What do you care about in your community and in what projects have you participated?
By Nicole Theberge
Each Conversation began with the question “What do you care about in your community and what projects have you participated in?” This question was meant to set the stage for participants to recall their passions and provide a context for the work they do. Whether or not they consider themselves leaders, the intention behind this question was for women to recognize how they contribute greatly to their communities. This question was also intended to reveal the diversity of the work in which women around the world are involved.
It is clear from the responses to this question that a remarkable amount of passion, similarity, and diversity exists in the type of work that the women do and the issues they care about. From starting women’s support groups and day care centers, to restoring the environment, to education and microfinance, to taking care of their neighbors and families, the participants in these conversations clearly have passion for all aspects of their lives and work. The wide range of responses points to evidence that when women speak about leadership, they are not only referring to formal leadership positions in work-related endeavors, but also to a broader understanding that leadership flows into all areas of their lives at home, at work and in their communities.
There are two parts to this question. The women’s responses are interwoven and the answers to each part play off one another. Several key themes emerge, including children and youth, the environment, education, health, overcoming poverty, and family. Each Conversation touched upon nearly all of these categories.
Children and Youth
Children and youth were two of the most discussed topics in these Conversations. A powerful passion for helping youth engage in their communities, prepare for healthy lives and become empowered individuals is shared by many of the women involved in this Project. One Nicaraguan participant said, “We seek education opportunities for youth, management scholarships, and gender equity participation in working together and contributing ideas to achieve this.” The women in Nicaragua also discussed the importance of providing youth with positive activities to keep them healthy and productive. Winnie, a participant in the Uganda conversation, discussed her passion for “facilitating progress of other young women to exploit their leadership potential.” Irene, also from Uganda, works for Straight Talk Foundation, an NGO that centers on adolescent communication. Youth were also at the heart of Romajean’s conversation at the Muckleshoot Nation in Washington State, where the women discussed youth as resources for the community and ways to empower them.
It is evident from the discussion of youth and children in each Conversation, that women see children and youth as vital assets to their communities and the world. This passion for youth feeds into the theme of family.
Family was central in all of the conversations. In Vietnam, excellence in providing for one’s family is one of the top duties of women, and there are many movements to support women in this role. One Ethiopian participant noted, “My first priority is to take care of my family. If I am okay with my family, I can do better things in my work.” This sentiment represents succinctly what was present in all discussions. Women are passionate about their families, and see taking care of their families as essential to bettering their communities as a whole.
Some discussions took the conversation about family further, and discussed the often-difficult job of balancing work life and family life. Women at the Antioch University Seattle (AUS) Conversation expressed the pull between family life and work life, and wanting to be passionate and successful in both areas. Women in Guatemala and Vietnam echoed this challenge. In Rocío’s Guatemala conversation, participants talked about how they need to attend to housework as well as work outside the home. Tam reported that the Vietnamese women in her Conversation discussed how women have more opportunities to be respected and successful in society than they did previously, but that reaching this potential while fulfilling the role of taking care of a family is not easy.
A key thread throughout the Conversations is an acknowledgment that positive change starts in the home, and that women’s roles are not only important, but are a very powerful form of leadership. This was most clearly exemplified in Weub’s Conversation in Ethiopia, where participants actively chose to practice and advance their leadership skills by stepping up to the responsibilities of raising siblings and helping to ensure their good positions in life.
The environment is another common area of passion. A woman in Rocío’s Conversation in Guatemala says, “All over the world my biggest worry is the environment and the plastic waste…” and she went on to describe a local environmental issue regarding contamination of a sweet, orange fruit called the “nispero,” which is important to the economy. Many women also named the strong relationship between protecting the larger environment and creating a clean and hospitable home environment. In Nicaragua, women are engaged in youth projects that connect youth to their communities, provide them education, and aid the environment by engaging youth in art made from collected garbage and by participating in community gardens.
Education is another area of significance for Conversation participants. The issue of what education will look like and how people will be educated varies from culture to culture, but the underlying value of education as a tool to empower people and lift them out of poverty is evident across the conversations. In Romajean’s Conversation at the Muckleshoot Nation, women in leadership were described as teachers and “carriers of knowledge.” A participant in Claudine’s Conversation in Burkina Faso stated: “My country is making a lot of efforts to educate girls and keep them in school. But, the needs are great and there is still a lot to do. I would like to be someone who works every day to help young girls be educated and to reach their full potential.”
School was recognized by a participant in Rocío’s Conversation as a way to stay connected to the community. With seven children, she attends school meetings as a way to stay involved. In the neighboring country of Nicaragua, participants lead youth in education activities to ensure their futures. The women in the second Guatemalan Conversation named the cultural tradition of “machismo” as giving priority to men and boys to go to school, leaving women and girls with a high rate of illiteracy.
In Vietnam, women discussed the importance of vocational training and education for children and adult women. The women in Tam’s discussion talked about educating women to have confidence, communication skills, autonomy, initiative, and to integrate into the community. Much of this education work is done through the Vietnam Women’s Union, which is a central way for women to get involved in their communities in Vietnam.
One Nicaraguan participant organizes a group of girls for free sewing and life-skills classes. Her story demonstrates the importance of not just education in the classroom, but education in all of life wherever people, particularly young people, show up. Education is seen as something that affects many other aspects of life. For example, one Ugandan woman, Winnie, discusses how she would like to start a daycare center, partly because she knows that women who can leave their children with someone they trust will be better able to work and rise to more formal leadership positions.
It is evident that women play a crucial and central role in ending poverty for their own generations and future generations as well. Women in all of the cultures represented in this project are affected by and working to end poverty. Roz’s participants at Antioch University discussed their passion to end income inequality; women in Claudine’s conversation in Burkina Faso told stories about being motivated by extreme poverty to end it; Josephine, in Burkina Faso, told the story of two women who live on $1-$2 USD a day, each with four children to support. She said at the end of this story, “Struck by their courage and willpower to act and succeed, I am determined to fight with them.”
Many participants discussed the need for increased job skills for women to provide them with opportunities to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. In Vietnam, women helped to start training courses on a multitude of topics such as livestock, business, crime prevention, and health related issues. Part of the mission of the Vietnam Women’s Union (of which participants were members) is “Participating actively in the programs of socio-economic development of the country.”
Micro-finance programs were discussed as vitally important in several conversations. Namely in Guatemala and Uganda, women come together to create sustainable systems of money lending to help one another start businesses and support themselves and their families.
Another common theme throughout the Conversations was health. The women are engaged in a wide variety of programs and address the issues of health in very diverse ways. For women in Weub’s Conversation in Ethiopia, helping those affected by HIV/AIDS as well as preventing the further spread of the disease was a point of passion. Visiting with and helping care for people who are sick or dying was discussed in several Conversations. The previously mentioned youth programs in Nicaragua include sexual health education, as well as prevention of drinking at very young ages. One woman from the Antioch University Seattle Conversation discussed her work supporting women during the birthing process.
The topic of health also encompasses the violence and discrimination that women face around the world. This topic emerged in many Conversations. In the words of one woman in Nicaragua, “You have to answer when women are being raped by their husbands.” In Burkina Faso, the women discussed their passion for the health and wellbeing of other women, and mothers in particular, as being very important in a culture of extreme discrimination against women. The organization founded by Claudine (AProFEn), began due to witnessing the painful events of young women in childbirth. Today, AProFEn “…works to unite energy, resources, knowledge and know-how to rapidly promote change.”
Amidst all of the similarities and themes represented in all of the Conversations, some differences are worth noting. The work of the women in Vietnam is done largely if not exclusively through the Vietnam Women’s Union. No other country’s Conversation discussed an umbrella organization that directly supports women’s advancement in the comprehensive manner of the Vietnam Women’s Union. The Antioch University Seattle Conversations were unique in that they emphasized a global community. The topics discussed included such phrases as “the world is my community” and incorporated a broad look at how women are leading.
Some differences presented themselves through the specificity of the Conversation. For example, while caring for people who are sick was a common theme throughout all of the conversations, Weub’s Conversation in Ethiopia emphasized caring for those affected specifically by HIV, as well as prevention of HIV. This is an indication of what is most prominently on the minds of the women in that Conversation.
The women’s responses to the first question point to a fundamental truth: that the leadership women provide, the projects they work for and their work on behalf of their families and neighbors, are valid and important. Each of the topics discussed – children and youth, family, environment, education, overcoming poverty, and health – are interrelated. The focus of their work is this interconnectedness. That women from such diverse cultures find these topics to be the core issues for them demonstrates that these issues are faced by people around the world.
Underlying all of the women’s comments and work is an unmistakable desire to honor and empower women and girls, as well as help people in general. The compelling answers to this first question serve as proof of the remarkable leadership abilities of women. These Conversations demonstrate how women worldwide recognize the value of working both inside and outside the home, and that working inside the home generates safer and healthier communities overall. Paid work projects were important in these discussions, but without fail, all the Conversations highlighted passion for unpaid work such as taking care of family and friends. It seems this passion for family and caring for others drives the leadership endeavors of women.