Our busy lives, our much-loved comforts, seem to invite amnesia or indifference or denial about the fact that women everywhere are in the fight of their lives, as we always have been.
The biggest battles – for control of our bodies and freedom from sexual violence – are a long way from won. And so we come to the impact of a network to advance women’s power.
I often ponder the transformations occurring among the members of Baraka Women’s Center. When I speak with them or read their stories, their rising hope is palpable. They’ve found a place with the tools that make shiny possibilities come within their grasp.
The guidance offered in the Entrepreneur and Leadership Program is one of the most significant contributions, helping women find their core of self-worth – lost or never found in the fray of surviving extreme poverty.
Reminding a woman that she has intrinsic value is a subtle and continuous process. Little things add up: a warm welcome to a place where women gather, a clear message that ‘you belong’, and spontaneous connections with other women working to reshape their lives.
That’s what a Women’s Center does best.
Women’s Centers International now is supporting eight Women’s Centers: six in African, one in the Middle East, and one in California USA. We ‘call in’ those with not far to fall: women excluded from society’s wealth, women who grew up in poverty or were downed by a twist of violence, who subsist on starchy foods, wear second-hand clothes, and love their kids so much they have to scramble too damn hard to keep them fed and clothed and educated. That’s where the revolution rises on cat’s feet.
There’s nothing noble in brutal alchemy of poverty. There is, however, great power in poverty-honed instincts for survival. Those who possess them belong in the ’situation room’ as women resuscitate and reshape a kinder world. Yeah, we get clean up duty. But we’re the ones with the best and fiercest instinct to make life better.
Any conscious human can be a philanthropist, defined as “a person who seeks to promote the welfare of others.” In my experience, some of the most generous people have been those with virtually nothing. The mushrooming selection of ‘causes’ challenge those with “a little something to give” to find one that resonates with their personal ethos of social responsibility.
The most effective helping organization tend to be firmly rooted in a community. These small organizations, usually with limited cash, create some of the most effective ways to serve people in need. Their budgets, duly planned and carefully calculated, often remain wish lists, forcing continual decisions about what can’t be done.
Philanthro-humanitarian finance is a sprawling realm of big institutions rubbing bellies with other big institutions. In this complex transnational web, egregious amounts of money sometimes go missing, clever accounting hides waste and losses, sexual harassment allegation rise and fall, and still The Club – long-established foundations, government institutions, and international aid organizations – The Club churns along.
One of the best insights into this phenomenon came from a black woman philanthropist: If after 20 years, you [an international humanitarian organization] are still here [in a developing country], I have to wonder what you’ve accomplished.
These long-term ‘occupations’ suggest that many humanitarian INGOs have not equipped locals to run their own show. No question it’s a tricky calculus. Knowledge transfers are always received through cultural filters. Assessing the long-term impact of training one woman to earn income that elevates her life requires a capacity to monitor her progress over time. Expectations of impact presuppose that data technology is available, training have occurred, and the system is being utilized effectively. These necessary costs are seldom considered.
The language accompanying some new grant opportunities appears to be rooted in thorough unfamiliarity with realities on the ground in favor of making ‘impact investors’ comfortable. To wit: “Catalytic capital seeks to address capital gaps, i.e., investment opportunities that mainstream commercial investment markets fail to reach, partially or fully, because they do not fit the risk-return profile or other conventional investment norms and expectations that such markets require.”
Increasingly, foundations accept proposals ‘by invitation only.’ I’m guessing they have search mechanisms to determine ‘whom to invite’ but firewalls usually prevent direct contact that might encourage an invitation.
Online proposals often contain tediously repetitive questions, evidently created and formatted by gremlins, and require days to complete. It’s rare to find a grant exceeding $50,000, or to receive a rejection that does not cite ‘hundreds of applicants.’
Melinda Gates, ever refining her message, has said: “The agenda of our lifetime is making sure that women can take their full power in society.” In response, one Black woman CEO responded: “…then why do funders and major donors still not see that we are worthy of sustained, significant investment?” I’m sayin’!
I had believed Women’s Centers International (WCI) would (and still may) draw the interest of major funders. That would indeed spare the accustomed bootstrapping to achieve baby steps forward. So far in my extensive outreach, stonewalling has been a usual response. For an old woman in a hurry, that’s pitifully suboptimal. Hence, WCI’s trickle-up approach.
In 2022, WCI’s network grew organically from international connections sustained over many years. We’re nurturing the development and/or operation of six Women’s Centers (see map; does not include Oakland Women’s Center USA), serving war-displaced women, widows, survivors of violence, young single moms and of course, their children – because as the moms go, so go the children.
WCI helps local organizations build their capacity to assist the women of their community. We advise, send what funding we can, and trust their commitment to produce the best outcomes. With an investment of $50,000 – $75,000, one Center in a not-wealthy country can build and thrive for a year. Costs increase by a factor of three for Centers in wealthier countries. In all cases, a modest annual commitment of capital produces extraordinary impact. Imagine a fully funded global network!
I’ve long envisioned WCI as a foundation, investing only in Women’s Center start-ups and operating costs. I believe this to be a legacy-defining channel for achieving women’s equality.
This is my open call to movers and shakers – join us.
At a recent meeting, I was introduced to the term rematriation. Hearing the word sparked the further realization of how steeped in patriarchal terms our language is. The backlash resonates. Only fairly recently we’ve seen the inclusion of a gender designation after name on various online platforms. However that may solve somebody’s issues, I don’t need to know – and why would anyone insist I do?
We’ve accepted a culture of aggressive winning, with attendant violent words and phrases: conquer, annihilate, slap down, beat, vanquish. Sports in particular relish this vocabulary. There are no friendly competitions. Too much money and power at stake.
Also consider the rampant use of negatives, from the quotidian “Don’t forget”, “Don’t be late” to the more chastising: “Don’t quit” or “Never Leave a Fallen Comrade Behind”. Our brains withdraw from warnings and shaming but tend to hold on to positive input like “Stay Safe” and “I know you’ll do your best” and “Bring everyone home.” See Woman Warrior Code.
It’s a life practice to examine our words. They have enormous power. Wielding that power for better or for worse is our choice.
My blog identifies me as a Warrior for Women. By my own reckoning, I’ve lived an accomplished life. However, a visceral part of me still believes I am ‘less than’ men. After all these years, I’m still boxing my way out of the thorough early conditioning women – in all cultures – receive. I have to remind myself often that I’m an exceptional contributory woman.
We women have learned to live with too much shit: being talked over, dismissed, underestimated, objectified, underpaid, and dictated to about our bodies. We face the likelihood of violence at school, work, home, and on the streets. We risk our physical and/or emotional safety every time we dismiss a man. Our culture also perversely messages us that if we embrace feminism, we’ll wind up rejected, suspected, crazy.
We’ve lived with all of this as if it’s normal, but it cannot continue. Many earlier battles for women’s rights have been hard won. Many still require a fight – with an elevated fighting ethos. A Warrior Code informs how we organize, resist, and disable the forces that threaten our sanity and innate power.
Rather than reinvent long-standing codes, I’ve studied traditional (men’s) codes with an eye to molding them to womanist sensibilities. A Warrior Woman Code looks like this:
Foundational Virtues: courage, loyalty, and integrity.
Operational Code – recast for women:
Mission first. A woman’s biological mandate is to mother healthy, productive human beings. This requires tactical and logistical prowess: support the unfurling of a child’s unique purpose and gifts while defending them against predators, exploiters, and craven assholes. The same applies for our human mission, which may not include childbearing but which will always include some element of nurturing.
Plan to win (formerly: Never Accept Defeat). We may be tired and distracted, but together we are invincible.
Persevere (formerly: Never Quit). Sustained self-care and unity stokes the courage to advance.
Bring everyone home (formerly:Never Leave a Fallen Comrade). Women have a LOT of fallen comrades. The 700+ million stranded in extreme poverty, believing no one is coming for them, must have the tools to rise. The status of the poorest and least fortunate shapes the status of all. This belief compels me to advocate persistently for the global adoption of the Women’s Center Model, informed as it is by the ‘least fortunate’ women.
Elevating women, bringing them home to the sisterhood, requires seismic attitude shifts. Women’s Centers are base camps for this transformation. The Woman Warrior Code is how we suit up. I’m always scouting for co-conspirators.
In 2022, 274 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection. This number is a significant increase from 235 million people a year ago. Devex estimates that donors provided
17.2 billion – less than half of the 37.7 billion needed. And that doesn’t include development assistance.
International humanitarian aid is Big Business, involving the U.N., multi-national corporations, international NGOs, Governments, and an assortment of foundations and individuals.
The question “Who gives what to whom?” plunges one into a dizzying array of analyses.
And then there are scary rumors about millions gone missing in a pipeline leaky with corruption, poor accounting and accountability, and just plain incompetence.
In my little corner of this mess, I’m troubled by organizations whose largesse creates cash flow challenges for small community-based organizations like Women’s Centers. An example: a well-meaning foundation ships a bunch of equipment but requires the recipient to pay customs clearance and transport costs to their location. Never mind that all of the equipment is available locally. Why not just send the cash – avoiding all the drama of international shipping, and feeding a national economy in recession.
Then there’s the tragically hilarious conundrum of USAID, wringing its hands over how to localize aid, but evidently not willing to part ways with old buddy U.S.-based INGOs working in the so-called developing world.
Baraka Women’s Center can knit together an astonishingly effective national program to empower Kenyan women. But no joy from the monied in Kenya. For now, an productive local asset advances, but much more slowly than the needs of the women it could serve. A generous infusion of cash changes everything. Often the obvious is not.