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.

Movin’ on Up

A month ago, WCI received a substantial donation that allows us stable and effective operation of Oakland Women’s Center for maybe a year, if we play our cards well.

This means we get to move to a higher level of service to women. It’s invigorating to have the resource to execute a passionate vision.

So much to do. Just fabulous!



In the past few years, the process of applying for grants has gone online. This probably makes it easier for those with money to give. I spend hours completing the so-called Letters of Intent (LOIs). A bunch of fussy boxes measuring information in words, or worse, in characters. The questions vary in character and order, making each new application a re-think of wherever I’m planning to do. The field of supplicants grows exponentially. What are the chances when one competes with 649 others for a depressingly small amount of money?
I’ve gotten well practiced in this process but it occurs to me that the very people who would benefit most from a cash infusion have limited, expensive access to the Internet. Their groups have no web presence. Their facility with English may be limited. What they have is rare passion and local orientation for assisting people whose circumstances are unimaginably bleak and invisible to many perusing grant applications. I’m thinking of the half-dozen people from far-flung, generally impoverished places who’ve emailed me requesting help to set up a Women’s Center in their communities. I would love to engage immediately. Indeed it is the mission of WCI. But I struggle to keep my own young organization afloat.
This takes me to the phenomenon of moving people to act – to contribute. I frame WCI’s work not as ‘charity’ but as the necessary re-allocation of resources to those whose talents – possibly world-changing – are shrouded in the dust of poverty. What would it be like for them to stand in the sun of prosperity? What great genius would be unleashed to alter, for millions, the current stacked deck of opportunity?
One of the biggest challenges of working with women living in poverty is promoting a mindset that sees beyond it. On the face if it, one might assume they have nothing to lose and nothing to take them forward. But these women have children, and what they have to lose is their future. It’s a powerful motivator for change.
At Baraka Women’s Center, we worked through the initial jostling for attention and clannishness inherent in new groups. It took over a year but then the magic rose up. They saw common ground. They found relief in sisterly support. The group mattered to them. It made them stronger, more willing to risk learning and the hard changes new information demanded. I believe in the power that emerges in groups of women. It a singular gift that requires nurturing from anyone who imagines a humane world order defined and fostered by women.
So I keep in my mind a bit of wisdom from Harriet Beecher Stowe: “When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” Every day brings breakthroughs in persistence.

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.

Kinshasa girls

An article posted on http://www.plusnews.org/ got me to thinking about the plight of teenagers in urban environments, and about a more expansive definition of the purpose of a Women’s Center.

The following are excerpts from the article:

KINSHASA, 8 May 2012

Sarah, 16, started sleeping on the streets of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic republic of Congo (DRC), when she was only eight years old. She doesn’t remember how she came to live on the streets, but thinks it was soon after her mother died.

Sarah is one of an estimated 20,000 children living rough on Kinshasa’s streets, many from homes too poor to feed them, some after being thrown out of their homes because they were accused of sorcery, while others end up on the streets as a result of the divorce and remarriage of a parent whose new partner won’t accept them. According to NGOs, about  one-third of these children are girls, and around 80 percent of girls on the street make a living from sex.

“Some men take you by force, and if you scream for help they beat you,” Sarah told IRIN/PlusNews. “Younger girls can be taken advantage of and get only about US$1 for sex, but if you negotiate, you can get $10 for one whole night… sometimes you go to a hotel, sometimes you just find a dark place to do it.”

Sarah’s face and arms are marked by scars from a fight with a group of girls who cut her with a razor. “When it’s night you have to find somewhere to sleep. If it rains, your usual place may be flooded, and we’re always running from the police,” she said. “If you have no money and have to borrow some to eat, you will pay forever, because a debt on the street is never finished.”

Girls regularly experience violence, but help for street children, particularly girls, is very limited….Many of these girls are raped as often as twice a week, so rape becomes the norm, and they survive by building a wall between themselves and their bodies. … Rape is one of the rituals girls go through when being initiated into sex work on the street, usually supervised by an older girl known as a ‘yaya’, or older sister.

And this telling comment from the director of one drop-in support center:  “We can’t tell them to stop sex work because we can’t give them an alternative [emphasis mine] – what we can do is give them condoms and contraception to prevent disease and unwanted pregnancy, but we can’t judge or moralize about their situation.”   

 As Women’s Centers International grows beyond IDP camps into urban environments, it will champion and create options for girls who’ve been thrust into the most demeaning activity a woman can endure. A girl/ women earning money without abandoning her soul is the first step to unleashing her power. From this, the inherent genius of girls begins to flow through the community.

So much need. WCI needs funding to grow!