Emily is a donor-activist engaged in promoting human equality, justice, and peace around the world. She is particularly passionate and engaged in the nexus of faith, gender, and development and working to mobilize faith traditions to more fully and unambiguously embrace gender equality. In her role at the Imago Dei Fund, Emily has helped the foundation adopt a “gender-lens” in its grantmaking with a particular focus on partnering with inspired female change agents, locally and around the world.
Emily is actively engaged in the women-led philanthropy movement, is the author of numerous articles, and is a member of Women Moving Millions, the Women's Donor Network, and a newly forming Refugee Funders Alliance where she is working to create a COVID19 fund focused on getting funding to women’s groups on the front lines of the refugee response. Emily is also a trained spiritual director who enjoys talking with people about their spiritual journeys.
Emily serves and has served on the boards of New England International Donor Network, the Boston Women’s Fund, Union Theological School, Nomi Network, Girl Rising, Tostan, and Sojourners Founders’ Circle.
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 during COVID. 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.
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.
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.
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 meansto be brave and bold, and truthful,and righteously angry.We thank you.
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.
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 experience freedom in life.
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.”
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 courtenaycabotventon.com.
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: 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.”
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.