Women’s Issues – Show Us the Money

“Women’s issues” are not a priority. This is the subtext of polite rejection letters from foundations and philanthropists – when they bother to respond.  My experience is not unique.

The Women’s Philanthropic Institute found that between 2000 and 2014, 1,226 gifts worth $6.22 billion were directed specifically to Women’s and Girls’ Issues (W&GI). The figure represents just 1.6 percent of all gifts included in the data.  From another perspective, women’s funds and foundations have estimated that only 5- 7% of all foundation giving is directed specifically to W&GI.  in most data, W&GI are not even a category.

This range of giving – between 1.6% and 7% of all charitable giving – is indeed a sad commentary on the disconnect between donors and the needs of women and girls.

In the five years since I founded Women’s Centers International, I’ve written over 100 proposals for funding for support of WCI’s two Centers, as well as for further expansion of the Center network. Admittedly, the early stuff was less than tight; I thrashed around looking for the right words to distill what is a wildly urgent mission:  provide key resources to women trapped on the margins – at or below poverty level. The range of soul-damaging needs among them is breathtaking Theirs are twisted, overlaid wounds – with all the vulnerabilities – of homelessness or inadequate housing, poor heath, lack of education, egregious abuse (often in childhood), rape, and/or domestic violence.

I see women desperate for safe, personal help. I see women who can heal from a LOT of damage.homelessness011515-600x450

Here’s an analogy:

To fish, water is environment, invisible even when toxic.

For over two millennia women’s ‘less-than’ status has been our global psychological environment – largely invisible, even when discussed. But the facts don’t go away.

Women with 'please stop' on hand     Women are the targets of epidemic levels of violence  – with no apparent brake in sight.

Access to competent health services for women declines precipitously with income. Most conditions are preventable with more culturally responsive, woman-informed providers. Health risks are highest among women of color, generally also least able to afford the best care.

Almost two-thirds of all illiterate adults globally are women. (At Oakland Center, about 24% of the members have made it only as far as high school.)

Women still earn about 79% of men in similar jobs. That disparity widens for women of color who, if the trend continues, will not see pay equity for over 200 years.

Women are so resilient it’s killing us.

Here, the analogy between fish and human environments ends. A fish out of water dies. A woman rising out of her second-class status is a force to be reckoned with.

How do we improve the environment so this can happen? We nurture strong, self-possessed women who work together and support each other.

Women’s Centers International creates environments that enable this ‘rising up.” Ultimately, a critical mass of women imbued with the power self-worth and sisterhood transforms communities to reflect women’s priorities.

Listen to one week of news about the unremitting horrors that men’s brutality and greed inflict on women and children, and you’ll grasp how urgent this mission is.

Now we women have to stand up and tell men: “Take a seat, we’ve got this.  Time for you to move aside and let women drive the ship until we set things right.”  Even a slightly conscious male would have to admit men really have messed up the planet. Women are inherently better at urgent tasks at hand: healing and restoring a damaged humanity. We have to re-balance gender privilege, and we’ve got no time to waste.

Back to raising money to do the job.

Foundations generally are slow to make decisions about grants.  Six to eight months is not uncommon. Few are emphatically women-oriented, and those that claim to be seem slow to embrace innovative services to women on the scale that’s required.

I’m looking for people who will act decisively and give big.  Probably you are women.

Women are more consistent and generous in their giving than men. Surveys show we often find motivation for generosity in our personal experiences (like rape, abuse, harassment, inequitable pay). We believe funding woman-focused initiatives leads to progress for society.  Women Moving Millions co-chair Jacqueline Zehner puts a finer point on it: women donors hold the key to unlocking the potential of women and girl around the world.

The San Francisco Bay Area, where I live and work, is one of the wealthiest urban areas in the U.S.  It ranks 45th in charitable giving among major U.S. Cities. My fundraising struggles unfortunately bear this out.

Black and white groups siting

I want to engage with women, individually or in groups, willing to refute the lack of social commitment that ranking represents.  Not to bolster ‘local pride’ – but to engage in generating sea change in the lives of women.

It surely deserves serious money.  Let’s talk. Susan@WomenCentersIntl.org

Buzzwords into Buzz Saws

On days when I lift my head above the torrent of details at the Women’s Center, I check out a few sources of current thinking, especially as relate to women’s experience.

I’ve found a lot of insightful articles in Wear Your Voice magazine. However, a recent article left me wondering about their editorial oversight. Where does a righteous rant cross over into hate speech?  In particular, when does the buzzword  ‘intersectionality’ become a weapon rather than a rallying cry?

At Oakland Women’s Center, 73% of our members are Black, with an increasing number of Latinas. Every day brings a new twist in the ways their lives are shaped by abuse, exclusion, and poverty. Our job is to find a path through the damage to begin the healing, and then eventually mobilize their full power as women.  It’s a slow process, fraught with fearful setbacks. The women have taught me more than I can say about patience, about the pointlessness of ‘expectations’, about the power of believing in their  essential value and uniqueness.

All women, no matter their ‘class’ or purported social privilege, share the millennial-old burden of second-class citizenship. This manifests in a whole range of painful ‘practices’, from the egregious violence of genital cutting and forced early marriage, to the quotidian undermining of self-worth by both men and by battalions of women who’ve not yet understood and embraced the value of sisterly support.

It’s important to me that publicly posted essays deliver insight and/or inspiration. Ranting for its own sake merely provokes anger, confusion, doubt.  We’ve already got too much of that in major media.

What’s needed is a lot less rant and a lot more doing to improve women’s lives. Time has never been more of the essence.

Where I Work

You can’t find a mailbox to save a life within a mile of my office in West Oakland.  Liquor stores, purveying basic food groups, fried chicken, and junk-for-consumption at exorbitant prices, occupy a corner about every four to six blocks.  Similarly, churches, mainly of the Baptist persuasion but including some esoterica, loom on major streets or sit tucked discretely within a former residence or storefront.

The end of the month, eviction time, brings a new tide of worn, cheap furniture and household flotsam to the curbs.  Taggers industriously deface the architecture of the area, along with any signs or furniture they happen upon.  Hardly a storefront or wall is spared the lurid, outsized scrawls, some reminiscent of lettering. Murals, however, usually don’t get graffitied, as if painting that requires more than a few reckless, angry minutes deserves dispensation.

The potholed streets, a patchwork of attempts at asphalt first aid, provide challenge courses for defensive driving. City parks sprout grass and weeds knee-high before Parks and Rec can be prodded into half-assed mowing.  Drivers of speeding vehicles, as well as pedestrians hobbling along heaved sidewalks, routinely toss food wrappers and other trash in their wake.

A once-thriving Black community, West Oakland suffered successive refashioning by earthquake and transit infrastructure. It feels like a place that could be vibrant, but has been left to wallow glumly in lost aspirations.

Every day at Oakland Women’s CenterBW Oakland street, deep in West Oakland, I discover a new variation of the damage that poverty and discrimination have wrought on women. Childhood abuse, usually a multi-generational legacy, homelessness, inferior education, domestic violence, single motherhood, custody battles, self-medication with any drug that can be had, and monumental anger behind a façade of getting by, often with an overlay of faith in God.  I do not doubt the palliative benefits of religious faith, but I prefer to trust the goddess in the woman.

I am one of the few White women at a Center that attracts primarily Black women. I devote myself daily to understanding their painful – and sometimes joyous – realities. I help them find what they need. Often I ponder the ‘legitimacy’ of a White woman helping Black women. Given the egregious nature of their burdens, it seems necessary for willing assistants of any color to step forward. I am willing.

March – then move your money where the power can grow

The Women’s March in Oakland was one fabulous event:  at least 60,000  – and up to 100,000  – people of all ages and ethnicities turned out to send the message: we will do what it takes to defend and advance women’s rights.  At least 1.1 million marched in California alone, and worldwide, about 5 million.

crowd-nasty-signThe economics of demonstrations are sobering.  One five-hour event can cost upward of $200,000.  Consider the hundreds of Marches on Jan 21st, and we’re talking millions of dollars to take to the streets for one day.

How do we translate that action into the nitty-gritty work?  By supporting organizations whose daily effort is to build the power of women.

Oakland Women’s Center in West Oakland, CA opened in May 2015.  165 women, mostly low-income, are now registered members.  They bring to the Center the full spectrum of issues born of poverty:  homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, domestic abuse, trauma from dysfunctional families, lack of education, and chronic health problems. We work with each of them them to find solutions, a path forward to the lives they want.

Four to six new members register each month. The Center needs to expand service capacity. Yet, we have few assured sources of funds even to sustain the current level of operation – and not for lack of effort

It’s the eternal conundrum of non-profits in general, and women’s organizations in particular.

Can we look to the rising womanist tide to sustain the work? That’s our best-case scenario. Building a bigger network of contributors is our challenge. Who’s out there to help?


Sisters in the Shadows

Written in April 2013

In one of the most painful and astonishing years of my life, I’ve learned two real kick-in-the-stomach lessons:

The “No Donkey in the Ditch” Rule

When you develop and launch a vision for a project, you must insist always on the highest possible standards for problem solving. It is the elemental nature of The Work. A big vision will not tolerate half-assed solutions on the road to full expression.

The “Wrinkles Rule” Rule

I’m mightily relieved to know there are places in the world where advancing age accrues social benefit. Traditional (though somewhat eroding) Kenyan reverence for the wisdom and pace of elders informed me that I’ve been no slouch about learning the ropes of humanitarian work. In fact, at 61, I’m damn sure of the exceptional quality of my wisdom. So kudos to Kenyans for enabling this insight. That said, I also endorse firmly sidelining an elder who’s a self-absorbed grouch, autocrat, cleptocrat, or general pain the ass – in order to reinforce the best of this tradition.

Working in Africa, where the sublime and the wretched flow side by side on horrific roads, spending my days with people whose practicality and humor I adore, always leaves me saturated with wonder and bewilderment. Though my soul finds grace in its spiritual home – Africa – my mind roils at circumstances so vastly degraded from what I’ve lived. I know the women (in Nairobi) struggle to view any potential for their lives.

Still, we are all women and in that have much in common.

In general, we think first of our children and their welfare, even above our own.

We know we are vulnerable to the random casual brutality of men.

We’ve learned to carry our traumas secreted in the locked closets of our thoughts, or to dull, but not obliterate, them with alcohol or drugs.

The woman in us who can do anything is powerful beyond imagining; still we are learning together how to become her.