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.”

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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