Empowering Women: The Story No One Knows

gpi_reporters_at_work_2013By Suzanne Skees

San Jose, CA: Dusk settles early on an autumn evening this month. It descends slowly in layers of orange and purple over tree-lined office parks in Silicon Valley, where tech stars never sleep and the rest of us dream of getting by. Inside Cisco Systems Building #10, a small group gathers to talk about their efforts, both here and abroad, to end poverty by connecting women with education, healthcare, and jobs; small-business ownership, activist journalism, and political office.

“California has the highest poverty rate in the country,” proclaims a woman in her twenties. “It takes three full-time minimum-wage jobs for a single parent of two children just to get by in this state.”

1.4 billion people on this planet live in ultra poverty,” adds a man in his thirties. The group brings nonprofits and funders in a conversation hosted by Catalytic Women, a network of small- to high-net-worth changemakers working to “disrupt” philanthropy via crowdfunding, collaborating, and grassroots partnerships. “Studies have shown,” says Catalytic Women’s founder Melanie Hamburger, “that when you give women a chance they reinvest in education, family, and the community.”

You may have heard the statistics. You may have heard Hillary Clinton’s bold claim that empowering women is key to any country’s economic and military stability:

“There is a stimulative and ripple effect that kicks in when women have greater access to jobs and the economic lives of our countries: Greater political stability. Fewer military conflicts. More food. More educational opportunity for children,” Clinton said. “By harnessing the economic potential of all women, we boost opportunity for all people.”

Maybe you’ve hear of exciting projects led by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof (Half the Sky), Nike (The Girl Effect), Oprah and Angelina and Melinda: organizations and women of world-renowned power are reaching a hand back to pull humankind forward through gender equality and opportunity.

2What no one knows, though, is the story I got to hear from the back of the room in the Cisco cafeteria. As the sky grew thick and dark outside floor-to-ceiling windows and inside, fluorescent lights blared on five ordinary people who shared their extraordinary stories.

  • Cassie Chandler runs a healthcare program for 5.4 million microfinance clients in 24 countries for Freedom from Hunger. She’s seen whole communities change when women gain access to adult education, financial management, and family healthcare. She’s used to training local partners on the ground, particularly in Latin America—Cassie’s niche—but tonight, she talks about how Nandini in rural India transformed herself from a struggling small farmer who bought seeds through a loan shark, to a trained pharmacy vendor and village educator whom her neighbors trust enough to call “Dr. Mom.”
  • Kimberly Ellis works within a 14-state network to get more Democratic women elected into office via Emerge California. Having graduated from the program she now leads, Kimberly also serves as commissioner for community development in Richmond, CA. She believes many civic problems could be solved through balanced political gender representation (currently 25%), and that all families could benefit significantly through equal-pay salaries (currently ranging from 77 cents on the dollar to 64 cents for Black and 55 cents for Latina women). Simply put, she just wants parity. “If you don’t have a seat at the table,” Kimberly quips, “you’re probably on the menu.”
  • Steve Schwartz cofounded a nonprofit that creates jobs for ultra-poor women in India. “Handouts don’t work,” he says, “because what our clients want is long-term, sustainable, dignified employment. He says in just over two years, Upaya Social Ventures has helped three businesses (dairy farming, weaving, and domestic labor) create 506 jobs; and they’ve made a very public pledge at the Clinton Global Initiative to double their numbers in the next year. Steve served in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa with his wife and walked the city slums and country paths in India with the women he now considers his reason for being. He shows a picture of an employee, Poonam, spinning thread from tussar silk. Poonam’s family tripled their income and jumped from one to three meals a day when she got her new—permanent—job. “Poonam learned the fine art of silk weaving from her grandmother, who learned it from her grandmother,” Steve tells us. “Now she’s got a reliable income stream at a fair wage.”
  • Brynne Speizer’s mission with Opportunity Fund is to connect California’s working poor with access to savings, loans, and business and financial training. Rattling off statistics on poverty and unemployment, she halts mid-sentence. “Doesn’t it make you mad?! It makes me mad, that in this beautiful place where we live, life is so hard for millions of families.” She talks about two clients who inspired her: Kiara, an East Palo Alto student who opened a savings account and socked away $6,000 to help realize her dream of attending Wesleyan College; and Tina, a restaurant owner famous for her barbecue who almost lost everything in the Great Recession. She took out a loan (average small business = $7,000) and is now cooking up a storm. “All these women need is access,” Brynne stresses.
  • Cristi Hegranes landed her dream job as an international journalist in Nepal, but it only took her two weeks to realize she was all wrong for the job. “Local women had everything I didn’t,” she said, “except access to a major publishing outlet.” She created the Global Press Institute to train and employ women to write quality investigative, activist features. Currently, Cristi manages 26 news bureaus and employs 135 women, and she’s building revenue by distributing their stories through such outlets as National Public Radio and Reuters. Cristi talks about Rwandan reporters Gloriose  and Noella, whose award-winning series on sexual predators has influenced new legislation there. Here with Cristi is one of her first employees (2009) and the embodiment of her ambition—Manori of Sri Lanka, who just got promoted from reporter to regional editor for Asia. “We’ve asked, and 98% of the women who’ve been through our training program report feeling empowered as a result.” And the percentage employed by GPI?—100.

1My family and I feel incredibly lucky to be the wind beneath the wings of 29 organizations working to create equal opportunity for all, in the U.S. and around the world. Join us by getting to know our world-changing partners at Skees Family Foundation. Whatever your gender, log onto Catalytic Women, join a local event or giving circle, and share your story. Let’s talk about what ordinary folks can do. And let’s take up more space and volume than the corner of a corporate cafeteria: Between us, we could have stories to fill a coliseum.

SuzanneSuzanne Skees works in international development as director of the Skees Family Foundation, which supports innovative self-help programs in the U.S. and 37 developing countries in education, enterprise, health, infrastructure, and peace.  Writing for online and print media, Skees shares stories of what can happen when students and survivors, entrepreneurs and families, receive tools they need to build a life of choice from such organizations as Dayton Christian Center,Dayton International Peace MuseumFreedom from Hunger, Jamii Bora, Karimu,PBMR Hub Center for Chicago Youth, Summer SearchThe Ihangane Project, The School Fund, Summer Search, Upaya Social VenturesV-Day, and Vittana.

Volunteering. It’s never too early to start

What’s the best age to start piano lessons? How about gymnastics or soccer? If you’ve seen toddlers meandering around a soccer field, staring at the sky, you know that some parents think it’s never too early to begin.

volunteeringAs parents and role models, we want to expose our children to all sorts of enriching experiences, and one of the most rewarding is volunteering. There are three powerful reasons I think middle school is an ideal time to introduce kids to the concept of serving others.

Volunteering is an excellent way for middle-school students to learn about their community and themselves. They are mature enough to understand the concept of civic responsibility, the value of helping less fortunate people and the significance of donating time, money and service.

Second, adolescence is typically a time of an intense focus on oneself and peers. It’s a challenging time of self-discovery. Volunteering eases that relentless inward glare by encouraging tweens and teens to connect with people of different ages, experiences, backgrounds and values.

Finally, a solid foundation of volunteer experience that begins in middle school shapes a young volunteer’s view of the world and amazes college admissions officers. One important way to tell a student’s story in an interview or college application is through lessons learned in volunteering and community service.

Jeannie Burlowski (http://www.bebrilliantincollege.com), an expert advisor on college applications that stand out from the pack, offers vital advice about how to approach middle school: “Begin early to create the long record of service and leadership so important for future scholarship applications.” She says the middle school years are not too early to begin keeping a written record of community service hours. If you Google for “community service forms”, you will find dozens of links to record-keeping forms.

And remember that volunteering as a family is also a terrific way to learn about organizations in your community and make them part of your family charitable giving strategy. That strategy can be as simple as a change jar in the kitchen where everyone drops spare coins and bills that are regularly donated to the local homeless shelter.

Here are four on the San Francisco Peninsula that offer volunteer opportunities geared specifically for kids:

The Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto is planning its seventh annual Mitzvah Day (to take place on Martin Luther King Day, January 20, 2014). If you have suggestions or want to get involved, please contact Luba Palant at (650) 223-8656 or lpalant@paloaltojcc.org.

My New Red Shoes has a mission all kids can relate to: to provide new clothing and back-to-school shoes for low-income kids. The Burlingame-based non-profit offers a number of service events centered on families, including kids as young as four years old: http://www.mynewredshoes.org/get-involved.html

Home & Hope (formerly Interfaith Hospitality Network) provides homeless families with temporary housing at local churches and synagogues. Families can volunteer to cook and serve dinner at the host site, play with the younger guests and even babysit. Find out more at http://homeandhope.net.

There With Care provides fundamental support services to families and children facing critical illness during medical crisis. Volunteer opportunities range from visiting children in the hospital to sorting in-kind donations at the TWC office in Menlo Park. Learn more at http://bayarea.therewithcare.org/.

I’d love to hear about how you encourage your children of all ages to volunteer and take part in improving their community. What volunteer work is meaningful to your family, and how do your kids participate?

It’s never too early to start.

070d8d0Emilie Goldman began her career in personal finance in 1993 as an investment analyst. In 2003, she earned the CFP® designation from the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. Emilie was a partner with Blue Oak Capital in Palo Alto, chief wealth management officer with Sand Hill Advisors in Palo Alto, and a portfolio manager with Hutchinson Capital in Larkspur, CO. She holds an MBA from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and received her undergraduate degree in finance and marketing from the University of Denver. She is a Certified Financial Planner TM professional and a Chartered Financial Analyst. She is a member of the CFA Institute, the Securities Analysts of San Francisco, and the Financial Planning Association.