Revolution Rising on Cat’s Feet

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.

Philanthro-Speak

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’!

Women’s Centers Network locations

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.

Buzzword: Girls

I love girls.  I used to be one. It was a time not particularly festooned with lovely experiences, but one thing that defined it: the presence or absence of mom. The role of adult women in shaping girls’ lives can never be understated.

In the non-profit and philanthropic universe, ‘Girls’ has become the latest buzzword.  Do we have a shared definition of the word ‘girl’? For me, a girl is a female age 3 through 12 years. A child. Do current trends indicate teens should now be included? Consider also the expression ‘one of the girls’, usually referring to adult females and used either pejoratively or affectionately depending on source.

This – and society’s – often fawning obsession with youth ignores certain realities.

  • Girls don’t know what they don’t know. 

They haven’t lived very long but may have seen more than a child should. That doesn’t infer understanding. If they’re smart, they find answers from women –  mothers, grandmothers, aunties, older sisters – with wisdom based on lived experience. Women’s Centers uniquely serve this role.

Mom sewing African bags with young daughter at Baraka Women’s Center, Nairobi, Kenya
  • Girlhood delivers different experiences depending on culture.

These tender years ideally would be the realm of unimpeded curiosity, of playful explorations that reveal innate gifts, and of gilded dreams to use those talents. In less privileged places, girlhood is a forced march, a time of repression, with limited opportunities for the flowering of femaleness.

  • Expectations for girls  to assume adult responsibilities can hobble or destroy aspirations.

While some girls possess natural instincts for leadership and activism, most must be guided by the hackles that rise over injustices they see or experience. Their leadership skills emerge with compassionate and patient coaching.

‘Young females’ doesn’t fall easily from the lips, but ‘youth’ offers less of an ambiguous pigeonhole than ‘girls.’  I love the idea of promoting and celebrating girls, especially feisty ones. But we gain little by seeing them as standard bearers for the gender justice struggle that requires the power of women’s wisdom.

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.”