices of Conscious Social Change.

Principle FOUR:  Attunement for Conscious Action
I read a wonderful book in business school, surprisingly, about Deep Change.  We read two books by Robert Quinn, one of which was titled, Change the World: How Ordinary People can Achieve Extraordinary Results, where he examines the patterns of change agents who advance systemic change.  Quinn proposes that most of society embraces a transactional model that is “other-driven” and “inner-focused”.  In other words, individuals are driven to accomplish and attain what outer society values (e.g., prestige, knowledge, power, material wealth) and focused on results that benefit the personal good. In contrast, Quinn notes, extraordinary change agents work from an opposite, transformational orientation. They are “inner-driven” and “other-focused”.  In other words, they are driven by their own internal sense of purpose while focused on serving the larger common good. I’ve never forgotten this distinction.  And I believe, conscious social change advances the possibility of inner and outer transformation, by addressing two weaknesses of the conventional paradigm.

First, conscious social change allows us to stay attuned to the changing needs of those we aim to serve.  For example, service-based organizations can easily become attached to their core programs.  Most organizations feel the pressure to demonstrate impact in terms of concrete, quantitative outputs, such as the number of meals served to the homeless. Progress is measured by increasing size and scale, which drives the need to keep the non-profit engine funded and ever growing.  However, organizations compromise their ability to generate transformational impact. If they are not closely evaluating their effectiveness and working to re-diagnose their priority issue, they may advance their solution without noticing the shifting, underlying needs of their target populations.

In a consciousness-based approach, the same principles of deep inquiry used for self-awareness are applied to identify, understand and transform underlying issues, such as the root causes for why homelessness and hunger continue to exist. In this approach, social value creation is maximized by using deep examination and analysis of the principles of suffering to help refine program offerings to achieve transformation more effectively. Though expansion may be necessary to replicate effective solutions and bring them to scale, ultimately conscious social change ensures organizations exist only for the common good, not for their own survival.

Second, conscious social change invites us to examine our role in the systems that uphold the status quo. As institutions become ever-more integrated with cultural practice and dominant culture, they too can come to reflect the unconscious shadows of their members and the very imbalances of power that they were established to upset. Practitioners of conscious social change, thus, must rigorously examine our individual and collective role in failing to live from a place of consciousness.

Supporting Practice FOUR: Cultivating Compassion and Setting Intentions
Compassion is derived from an understanding that we are all the same in our motivation to protect ourselves from suffering.  Knowing that when people cause harm to others they are acting to avoid their own pain, can help us understand our opposition’s motivation. We also can see the interconnection between inner and outer transformation, including how we are implicated in social problems through our own unconscious patterns of behavior.  From this inner-directed and other-focused approach, conscious social change supports a diagnosis of society’s ills at the most fundamental root level.

In every moment, as we make choices to act, speak and engage with others, we do so with intention.  Very often these intentions are unconscious.  This is true not only of individuals, but of groups of individuals, organizations and institutions.  Bringing awareness to our intentions helps to ensure we are acting from a place of wisdom and clarity, rather than reacting from a shadow or fear.  On an individual level we can ask whether we are helping others because it will make us feel liked, useful or powerful. Are we protecting ourselves or advancing our power? Individually, it is helpful to review our intentions whenever we feel a charge or find ourselves reacting. On an organizational level we can ask whether we are acting in support of our core mission, or whether we are making decisions that position us to achieve publicity or funding at the expense of those we serve. Organizations should always consider their intentions and decisions in light of their overarching mission statement. On a societal level, we can examine the ways the structures we endorse uphold hierarchy and exclusion. We can investigate how society creates structures that help us collectively avoid acknowledging the suffering of the marginalized, and how society encourages our attachments to personal gain. If intentions are set consciously from the ground up, it is more likely that resulting actions, structures and systems will support the optimal path for the common good.


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