In the Womb, Together

All of creation is groaning and in pain, like a woman about to give birth.
~ adapted from Romans 8:22

Here where I live outside of Boston, most of us are about one month into our self-isolation. As the exponential curve of this global pandemic slowly, eerily touches every corner of our planet and every facet of our lives, a collective rug is being pulled out from underneath our settled ways, systems, taken-for-granted institutions, beliefs, and moment-to-moment expectations which shape how we each make our way through a day. 

I am honored to add my voice to this special COVID-19 series hosted by Philanthropy Women, together musing on what implications this global pandemic has for feminist philanthropy and all who are working for justice, human betterment and a more sustainable way of living together on this planet. As every one of these writers describes, though we wish we could banish this virus from our planet, collective change has been unfolding right before our eyes.

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Encircling Our World’s Gender Pain: Reflections of a Donor Activist

Donor Activist Emily Nielsen Jones, right, holds hands with Michele Breene, Philbert Karisa, and Mangesh Pol of her home group, during the Gender Equity and Reconciliation International retreat held in May of 2018 at the Warren Conference Center and Inn in Framingham, MA.

While #MeToo revelations continue to roil the globe, what can we all do in our own sandboxes to say #TimesUp? How can we do work in our own lives that gets at not only the more egregious forms of relational abuse, but also at all the layers of harmful gender dynamics—psychological, social, relational, institutional, and yes spiritual—which create the conditions where abuse happens?

These are questions that gripped my mind and heart, and led me to help organize and participate in two “gender reconciliation” retreats, one in Seattle and one in Boston. The retreats were led by an incredible set of facilitators who are part of a global movement called Gender Equity and Reconciliation International (GERI) that aims to heal the deeper roots of our world’s gender wounds, one circle at a time.

I don’t know how many #MeToo stories you have read, but it is in the heartbreaking details that we find evidence of the “damaging relational dynamic” (to quote speaker Beth Moore in A Letter To My Brothers) of patriarchy. The details of #MeToo stories often reveal more subtle psychological, social, and even spiritual layers of male presumption which create a harmful consolidation of power and honor around a few “great men.”  These men are granted excessive sexual and social latitude, making it hard for women to be equally honored and valued.

My gender story is not one that contains abuse, so I went into these gender equity retreats thinking I was there mostly to listen and hold other people’s stories. But just as happened in the Seattle retreat, at the Framingham retreat, I was again able to see how my own gender journey resonated with and became part of a larger tapestry of gender wound stories. 

There were tears shed over the course of the three days, but there was much laughter too, like when I shared a story in my home group that involved a ski boat, and which captured vividly one of my early life gender wounds. After I shared my ski boat story, my Rwandan brother shared about some of the gender issues he encountered growing up for 18 years in a refugee camp in Burundi.  Then my Indian brother shared about growing up as an untouchable.  We all let out a howl of laughter after they shared, noticing that if I had not gone first, I probably would not have shared a story about a ski boat! 

So how do we deal with all of the gender pain that exists in the many layers that created all the heartbreaking #MeToo stories? And how do we move forward and become better humans together?

There are many answers to this question, but one very basic way forward is to do what our human ancestors used to do when they didn’t have so many diversions: sit together in a circle. It’s almost like we have to go back to “rug time” where we sat in circles in kindergarten and nursery school. In these circles, we learned the basics of the give and take of how to be in social settings together. Sitting in a circle gives a social gathering a sacred quality that connotes we are all interconnected; we are part of a larger whole.

Sitting in a circle at the Gender Equity and Reconciliation International retreat.

When we first gathered at the beginning of the three-day retreat in Framingham, the circle of 48 felt a bit stilted and formal since it was so big. What an interesting variety we had around this circle—a potpourri of evangelical pastors from the Boston area, some earthy crunchy types from Western MA, a few Buddhists, a Muslim, a few non-religious, lots of gender equality activists, men and women of all ages and stages, two openly gay men, one openly gay woman, two people from India, and one man from Rwanda who is leading a post-genocide reconciliation ministry there. All of this human diversity in one large circle gathered to hear and feel and in some way heal one another’s gender wounds — a tall task, but one we took on with open hearts. Over the course of three days as we broke into smaller circles and shared our stories, it felt like my own heart opened as I watched other hearts opening, forming a collective heart.

“You gotta feel it to heal it.” I don’t know who said it first, but it is so true. If we don’t tend to our pain, it doesn’t vanish — it just goes underground. To heal a relational wound, you need to allow yourself to feel it. And you can’t short-circuit this healing process. It happens in its own time and in different ways. There is a role for doing this alone in a therapeutic setting, but the wisdom of the GERI approach is to feel and to heal collectively through a carefully facilitated process involving a liturgy of silence, guided meditations, small group conversations, dance, song, and games.  The retreat is also comprised of rituals choreographed to open the heart bit by bit, not to tell all of the gory details, but simply to be heard and understood. Together, we grow to understand how gender dynamics create emotional wounds, and find ways to turn our own thoughts and behaviors toward healing.

All this is done sitting in circles of deep listening and trust. Throughout our three days, our circle of 48 was subdivided into a mix and match of smaller circles to get everyone talking, moving, sharing and listening together.

Over the course of those three days, it felt like something very sacred happened. In many settings where gender issues come up, conversation quickly turns to debate, but there was not one debate or argument in these circles — only listening to understand one another’s stories. 

Women encircle men during a closing ceremony at the Gender Equity and Reconciliation Initiative retreat in Framingham, MA.

It is not easy to open one’s heart, nor does it happen instantly, but what emerges is well worth the time and trouble to get there. In a way, it felt like we healed an ancient divide, that we got to the deeper root of the problem.  The women talked about feeling heard and understood, having experienced  the kindness and good will of the men who showed up to be allies in the fight for gender equality. The men also spoke of feeling understood as they shared how they too have been harmed by patriarchy. 

As I reflect back on #WeHealTogetherNewEngland, I still carry an embodied feeling of the heart of empathy that emerged like a beautiful weave, story by story, as we sat in sacred circles together. Encircling the pain with love and understanding somehow makes the the bad stuff feel lighter and our mutual longings for a “gender healed world” more in reach.  

Below is one more glimpse of a creation from the retreat — a poem that was written and shared by the men in a closing ceremony honoring the women.

From the Men, Honoring the Women 

Before we were formed in the womb, O God,

You knew us. You knitted us 

together in our mother’s womb.

We honor you as our teachers, 

as our wives, as our daughters,

as our friends … as our mothers.

May we be re-formed together 

in love, knitted together in the strength 

of tenderness, in the power 

of self-giving, in the hope of re-birth.

You have shown us what it means

to be brave and bold, and truthful,

and righteously angry.

We thank you.

Group photo of participants in the Gender Equity and Reconciliation International retreat at the Warren Conference Center in Framingham, MA.


For more on how you can participate in a gender reconciliation circle to do something about the deeper roots that lead to all these #MeToo stories, check out the work of Gender Reconciliation International.

Emily Nielsen Jones is Co-Founder Imago Dei Fund. For reflections about the circle which met in Seattle, gathering 33 leaders of the men’s and women’s movements, read Deep Listening Across the Gender Line.


An Unusual Women’s Giving Circle in Boston Fuels Social Change Globally

I’m With Her: Reboarding the Feminist Train to Build Local and Global Sisterhood

Difficult, Disturbing Times at Oxfam, but Gender Equality Mission EnduresRead More

How Are Women More or Less Free? And What Can We Do About It?

Emily Nielsen Jones, President and C0-Founder of Imago Dei Fund, examines the status of gender equality within the larger context of freedom.

Fourth of July, 2017 came and went, but Lady Liberty’s vigil continues, reminding us of the brave work required in every generation to truly live as a free people.

As we turn the page on the 4th of July this year, report after report like the Freedom in the World 2017 and the 2017 Social Progress Index confirm a feeling in the air today: freedom is not currently advancing but rather is in decline. According to these reports, 2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

“In past years we generally saw declines in freedom among autocracies and dictatorships,” describes Arch Puddington, one of Freedom In the World 2017’s co-authors, “but in 2016 it was established democracies that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks.” The US was among a list of “Free” countries – including Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, and Tunisia – where freedom was found to be in decline as “populist and nationalist forces made significant gains.”

As has been the case in every authoritarian cultural context, a subtext in these reports – and a refrain I have heard over and over again from women’s human rights leaders around the world – is that women and girls have been disproportionately bearing the brunt of freedom’s decline.

We are all in the same boat in freedom’s decline—black, brown, white, male, female and everything in between—and in the work of getting freedom moving forward again. Join us in this two-part post-4th of July reflection and ask yourself how you can be a little more brave, how you can put a little more skin in the game, to get the freedom needle moving forward again for all human beings, in particular the female half of “We the People” who were in fact the longest running group excluded from the ranks of the freeborn here and around the world.

Cross-Posted from Imago Dei Fund’s Inukshuk Blog.

Post #1: Land of the Free, Home of the Brave: Taking Down All “Monuments” to Our Enslaving Past (Not Just Around Race, Gender too)

Post #2: “Women Are The Devil’s Gateway”: Connecting the Historic & Global Dots Between Archaic-sounding “Handmaid’s Tale” Gender Practices Rising Up Around the World and More “Mainstream” Gender “Monuments” that Persist in Our Churches

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How Funding for a New App is Helping Lift Up Communities Around the Globe

Courtenay Cabot Venton, an economist working in global development, helped developed a new app that brings communities together to solve problems.

From Emily: At Imago Dei Fund, we are honored to discover inspiring people with ideas that make cool things happen in the world. One such example is Courtenay Cabot Venton, the author of this post and an economist working in global development, who has spearheaded the development of an app being used around the world through a web of partnerships. This app helps people develop“self help groups” in impoverished places, making use of technology to empower and uplift their members. In many ways, Courtenay’s story of creating this app to empower women shows how the very nature of empowerment is changing. 

I met Meseret for the first time in Nazareth, a town south of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Meseret is a member and leader of a Self Help Group (SHG) approach that I had been asked to evaluate. We were sitting in a small room, rain falling on the tin roof, as she told me about her journey with her SHG. It is a story that will stay with me forever – and inspired me to develop tools that could help to share this approach with as many people as possible.

Self Help Groups (SHGs) are groups of 15-20 people – mostly women – who come together to save, invest in small businesses, and support each other and their communities. By saving together they are able to lend to each other for small business activities. But more importantly, by working collectively, the women feel empowered to create change in their communities. What’s more, the approach tends to go viral once seeded, with existing groups helping to set up new groups.

Determined to do something more, I pulled together a team and we collectively developed an app that would help facilitators to strengthen and spread the Self Help Group model. The app is designed for the facilitators of the groups, and digitizes the weekly content that they use to run a meeting; we could see the potential for an app to help to deepen and strengthen the spread of the approach.

At the time, I had no idea where this would lead, or if we would be successful. With seed funding from private donors, we started small and developed a prototype. That led to catalytic funding from the UK government. Three years in, we have funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a vision for a digital platform to help scale the Self Help Group approach globally.

The Inspiration: Meseret’s Story

Meseret came from a poor family, but they managed to get by. Her parents supported her and her four siblings to go to school, and Meseret had plans to go to university. That all changed when her father unexpectedly died when she was 14. Meseret had to work in the evenings after school to help support her family. Her mother wanted to marry her off to an older, wealthy man, but she resisted and married Belay, her childhood sweetheart, when she was 18.

The next year they had their first child – a daughter named Kalkidan – and moved to Nazareth to find work. They slept on the floor of a rented room. They had no money or food, and Meseret was struggling to nurse their baby. Belay would bring home the lunch that he received at work, and they would share that one meal.

Some of the local women invited Meseret to join their Self Help Group. They were meeting each week and working together to save, start small businesses, and create change in their community. Meseret was skeptical – she was very poor and didn’t see how she could change her life. Nonetheless, she began to save a small amount of money – as small as a few coffee beans a day – and quickly realized that by working together with the women in her group, she was growing in confidence.

When she applied for a local government job – and got it – her husband began to beat her. She was disrupting the traditional role for women, and he didn’t like it. He finally gave her an ultimatum – him or her work. She chose her work. She knew that she deserved to be independent, to honor the education given to her by her parents, and to provide for her children.

Her Self Help Group was her lifeline. Meseret’s savings and income grew, she was able to buy a small house, and send her daughter to school. But more importantly, the women had become her family. When I ask Meseret how long she thinks her Self Help Group will stay together, her first response is a confused expression. Then the smile creeps across her face, and she begins to laugh. “We will be together forever. We are sisters.”

Disrupting traditional approaches to aid

As an economist, I have been asked to evaluate many different types of projects – from water to health to education. And while there has been a lot of success, there has also been a lot of failure.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have been in poor communities around the world, and witnessed perfectly constructed schools, standing out amidst a horizon of mud huts, but with no teachers or teaching materials…

Hospitals with no medical supplies…

Water pumps that are no longer delivering clean water…

The Self Help Group approach instantly caught my attention. It was the first time, ever, that I sat in a village, speaking with a group of people affected by poverty, and not a single person asked me for assistance. Quite the opposite, they were talking over each other, overflowing with examples of the ways that they were creating change in their communities, bursting with ideas for how to do more.

The approach disrupts the ways that we typically provide aid to poor communities. First, it believes in the power of the poor as change agents themselves. It breaks the cycles of dependency that are so rife in many developing countries. Change is truly grassroots, led from the bottom up, as opposed to activities being driven by external agents. And it’s scalable – once seeded, Self Help Groups can become viral, with rapid replication, often growing organically as SHG members from one group seed a new group.

Self Help Groups unleash transformative change. At the heart of the model is a focus on empowerment. Women have worked collectively to stop female genital mutilation, and have run campaigns to ensure that people with HIV/Aids are taking their anti-retrovirals. They have stopped child marriages from taking place, opened preschools, and advocated with local governments. They are driving change in their communities that we could never hope to do from the outside. They are transforming poverty from the inside out.

Building an SHG Digital Platform

When I returned from that first trip to Nazareth, I knew that I wanted to do something to help to bring this approach to more people. I started by talking to as many people as I could about the Self Help Groups, and a partnership started to emerge. Tearfund, the relief and development agency that was implementing the SHG model in Ethiopia, understood how the process worked. One Hen, a US non-profit that works with youth around starting their own businesses, offered to incubate a pilot. Code Innovation, a company that develops technology solutions in developing countries, saw the potential to build an app that would help to strengthen the SHG approach.

I was incredibly lucky that the concept resonated with a couple of private donors – friends of mine who don’t even work in the international development space but could see the potential and had a heart for seeing women empowered.

And so we embarked on building our first iteration. The app focuses on content – it provides a facilitator with the materials that they might need each week as they meet with the Self Help Groups. It gives them games and resources, at their fingertips. While mobile phone use is growing rapidly in developing countries, the cost and availability of data can be a blockage, so the app works entirely offline, making it accessible even in very poor and rural locations.

The first version of the app was enough to catch the attention of the UK Department for International Development (DFID), who gave us catalytic funding to scale our pilot by 1,000%, expanding to Tanzania and adding a new implementing partner. The process is heavily driven by user feedback, and we were able to start to respond to some of the facilitators’ requests by adding in significant amounts of content and functionality.

Last year, the project secured funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We just held a co-creation workshop in Nairobi with 18 implementing partners across Africa and as far afield as Haiti. We have over 200 groups in India who are using the app – despite the fact that we have never seeded nor sensitized any Indian partners.

The journey has been intense. I am so grateful to friends who provided the seed funding at the early stages when I was trying to develop the concept. But it was daunting to accept their funds, knowing that even the best projects can fail. I knew that the project would be far better served by bringing together a group of partner organizations who collectively delivered the expertise that would make this fly. But institutional donors were reluctant, wanting to fund a single dedicated organization – we were lucky to have partners like the Imago Dei Fund who valued our collaborative approach. And navigating the team’s different ideas and ways of working stretched our boundaries repeatedly. The team worked tirelessly, well outside the bounds of our funding, to get this project to each next step.

I am still pinching myself. It is amazing to see a concept grow into something that can help to bring the SHG approach to more and more women, and hopefully strengthen and deepen that process. Every step has felt like a leap of faith – and every step has been worth it.

From Emily: In so many ways, the creation of this app embodies the collective empowerment that so inspired Courtenay when she first heard Meseret’s story. Empowerment comes in many forms but at its core happens by creating vehicles to unleash the human spirit to change the world. You can’t empower someone else – it comes from within each of us but doesn’t happen in isolation. We find strength when we gather together to create a better world. Kudos to the whole team which came together to create this new app! If you want to find out more about Courtenay’s work or reach out to her, you can connect via her website at

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The Circle of Women’s Philanthropy and The Susu: What Goes Around Comes Around

In nature, circles emanate from an invisible source at the center which creates a spiral motion. This spiral creates a pattern of expansion and contraction, as you see in seashells, tornadoes, and in galaxies and throughout the micro and macro designs of our world.

Editor’s Note: This piece is co-authored by Emily Nielsen Jones and Nickey Mais-Nesbeth

Emily: The circle is one of those timeless symbols—one that appears in nature, in mathematics, and in art of all kinds—that says something wise and true about the world. It is also a unique symbol, we think, for what philanthropy is all about.

Philanthropy on one level is about giving money away.  Often if can feel sort of linear and transactional from a top-down grid: people with social capital at the top doling out largesse and using fancy sounding words about “scale” and “strategy” in an attempt to help the needy. But today, a powerful movement is on the rise in philanthropy to leave the pyramid of noblesse oblige in the last century and become more democratic. This new concept is about empowering a community to make change from within. To me, it feels very circular and connective, like the processes of change you see in nature.

In nature, circles emanate from an invisible source at the center which creates a spiral motion. This spiral creates a pattern of expansion and contraction, as you see in seashells, tornadoes, and in galaxies and throughout the micro and macro designs of our world.

So too, every community has within it the seeds of its own growth and empowerment–which are what this new approach to philanthropy/development seeks to unleash. This shift has even penetrated large NGOs that deliver aid around the world.  Alongside or within their regular programming, organizations like World Vision and Opportunity International now center much of their work around small groups of people, often women, gathering in small collectives where they save money to loan to a different member each month, and also support each other in the ups and downs of life (e.g. a wedding or a funeral or death in the family).

I feel grateful to be a part of this shift happening in philanthropy and global development, which some call “community-driven” or “integral” development. Whatever you call it, it feels circular to me and is rooted in the belief that real change happens from an invisible center within communities themselves but that this can and should be supported and catalyzed from outside.

My own philanthropic journey has been part of this shift from top-down “aid” to circular “empowerment” even before I had language to name it.  About eight years ago, my husband and I decided the time was right to ramp up our philanthropy.  We created the Imago Dei Fund by taking a less-traveled path — bucking the professional advice to pick one thing to “do” and build a legacy around. Instead, we followed our intuition and decided to look for movements already happening that seemed worthy of more support and investment.

In many ways, social movements are circular in nature – sometimes you can’t tell where they begin and end and they have a way of growing and expanding in a non-linear fashion beyond any one programmatic silo or sector.  Early on, we jumped on the anti-trafficking train and began engaging globally in faraway places like Southeast Asia and Africa. Very quickly this movement drew us outward (yet inward at the same time) toward the “hidden-in-plain-sight” problem that lurks beneath human trafficking: the ancient subjugation of women and girls which is still idealized and encoded in many of our cultural and religious traditions.

As we supported and engaged with some faith-based organizations in our own evangelical pond, we felt the circular nature of social change acutely.  We saw many great organizations working to rescue girls from brothels in faraway places, yet in their own pews and their own boards, they were still operating from a gender pyramid which marginalizes and devalues women and girls.

We need to not just support change as if we are on the outside of the process as donors, but rather to be part of this change ourselves:  this is the wisdom of the circle.

After a few years, we felt the circle pulling us inward again and and nudging us to attend more to the world in our own backyard: Boston, MA.  In the process, I had the great privilege of meeting Nickey Nesbeth. Though I had lived in Boston for over twenty years, I knew little about the rich cultural tapestry of our city, and Nickey has been something of a gateway for me to learn more about the local/global movements in my own city. Every connection one makes expands one’s circle, and Nickey has truly been a force of nature in helping me expand my understanding and connection to diverse women’s groups in Boston.

Nickey Mais-Nesbeth, Founder and Executive Director, Caribbean Youth Club:

Nickey: When Emily and I met each other, we quickly bonded over our shared lament about the state of our world’s gender norms—which are still geared toward female submission, even in the 21st century. Despite these challenges, we marveled over how women have always found ways to progress through their own support circles.

These circles facilitated my grandmother’s emigration from Jamaica in 1968. She was co-sponsored by a group of women who helped pay for her passage abroad through their “Susu”— A 400-year-old Afro-Caribbean women’s micro-financing tradition. My grandmother, along with many other Afro-Caribbean women, immigrated to work as housekeepers for wealthy Americans. She later joined a circle of Caribbean immigrant women in Boston and once again, created a new women’s support circle and started their own Susu, to gather the funds needed to pay their children’s passages to America, reuniting their families against tough odds.

Using funds from her Susu, my grandmother later co-sponsored my passage to America, where I was able to complete high school, graduate from college, and build a career giving back to my community. As my grandmother did, I also found myself in various women’s giving circles,  all geared towards one thing: lifting up women and girls.

In these circles, Emily and I found shared experiences as women of faith, seeking to create a more just world. A larger circle began forming around us, which has been expanding and building bridges across the challenging divides of race and ethnicity.  It is a longer story than we can tell here, but my women’s network in Boston helped open doors for the Imago Dei Fund to get to know and support ethnic-based organizations that empower women and girls in our own communities.

Many women and girls in ethnic communities have the double burden of living with highly patriarchal gender norms and being immigrants, both of which create barriers to opportunity. However, these women and girls persist in their collective agency. They find ways to build new support circles and raise the financial capital they need to start businesses, sponsor relatives’ travel to America, and engage in charitable efforts in their homelands, thus carrying on our centuries-old system of collective impact.

Emily: In a recent conversation, we were talking about women’s giving circles — I am helping to start one here in Boston within the New England International Donor Network — which are a driving force within the larger women’s philanthropy movement.  In giving circles, women across the economic continuum come together in living rooms and board rooms to connect, to learn, and to pool resources for greater impact in the world, often targeted toward empowering women and girls.  As we were talking, Nickey paused and said, “Women in my culture have been doing this for centuries. It’s called a Susu.”

Wikipedia explains:

A Susu is an informal means of collecting and saving money through a savings club or partnership, practiced throughout Africa and the Caribbean. [...] The concept of a susu is used throughout the world and has over 200 different names that vary from country to country.The name is from the Susu from the Twi language to mean 'plan'. The funds are generally gathered with a set amount contributed from family or friends each week. An estimated three quarters of Jamaican immigrants in New York participated in susus during the 1980s.

And so too, in many part of the world, women can be found gathering under a tree, in a storefront, in a board room, or in each other’s living rooms to support one another.

Women continue to come together in sisterhood, to give back to their communities, to start businesses and social ventures, often in highly patriarchal cultures. In these cultures, women are not seen as co-owners of wealth, and in many places still cannot open a bank account.

Philanthropy as a circle. Women in one corner of the world rising up and coming together in circles to support women in another part of the world who are also coming together. What goes around comes around, a virtuous, ever-enlarging spiritual circle coming together to uplift and empower daughters, sisters, and mothers.

Women gathering and enjoying each other’s company at Eritrean Woman Day 2017 in Boston.

Nickey: Here is a beautiful picture of the circular nature of the Susu:  Through our relationship, I introduced Emily’s foundation to an Eritrean Women’s Group here in Boston. Women in this group are navigating the challenges of leaving their home and facing racial and gender discrimination, yet they are ever-mindful of the needs back home.  In their circle, they have raised enough money to build two women’s centers back home.

The Women’s Training Center in Senafe, Eritrea.

The Women’s Training Center in Senafe, Eritrea is one of 6 built nationwide, which includes 13 rooms for computer training, weaving and other vocational activities. The center is a contribution of Eritrean women living abroad, using the Susu to fund the advancement of women in different cities across their native country.

Find some friends and start a Susu, or join one that is already going on.  Connect hand and heart (and purses) to expand this ancient circle of love and solidarity. More than ever this circle needs all of us, in order to relieve the burden of gender inequality that falls so heavily on the shoulders of girls and women.

The message of the circle is that what goes around comes around. What we give we receive back in countless dividends, seen and unseen.  We cannot “raise” or “empower” someone else from on high.  My own empowerment and wellbeing is bound up in yours.

“When we raise Her, we raise ourselves.
When we raise ourselves, we raise Her.”
~ Asphodel P. Long

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Challenging Norms and Beliefs with Gender-Lens Grantmaking

Illustration by Pierluigi Longo.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review and is co-authored by Emily Nielsen Jones, Musimbi Kanyoro & Neera Nundy. 

Philanthropists and for-profit investors are increasingly using a gender lens to screen opportunities for funding social change as awareness of the need continues to grow. Funders now take it for granted that empowering women is a linchpin of global advancement. Yet report cards marking the 20th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995—a blueprint created by 189 governments for advancing women’s rights in 12 areas—show that progress toward gender equality has been painfully slow.

The most shocking indicator revealed that global rates of gender based violence—which the World Health Organization estimates affects about one in three women—have remained unchanged over the past 20 years despite billions of dollars in private and public investment to combat it. Gender-based violence is just one indicator, but it is both a proxy for stalled progress on multiple fronts and testimony to one of the most stubborn obstacles to bettering women’s lives: the persistence of both conscious and subconscious beliefs and norms that sanction an imbalance of power between men and women and foster conditions that inflame violence.

It is harder to change what happens behind the closed doors of huts and homes than it is to help a woman open a savings account or apply for a microfinance loan. This suggests that funders must begin looking beyond efforts at redress, mitigation, or even women’s empowerment—though these are still sorely needed—to more directly fund efforts to reexamine and transform the underlying norms and beliefs that disempower females.

Norms and Beliefs—the Elephant in the Room

Despite variety across cultures, social norms and beliefs that justify the subjugation of women and girls are remarkably similar across the globe. A 2001-2007 UNICEF survey of household attitudes toward domestic violence in 67 countries found that roughly half of female respondents believed that violence is justified to enforce a husband’s “authority” in the household. In India, 47 percent of the women surveyed expressed such a belief. Among boys and men in India, 42 percent consider a husband to be justified in hitting or beating his wife for, among other things, burning the food, arguing with him, or going out without telling him.

How can empowerment programs help someone whose culture and religion deny her the right or even the basic human capacity to participate equally in her family, her community, and other aspects of society? This is the “elephant in the room” that philanthropists must address to improve the world’s truly dismal record on gender-based violence, discrimination, and disempowerment.

Taking on the elephant in the room does not simply mean providing the same programs and opportunities for women and men—gender neutrality. Rather, gender equity is about creating transformative opportunities targeted at the specific, and sometimes different, needs of men and women. This approach requires changing norms and beliefs by supporting grassroots change agents working toward equity from within their own cultural and religious contexts.

Bringing Men into the Gender Lens

As difficult as this task is, more and more philanthropists and NGOs are trying to find culturally appropriate, transformative ways to address the gender-based beliefs and social norms that are undermining humanitarian progress. Some global development organizations, like Tostan, Beyond Borders, and World Vision International, are finding paths to change these harmful gender norms. Importantly, their work includes reaching out to men as well as women to identify and foster solutions.

World Vision’s Channels of Hope for Gender program, for example, explores gender identities, norms, and values from a faith perspective in countries around the globe. The program challenges faith leaders to acknowledge and act upon gender injustices in their communities. One man newly participating in Channels of Hope asked: “But if I love my wife and my children, isn’t it my role to discipline them?” He was participating in an open-minded conversation that constitutes the first step of the program, designed to create a safe space for men and women to open their minds and hearts to how they treat each other.

Meanwhile, a participant in Beyond Borders’ Rethinking Power program in Haiti says that as a result of community-based dialogue around gender roles and norms, he no longer sees men publicly hitting their wives in his community, and that people have started to intervene when they hear things that sound like domestic violence behind closed doors.

As these examples show, applying a gender lens to grantmaking means taking the needs of women and men into account. Think of a gender lens as putting on spectacles. Out of one lens you see the participation, needs, and realities of women. Out of the other lens, you see the participation, needs, and realities of men. Your vision is optimal only when it combines the two. “If we don’t start to work with men, we might still be here in another 25 years,” says Will Muir, cofounder and director of the India-based Equal Community Foundation.

A recent white paper on gender equality in India, Ladies and Gentle Men, concurs, noting that if gender norms are at the root of unequal treatment of women, then men—who in most traditional societies are the gatekeepers of these norms—must be enlisted as role models of change and advocates of gender equality. This means that men (and boys) must be approached as partners rather than as perpetrators, an approach that has the advantage not only of being strategically smart but also of recognizing the ways in which men as well as women are prevented from realizing their full human and social potential by the strictures of patriarchal cultures.

Taking on the Norms

How exactly can funders go about addressing the norms and beliefs that are the root causes of gender-based violence, discrimination, and oppression in so many places in the world? The first step is to be clear about what a strategy that aims to change norms and beliefs actually entails.

Consider a hypothetical example described in Insight: Why Grant-Making in India Needs a Gender Lens, a paper published by Dasra, an Indian strategic philanthropy foundation. A funder decides to pay for the renovation of a secondary school building in India to help restart a defunct coeducation program in a region where student attendance is low. The renovation transforms what had been a typically dreary and uninviting government school building into a well-built and colorful structure with a playground and well-lit classrooms filled with pictures, maps, and books. As a result, overall student attendance increases. Yet the attendance data show that far fewer girls than boys are attending. A gender-lens analysis of school attendance reveals several reasons for this disparity:

  • A majority of the girls in the target region perform household chores in the morning, which makes the school hours of 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. unsuitable for them.
  • The absence of a separate toilet for girls (with access to sanitary materials) in the school building makes it challenging for menstruating girls to manage their periods, forcing them to remain absent for some part of each month.
  • Lack of a safe mode of transportation to and from the school makes families hesitant to send girls there.

While the gender bias inherent in the renovation program is obvious, what may not be so clear is how the situation should be remedied. Here it is useful to consider the Gender Continuum framework developed by the Interagency Gender Working Group, for use in applying a gender lens to development projects. The continuum of possible responses revealed by a gender aware framing ranges from actively reinforcing gender imbalances (“exploitative”) to merely accommodating them (“accommodating”) to attempting to transform them (“transformative”).

The difference between the accommodating and the transformative approaches is that the first accepts and works around gender inequalities, while the second seeks to examine and change the norms and beliefs underlying them.

To return to our example of the school renovation, an accommodating approach to improving attendance among girls might mean changing the school’s hours from morning to afternoon to work around the expectation that girls stay home to help with household chores earlier in the day. While this might help get girls to school, it would not challenge the norm by which girls, but not boys, bear responsibility for household chores. The transformative solution lies in changing the norms and beliefs that demean and disempower girls and women in the first place.

It is not our place as outsiders to come in and try to change someone else’s cultural beliefs. But if that’s the case, what role could philanthropists play in freeing women and girls (and men and boys) from oppressive gender norms and beliefs? Grantmakers certainly need to tread lightly onto the culturally and religiously sensitive terrain of changing social norms. Yet it is also possible to respect the sovereignty of other cultures and religions while finding ways to fund and empower grassroots change agents working from within their own cultural and religious contexts to transform gender beliefs and norms. As difficult as this balance is, more and more philanthropists and NGOs are trying to find culturally appropriate, transformative ways to address the beliefs and social norms that are undermining humanitarian progress.

Funding Indigenous Gender-Norm Entrepreneurs

Macro-change happens within the microcosm of myriad individual hearts and minds. There is no way to artificially speed up this slow, very human process of change. That’s why it can be extremely challenging to fund this type of social transformation. Nonetheless, our work, and our observations of the experiences of NGOs that are engaging in this work, suggest three clear ways in which grantmakers can support like-minded organizations.

Fund “bell ringers,” the grassroots women’s rights organizations that are today’s pioneers. Every social movement has its “bell ringers” who wake people up to the existence of a problem. Think of 19th-century American reformers such as Sojourner Truth, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery and equality for women, or Susan B. Anthony, who fought for women’s suffrage. Even in the most patriarchal societies, there are grassroots women’s organizations leading their own women’s movements. Many are fledgling entities run by passionate and brave women who put their own lives on the line to advocate for equality and safety for girls and women.

One such organization in India is Jagori, which means “Awaken, women!” in Hindi. Jagori is a women’s training and resource center whose mission is “to deepen feminist consciousness with diverse partners at local and national levels.” The organization offers a variety of services, including training programs that provide young women and young men with analytical tools and handson support for working to end violence against women. Jagori’s other activities include violence intervention programs; a Safe Cities Initiative to make Indian urban areas safer for women and more gender inclusive; support for women’s leadership in local communities; and work with men and adolescent boys to redefine “dominant masculinities” and support ending violence against women and girls.

It is not easy to find and fund such grassroots organizations, but one alternative is to donate to women’s funding organizations, such as the Global Fund for Women, that make grants and offer technical assistance to a web of women’s rights groups around the world.

Fund gender equality “mainstreamers”— reflective, dialogue- based programs that engage community and religious leaders in community-driven change around gender practices. If you can’t talk about the way things are, you can’t fix them. Women and men alike need safe spaces—for their own genders and for dialogue between the genders—to open their minds and hearts to one another about how their society’s rules affect them and their relationships.

Religion often serves as the social sanction for gender practices that subjugate women and girls. Yet faith also has the capacity to support human equality and a commitment to shared human rights for all, which means that in some societies and communities religious leaders can play an important role in supporting necessary dialogue. The Indian NGO Action against Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation of Children (ATSEC) runs a program called the Inter-Religious Priests’ Forum that brings clergy from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity together to take action against human trafficking.

Forum members have now moved on from advocacy to intervention. For example, one maulana (a term used in South Asia to address or refer to a Muslim religious scholar) in Kishanganj, Bihar, began speaking out against trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation before Friday prayers in his mosque. Since then he has prohibited child marriages in Kishanganj, urged people to be alert to fake marriages and other means of providing cover for traffickers, and persuaded families to take back children rescued from trafficking.

In most of rural India, community leaders have more sway than religious ones. Members of the panchayats, or village councils, for example, are elected by their communities and make important decisions about a range of issues, such as school construction and sanitation, that can effect gender equality. These people are enormously influential in setting local norms. An effort that taps this influence is a partnership between the Grammen Vikas Jan Sahbhagita Trust, Jaunpur, and the Ujala Welfare Society that engages local leaders to increase awareness among men and boys about gender norms. The partnership offers workshops on topics ranging from the role of men in caregiving to violence against women.4
Fund “institutional disrupters”—indigenous social entrepreneurs who are starting new kinds of enterprises or infusing existing organizations with an ethic of shared leadership between men and women.

These change agents—individuals and organizations— are responding to the degradation of women with a passionate determination not just to alleviate suffering but also to transform the beliefs and ideology that sanction and normalize an imbalance of power between men and women. They are doing what entities such as the World Bank and the UN cannot do: disrupting norms from the inside out, creating the ripples of change at the micro level that are foundational to any macro-level change.

One such institutional disrupter is the Indian NGO Prajwala (a common girl’s name in Hindi meaning “eternal flame”), which combats sex trafficking and provides rescue, rehabilitation, and reintegration into society for girls and women forced into prostitution. Prajwala was founded in 1996 by Dr. Sunitha Krishnan, a lifelong social activist as well as a survivor of gang rape at age 15, and Brother Jose Vetticatil, a Catholic missionary. The city of Hyderabad, where they launched the organization, is the capital of the coastal Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, one of the largest suppliers of women and children for the global sex trade. (In India alone, more than 200,000 women and children are forced into the sex trade every year.)

One of the most remarkable things about Prajwala is the way in which it disrupts gender norms in its own organization. For example, nearly 70 percent of Prajwala’s team of 200 staff are sex trafficking survivors—meaning that its workforce is predominantly female. Another thing that stands out is the way in which the organization encourages women to lead alongside men and enter domains where they had previously been excluded. Prajwala’s Employability Training Unit works with survivors to identify employment options that are critical for their long-term rehabilitation. It has learned through experience that many female trafficking survivors excel in occupations that are traditionally male bastions, such as cab driving, security, welding, carpentry, and masonry. And if a woman shows an aptitude for entrepreneurship she can be trained in the management of microenterprises.

Prajwala also owns Prajwala Enterprises, a company that makes notebooks, file folders, and pens and pencils, providing trainees with their initial experience in manufacturing. By training and placing women in such jobs, Prajwala not only helps them to become economically independent but also smashes stereotypes about gender and employment.

Tread Carefully Yet Bravely

Philanthropists still need to fund basic aid and relief to girls and women victimized by gender-based crime. We also need to keep funding empowerment programs to give them a hand up. Yet even with the most effective aid and empowerment programs, girls and women can’t win if the rules don’t change.

Private philanthropy has an important role to play in this process. And small foundations may find opportunities to work in tandem with larger players such as the World Bank, the UN, and the Global Fund for Women to support the capacity of the networks of bell-ringers, mainstreamers, and institutional disrupters working to uproot entrenched patriarchal norms. But engaging in this sort of support requires patient capital and a knack for connecting the dots between invisible ideas and more visible problems.

Thankfully, there are an increasing number of social innovators out there to support. And for those organizations slow to recognize the need for a gender lens, funders can ask good questions that encourage grantees to recognize the need for a gender lens in their programming.

As we head into the future, let’s find new inspiration and enlist the assets of philanthropy to invest in the transformation of stubborn—yet mutable—beliefs and norms that impede global progress for women and men alike. Let’s each do our part to make gender equality a lived reality.Read More

I’m With Her: Reboarding the Feminist Train to Build Local and Global Sisterhood

Boarding the Train to the Boston March. Pictured are Emily Nielsen Jones with her sister and two sister-friends.

One of the tricky things about the progression of feminism in America is how it has gone from being a fringe movement to being a taken-for-granted social norm. Because of this, it is easy to forget that gender equality still needs safeguarding.

Women once took to the streets to seek the right to vote and own property, to not be deemed as subordinates, to be treated as full human beings in their own right.

My 80’s wall decor.

Now women have taken to the streets again. It turns out we still need feminism, and this new wave of the movement can hardly be considered fringe. Far outstripping predictions, roughly 1.2 million marchers gathered in Washington, DC and 3 million more in cities and towns across the US. Over 5 million marched together around the world.

Aerial view of the Boston March for America with a decidedly pink hue, drawing in over 200,000 marchers.

There were many factors that  made the women’s march a stunning success:  the incredible organizing of the march leadership, the adept use of social media, and women stepping up to fund behind-the-scenes.

But the real contagion that got millions of us to board crowded buses and trains didn’t happen online or out on the streets. It happened in a tender, heartbroken place inside.

A few highlights of the “Donald Trump” gender norm paraded before us in the long 2016 election – This is NOT what democracy looks like!

From the beginning of the 2016 election season, internal alarm bells rang as I watched the gender issues play out on the national stage.  “Lock her up!”  “Trump that bitch!”  

Thankfully, I have not been alone with experiencing these internal alarm bells. So many of us have had the same alarm bells going off not only in response to unsettling gender dynamics, but also to Trump’s overall psychological instability, flair for demagoguery, and demeaning comments to so many different groups. So much about Donald Trump seems to mock the very fabric and ideals of our democracy.

My Women’s March Signs & Inspiration

As much as I wish the outcome of the election were different, let me go on record saying Thank you Donald Trump for re-awakening the sleeping women’s movement. 

The women’s movement has now been shocked out of dormancy. We now know we still have much work to do to create a world where there is no need for feminism.  Whether the “f” word is used or not, millions have re-boarded the Feminist Train with a reawakened sense of urgency.

Make Way for Ducklings Greeting Marchers in Boston

What was it that got roughly 1% of the American population into the streets on that January Saturday?  What kicked so many into gear on January 21st were those internal alarm bells ringing on overdrive. It was a massive case of heartache at the prospect of losing essential features of American democracy.

As a child of the 70’s, the trajectory of my life was shaped by the optimism of the women’s movement of that time. Thanks to the passage of Title IV in 1972, I played sports, unlike my mother who did not have that opportunity. In the 80’s, I watched my mother go back to work in computer programming with the help of an initiative at IBM which reached out to women who had left the workforce to raise children.

My mother was not a vocal, out-there feminist. She didn’t march like many of her contemporaries, but she quietly lived out the values of feminism for her three daughters to see and internalize. She enthusiastically signed us up for sports and joined in with us.  She helped us process and reject the demeaning gender messages of the Southern Baptist Church we attended, and encouraged us to think for ourselves. She modeled what it meant to partner with our father in marriage and in life, and how to navigate all those subtle yet stubborn manifestations of patriarchy. Before “mansplaining” was a thing,  my mother in her own way helped us learn strategies to subvert and spot male presumption a mile away.

Feminism 70’s style

And last but not least, my mom bought us that iconic pink Free To Be You And Me record, which played in the background of our lives, seeding positive, empowering subliminal messages. That album launched us into the world with a presumption of equality and progress that might have been a little too rosy.

Many women of my mom’s generation were dealt a serious blow by this election. I feel their shock, too, but what they are feeling is more acute, more visceral: they remember the days when it was normal for women in the workforce to be subjected to sexual assault, where you had to keep quiet about it and keep a smile on your face. They have living memories of their own mothers having very few options outside of the home. In so many different ways, my mother’s generation did their part to give their daughters a better world with more opportunity and dignity that changed how we saw ourselves and gender norms.

I look back on my childhood and see that I was the beneficiary of progress made by my grandmother’s and mother’s generations. They marched quietly through the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, doing what they could to keep the needle moving forward, for themselves, but mostly for us, their daughters.  They boarded the feminist train that so many younger generations of women today do not realize only moves forward if all of us stay on it.  

I do not want to let our mother’s generation down. I feel a maternal sense of protectiveness toward our mothers and want to honor the strides they have made for all of us by doing my little part to get on that train and get it moving in the right direction again.

My mother is now a grandmother and she marched with and for her granddaughters’ generation.  My incredible 75-year-old mother drove three hours to meet my sister before dawn in Raleigh, North Carolina to board a bus for six hours to DC.

My mom & sister taking a break from their 12 mile trek through DC

This is what feminism looks like in 2017.  

This is what democracy looks like.

My Sister and Friends Boarding the Train to Boston.

Like many, I was overcome with emotion as I boarded the  packed-to-the-gills train into Boston with my sister and my daughter and a group of friends.

My Daughter & Her Girl Posse About to Board the Train to Boston.

This is what feminism looks like in 2017.  

This is what democracy looks like.

Like many, if I had not had the march on January 21st, I might have descended into a dark hole. I admit to having knit nine pink hats (my sister knit 15 and my mother 5) and handing off skeins of yarn to knit away some of this angst.

Yes, even this is what feminism looks like in 2017!

A “Knit In” Two Days Before the March .

This is what democracy looks like.

Led by a global sisterhood, we came together, as Gloria Steinem often says, as people who are no longer ranked, but are rather linked together by our common values and ideals and our determination not to go back. In all of the sister marches, women walked miles through a crowded sea of pink hats and signs.

In Boston, I was overwhelmed by joy and peace — a sense of solidarity, a sense that we were saying, let’s look out for one another, let’s keep bending the long, slow arc of justice not just for women but for all of us as human beings and as Americans.

One of my favorite posters.

Everyone came with their own unique message and intentions—some hysterically edgy and feisty, while others more sublime. All of us were united in our intention to not be passive but do something productive with those unsettling, foreboding alarm bells.

My mom and sister in DC with part of their bus group from NC.

This is what feminism looks like.

This is what democracy looks like.

This is what America looks like.

Each and everyone of us, free to be ourselves without fear of being diminished or marginalized, and with full expectation of an equal seat at the table of life.

May it be so.

Thank you to all of the boys and men who showed up in solidarity at the march, sporting pink hats and supportive signs. Thank you to all you male allies who serve as role models to boys, reminding us all that feminism is good for all of us.  Thank you to everyone who works to throw off the chains of any group that is marginalized.

Surrounded By A Sea of Pink.

Thank you to all of the women and girls whose internal liberty bells have been ringing, kicking us back into gear to take to the streets and re-board the feminist train that our forebears set into motion so that we could presume our own equality and be outraged by things that should not be normal becoming normal. All of us have something at stake in this ongoing struggle for a world that does not limit or demean or seek to force us into a mold not of our choosing.

As I have engaged with women’s groups and NGO’s working globally to empower women and girls, I have heard an eerily similar refrain: hard won progress for women and girls’ basic human and democratic rights is being rolled back. Due to a rise of religious fundamentalism and nationalism, women’s equality is being framed as a battleground between tradition and modernity.

With Trump now in power, we find ourselves in closer alignment with  women across the globe, where gender norms are sliding back in shocking ways:  the comeback of the burka, the rise and “medicalization” of female genital cutting, and shocking stories that fill our news feeds every day of girls being forced to marry their rapists, and sold into sexual slavery.

The advance of both feminism and democracy depends on us all tuning in to hear Lady Liberty’s alarm bells ringing within when equality and freedom is threatened.  We must be ever watchful for all of the sneaky ways that the needle of equality and freedom can so easily slide backward right before our eyes.

I wish feminism could one day be on auto-pilot and not be so prone to endless regressions, but for the forseeable future, let us proudly stay on the feminist train. Let us listen within for the timeless ring of Lady Liberty’s bells.

I’m With Her.  Lady Liberty.  I see her in my sisters, my mother, my aunt, my daughter, my nieces, and in the vast sisterhood which surrounded me at the march.

Doesn’t This Say It All?

She is what feminism looks like.

She is what democracy looks like.

She is what America looks like.

It is she who has been ringing the liberty bell in each of our hearts getting us to board a bus or train to march shoulder-to-shoulder in packed crowds with friends, family, and complete strangers. Let us hold onto and cherish the beautiful accomplishment that so many helped make happen on January 21st. But let us expand its impact and not lose that sense of solidarity we felt on the buses and trains and as we marched.  Let us stay on the feminist train that our mothers and grandmothers set into motion for us.

On this train, let us join together, hand and heart, across generational lines and across all the dividing lines of race, class, gender, and ideology to work harder than we have to truly be linked not ranked and together imagine and make real the better world we all seek.

Let us continue to band together to do big and small acts of resistance to stand up for our neighbors and our cherished American values and ideals when they are threatened.

My sister & me in front of her favorite sign : )

Let’s remember too to laugh and find joy and to persevere in the strange acts of dissent we find ourselves in.  And let us keep marching because—as we have seen everywhere—if the feminist and the democratic train is not moving forward, it will go backward. Our democracy is built on ideals which, as we are seeing now, are very fragile and precious and continually, in every generation, in need of being safeguarded.

Let us also not forget that equality does not happen without funding. The incredible success of the Women’s March for America would not have happened without women giving at all levels to make it happen.  We can all be philanthropists and activists.  Giving along with doing awakens joy and solidarity and a sense that we are making history.

My sentiments exactly.

It would have been so incredible for my mother and her generation (and all of us) to see a woman in the oval office. That was not in the cards for this election, but may we each do our part to create a world where this is possible soon. Movements of justice don’t happen without a lot of behind the scenes investments of all types: organizing, fomenting, inviting, and funding. May we all keep doing our part to make sure that this incredibly historic march truly becomes a movement.

I’m With Them.

May our daughters look back on this march with pride and say, thank you mom, thank you aunts, grandmothers and so many friends for marching for the better world that we all seek.Read More