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.”

On Being a Woman Elder

This year as of 29 July, I will have inhabited this earth and sky and seas for 70 years. I’ve led an adventurous life that’s produced books full of stories. 

I remember when personal computers were new and exciting technology.

I’ve created a home in at least fifteen different neighborhoods of the San Francisco Bay Area and in Washington, DC.

I’ve traveled throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Italy seduced my soul. Four African countries – Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, and Rwanda – are lodged indelibly in my mind and heart.

SBL waiting for a ride at Kutum airstrip, North Darfur, Sudan 2009

In my lifetime,  sixteen genocides have desecrated the human landscape – after we’d solemnly promised ‘never again.’ I studied in depth only two of these cataclysms: Rwanda and Sudan. Two was more than enough exposure to the darkest human impulses that have cost the planet nearly 10 million souls.

Blooming late, I created and manage an organization, Women’s Centers International,  from my heart’s mandate to help unleash the power of all women.  Our biggest battles are yet to be won: control of our own bodies, freedom from sexual violence, parity in pay, and elimination of exploitative images in the media.

The revolt worth supporting is rising among those with not far to fall: the poor. Women who grew up that way or were downed by a twist of fate, who subsist on starchy foods in second-hand clothes and love their kids and scramble too damn hard to keep them fed and clothed and educated.

There’s nothing noble in poverty. There is, however, great power in poverty-honed instincts for survival. 

I’ve become a woman in a hurry with a lot to do in much less time than I’ve already lived. Curiosity drives me. I know very quickly when I’m with someone whose energy inspires exuberance.

I despise the word ‘senior.’  I plan never to be a ‘retiree.’  I’m an Elder, a designation that implies wisdom; it’s what comes of surviving long and well enough.

Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, I remain optimistic about our collective ability to rescue our world from the mess we’ve created.

I know that acknowledging people when they do well can transform a day. 

I know our world adores youth. And I am not immune to the siren call of ‘stuff you can do if you have endless energy.” But I’m at the juncture that points toward mining the inner treasures.

A legacy requires a lifetime to build. I hope mine will endure.

Wrinkle Resistance

Face as Map

That faint tracery of grooves first manifests for every woman in a different part of her face. It feels sudden, like discovering your smooth shiny vehicle door has been keyed by someone with a grudge.  So-called ‘crow’s feet’ branch from your eyes across your temples, stress lines become furrows in your forehead – both vertical and horizontal, the slight indentations where your mouth laughs sadly evolve into the hinged-jaw look of a marionette.

Ultimately they all merge, your whole face a web of wrinkles. If live into my 90’s, just two decades more, I expect to acquire that facial topography. I’m not there yet, but my face is full-on into a relentless mapping exercise.

That relentlessness of facial alterations can be a shocking, a daily source of distress. Until you stop counting. Until you think with more affection about what these ‘etchings’ mean. They map out our years, our life experience. They confirm that we have survived for a long time, that we’ve achieved ‘elder’ status in the Human Tribe.

Looking ‘old’ in America simply has not been acceptable for women. And too often by women. Women spend a LOT of time and money tending or fending off this worry. To hide the evidence that we have aged, we spend over $2.2 billion every year on anti-aging creams and moisturizers and non-surgical cosmetic procedures. That’s not even counting facial cosmetic surgery. Or the ubiquitous consumption of cosmetics.

I’m as vain as the next woman, but I wasn’t going to bite on this misguided notion of what looks good. I decided instead to tend judiciously to my hair and skin and let my genes do the rest. I missed early induction into secret society of face painting. So I opt for just the basics. I’m not willing to pony up as much as it costs to be elaborately ‘made over’ every day.

Crowning Glory Story

White- or grey-haired women have ‘disruptive coloration’ [defined in the world of birds as a type of ‘cryptic’ coloration catching the eye and distracting the observer from recognizing the whole organism.]. On some, their un-pigmented hair looks fabulous; for others it represents a dispiriting loss of youthfulness.

Between 75-90% of American women color their hair. Most often to cover grey as it begins to assert itself. A vast industry devotes huge resources to analyzing and projecting what women will buy to mollify their terror of aging. I loathe being predictable to such corporation predation.

If we women let go of needing even half the stuff we buy to soothe our vanity, we’d free up hundreds of millions of dollars for few pressing social needs: mitigating the planet’s climate crisis, or making sure every human gets enough to eat, or providing the means for all  girls to be educated, or a million other tiny or vast efforts to improve our collective experience of life in the 21st century.

For me, there’s Women’s Centers Movement.  It’s necessary we do what we can.

Kenya on my mind

Reflections on my time here in Kenya:

Nairobi on the cheap is less than fun but tolerable.  The city is all noise and hard surfaces; dust constantly swept and wiped, glass seldom clear, lighting never kind, no trash cans (which explains the mess on the streets), and drivers executing terrifying maneuvers. This is the part I’ve experienced. Outside city center, the lush amazing Kenya asserts itself.  For better or worse, Kenyans seem to adore and emulate things American.  T-shirts emblazoned with logos from Michigan State, Detroit, Arizona, etc. Rap music. I’ve seen vegan items on menus! Giant commercial vibrating signs a la Times Square.

Since my arrival, I’ve fretted about Baraka Women’s Center’s future.  It serves a large population of women who really need a safe place to learn and grow. Too many women – increasingly the younger ones – are lost and alone until they find Baraka Center. Mary, an older woman who joined seven years ago, came to see me.  She reminded me that had learned to read at the Center.  Over recent years, she’d lost her husband and two children.  She stays with a sister who recently had back surgery, making Mary somewhat of a caretaker.  She told me feels alone and troubled – except when she’s at Baraka Center. She wept when I gave her the equivalent of $5 to afford regular matatu fares to keep coming to the Center.

A recent dearth of funding has severely limited BWC’s ability to fully deploy programs. A mere $2,900 would completely equip the entire vocational training program and the computer lab, which SO needs a new printer and at least three new computers. Lucky for us, a potential new partner has arrived.

I flew to Kisumu yesterday with Peter Ndier, Founder and Chairman of SOWO, an NGO with programs similar to those of Baraka Center.  Kisumu is a mid-sized town northwest of Nairobi on stunning Lake Victoria.  An open, human-scale country town much less frantic than Nairobi.  We visited SOWO’s projects in Kogelo and Siaya.  A soap-making enterprise branded LASH, for which the new county governor provided a pricey mixing machine. Nearby,  a tidy compound with  a large meeting room, an immaculate well-equipped office, two large classrooms, one for tailoring and one for hair and beauty skills training.  And a row of dukas (small shops) where women display and sell their crafts.

There we saw what Baraka Center aspires to be and could become – if not constrained by the realities of the big city, with its indifferent politicians and slum-lord property management style. A beautiful place of its own.

Susan Jane with Mama Sarah
Me with Jane K and Mama Sarah Obama in Siaya, Kenya

SOWO’s guiding light is Mama Sarah Obama, the 97-year-old matriarch of the clan that produced our former President.  Barak is her grandson.  Mama Sarah is a gracious lady with a ready sense of humor; she’s nurtured by extended family who reside in a peaceful compound with fruit trees and a half-dozen cows grazing the well-tended grounds. She charmed me.

SOWO is interested in partnering with WCI and BWC in creating more Women’s Centers in Kenya. (Our vision for some time now!) The exact mechanism is yet to be worked out, but a great opportunity has been presented.  We’ve also made new connections with USAID Kenya and UN Women.  BWC has three new well-connected members who are passionate about the mission.

On balance, my work here of reviewing and connecting has been a success – with much follow-up to be done. Wheels up in about  eight hours for the 20-hour flights home.

Support Women’s Centers International!

 

Trouble Ahead, the Movement Behind

I have it from a number of reliable sources: Trouble Ahead: Dangerous Missions with Desperate People is a fascinating read.

I’m a fairly harsh judge of my own work, but I’m proud of this book because it’s so … different.  How many people do you  know who’ve worked in Darfur during the genocide,  visited a half-dozen slums in Nairobi, Kenya, and braved the incendiary politics of Oakland CA, to bring safety and respite and tools to women excluded from the wealth of their communities.  This is the history of Women’s Centers International and the Women’s Centers Movement –– living, breathing stories of unusual and compelling people and events.

3D-cover

Buy HERE. I’ll love you best if you leave a review.

The work is not a ‘noble’ undertaking or a ’cause’.  It is necessary initiative. How long will you hesitate to jump in bringing on the full power of women who’ve been excluded?

We’re certain of this path, but we need more allies:  Board members and, as always, donations – preferably with at least three zeros following the first digit(s).

The work cost money; it’s time we respond with our wallets to the reality that women are assets requiring investment. And so are we.  Support WCI today.