When Oakland Women’s Center closed in April 2018, I’d been staggered that my Board (at the time) proved unwilling to fundraising, and that no one among the hundreds of women we served evidenced any inclination to step into managing the Center. Either funding or a committed manager would have enable OWC to continue its important work. Lacking both, no way forward was possible.
WCI found a new space from which to focus on invigorating Baraka Women’s Center in Kenya. However, not a week passes without at least a couple of calls from women in desperate circumstances seeking assistance. I continue to field those calls and to provide referrals. It’s not the same as having the Center’s full resources at my disposal, but it is better than leaving these women flailing about for a port in the storm.
The nature of the calls remains consistent: help with housing crises, custody issues, domestic violence, lack of income. If anyone imagines that lives of most women have advanced over the last few centuries, you are sorely out of touch.
Funders – even the women-oriented ones nesting in their alliances with other women’s funds – seem unaware that nothing exceeds the urgency of lifting up women, particularly those living in poverty. Too many regard the poor – when they think of them at all – as a collection of dreary needs rather than as unappreciated assets. The potential languishing in the 700+million women scraping out subsistence lives thrills and haunts me. I believe that each of them, given the right access to resources, could alter the path of humanity. Not necessarily individually, but as a united community.
So I move along, deep into the process of writing the Women’s Center How-To Guide. With luck, I will find the right combination of words to galvanize the right combination of do-ers with socially conscious money to invest.
Navigating life is a daunting challenge most of the time, to say nothing of the considerable regular effort required to behave like a competent, contributory human being.
I do not have a television, having abandoned the device and the medium ten years ago in an effort to firewall my thinking, to improve my experience of a day. Avoiding the mawkish, trite, corporate free-for-all of advertising relieves me of some anxiety. If I feel a need to escape, I watch movies without commercials.
Without the clutter of factoids about shootings and disasters, money- or sex-related scandals, political embarrassments and rumors delivered by TV news, which is sandwiched among depressingly un-nuanced dramatic shows and unfunny comedies, I’m able, on more occasions, to be more attuned to observing and listening to the lives and life around me. It’s never boring.
Oakland, California where I live:
Plagued by a volatile racial divide. Some days it cools and softens with the balm of open relaxed conversations or random acts of humanity.
Too many people wandering across busy streets against the light and with no fear. Suicide by random passer-by. John George, the psychiatric facility where adults experiencing severe and disabling mental illnesses may commit themselves or be committed, has patients sleeping on mats on the floor in a dorm, unsheltered from each other, medicated but unhealed.
The upcoming Women’s March, spending an obscene amount of money on an events that is unlikely to produce any timely or tangible assistance to swelling ranks of women on the margins of our community, where domestic violence shelters are always full, too many women have not completed high school, do not know how to use computers, and virtually stagger through their days under the burden of traumas rooted in their poverty.
The City’s infested with the cheap scooters that expose riders without helmets to head injuries and pedestrians without warning to vehicular assault.
The losing battle in West Oakland against graffiti and random trash piles. Not much sense that this is a neighborhood worth valuing. We need to change that.
On the plus side:
The Yuba River still flows with enormous power; a hike in the forest in the riot of furry mosses and spritely fungi and elegant ferns and nude oaks that have lain down rugged brown carpets on ochre clay – that resets a weary soul.
Women’s issues steadily are gaining traction in the public conversation, suggesting more action to correct the inequities and predations on women that are inherent in our society.
WCI and I survived and rebooted after soul-busting betrayals by trusted women. New strong allies are arriving with reassuring regularity.
Several extraordinary women I know through Oakland Women’s Center have become wonderful friends. I cherish my connection with them. Black and white women have more than they usually realize to offer each other.
My next book is coming out in January: Trouble Ahead: Dangerous Missions with Desperate People
It’s a compilation of journals – commentary from my numerous missions in East Africa and the birth stories of Women’s Centers International.
Publication announcement to come.
After the holiday slack-off, I’ll be ready again to advance WCI in serving the women who need it most.
A survey of 1,000 philanthropists revealed that many donors simply do not know of organizations that devote their efforts to women and girls. Some donors feel the issues facing women and girls are too complex and the remedies too hard to scale up – as if this is an informed assessment of the possibilities. If we understand how many women live in poverty, we can see that as a measure of extreme need in virtually every area of women’s lives: education, health, housing, livelihood, and protection from violence.
Current national surveys on philanthropic giving do not consider “women’s and girl’s issues” (W&GI) aa a distinct giving category. Instead, it gets bundled into pre-existing categories such as ‘human services’ – which get about 12% of charitable dollars each year.
The Women’s Philanthropic Institute found that between 2000 and 2014, 1,226 gifts worth $6.22 billion were directed specifically to W&GI. The figure represents just 1.6 percent of all gifts included in the data. At the same time, women’s funds and foundations have estimated that only 5 – 7% of all foundation giving is directed specifically to W&GI.
This range – between 1.6% and 7% – is indeed a troubling commentary on the disconnect between donors and the needs of women and girls. Women Moving Million co-chair Jacqueline Zehner believes women donors hold the key to unlocking the potential of women and girl around the world. I am certain she is right.
My home, the San Francisco Bay area, one of the wealthiest urban areas in the U.S., ranks 45th in charitable giving. We improve this by learning about the work being done to empower the neediest women of our community, and putting serious money into it.
Women’s Centers International has a well tested Model for advancing the skills and power of marginalized women. It’s an every-day effort to fund the implementation of that Model where it’s needed. More committed women donors will make the effort exhilarating for all of us.
I’m so humbled and inspired by the women who’ve told me that Baraka Women’s Center changed their lives. A teacher who volunteers to help women learn to read in write. A woman who was abused and missing her front teeth last time I saw her looks fresh and vital (all new teeth), has a successful business selling fruits, and helps women in the slums get government allowances to send their kids to school – and is on the BWC Board. Women learning to manage money in group ventures. A lady who started three businesses after her training at BWC. An older woman who was in the Adult literacy
Program and wants badly for it to start again. Old allies still help as best they can. Never enough money for all that needs doing. We’ve drawn up a budget for the next 17 months – through 2019. Five major programs, four paid staff, a passel of trainers, a bigger office (SO needed!). In Kenya Shilling it looks daunting: 8.3 million. But works out to US$83,000. Such vast and positive effects for a relatively small amount of money. Seems it should be out there and moving here pronto. You can also contribute to BWC through WCI’s website.
BWC’s new Board clearly has committed itself to rebuilding the Center to its former glory – and beyond. They want to register BWC as an NGO to allow them to establish Centers all around Kenya. It’s a brilliant plan. However, it will have to wait until BWC itself is financial stable with new staff on board. Fortunately, many of the right individuals have presented themselves.
Walking in something I enjoy but maneuvering on busted-up concreted with ragged deep holes and the occasional protruding metal objects, in the midst of hundreds of harried people, enveloped in clouds of exhaust fumes, is not my idea of healthful exercise. On a previous trip, I mistook the energy for a kind of exuberance, but now I realize it’s a frantic response to an environment that is simply not worthy of human habitation.
Teresia escorted me to a couple of slums. She feels, and I agree, it’s necessary to understand where the members come from. The main thing that scares me about these raw poverty pits is that they continue to exist year after year without improvements. Lately, the government’s priorities appear to be displacing residents to build roads. The residents are fighting the move; at minimum, they want land to resettle.
On the street, I see solders toting AK47s, beggar children in filthy clothes, lurching, yowling drunks, people carrying heavy bundles on their backs or bicycles or battered hand-pulled carts. A new skyline with the tallest office building in Africa takes shape above them. Housing seems an afterthought.
Above: some of the beautiful fashion accessories handcrafted by BWC’s members. I have samples! You can contact me directly – Susan@WomensCentersIntl.org – about purchasing. BWC is building this business to support the livelihoods of many women.
Keep up to date on WCI’s work with Baraka Center and news Center sites HERE
Continuing my journals from two-weeks at Baraka Center in Nairobi...
Sunday 22 July 2018
Most Kenyans go to church on Sunday. Not necessarily formal churches as we know them, but ‘pop-up’ gatherings in various halls. The singing excites the soul. I like to walk to get my bearings and often am accosted by children and young adults asking for money. I do not respond when people call out to me ‘muzungu’, a term for anyone white. I did hear my first “madame muzungu” call-out. Gave me pause.
On this morning’s walk, I passed four boys, about 10-years old, two curled on the sidewalk and two huffing glue from plastic bottles. Their brains will be irretrievably destroyed in no time. I also passed two women with five young children sleeping on filthy cardboard on the sidewalk. For women, I gladly offer enough shillings to get through the next bit of her hungry journey. I stopped in a small park where men curled in sleep dotted the grassy areas. Lovely plantings of trees and shrubs whose names I need to look up; the park a small oasis except for scattered piles of human shit.
Much like Oakland’s city government, Nairobi’s is unable to contend with the problem of
homelessness. Slums, both small and large, occupy bout 60% of the City. Efforts to build new (or restore deteriorating) apartment buildings that are affordable are about as rigorous as in the Bay Area – which is to say, largely absent.
Tomorrow I’ll be meeting with BWC’s new Board of Directors. The options for programs are as vast and varied as our imaginations, but the goal is to get back the basic programs like Adult Education, Computer Training, Entrepreneur and Leadership Development. Underfunding cannot forever limit progress, no matter how instructive ‘scratching around’ might be. Life is way too short to worry every month about paying the bills. Been there, done that – and it was in no way gratifying. Surely there is enough money in the communities – both in the Bay Area and in Nairobi – to support this work for the most vulnerable women.
I met a few of the women who attended BWC’s earliest (2013) workshops on Entrepreneurship. They’ve created successful small businesses that keep them housed
and fed. Teresia buys from them whenever she needs certain supplies, and supports some enormously talented bead craftswomen through displays at craft exhibitions. (More on this in the next post.)
Some of the young women in the Hair and Beauty Skills Training cannot read or write. Some shelter in a local church that provides cardboard mats on the floor for sleeping. They are always ready to eat at the Center. Mostly PB&J and milk tea.
In terms of WCI’s big picture, I’m working on a way to integrate the Women’s Centers Model into humanitarian response to refugee crises. Oddly, ‘gender equity’ is still merely part of the humanitarian agenda, and not yet integral – as it must become.
Monday 23 July 2018
BWC’s new seven-member Board of Directors met today. I’m impressed by their can-do attitude. They bring enormous creativity to networking for the funding BWC deserves.
Photo from left: BWC Board members Teresia Waikuru, Shelmith Njeri, Wanjiru Ngigi, Beatrice Ongoto, Grace Wangari, Peris Wanjiru, Emily Kiboi
Tuesday 24 July 2018
For the first time in my work in Africa, I visit a hospital devoted to mental illness. Mathare Hospital, a large campus bordering on Mathare slum is, I’m told, the largest such hospital in Africa. Many single-story units sprawl among islands of lawn and trees. The unit Teresia took me to was for women. Stepping through an iron gate, I am accosted by at least a dozen women, offering to shake my hand, asking me my name. They seem like starved creatures eager for a new experience. Evidently a mzungu will do. Large signs forbid photo-taking on the grounds; I offer the link below to provide some idea of the neighboring slum.
We came to see a 42-year-old woman Teresia had brought in two weeks earlier after a call for assistance from a local chief. Seems she was shouting and creating a distrubance for a long time. Evidently she’d reached the break point. Not surprising given that she’d been serially raped, had no family, and was separated from a young son born of one of the rapes.
At the sight of Teresia, she fell into her arms, sobbing. A number of patients gathered to greet us, inquiring about my name and wanting to hold my hand long after the handshake greeting. I saw restless women milling about, aimless. One sat on the ground, unmoving from what looked to be a painful position. Another sat weeping loudly nearby. We were escorted to a small office through which staff and patients freely roamed. The staff make notes in large yellow files; no computers in evidence. A large hand-written sign on a wall describes the processes of admission and assessment. Mental health issues still carry much stigma in Kenya, shrouded often in elements of witchcraft. The patient we’d come to see would be released later in the week, but that got complicated when the doctor in charge did not show.
A flock of patients escorted our departure through a locked gate. Some were rubbing my hand as if for good luck. Teresia opined that some of them might believe a muzungu has such power. I felt their inquisitive touch on my hair and sleeves. I’m sure their stories would make me weep.