How Celebrating Women in Sports Bolsters Women’s Leadership

Billie Jean King, tennis legend and founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation, is pictured here with girl athletes. (Photo Credit: Women’s Sports Foundation)

National Girls and Women in Sports Day (NGWSD) is commemorated annually in the first week of February. According to its sponsor, the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), the day represents “a national observance celebrating the extraordinary achievements of girls and women in sports.”

The WNBA honored female athletes on February 6, and was one of many institutions noting the value of sport in fostering not just fitness and health in girls and women, but also self-confidence and leadership skills. “Lead Her Forward” was the 2019 NGWSD theme, and the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Deborah Antoine noted, “NGWSD is a great time to uplift these girls and women, along with the advocates using their platforms to inspire greatness in female athletes. We are also more committed than ever to protect Title IX, along with strong policies and safeguards for women in sports and all industries.”

Several marquee female athletes traveled to Capitol Hill to celebrate the day and advocate for women’s athletics. The contingent included WSF President and three-time Olympic bobsled medalist Elana Meyers Taylor, Paralympics swimming gold medalist Jessica Long, and World Rugby Hall of Famer Phaidra Knight.

The Capitol Hill visit focused on keeping Title IX strong, supporting a Senate bill to establish a commission on the state of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movement, and advocating for more sports and fitness opportunities for girls and women at all levels.

In addition to pressing legislators to improve funding for and access to sports for girls and women, the athletes also had a little play time at the George Washington University campus. Star athletes led elementary, middle and high school girls in multi-sport clinics, including Olympic ice hockey medalist Meghan Duggan, 1984 Olympic hurdles gold medalist Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, Paralympic basketball and alpine skiing gold medalist Alana Nichols, and three-time U.S. National Champion climber Sasha DiGiulian.  Following the clinics, WSF President Meyers Taylor led discussions on Title IX, and shared her thoughts on athletic and leadership opportunities for girls after graduation.

“Access to sports and all the benefits they provide is critical for girls and women. Sports teach girls leadership, teamwork and confidence,” said Meyers Taylor. “National Girls & Women in Sports Day is a great time to reconnect with the girls and women we serve and call for a national push to support girls and women in sports.”

The Women’s Sports Foundation partners with the National Women’s Law Center, George Washington University, Girls Inc. and the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition in promoting the nationwide day dedicated to women’s athletics. NGWSD began in 1987 to bring national attention to the promise of girls and women in sports, and has since evolved into an event to acknowledge the accomplishments of female athletes, the positive influence of sports participation, and the continuing struggle for equality for women in sports.

The WSF is a 501(c)(3), and since its formation in 1974 by tennis legend Billie Jean King has advocated and organized to promote equal access to sports and physical activity for girls and women. While only a small fraction of athletes will play professionally or in top-tier college programs, engaging in sports and fitness activities improves mental and physical health throughout a lifetime. The WSF has relationships with more than 1,000 of the world’s elite female athletes, and has impacted the lives of more than three-million youth, high school and collegiate student-athletes.

The mission of the Women’s Sports Foundation “is dedicated to creating leaders by ensuring all girls access to sports.” There is no better example of this than its founder Billie Jean King, one of the premier female tennis players in history, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. King was a pioneer on and off the court. She was a founding member of the Women’s Tennis Association, defeated Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match (brilliantly captured in the eponymous 2017 movie with Emma Stone and Steve Carrel) and was designated one of Life Magazine’s “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” in 1990. Exceptional on the court, King’s greatest legacy is no doubt the increased respect, visibility and compensation she gained for female tennis pros (and women athletes in general).

The WSF’s focus is not just on elite athletes, but also the benefits of sport for all girls and women. The WSF notes that it “distributes upwards of $10,000 per week from operating dollars to provide opportunities for socioeconomically underprivileged and inactive girls to participate in sports and physical activity.” The WSF has also been a powerful advocate for sports scholarships for women; scholarship money has increased from $100,000 in 1972 to over $1.8 billion across the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) today.

The WSF has fought for equal facilities and access to sports for girls and women, with major grant programs including GoGirlGo, which has gotten over one million girls physically active, and Sports 4 Life, which has targeted grass-roots sports opportunities for over 6,000 girls of color aged 11-18. The WSF has also given over 1,300 grants to champion athletes and teams to fund training and travel, and produced more than 40 studies on gender equity and sports.

Naturally, the WSF is a key supporter of “Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972,” the legislation that while perhaps not leveling the playing field, at least allowed access to it. The WSF works with NCAA leadership, the Office of Civil Rights, coaches, parents and media in maintaining support for the law, which bars gender discrimination in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance. The law states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Consequently, girls’ participation in K-12 and collegiate sports has dramatically increased since the 1970s. Still, the WSF notes that only one-quarter of girls get sufficient physical exercise, and there are persistent gender, socioeconomic and racial barriers to health and fitness. This is crucial, as in addition to obvious health benefits, physical activity improves body image over time, reducing depression, eating disorders, and other mental health difficulties. Sports are also key in developing discipline, teamwork, perseverance and leadership skills, valuable attributes on and off the field.

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Researching the Intersections: RI’s Women of Color Suffer More Poverty

A new report from Women’s Fund of Rhode Island discusses how women of color in Rhode Island suffer higher rates of poverty. (Graphic courtesy of report infographic)

Race and gender play an important role in economic outcomes. In addition to the gender pay gap, women of color lag well behind white women in economic well-being.

A recent infographic “Rhode Island Women of Color 2018: A Snapshot” published by the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island (WFRI) indicates sharp disparities between white women and women of color across a range of economic indicators including wages, poverty, educational attainment and home ownership. The WFRI research was done in partnership with the Providence, Rhode Island-based Economic Progress Institute.

Women of color comprise roughly a quarter of Rhode Island’s female population. They earn significantly lower wages than White women, and are much more likely to be poor. Among women 18-64 years of age, 9 percent of White women are poor, while 18 percent of Asian women, 22 percent of Black women and 20 percent of Latina women are below the poverty line. Among those over 65, there is an even greater discrepancy: 31 percent of Latina women are poor, three-and-half times the rate of White women.

Black and Latina women are more likely to be employed than are White women. The labor-force participation rate for females over the age of 16 in Rhode Island is 60 percent, and is lower for Whites (59 percent participation rate) than it is for Black (61 percent) and Latina (65 percent) women. One reason may be that young White women are more likely to be students than are women of color. White and Asian women hold four-year degrees at much higher rates than do Latina and Black women. Of course, these differences in educational attainment are a major factor affecting wages, and are among the reasons Latina woman can expect to earn $1.2 million less over the course of 40 years of work than a non-Hispanic White man.

Two in five Rhode Island women work in health care, social assistance or educational services. Women of color are particularly likely to labor in these fields, often in lower-paid positions like personal care aides and nursing assistants. Eighty-seven percent of Rhode Island’s healthcare support workers are women, and women of color account for nearly half of these workers. It is estimated that raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour would increase the wages of 96,700 Rhode Island women (either by raising their wage to $15, or as a result of increases as pay scales are adjusted).

Another area where women of color are at a disadvantage is housing, as a much larger percentage of their income goes to housing costs than is the case for White women. Latino women spend nearly half of their income (48 percent) on housing. The rates for Black, Asian and White women are 45, 39 and 30 percent respectively. Moreover, Rhode Island has the second lowest home ownership rate for households of color in the country.

“While we often hear about the gender wage gap and its subsequent wealth gap for women, this report really puts a spotlight on how deep the inequities go for our sisters of color,” said Kelly Nevins, Executive Director of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. “Efforts to increase the minimum wage and ensure fair pay are just a few initiatives that we are working on with community partners. However, more needs to be done. We want to hear from the community as to how best to use the findings of this report.”

The WFRI will hold a series of community forums to share information and invite ideas about how best to address the inequities. As part of the series, the Fund will host a ticketed event “Cocktails & Conversations: Women of Color Research” on January 30 from 6-8pm at the Tech Collective in Providence. Panelists will include Rachel Flum, Executive Director of the Economic Progress Institute; Angela Ankoma, Executive Vice President of the United Way of Rhode Island and Traniesha West, Community Organizer for Working Families.

The Women’s Fund of Rhode Island was founded in 2001 as a field of interest fund, and became a 501(c) in 2005. In addition to research and advocacy, it makes grants to local programs that improve the lives of women and girls. The Providence, Rhode Island-based Economic Progress Institute, a nonpartisan research and policy organization founded in 1999 by Linda Katz and Nancy Gerwitz, is dedicated to improving the economic well-being of low and modest-income Rhode Islanders.

While Rhode Island is a small state of approximately one million people, and regional and local economies and demographics vary across the country, gender and race disparities are found everywhere. Increasingly women’s foundations and other non-profits are upping their efforts in improving the lives of women of color. Among the major funders in this area is the NoVo Foundation which has recently allocated $90 million in funding to empower girls of color in the U.S. Southeast, and the Ms. Foundation which has committed $25 million to funding programs targeting women of color.

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How Funny Girls Become Leading Women through Improv Programs

Funny Girls, a program created by the Harnisch Foundation, teaches girls five key skills of leadership in subtle yet profound ways. (Photo credit: Brittany Buongiorno)

“Funny Girls is a philanthropic investment in building the pipeline for female leadership,” says Jenny Raymond, of the Harnisch Foundation’s (HF) program employing improv techniques to build girls’ leadership skills.

Raymond, who is HF Executive Director, and Carla Blumenthal, Funny Girls Program Manager, spoke to me by phone from the HF offices in New York.

It’s an auspicious time for a program devoted to building the next generation of female leaders as 2018 saw a historic number of diverse women elected to political office. “That didn’t happen overnight. It was brewing for a long time,” says Raymond, who sees Funny Girls as a tool to build on these gains.

Programs fostering self-esteem and leadership skills in girls are not uncommon. What is unusual is the use of improv as the tool to achieve these ends. Funny Girls is not trying to develop comedians or actors: the participants are diverse groups of eight to thirteen-year old girls enrolled in after-school programs with a social justice focus. The improv methods are used to cultivate core leadership skills, particularly in low-income populations typically lacking opportunities for such development. “It’s about getting girls to recognize that they have a voice and deserve a seat at the table,” says Raymond.

The HF was founded in 1998 and its mission is to create a “fair, equitable and inclusive world.” It’s angle: empowering girls and women, particularly through storytelling, which can include everything from supporting women-centered film-making, TED Fellows and journalism, to leadership summits, coaching and social justice initiatives.

Funny Girls was developed in 2015 and its name (“it’s fun, it’s funny, it’s about girls,” says Raymond) came from a brain-storming session between Raymond and HF Founder and President Ruth Ann Harnisch. The Foundation looked at Stanford and M.I.T. executive training programs to see what particular challenges women were facing, and how they were being addressed. Women and girls face hurdles including boldness being reduced to “bossiness,” and their authorship of ideas being challenged. Working with experts in leadership curriculum development, Harnisch and Raymond chose specific leadership skills that overlapped with the main tenets of improv comedy, and built a curriculum for girls based on leadership, improv and creative movement.

While leadership can be one of those “I know it when I see it” attributes, the five key concepts of self-awareness (understanding one’s own perceptions of self, and how one might be perceived by others), learning agility (responding quickly and sharing one’s own insights), collaboration (prioritizing a goal and working together to meet it), empathy (recognizing others’ emotions), and resiliency (employing multiple strategies and learning from mistakes) are as good a place to start as any.

“These five skills have been a fantastic marriage with improv,” says Raymond. Funny Girls partnered with NYC’s Magnet Theater and the Pilobolus dance company to develop the curriculum. Pilobolus emphasizes collaboration in movement, a perfect fit with Funny Girls says Raymond. The attraction to Magnet was simple, “We observed all of the local improv companies and liked them the best.” The “story aspect” is key, Raymond says, “Magnet is very focused on developing a character; that is the tenor we wanted to represent in our curriculum.”

Funny Girls seeks to instill a “growth mindset” in girls to they can discover their own definition of leadership. (photo credit: Babita Patel)

The eleven-session Funny Girls program is now up and running and has six partners, all of them after-school programs with a social justice focus. “We train the instructors, who are drawn from the organizations we work with,” says Blumenthal. Each instructor receives 17 hours of training in combining leadership skills with improv. “We don’t do it for them,” says Blumenthal, “the instructors go back to their organization and run the program.”

Blumenthal says one program goal is to instill a “growth mindset” in the girls, and to have them explore their own definition of leadership. This is vital as different individuals, and cultures, have varying conceptions of what constitutes leadership. One improv concept that is valuable in this area is “yes, and …,” in which a participant accepts what someone else has said, and then expands on it. This encourages creativity, collaboration and open-mindedness.

With its emphasis on leadership development, Funny Girls works with the New York City school systems to provide its program. (Photo credit: Brittany Buongiorno)

Blumenthal also describes an improv game targeting resiliency in which one girl is a dolphin trainer, and another girl a dolphin. The trainer thinks of a gesture to teach the dolphin and tries to impart that lesson without using words. The dolphin-girl must figure out the gesture and perform it. The exercise can be both hilarious and frustrating, and take five minutes or more to complete. “By the end they embody resiliency – the girls had to try a lot of strategies to get where they needed,” says Blumenthal.

Funny Girls’ participants predominantly hail from communities of color in New York City (and one program in Richmond, Virginia). “The instructor brings their organization’s identity to the program,” says Raymond, and adds, “the instructor may know youth development, and certainly knows her own community, but likely not improv.” Funny Girls has proved to be a good fit with New York City after-school programs, as the city’s Department of Education mandates that programs receiving city funding incorporate leadership training in their curriculum.

The Funny Girls program was piloted in 2016 in three NYC schools, and currently has six partners:

The Arab American Family Support Center in downtown Brooklyn; Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education in the Bronx; Girls for a Change, supporting girls of color in Richmond, Virginia; Global Kids, providing a global perspective within a human rights framework for under-served NYC youth; The Red Hook Initiative, supporting youth development and empowerment for low-income youth in Red Hook, Brooklyn; and SAYA (South Asian Youth Action), providing academic, personal and professional development for youth in New York City.

The program concludes with a showcase that demonstrates games tied to leadership skills. “The girls make presentations in which they explain leadership skills and how they embody them in action,” says Blumenthal.

“Funny Girls is part of the continuum of work the Foundation has done from the beginning,” says Raymond. The Foundation has worked with thousands of women since its inception in 1998, and its leadership initiatives have included VoteRunLead and The OpEd Project, among other programs designed to “get women’s voices out into the world.” These efforts have been successful; still, “Countless women have told me,” says Raymond, “‘I wish there had been an opportunity when I was younger to develop leadership skills.’”

“We see a thirty percent drop in self-confidence among girls between ages eight to fourteen,” says Raymond. She notes that by the time they become teenagers, many girls stop raising their hand in class because they fear social repercussions for doing so; boys typically are not burdened by this fear.

“It is such a fragile time in the development of self,” Raymond notes, citing statistics from the Girl Scout Research Institute indicating that four-fifths of girls don’t believe they have the skills to be a leader. That’s the bad news. The good news: nine tenths of girls believe that leadership skills can be taught. “We are trying to shift girls’ perceptions of themselves as leaders so that they can use that mindset to engage civically, in the work place and in the home,” says Raymond. “We are arming our girls with self-confidence, whatever direction they ultimately head in.”

The recent elections saw a wave of women running for, and being elected to, political office. Naturally, not all girls are interested in the political sphere, nor is Funny Girls trying to push them in that direction. Leadership skills are transferable across a range of professions and interpersonal situations. “The girls are talking about leadership and breaking it down to see what skills women leaders have, whether they are Hilary Clinton or Beyoncé,” says Program Manager Carla Blumenthal.

Funny Girls is a new program and is limited in scale, with only a half-dozen participating organizations at present, all of which receive a grant to run the program, and some supplemental funds for the organization itself. Raymond notes that HF chooses its Funny Girls partners carefully, “Not all organizations need us, or are a good fit,” she says. There must be buy-in from the organization, and the program needs to fill an unmet need.

Funny Girls is off to a strong start and has a format that could be widely replicated. “I’d love to take this to hundreds of organizations,” says Raymond, “but I can’t give that level of support at this point.” HF is a private foundation, and Raymond notes, “We are in the enviable position of concentrating on programming, not fundraising.” The downside is that program budgets are limited.

What will be interesting to see in years to come is how “graduates” fare. The premise, and the promise, is intriguing, but will Funny Girls really build leadership skills? Raymond acknowledges the institutional and cultural barriers women face in exercising leadership, but maintains that one of the best ways to develop women as leaders is by starting when they are still girls, and using unique programming to develop core skills which can be built on throughout a lifetime.

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Editor’s Note: The Harnisch Foundation is a lead sponsor of Philanthropy Women, providing support for our work to expand feminist philanthropy journalism. 

The Growing Influence and Diversity of Giving Circles: Two New Reports

Two new reports from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute explore the forms and functions of giving circles today in America. (graphic courtesy of WPI report infographic.)

Two new reports from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute point to the increasing influence and diversity of giving circle (GC) members, and the challenges present when established foundations serve as “hosts” for GCs.

The reports are authored by the Collective Giving Research Group (CGRG) which was formed in 2015 as a collaborative “to explore and understand the dynamics of giving circles and other forms of collective giving.” Its members include scholars and consultants in the areas of philanthropy, public affairs and public administration, and it has institutional support from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI), which is part of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Funding for the reports came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation via the WPI, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Giving circles typically comprise groups of individuals who donate collectively to an organization, cause or project of common interest. The difference between a GC and a typical philanthropic organization or non-profit is that donors themselves choose what to fund. Larger giving circles can have hundreds of voting members and a yearly membership fee (or required annual donation) of $1,000 or more. The Greater Indianapolis 100 is one such charitable women’s giving circle group; it makes gifts of $100,000 and membership costs $1,000 annually. Of course, a GC can also be quite modest and informal – a half-dozen people meeting in a member’s living room and deciding to pool their money for a charitable purpose, whether that be sending a needy local child to summer camp, protecting a slice of wetland, or supporting micro-loans for African women.

According to the CGRG, there are triple the number of US GCs now than a decade ago, and GCs are estimated to have given roughly $1.3 billion to charitable causes since their inception.

Women are Key to GC Growth

An earlier (2017) report from the CGRG on U.S. GCs noted “Women dominate giving circle membership, making up 70 percent of all members. …. While men have a presence in 66 percent of giving circles, they are only the majority of members in 7.5 percent of groups.” A separate 2017 CGRG report stated that women’s GCs represented nearly half the groups in their database.

Giving circles have increasingly become the point of entry for women, and particularly women of color, in charitable giving. Giving circles are places where groups underrepresented in traditional philanthropy can organize as women, or as a subset of women (LGBT, Asian, Latinx, African American) and find ways to support their own communities. GCs often give to local initiatives, are less traditional in their giving than typical funders, and more likely to support women and ethnic and minority groups.

The new CGRG report on GC membership indicates that compared to non-members, GC donors “give more money and time, give more strategically, and are more engaged in civic and political activities.” Moreover, GC members take greater advantage of their social networks in obtaining advice about philanthropy, bring in a broader range of information, and consult a wider array of people for advice than do non-members. The GC movement is relatively new, but already there are differences between GC veterans and members who have joined within the last year. Newer members tend to be younger, more ethnically diverse, and have lower incomes. Longitudinal studies, the report suggests, will reveal to what extent participating in a GC changes donor attitudes and preferences over time, and whether the diversity among new GC members is sustained.

The “Dynamics of Hosting” report focuses on GC hosting, and notes that community foundations and similar organizations are promoting and adopting giving circles to cultivate a more diverse donor pool, strengthen and expand community engagement, and foster a philanthropic culture. The CGRG findings on hosting were obtained in the summer of 2017 from survey data that included responses from 86 community and public foundations in 33 states. Of the 86, two-thirds host one or more GC groups. Over 90 percent of hosts indicated that they wished to affiliate with a GC in order to promote a culture of philanthropy.

The most common reason for the host-GC relationship is for the host to act as a fiscal sponsor in which it provides 501(c)(3) status, and receives donations and disburses grants for the GC. Hosts may also help a GC reach a specific group of donors, and work with a group of donors in establishing a GC to address a shared priority. Hosts may also play a role in communications and outreach, event planning, and regulation oversight. Hosting a GC is labor intensive, and some hosts charge a flat fee, while others take a percentage of annual CG assets. Some foundations do the work gratis, often as part of a mission to reach underserved communities and promote philanthropy. Regardless, the report indicates that most hosts did not feel that fees met their expenses.

No doubt, community foundations and other such entities have taken notice of the steady growth of giving circles and realize that partnering with such groups is the wave of the future. As the CGRG hosting report concludes, “Giving circles and collective giving groups hold enormous potential for broad outreach, flexible and authentic engagement of donors, and a more democratic approach to building a culture of philanthropy.” As GCs evolve, some of the questions surrounding host vs GC costs and benefits will likely be better answered.

Full reports are here. 

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One Billion Pledged for Global Health of Women and Children

The Global Financing Facility recently held is Replenishment Event, where global leaders pledged $1 billion to address health needs for the world’s poorest women and children.

The “Global Financing Facility” (GFF) might not be a familiar name for  some in the U.S. philanthropy world, but it ranks among the most important organizations in the ongoing fight for global gender equality. Recently, GFF made a big pledge that is particularly noteworthy for its public/private collaboration, and for its attention to women. GFF is an international organization supported by the World Bank Group, and dedicated to improving the health of the planet’s most impoverished women and children.

In early November, the GFF held a conference, or “Replenishment Event,”  in Oslo, Norway. The meeting was hosted by the governments of Norway and Burkina Faso in conjunction with the World Bank Group and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Fourteen donors, including national governments of various sizes, foundations, and multilateral institutions pledged over one billion dollars to improve the health of mothers and children in the world’s poorest countries. The Government of Norway ($360 million) and the Gates Foundation ($200 million) were the two largest donors. The United States did not contribute to the Replenishment Event, nor has it provided any support to the GFF to date.

The Global Financing Facility was founded in 2015 as a mechanism to help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending preventable maternal, newborn and child deaths by 2030. It currently operates in 27 countries, 19 of which are in Africa. The GFF’s mandate is to address the greatest health and nutrition issues affecting women, children and adolescents in the world’s poorest nations. It emphasizes partnerships with countries, civil society organizations, financiers, multilateral bodies and the private sector in funding healthcare systems.

The GFF aims to improve outcomes long-term, as opposed to spending on stop-gap emergency measures which are often not sustained. To this end, not only were there pledges from wealthy countries and foundations at the Oslo conference, the African nations of Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire committed to increasing their health spending by 15% annually, while Nigeria recommitted to its $150 million yearly investment in health and nutrition targeting women, children and adolescents.

The billion dollars pledged is expected to link to an additional $7.5 billion in funds from the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA), and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). GFF calculates that the billion-dollar commitment represents roughly half of what it needs to expand its efforts to finance healthcare in 50 of the world’s lowest income nations, and make progress in meeting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal on maternal, newborn and child deaths.

The GFF’s boost to health financing in poor countries is three pronged: (i) develop a plan that prioritizes a strong primary health care system and reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health and nutrition; (ii) strengthen a country-led platform that unites key stakeholders around a health and nutrition plan; (iii) work with countries to direct resources at the most vulnerable populations in the hardest-to-reach regions.

The need is great, as over two billion people live in countries that spend less than $25 per capita on health yearly. This lack of healthcare funds has serious consequences: 450,000 children under five die unnecessarily every month, and 830 women die every day from pregnancy and child-birth related complications. The GFF notes that in 50 countries around the world, over five million mothers and children die from preventable conditions due to a lack of resources. The GFF is promoting increased spending on health, but also ensuring that the spending is targeted, and that outcomes are measurable.

The GFF quotes Melinda Gates, who notes the ripple effect generated by increased health care spending on women and children in the Global South: “Healthy women, children and adolescents contribute to a virtuous cycle. With health comes the ability to go to school and learn, which helps people prosper as adults, who are then able to raise empowered children who continue the cycle. That’s why the GFF is such a great investment.”

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Empowering Women by Changing Men: Promundo’s Global Fight for Gender Equality

Giovanna Lauro, Vice President of Programs and Research at Promundo, talked with Philanthropy Women about finding key entry points for reaching men, in order to change gender norms. Some of these entry points include sports and prenatal education for families.

A great deal of emphasis in feminist philanthropy is placed on women, and changing the role of women in society. But what about men? What role can men play in challenging gender norms, and what initiatives are gender equality organizations taking to reach men?

To further explore these questions, I spoke to Giovanna Lauro, Vice President of Programs and Research at Promundo, by telephone from her D.C. office. Promundo was founded in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in 1997, working with young men in Rio’s poorest communities on transforming gender norms and concepts of masculinity. It has since taken that approach far beyond Brazil, and its website notes, “Promundo works to promote gender equality and create a world free from violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls.”

The organization’s expansion from the global South to global North makes it an anomaly, as many NGOs start in wealthy countries and then move into less developed nations. Regardless, Lauro says that there is a commonality to the organization’s work, wherever it takes place, namely, “a frustration with the limits of putting the burden of change on women and girls only.” One can work to empower women and girls all one wants, but it’s a tough mandate without change occurring among the other half of the population.

Promundo’s Washington, D.C. office opened in 2011, allowing the organization to expand its reach globally to more than 40 nations. To date, Promundo’s projects and technical assistance have reached roughly 10 million individuals, including over 4,500 health professionals, 22,000 educators, 1,400 members of the police and military, and 300 government officials.

The emphasis on masculinities—what it means to be a man—separates Promundo from many NGOs in the gender-equity field. Lauro argues that continued female empowerment requires men and boys to see themselves as allies and partners, not adversaries. Moreover, change is not a zero-sum game; men and boys also gain in many ways when rigid attitudes toward gender are challenged.

Promundo’s “Manhood 2.0” project, developed in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh, aims to prevent teen dating violence by engaging young males aged 15-24 in understanding the effects of harmful gender norms. Manhood 2.0 is modelled on Promundo’s Program H (named after homens and hombres, the Portuguese and Spanish words for men) which launched in 2002. Employed by Promundo and its partners in 34 countries worldwide, Program H is based on research with young Brazilian men who exhibited more gender-equitable attitudes than others in their demographic cohort. Men expressing less rigid attitudes around gender roles typically have peer group support in this area, positive personal experiences around gender equality, and male role models who express support for gender equality.

Stereotypical and rigidly enforced conceptions of gender are toxic to all. Statistics indicate the high rate of male violence against women, but it’s not as if men are untouched by violence. They are twice as likely as women to die of suicide, and comprise over three-quarters of homicide victims in the U.S. The large number of male lives lost in wars and other armed conflicts goes without saying. Research by Promundo and other organizations indicates that many of these negative outcomes have their basis in overly rigid conceptions of masculinity. Promundo’s report “Masculine Norms and Violence: Making the Connections” explores this relationship.

Engaging Men Through Pre-Natal Programs and Soccer

Engaging with young men in the U.S. and abroad around harmful gender norms is a noble goal, but how does one lead the male horse to the trough of gender equity? Firstly, Promundo identifies local partners who can make a difference. “Find a facilitator who believes in what they preach,” says Lauro, “someone who has shown a commitment or potential for working for gender equality.” Next, she says, it’s vital to “incorporate contextual intervention” in recruiting and retaining participants. In other words, don’t place an announcement for a gender-equity workshop in the local paper and expect men to rush the doors. Lauro notes two specific angles that Promundo has tried: fatherhood and soccer.

In Chile (and other locales) sessions on gender norms have been rolled into pre-natal programs for first-time dads. Fatherhood, family, child-rearing and gender norms are intertwined, and Lauro notes that a group for expectant fathers can function as “a place where men can have meaningful discussion around gender and express themselves in a safe space.” Promundo is a sponsor of the State of the World’s Fathers report series examining men’s contributions to parenting and caregiving globally. These are published as part of the Men Care (“a global fatherhood campaign”) which Promundo co-founded and coordinates.

Sports is another approach used by Promundo to recruit young men to explore gender-equity and masculinity. The study “Engaging men to prevent gender-based violence” sponsored by Promundo and the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women documents a Brazilian program that used soccer to engage men around the issue of gender-based violence. According to the report, “Sports, particularly weekly football (soccer) matches were used as a venue for dialogue and an opportunity to convey the themes of the workshops.” The same report also details programs aimed at understanding and combating gender-based violence that were organized around the workplace (Rwanda), the health sector (Chile), and the community (India). Regardless of the setting, scale or target of the intervention, “We focus on building local partnerships with local organizations,” says Lauro.

The only places where Promundo implements projects directly using its own staff is on its home turf of Brazil, the United States, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where in 2014 Promundo co-founded the NGO Living Peace with local partners. In Eastern DRC, Promundo has worked to promote gender equity in the wake of a brutal conflict which resulted in millions of people being injured, killed, and displaced. The DRC is notable for a very high level of sexual violence, not just as part of the armed conflict, but also in the home and elsewhere. Promundo’s outreach has sought to combat the prevalence of attitudes and practices, including ones about masculinity, which had embedded gender violence so deeply in that society. “We take into account trauma and how this affects behavior,” says Lauro.

Measuring Concrete Change

Promoting gender equity is not easy, and approaches must vary. She notes that sometimes norms change, and then drive a change in behavior. Other times a behavior—which might be encouraged by a public policy like parental leave for both women and men—can produce a change in attitudes, which subsequently influences behavior, and so on. It is not always easy to separate cause and effect. Regardless, the Italian-born Lauro, who has a Ph.D. in political science from Oxford, and previously served as Associate Director of the Women and Population Programme on behalf of the United Nations Foundation, believes in the power of research. “Our goal is to ensure that we can measure concrete change around attitudes, behaviors and norms,” she says.

To this end, Promundo and the International Center for Research on Women have created the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES). This household survey probes men’s and women’s practices and attitudes around gender norms, gender-equality policies, care-work distribution, intimate partner violence, health, economic stress and other issues facing women, men, and families. As of 2017, notes Lauro, IMAGES and IMAGES-inspired studies have been administered to more than 40,000 men and 20,000 women in nearly 40 countries. Moreover, Lauro describes the IMAGES survey as an “open source” tool which “can be used by local organizations to inform their own work.”

Promundo uses research not just to take the temperature of a given community regarding gender-equity, sexual violence and other topics, but also to evaluate whether the programs that it and its partners sponsor are having an impact. Do they really produce a change in attitudes and practices? How, I wondered, can one know if a program simply teaches its participants to talk a good game about gender equity to researchers, but leave the reality unchanged?

Lauro notes that a rigorous attempt to gauge the impact of programs and interventions requires more than asking participants easily-answered questions. “From our research, we know that when we word questions in the positive, everyone answers the politically correct ‘yes.’” In other words, asking, “Do you support equality between men and women?” is likely to elicit positive answers, but more authentic responses come from creative questions. “For example,” says Lauro, “we don’t ask ‘have you ever beaten your partner?’ Instead, we ask, ‘how often have you beaten your partner?’” The idea is to remove the cues that would push respondents toward the “correct” response. Furthermore, says Lauro, to corroborate the trends highlighted in men’s responses, women are surveyed as well to find out if they have noticed a reduction in violence. Finally, notes Lauro, “At times we employ a control group which helps isolate the impact of the intervention.” This commitment to research has helped Promundo weed out or modify interventions which have been ineffective in promoting change.

Lauro has a long history of work in this area, including her Ph.D. thesis, which addressed the double standard of European governments toward the global South on harmful gender norms. The Europeans would advocate for women’s rights in Africa or Asia, but at home would use contentious gender issues as a wedge to demonize or punish immigrant communities rather than protect women. Lauro recommends that issues such as child or forced marriage, wherever it occurs, be “framed first and foremost as a human rights issue rather than a cultural practice.”

Promundo works with NGOs and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization. These stakeholders have partnered with Promundo, or adopted their programs and implemented them in communities around the world. Promundo receives funding from bilateral and multilateral donors, foundations, international NGOs, and individuals. A range of feminist-friendly foundations also support Promundo, “There is a large pool of funders committed to combating gender-based violence,” says Lauro. Other foundations, she notes, are more interested in thematic work on fatherhood and caregiving, gender and youth, or the ramifications for women of large-scale conflict resulting from local gangs, or from ethnic, tribal, national or other differences. Regardless, funding and advocacy around male conceptions of masculinity and gender represents an important part of the fight for gender equality.

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RBG: The Inspiring Story Behind the Feminist Icon

RBG opened on May 4 and has gotten rave reviews for its powerful depiction of one the most important feminists of our time. (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.)

Long before she was a meme and pop culture icon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a sober-minded jurist, a workaholic and a trail-blazing advocate for gender equality. None of that has changed, but in the last decade Ginsburg has become a celebrity whose image is plastered on t-shirts, mugs and all over the Internet. She’s celebrated as both a gritty feminist badass, and cute old lady.

It’s great that someone of Ginsburg’s intellectual heft and societal importance is famous; still, you worry that the image of the bespectacled RBG is overtaking the person. Part of RBG—which is directed and produced by Betsy West and Julie Cohen—explores the hagiography surrounding the diminutive justice: college students express awe at just glimpsing her, and we see Ginsburg sporting a “Super Diva” shirt while working out with her trainer (who, incidentally, has written a book titled The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong … and You Can Too!). The workout stuff is cute, and a testament to Ginsburg’s determination and discipline, but far more important, and interesting, is her work over nearly six decades as a lawyer, professor and judge.

Nominated by Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg was not the first woman named to the Supreme Court (Sandra Day O’Connor served from 1981-2006) but she has been the most passionate defender of women’s rights, including abortion rights. And while she is considered a liberal icon, it wasn’t always the case. When Ginsburg was appointed, she was in the middle of the pack ideologically, but the changing composition of the court has moved her relative position to the left. Moreover, RBG has proven more than willing to dissent from her conservative colleagues, particularly on gender issues. She is able to do this while maintaining a reputation for collegiality, which included a long-running friendship with the boisterous conservative justice Antonin Scalia, a fellow opera lover who died in 2016.

There are plenty of well-known figures who weigh-in on Ginsburg in the film, including Gloria Steinem, Bill Clinton, NPR’s Nina Totenberg and long-time Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, an arch conservative who nevertheless recommended Ginsburg to President Clinton in 1993 to fill the open Supreme Court seat. “It was the interview that did it,” says Clinton about his choice of Ginsburg from a long list of potential nominees for the position.

Ginsburg’s daughter and son, and a granddaughter, attest to the judge’s sharp mind, prodigious work ethic and serious demeanor. So do two of her childhood friends who confirm, as does nearly everyone interviewed, that Ginsburg is no fan of idle chit-chat or time wasting.

Gender was an obstacle throughout Ginsburg’s rise in the legal ranks. “Being a woman was an impediment,” she notes dryly about her time at Harvard Law School. Ginsburg was one of only nine women in a Harvard class of over 500, and the scrutiny was intense, although professors would not engage the women in the Socratic interrogation that men received because it was felt that females were too delicate for such treatment. Ginsburg also recounts that a dean called the female students together to ask them how they thought they could justify occupying seats that would otherwise have gone to men.

RBG faced other challenges as well, including the death of her mother after a lengthy illness when Ruth was 17. RBG did her undergraduate studies at Cornell, which is where she met her husband Marty. They both went to Harvard for law school, and when Ruth started (she was a year behind Marty) she was caring for their 14-month-old daughter. Ginsburg neatly compartmentalized law time and baby time, she says, but then Marty was diagnosed with cancer, and RBG helped him keep up with his studies while he received treatment. All the while, she was rearing their child, attending classes and serving on the law review.

Ginsburg’s husband survived the bout with cancer, and he proved key to her later success. “Meeting Marty was by far the most fortunate thing that happened to me,” says RBG. Martin Ginsburg, a tax lawyer who died in 2010, was gregarious and social, an ideal counterpart to his more reserved wife. Moreover, not only did he actively campaign for Ginsburg’s nomination to the Supreme Court in the early 1990s, he gave up a high-flying career in New York when his wife was named to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals by President Carter in 1980. The family moved to D.C., and Marty took on much of the childrearing and cooking duties (there are several mentions of RBG’s culinary deficiencies throughout the film).

When RBG graduated from Columbia Law in 1959 (she’d transferred there after her husband took a job in New York when he graduated from Harvard), she had a hard time getting a job in a law firm, even though she’d been at the top of her class. The discrimination against women in the legal profession was not exactly subtle. She became a professor at Rutgers University, and soon learned that she was being paid less than her male colleagues, a situation she quickly moved to remedy.

RBG became a gender equality crusader in the 1970s, and in several cases that she took on, men were as much the victims of gender discrimination and stereotyping as were women. In 1973, she argued a case before the Supreme Court in which a female Air Force lieutenant was not given a housing allowance for her and her husband, even though male service members with wives were automatically granted such benefits. The policy was overturned. In a 1975 case, she represented a man whose wife had died shortly after childbirth. The widower was denied a survivor’s Social Security benefit, which he needed to be able to care for his son, even though in parallel cases women receive such a benefit when their spouse dies.

Once RBG got on the court, she continued to champion women and gender equity. She wrote the majority opinion in a 1996 case in which the Virginia Military Institute was ordered to end its males-only admissions policy.

Ginsburg says her mother gave her two pieces of advice: “Be a lady, and be independent.” By lady, Ginsburg says her mother meant that “One should not be consumed by useless emotions,” like anger. RBG seems to have taken this to heart. She’s certainly passionate about her work, but her career indicates that she is always thinking two or three steps ahead, not getting embroiled in controversies of the day, or recriminations against present or past antagonists. (The lone understandable exception was her misstep as a sitting justice in making disparaging comments about President Trump).

Ginsburg has more energy than most people one-third her age. Still, she is 85 and has survived two bouts of cancer. She dodges the question about whether she should have retired during Obama’s tenure so that a liberal, or at least centrist, judge could have replaced her, as opposed to a Trump nominee should she leave the bench before 2020. It’s hard to argue that someone as vigorous as Ginsburg should step aside before she’s ready, particularly after the outrageous stunt in which the Republicans refused to vote on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the court in 2016 in the wake of Scalia’s death. It’s a tough one; let’s hope the judge keeps working out, eats right and tries to get a proper night’s rest so that she can outlast the current administration.

RBG was made by a team of women, including director-producers Julie Cohen and Betsy West, and executive producers Amy Entelis (Executive VP for Talent and Content Development at CNN Worldwide, which financed the film) and Courtney Sexton (CNN Films VP). Women also occupy the archival, associate and coordinating producer roles on RBG, as well as the composer, cinematographer, and editor slots.

In November, an unrelated feature film titled On the Basis of Sex will be released. Directed by veteran producer-director Mimi Leder, it will star Felicity Jones as Ginsburg.

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Women Suffer Lifelong Impacts from Harassment in Food Service

Restaurant Opportunities Center published a report recently highlighting the impact of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry.

It’s not always pretty how the sausage, salad and salmon get made. Low-pay and difficult working conditions are commonplace in the restaurant industry. Many workers are part-timers, and few have benefits. Moreover, workers’ tips are sometimes stolen by management, and wages can go unpaid. These problems are particularly acute for immigrants, who are over-represented in the restaurant industry, and often have little recourse. Women, who comprise over half of industry workers, must further contend with sexual harassment, which is rampant in food-service businesses.

The Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United has been active since 2001 in addressing the challenges facing restaurant industry workers. Recently, it highlighted the long-term costs of sexual harassment in a study it conducted in collaboration with UC Berkeley. On May 8, it held a national press call with actor Sarah Jessica Parker, ROC United co-founder Saru Jayaraman, Oregon House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, and current and former restaurant workers, to publicize the study’s initial findings.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) was founded in New York in the wake of the 9-11 attacks to help restaurant workers displaced from their jobs. In 2008, it became a national organization advocating for restaurant workers wages and rights. ROC United now has nearly 30,000 worker-members, more than 500 restaurant employer members, and several thousand consumer members nationwide. It has won 15 worker-led campaigns, and recovered $10 million in stolen tips and wages. Co-founder Jayaram is the author of the 2016 book Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, which rates restaurants not on the quality of their beef, but on the wages, working conditions and opportunities they provide workers.

That sexual harassment is prevalent in the restaurant industry is no surprise, but the ROC United/UC Berkeley study goes beyond this fact to address how the experience of being harassed affects young women’s lifelong tolerance for harassment, even in other industries. The study combines qualitative data and quantitative analysis of surveys of several hundred women who worked in the restaurant industry when they were young. Current food-service workers, as well as women in different sectors—including Hollywood, media, politics, and philanthropy—were interviewed for this initial portion of a longer study.

According to ROC United, one in two Americans will work in the restaurant industry in their lifetime. The organization’s research reveals that almost 90 percent of women in the industry experience harassment from customers, managers, and coworkers. ROC United states, “For many women who work in restaurants as their first job, these experiences of sexual harassment shape the rest of their working lives. They learn early that sexual harassment is an unfortunate condition of work that must be tolerated, and even encouraged, in order to earn enough wages through tips.”

The ROC United effort against sexual harassment is linked to the “One Fair Wage” campaign, which would eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers. One Fair Wage represents a concrete policy solution to blunt the prevalence of restaurant-industry harassment. According to ROC United, “Women workers who rely on tips to make ends meet are forced to tolerate inappropriate customer behavior to ensure they take home enough income to feed their families. One Fair Wage ensures that women workers no longer have to solely rely on customer tips to make a living wage.”

In addition to the sexual harassment study and its accompanying press call, in February, ROC United held #NotOntheMenu rallies in Washington D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, the Bay Area, Detroit and New Orleans to demand an end to sexual harassment in the restaurant industry.

ROC United has received support from a number of granting bodies, including the San Francisco-based, James Irvine Foundation. As part of its Fair Work initiative designed to boost the fortunes of California’s lowest income workers (those making less than $12.50 hourly), in 2016 Irvine provided ROC United a three-year $1.4 million grant. The funds are being used, “… to support low-wage restaurant workers in California by enhancing the occupational skills, leadership development, and civic participation opportunities of workers while engaging employers, policymakers, and consumers to raise industry standards.”

Other funders have included Foundation for a Just Society, which provided $100,000 to ROC of New Orleans, “to support ROC-NOLA’s work to build power and voice for women and LGBTQI restaurant workers in New Orleans’ restaurant industry.” Other prominent supporters of ROC United include the Ford Foundation, which hosted a 2016 event in support of ROC United founder Saru Jayaraman’s book Forked. The event featured a slew of famous chefs and restauranteurs, many of whom have come around to the idea that treating restaurant workers fairly is not just the right thing to do, but it can be good for business as well.

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New Infusion: $13 Million to Address Gender and Race Health Gaps

While the Affordable Health Care Act helped to reduce health disparities, there are still significant gaps in funding for women of color. The California Wellness Foundation is finding ways to address these gaps.

Research has now identified a significant health care gender gap, showing how much less we know about the health of women compared to men. Even more underfunded than women, however, are the specific health concerns of women of color. While Black and Latina women together represent less than a quarter of all U.S. women, they make up the large majority of those currently living with HIV. To fight this disparity, the California Wellness Foundation (Cal Wellness) recently announced $13 million in new grantmaking specifically aimed at helping address the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS on women of color, as well as the health needs of recently incarcerated women reentering society.

Cal Wellness is a Los Angeles-based private, independent foundation dedicated to protecting and improving Californians’ health and wellness by increasing access to health care, quality education, good jobs, healthy environments and safe neighborhoods. Since its founding in 1992, it has awarded over 9,000 grants totaling more than one billion dollars.

Millions of uninsured Californians obtained health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, but with the ACA under strain, those gains are being eroded. Moreover, social services and reproductive rights are also being undermined. “Communities of color are bearing the brunt of these attacks,” says Judy Belk, President and CEO of Cal Wellness. “But there is hope. Philanthropy can play a critical role in advancing wellness for all by fighting the injustices affecting the most vulnerable among us.” Crystal Crawford, Program Director of Cal Wellness, adds that the AIDS/HIV/STIs and prisoner health reentry initiatives represent the “next phase of the Foundation’s long history of boldly confronting injustices based on race and gender.”

According to the National Institutes of Health’s report, Women of Color Health Information Collection: HIV Infection and AIDS, “Compared with females of other races/ethnicities, African Americans and Latinas are disproportionately affected at all stages of infection with HIV and by all reported measures: new cases of HIV infection, annual diagnoses of HIV infection, annual diagnoses of AIDS, and prevalence of HIV infection and AIDS.” In addition, women of color have high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and are at high risk of acquiring HIV and STIs due to social and economic conditions such as high rates of poverty, ongoing trauma, income inequality and unemployment that make it difficult for them to protect their sexual health.

A key part of the HIV/AIDS/STIs initiative is “Upspoken,” a public awareness campaign, coordinated by the issue-driven communications firm RALLY. “Upspoken,” will engage multi-generational Black women and contribute to new ways of thinking about HIV, AIDS and STIs among direct service providers, advocacy organizations, individual and institutional funders, and policymakers. The campaign also seeks to increase understanding and raise awareness about the disproportionate impact of HIV, AIDS and STIs on women of color, and encourage increased funding and improved public policies in this area.

The initiative is funding two demonstration projects—one in Los Angeles County and one in Alameda County (whose county seat is Oakland) to document and disseminate best practices in prevention and early intervention for women of color at risk for HIV, AIDS and STIs, and to develop innovations in this area. The L.A. County project is being led by Gail Wyatt, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Culture, Trauma and Mental Health Disparities at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. In Alameda County, Women Organized to Respond to Life-Threatening Diseases (WORLD) is partnering with the East Bay Community Foundation on the project.

Cal Wellness is not the only organization supporting the health of women of color. The Oakland, California-based Catalyst Fund/Groundswell Fund is a major funder of initiatives and research surrounding reproductive justice and health, including birth justice with an emphasis on women of color. Catalyst Fund/Groundswell Fund has supported projects in 39 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, including initiatives of Black Women for Wellness (Los Angeles), and COLOR, a Denver-based Latina-led and Latina-serving grassroots nonprofit, among many. Catalyst/Groundswell also partners with other foundations including the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Chicago Foundation for Women, the New York Women’s Foundation, and Third Wave Fund that provide grants to organizations addressing the health needs of women of color.

The health of former prisoners, particularly women of color, is precarious. As is the case with men, women of color are overrepresented among the incarcerated. When they return to their communities, formerly incarcerated women face significant barriers to building stable and healthy lives including unemployment and lack of access to education, permanent housing, health care and support in being reunited with their families. For women of color, these barriers are exacerbated by racial discrimination.

Cal Wellness’ Re-entry and Employment Initiative will enable formerly incarcerated women of color, especially African American and Latina women, to improve their health through financial well-being by increasing their participation in the workforce and building financial assets. The Foundation awarded grants to four organizations (A New Way of Life, Justice Now, Time for Change Foundation and The Praxis Project) to promote local and statewide policies with a gender lens that impact the specific challenges facing re-entry women. One such policy is effective implementation of Proposition 47, which was passed by California voters in 2014 and reclassified sentences for a number of drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The four grantees have established the Women Organizing Re-entry Communities of Color for Prop 47 (WORCC) Collaborative to target Prop 47 resources to benefit women of color as they seek employment and financial well-being upon re-entry.

As part of the initiative, Cal Wellness also approved grants to support three demonstration projects (Root & Rebound in Fresno County, A New Way of Life in Los Angeles County and Time for Change Foundation in San Bernardino County). The grantees will engage formerly incarcerated women of color, especially Black and Latina women, in comprehensive workforce development services including job training, career advancement and asset-building. The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), which has offices in six states and focuses exclusively on employment for those with criminal records, also received funding and will provide technical assistance.

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That’s Harassment: Avin and Schwimmer Help Us Figure it Out

Screenshot from a scene in “The Co-Worker,” one of six short films directed by Sigal Avin.

There’s the philanthropy that happens when people invest money to promote social change, and then there’s the philanthropy that happens when people take their money and their talent, and employ them in a way that addresses a social problem. Celebrities, particularly multi-talented and highly educated ones, have a unique capacity to combine their financial capital, talent, and public stature in order to push for needed social change.

That appears to be part of what happened when Israeli-American filmmaker Sigal Avin teamed up with several feature actors including David Schwimmer, Cynthia Nixon and Bobby Cannavale, to film a series of six short films called, “That’s Harassment.”  In each of these three to six minute cinéma verité shorts, the viewer is positioned as a cringing voyeur while scenes of sexual harassment unfold. Since debuting in the spring of 2017, these films have been adapted into 30 second public service announcements that are getting wide visibility.

Schwimmer, along with Milk Studios co-founder Mazdack Rassi, produced the series, and the former “Friends” star has been instrumental in promoting the films and getting them widely seen. The shorts are on Facebook, YouTube, Amazon and other platforms, and excerpts are being showing in New York City cabs, and as public service announcements with links to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). The films are designed to help employers combat harassment, and encourage victims and bystanders to recognize it and speak out. RAINN and the NWLC have partnered with “That’s Harassment” to compile resource and discussion guides, and the list, “10 Ways Your Company Can Help Prevent Harassment in the Workplace.”

In one film, Schwimmer plays a lawyer who forces himself on a recent hire played by Zazie Beetz. It’s clear that he is abusing their power differential and harassing her, and yet he is not a menacing caricature. He is not violent and doesn’t make any threats. Once rebuffed, he is highly invested in maintaining a nice guy persona, asking “Are we good?” and wanting a final hug to demonstrate that everything is okay between him and his victim. The Schwimmer character tries to pressure an employee into sexual favors, but wants to be reassured that his behavior is acceptable, and that he won’t suffer any consequences for it.

The other films detail various forms of male-female harassment: a brusque doctor fondles his patient, a bartender verbally and physically harasses a new waitress under the guise of letting her know what pigs men can be, a photographer degrades a young model by asking her to touch herself suggestively as he shoots stills of her, a famous actor exposes himself to a star-struck wardrobe person, and a veteran politician comes onto a younger journalist interviewing him.

“All of the stories are based on real incidents,” says Avin in an interview she and Schwimmer gave to Build Series NYC about the project. When she was a young playwright, Avin says an established actor exposed himself to her backstage during a rehearsal. Schwimmer shares that once the “That’s Harassment” project was underway, his mother revealed that she’d been harassed by a doctor. Schwimmer notes that the majority of the crew working on the shorts were female, “Unsolicited, every single woman came forward and said this reminds me of what happened to me. Everyone had an experience.”

Avin based “That’s Harassment” on a similar series that she’d made in Israel, and called on Schwimmer to help get the U.S. versions made and distributed. She says that her motivation in making the films was that while there was a lot of talk about sexual harassment, “You never got to see it.” Her approach was single-take scenes of several minutes where the viewer is “like a bug on the wall.”

The U.S. versions rolled out in the spring of 2017, but in the wake of the high-profile sexual harassment and abuse scandals that roiled the entertainment and other industries in the fall of 2017, Schwimmer and Avin sought a wider audience for them, and got RAINN and NWLC involved. “That’s Harassment” has also been covered by various mainstream media outlets including Cosmopolitan, Good Morning America and USA Today.

What makes the films so effective is that the perpetrators’ behavior is abusive, yet familiar. The victims don’t dissolve in a puddle of tears, nor do they angrily confront their harassers, all of whom are in positions of power over them. The women appear confused, embarrassed and uncomfortable, deflecting the unwelcome advances and comments, and sometimes laughing or shrugging off the harassing behavior or remarks.

The bartender, actor, and lawyer characters want to be “good guys” who compliment women and do them favors, but what the films show is that the nicest thing they could do would be to respect their female colleagues and let them do their jobs. The doctor, politician and photographer characters don’t play the helpful nice guy card; instead, they emphasize their experience and authority. You can almost see the gears turning in the victims’ heads: what is going on here? Is this normal? How do I get this to end without a scene or future reprisals?

The films are useful in provoking discussion about sexual harassment, and as tools for employers to use. This can be tricky — employers have a legal and moral imperative to combat sexual harassment, yet didactic and heavy-handed training sessions and amateurish videos tend to provoke more eye-rolling than actual change. For this reason, having a professional like Avin script and direct the films, and use working Hollywood actors, goes a long way in making the scenarios believable, and something that should be taken seriously.

In the current climate surrounding harassment, many men wonder what their role should be. Most would prefer not to talk about it all. It’s easier not to get involved, rationalizing that if one is not a perpetrator, then it’s best to keep one’s head down. There are costs—including threats to one’s livelihood and social ostracization—for speaking up when harassment takes place. Moreover, some men fear that their involvement might be unwanted, or seen as patronizing by women. Finally, many men, and women, are still grappling with what constitutes sexual harassment. The films do not solve these thorny questions, but they certainly start the conversation, and can lead to some concrete and specific ways to stop harassment in the workplace, as indicated by RAINN and NWLC.

Schwimmer and co-producer Mazdack Rassi’s contribution to the project, supporting Avin in getting the films made (and seen), is a good model for other men to follow in terms of being allies to women in the fight for gender equality.

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