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.

Inertial Navigation for Life

Building a life in early 21st century seems to come down to the on-board navigation systems we inherit via a series of dice rolls:  the chance of surviving our birth, in the place of our birth, in the technology created in the last 100 years. Most of us had no conscious choice regarding any of these, yet they determine the opportunities and obstacles that make us who we become.

Cultural traditions, the wisdom, pain, courage, and stupidity of all previous generations of our bloodline make up our inheritance. They enhance or limit our exposure to education and income-generating know-how. They determine where we live, how healthy we are, and if we feel safe in our neighborhood.

A life navigation system is what we grasp for. Consider the Inertial Navigation System (INS) used in the maritime and aviation worlds. INS uses a computer integrated with motion sensors and rotation sensors to calculate continuously the position, orientation, and velocity of moving objects.

Think of our personal INS components as Mind (the thought integrator), Body (motion/cues sensors), and Spirit (rotation (upset) sensor.)  All of them give us the opportunity to make sense of the people and opportunities moving, at overwhelm speed, through our lives. We’ve got a lot to track. If our baseline INS was set among abusive, drug dependent, angry, depressed people, we’ve got a very limited view of human potential and a major navigation disability to dig out of. The earlier, the better. Because, if we carry the INS analogy a step further, the really scary part shows up.

INS uses dead reckoning – a process of estimating the value of any variable relative to an earlier value, then adding whatever changes have occurred in the meantime.  The rub: errors are cumulative

The process of setting a child’s so-called ‘moral compass’– the values by which to live – is easily neglected and highly susceptible to twisted malpractice based on their parents’ crappy dice rolls.

Parenting is about teaching, in word and deed, a style of interpersonal behavior that enables a child to succeed in this world, and in the world we wish to create for them out of the current mess.

Fairness or injustice; compassion or indifference, generosity or greed; humility or arrogance, courage to change or fear of change. Never easy values to sort out. But what of those who never got well ‘set’ in the early goings?

If by age of five, a child has experienced only chaotic, negative relationships – and thus has seldom been assured of their intrinsic worth as a human being – their estimate of ‘position’ in the world has accumulated an egregious number of errors.

How do we course correct? We direct our best energy and resources to the elevation of women, particularly those denied early access to adept parenting and with a keen ability to survive.

Women will always be the best change agents. We know how to clean up a mess. And we know how to ennoble love.

These have always been the guiding values of Women’s Centers.

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.”

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.

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Source: Women Deliver