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.

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

$$$$

I think about money a lot – mainly because I have nearly 450 people depending on me.

Even through I’m 10,000 miles away from Baraka Women’s Center in Nairobi, I know intimately what extraordinary progress has been made in just 8 months.

Chief among them is the resurrection of hope, the increasingly joyful belief that, given a small hand-up, these women will turn their lives out of poverty.

 They depend one me because I deliver what money I can shake out of America’s prosperity tree. WCI pays for a safe space for their Center, notebooks, textbooks, pencils, pitifully small salaries to dedicated staff, and fees for teachers and trainers.  I need about $6,000 a month to elevate the prospects of 464 women. It’s gonna take about 3 more months before the big grant money shows up.  So getting through the summer is my challenge. 

I know there’s lots of money “out there.” I’m looking for allies to help me secure it.

Is that you?   

Making Connections

So, a bit of PR is good.  http://www.encore.org/learn/who-won-encore-career

At some point this blurb will also show up on PBS’s Next Avenue.

I believe that when you do the thing that is your purpose in life – as Women’s Centers International is for me – the people you need to know, the  “mutual aid society” for marching further along your intersecting paths – tend to show up. The connections are unpredictable, serendipitous, and vulnerable to the possibility that either party may not recognize the gift that has been given.

While i find a certain delight in the process, I also get impatient. Warrior women…we’ve got a big job to do and, at this moment, I need a genius or two. Fierce fundraising for WCI is what I have in mind.