How Susan Blaustein Found Her Path to Empowering Women Globally

In the U.S and abroad, Dr. Susan M. Blaustein has helped women partner for gender equality through the nonprofit WomenStrong International.

Vital work being done domestically and internationally in the name of gender equality has come from a prolific nonprofit called WomenStrong International. Founded and directed by Susan Blaustein, the organization was an outgrowth of the Millennium Cities Initiative, a program Dr. Blaustein led for more than a decade at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. 

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Susan Blaustein, Founder of WomenStrong (Image credit: WomenStrong)

Since its 2015 inception, WomenStrong International has grown steadily in size and scope and now has 18 partner organizations across 15 different countries.  These partners include organizations as various and farflung as the Women’s Justice Initiative in Guatemala, Black Women’s Blueprint in the US, and Roots of Health in the Philippines.

Blaustein’s own experiences in academia and as an on-the-ground reporter inform her work at WomenStrong. After an early career as a composer and in teaching music at Columbia, Blaustein describes being “jolted from my ivory tower” by her immersion in Manila, where she fulfilled a Guggenheim Fellowship and her husband opened National Public Radio’s first Asia bureau. Across southeast Asia and then back in the U.S., she spent time reporting in low-income urban communities and discovered her passion for telling the stories of those battling extreme poverty and injustice.

The WomenStrong Approach to Grassroots Organizing

WomenStrong’s grantee partners work in four main areas central to the advancement of women and girls: girl’s education and empowerment, women’s health, preventing violence against women and girls and economic security and opportunity.  To further progress in each of these areas, WomenStrong International takes a multi-pronged approach. First, the non-profit private operating foundation finds and funds women-led grassroots organizations to carry out projects in one of these focus areas. WomenStrong then supports its partners with technical assistance and organizational strengthening, and brings them together in a Learning Lab, where they can share what works, learn from each other, and disseminate their findings to a wider audience. 

Capacity-building and technical support may take the form of online webinars, resource-sharing, or individual technical assistance from WomenStrong staff or other Learning Lab partners. Topics range from engaging fathers in supporting their daughters’ education, to sharing vital violence-prevention information with at-risk women during COVID-related shutdowns, to strategies for self-care. 

As Blaustein describes their work, “At WomenStrong, we believe that local women-led organizations are best positioned to hear what the women and girls in their communities need and to know how to meet those needs. Bringing these brilliant women leaders together enables them to share their expertise and experience and to learn from each other, thereby furthering their organizations’ effectiveness and strengthening their collective voice in advancing the rights and well-being of women and girls.” 

Learning Lab Fosters Community Between Women Leaders

The Learning Lab partners, located in urban settings from Afghanistan to Madagascar to Mali to Mexico to Michigan, collectively pool their experiences, resources, ideas, and the new opportunities and strategies they may encounter or create. This reciprocal process allows for every person involved to learn from each other, allowing for the development of more effective problem-solving and stronger community ties. As the best teachers about their own experience, these women leaders are eager to share in the Learning Lab, where what they learn from each other can prove integral to properly assessing and addressing some of the challenges faced by women and girls in their own communities, as well as issues they may face as small, women-led non-profits. 

Dr. Blaustein’s Leadership Role at WomenStrong

Dr. Blaustein was able to use her earlier life experiences to inform her approach as the leader of WomenStrong. In her roles as a reporter and then as senior consultant and analyst for the International Crisis Group and the Coalition of International Justice, Dr. Blaustein developed a deep appreciation for the value of deeply informed, community-led programming in tackling profound injustice. Through the Millennium Cities Initiative, Dr. Blaustein repeatedly witnessed how powerful women leaders leverage local expertise to help jumpstart sustainable urban development in cities across the sub-Saharan region, including by raising the voices of the most vulnerable. At WomenStrong, this prior experience became “company policy:” the real experts — local women leaders who know best what their communities need – are the ones to set the agenda.

Time for Women Donors to Activate

Dr. Blaustein sees more opportunities than ever for women donors and their allies to push for gender justice. “At this critical moment, women in philanthropy have the chance to completely change the game — by trusting grassroots women’s organizations to deliver for their communities, and by coming together to invest boldly in compelling strategies for achieving true gender justice, here and across the globe,” she said.

WomenStrong International and Dr. Blaustein are helping to bridge connections across the globe so that women in all communities can learn about gender equity and become active in their own communities. These communities are benefiting by having more women-led organizations doing grassroots organizing for women’s empowerment. 

Learn more about Susan Blaustein and WomenStrong International at WomenStrong.org

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Author: Kimberly Pike

Kimberly Pike is a writer, artist and self proclaimed cat lady living in Rhode Island. She is passionately writing about women's issues and helping to teach others about it.

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