The Obvious in Detail

I often make the mistake of believing that something obvious to me is just as obvious to others, especially those working in the field of women’s equality. But often the obvious is missed. The Women’s Centers Model is a prime example.

How to describe the enormous impact of Baraka Women’s Center (BWC)? Nearly 1,200 women are members.  If you read any of the Success Stories, you’ll understand how vital BWC is to poorest women living in Nairobi’s slums.

Baraka Women’s will celebrate its tenth anniversary in October. Teresia Njora, the Center Director, Wanjiru Ngigi, Program Director, and their 10-member Board of Directors – all of them are on fire to meet the challenges so many women bring to the Center. They are uniquely gifted with shauku (passion) for healing and elevating the young single moms, the undereducated older moms, the struggling elders. They see needs and do as much as they can to ease a woman’s crisis. The crises are many: living on the streets with children, parenting at age 15, addiction, fleeing domestic violence, scratching for capital to boost a small business, unemployed with no marketable skills.

Poverty’s effect is universally the same:  chronic trauma from the unrelieved dismantling of self-worth and aspirations. When a Women’s Centers brings resources to ease the struggle, a woman can make her first leap to the “other side” – the place where she has what she needs with a sense of control over her choices.

BWC deserves to thrive.  To see what the Center is and does watch:  Amazing Place.

Women’s Centers should be opened and sustained in every major city, in every refugee camp, in every rural area where women’s education, health, livelihoods, and protection have not been considered, much less nurtured.

After years of effort, I’ve detailed the process in The Women’s Centers Guide: Best Practices for Creating and Sustaining a Women’s Resource Center

WCI is building an affiliate network of community-based organizations using the Guide as their roadmap. The Guide will be available also to large NGOs interested in elegantly integrating gender in global programming. 

On June 30th, find it here: Women’s Centers International 

Imagine My Surprise!

Fifteen years ago, I worked with a young woman named Fatiah in Darfur, Sudan. In a simple statement1, she revealed to me my life’s purpose.  Since then, I have understood, with increasing clarity and urgency, the value of Women’s Centers.

The seeds I’ve planted and vigorously tended have taken root in at least two places in Sudan (a third failed due to internal squabbling), and at the ‘mothership’ in Nairobi Kenya, Baraka Women’s Center. My efforts in Oakland, CA died prematurely because the money stopped flowing. But the women’s needs never did. The pandemic deepened them. My goal is to reopen Oakland Women’s Center within four months.

Of course these years-long efforts have not been mine alone. Many remarkable allies have stepped up. Only one possessed the means and commitment to deliver serious money (water for the seeds). God bless Grant Williams.

The tradition of women gathering for mutual support spans millennia. The Women’s Center Model provides a holistic application of that tradition in environments where Conflict, and its evil twin Poverty, are newly introduced or painfully endemic.

I believe the Women’s Centers Model will revolutionize humanitarian assistance to refugees and internally displaced people.  I’m convinced that most urban destitution would reverse at a steady pace with the establishment of Women’s Centers. Every city deserves at least one. That’s because women are the best movers and shakers when it comes to community transformation.

But we women cannot do it if we find no relief from the burdens of being born females. First we must rise from deep craters of internalized insignificance, insane taboos, virulent restrictions, predatory marketing, and soul-depleting violence.

We do that best when we gather in a safe place.

We do that best when key resources– previously denied– are brought to our place.

We do that best when we’re seen and treated as complex beings with vast capacity for healing and creativity.

We do that best when our unique kinds of leadership are given full rein.

A Women’s Center is the ‘base camp’ for that redemption to happen.

Tony Benn, a now-deceased UK Member of Parliament, once opined: “It’s the same each time with progress;  first they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.” 

My shock at the slow uptake of Women’s Center Model has exceeded my own imagining.  Why is this surpassingly elegant Model dismissed without comment by major foundations, international humanitarian organizations, and even (especially!) women’s funding networks?

“It’s the same each time with progress: first they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.” 

After fifteen years, I believe I’ve arrived at ‘dangerous.’ Surely poor women, especially those of color, who will rise to kick ass through engagement with a Women’s Center, qualify as ‘dangerous.’ A Women’s Center would be a lot less messy way forward than howling riots in the streets. If humanity is to thrive, to say nothing of survive, they must come into their full power.

I’m inescapably aware that my stamina and ‘time remaining’ in this life is spooling out. I’d be ecstatic to see the full flowering of the Women’s Centers Model: the global network!  A Movement of undeniable authority and joy.  If I’m not blessed with that experience, I will leave behind the full instruction manual.  The young ones can continue the forward surge, adding their unique grace notes to an indomitable design.

___________________

I In answer to my question “What will you do, inshallah, when you leave [Kassab Women’s Center in North Darfur] and go home?” She said:  “We will build Women’s Centers.”

Taming the Beast of Poverty

Poverty preys on the human soul.  Its predations are hard to understand fully without having experienced destitution.  The most pernicious damage is the erosion of hope – the belief that opportunities come not to oneself but to others.

Beneath hopelessness dwells a kind of psychological lassitude born of chronic effort simply to survive.  While this bedrock instinct may allow certain cleverness in exploiting random good luck, it muffles incentive like a heavy quilt. In the long term, ‘working the system’ or waiting for what you need to fall off a truck does not build momentum for plans of real consequence. 

The burden of poverty falls most heavily on women, and women of color in particular. In every area of life – education, livelihood, health, housing, personal safety – ways to improve life circumstances are systematically and routinely denied by the complexity of the qualification process, by overburden providers, and by the indifference of those who could afford to help in meaningful ways but prefer to look away.

Not knowing one’s purpose, ‘hanging on’ through days of no consequence, inflicts the sort of hollowness that leads women to drugs, alcohol and/or other destructive habits. These painkilling survival strategies are often misread as character flaws. Their descending vortex is hard to notice, much less to escape.

A thoughtful look at the range of services offered to low-income people in Oakland argues that the 34% of West Oaklanders who live below the federal poverty level should not be living below the federal poverty level. Why does this situation seem intractable?

Even the most miserable woman will not capitalize on opportunities to change her circumstances without a belief that her life matters. There are no quick fixes to poverty’s psychological damage.  A disabled sense of self-worth is a deep and abiding wound. 

While handing out food may stave off hunger, it does not make a self-reliant woman. What does?

Women’s self-reliance comes from belonging to a group. One of the best things a woman can do for her mental and physical health is to nurture her relationships with other women.

A Women’s Center provides this opportunity. I have not been able to understand how this important Model is consistently overlooked by funders, especially those who profess to support ‘women’s issues.’ 

The elegance and utility of the Women’s Center Model derives from it use by women who understand how much it allows them to accomplish in their community. Baraka Women’s Center in Nairobi, Kenya continues to play the edge in this regard, uplifting nearly 1,200 women living in extreme poverty. Women’s Centers International is ready to support their initiative to establish two new Centers in Kenya. Who is ready to step up and support this ambitious initiative by a women-led community-based organization?

Just as important: when will Oaklanders rally to support the re-establishment of Oakland Women’s Center? 

Women’s Centers are all about taming the beast of poverty. It’s time to open this toolkit in service to women – locally and globally.

How Resilient Must Women Be?

In every region of the world, “Ending Violence, Harassment, and Abuse” is the most prominently chosen (48%) response to the question: “Which three issues are most critical for you as a person? From Global Count Interim Findings.

The challenge: not only for the violence to be ended, but that all women who’ve survived violence have the opportunity to heal. It is not a solo activity. It requires a sisterhood of help and support. That’s why Women’s Centers matter more than ever. A Center is a haven, a ‘base camp’ for healing. It’s where women gather strength together.

Ironically, nothing has been a bigger challenge than to gather funds to work this magic of the Women’s Center Model.

Philanthropically inclined Americans gave somewhere around 4% of all donations specifically to initiatives that strengthen women and girls. Four percent. Animal ‘causes’ get more donations. Women and girls remain few people’s special focus.

The profound damage of rape and domestic abuse, and the bottomless self-doubt they generate, requires a major commitment of resources to rectify.

Hands-on engagement has always mattered much more to me than advocacy, especially in such a polarized political system.  WCI’s place is seeding local managed grassroots organizations to create effective Women’s Centers.

We need to get with ALL our sisters, especially those who’ve been invisible on the margins, and steadily help to free more women from all the damage wrought in the prisons of poverty and exclusion.

We have precious little time to nurture a badass united front that can redirect humankind’s current mad dash to oblivion. We don’t have another decade, much less another century to wait it out.

At Women’s Centers, rage for change sings a bold new tune. We deserve the support of everyone who cares about achieving not just gender parity but the ascendence of the women’s genius for the path ahead.

Make our day: Donate to WCI

Source: Women Deliver

Running the Gauntlet of Funding for Women

The domain of funding for “women’s issues” has long troubled me.  Statistics vary concerning the percentage of money earmarked for women’s programs; the numbers are always in low single digits. A tragedy, given the often repeated truth that women are society’s best game-changers.

Women’s funds like to point out how they are collaborating with other women’s funds, amassing capital.  Yet we are told little about how exactly that capital translates into specific activities that help women, especially those most affected by poverty and conflict.

Those funds that do publish RFPs usually require lengthy complex applications that would discourage all but experienced grant writers in large organizations, a bias that eliminates a whole tier of important small local organizations.

We petitioners for funding always must frame the ‘problem’, consigning women to deficit status rather than framing their assets, as the brilliant Trabian Shorters speaks of it. We’re asked to stigmatize women (underserved, marginalized, low-income, etc. ) rather than focus on equipping them to navigate and change systemic barriers to their power.  Until philanthropists, foundations, and government agencies define their giving in terms of fostering aspirations rather than solving problems, they will be stuck in the ‘savior’ mode, with little lasting impact on real lives.

Businesswoman Lucy N, a member of Baraka Women’s Center, Nairobi

We petitioners for funds must have evidence-based solutions, backed up with data that UN Women says is hard to come by. They reckon that as much as 60% of gender data is missing / never gathered by governments or other international actors, especially as relates to violence against women and women’s mental health. For the foreseeable future, those two concerns have to be integral to any initiative helping women build better lives.

We petitioners for funds must continually address a favorite buzz word of the humanitarian/development communities: sustainability. It’s easy to promote this capital-based concept when you yourself have plenty of capital to work with. The bias favors long-established wealthy INGOs, over locally based community organizations with limited access to capital. One-off project funding will almost never produce lasting results. If we want sustainability, we have to insure that adequate capital finds a new home in smaller organizations that can build – and be – community assets.

The pandemic and the movement for racial justice have ushered in a swell of possibilities, not unlike the Renaissance  (which followed the Black Plague). We have a unique opportunity to alter the dynamics of grant-giving.  As Angela Bruce-Raeburn points out in her astute Devex Op-Ed: “Aid organizations consistently spout rhetoric about “working themselves out of a job,” and yet many of them have worked in some countries for over 50 years.  Is that not failure?” 

Women-led grassroots organizations are the way we transform the options and the power of all women.  That is the raison d’etre of Women’s Centers The Movement welcomes collaborators.