The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Canada Steps Out Front on Funding Feminist Futures Worldwide

equality fundThis week, Canada launched the Equality Fund, the world’s largest global fund for women’s and trans* equality movements. Its tagline, “Funding Feminist Futures,” clearly conveys the fund’s purpose. Having already mobilized $100 million worth of initial investments to accompany a $300 million multi-year funding award from the Government of Canada, the consortium-led fund is slated to mobilize at least $1 billion over 15 years. Members of this consortium include the MATCH International Women’s Fund, the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), Calvert Impact Capital, the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Community Foundations of Canada (CFC), Philanthropy Advancing Women’s Human Rights (PAWHR), Toronto Foundation, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Yaletown Partners, World University Service of Canada (WUSC), and Oxfam Canada. This diverse collaboration reflects a holistic and strategic multi-sectoral approach to ending gender inequality sustainably around the globe.

Leading feminist funders are expressing enthusiasm and characterizing the Equality Fund and as a monumental move forward. As Musimbi Kanyoro, outgoing CEO of the Global Fund for Women, stated, “We all celebrate the Equality Fund and the leadership of MATCH International, with solidarity support from all women’s funds. This is a game-changer.” The Global Fund for Women has seen firsthand the critical role that feminist funds play in ensuring the survival and growth of grassroots women’s funds and movements. Noting this history, Kanyoro reflected, “It should have come sooner, but we are on a new trajectory of recognition for women’s funds.” Incoming CEO Latanya Mapp Frett opined, “The Equality Fund recognizes that women know best how to solve problems for themselves and for their communities, and putting resources in the hands of women funding women will ensure that violations of women’s human rights will soon be part of our past.”

Abigail Burgesson, Special Programmes Officer at the African Women’s Development Fund, who just completed her term of service as a member of the Wellesley Centers for Women’s Council of Advisors, played a key role in the evolution of the Equality Fund by helping to bring the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) aboard, and echoed Kanyoro’s and Frett’s assessments: “The Equality Fund is a real game-changer because it is designed and managed by feminists who have advocated for this for a long time.” Recounting her time spent working on the initiative, Abigail related, “I saw the resilience and strength of the feminist spirit at work, which crafted the entire architecture of this novel and unprecedented fund.” She further went on to say, “It was women who created this historic moment in our lives.”

We at the Wellesley Centers for Women applaud this innovative initiative and look forward to advancing gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing in concert with like-minded organizations and individuals all over the world. We each have a role to play, and it takes all of us!

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and a member of the Board of Directors of the Global Fund for Women.

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Seeing the Wealth in People: The Power of Youth in Liberia

Tina Wollie, Hon. Cynthia Blandford, Dr. Layli Maparyan, Mama Tormah of Traditional Women United for Peace. Photo credit: Tina WollieRecently I returned from Liberia, which USA Today just rated as the poorest nation in the world. It was a bittersweet trip, because Liberia is a land I love, and it wasn’t always at the bottom of this list. And yet, over the ten years I have been connected to Liberia—through work to advance women and higher education, as well as through marriage and family—and particularly over the last year, I have witnessed changes in people’s fortunes, for better and for worse.

Liberia is a small country of about 5 million people—not much bigger population-wise than Greater Boston, where I live now, and not much bigger land-wise than where I came from, namely, the state of Georgia. It is the kind of country where “almost everybody knows each other” and a person—from villager to government minister—is never more than a few degrees of separation from anyone else. It is the kind of country, then, that could easily serve as a laboratory for effective social change and a test model for various human wellbeing schemes.

Many such schemes were launched, with mixed success, during the historic two-term administration of Liberia’s first woman and first post-war head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. President Sirleaf brought women to center stage, and brought the world’s spotlight to the possibilities for gender development in Liberia. It was a thrilling ride to watch people, nations, and organizations from around the globe invest in Liberia and President Sirleaf’s great experiment. There are still some residuals from that effort today, although some of the initial gains have also been eroded.

Last year, after closely watched yet ultimately peaceful elections towards the end of 2017, Liberia welcomed a new government. H.E. George Manneh Weah, a former soccer star who was the 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year and who previously held a senatorial position in the Liberian legislature, is now President of Liberia, representing a different party than his predecessor. Notably, he has made youth a priority of his administration—a shrewd choice given that youth were among his most enthusiastic supporters and youth now comprise about 65 percent of Liberia’s overall population. For context, the African continent as a whole is expected to have around 1 billion youth by 2050.

Youth are a source of creativity and innovation in every society, but also a population in need of investment and guidance all over the world. Could Liberia become a laboratory for forward-thinking youth programs under President Weah, just as it was a laboratory for innovative approaches to gender issues under President Sirleaf? This question was on my mind as I toured the country, meeting with government officials, new university leadership, representatives of various NGOs and community-based organizations, as well as many youth themselves.

Some prognosticators see danger in Africa’s youth bulge, focusing on a supposed causal chain that links youth unemployment to youth unrest, and, ultimately, youth radicalization. In the gender arena, these same prognosticators tend to raise the alarm about adolescent sexuality and parenthood, particularly as they pose risks to girls’ educational outcomes and correlate with sexual violence and exploitation of girls and young women. These are all very real issues, but they are only one lens through which to view the realities and futures of African youth.

Liberia's Minister of Youth & Sports, Hon. Zeogar Wilson, affixes a WCW bumper sticker to his official vehicleAnother view—one that I would like to align with the research and action of the Wellesley Centers for Women—is one that sees (and contributes to) hope, promise, and enthusiasm in and with regard to African youth and their prospects. An approach that asks African youth for their own perspectives and aspirations, one that embraces African youth and their insights and talents, and one that takes the historical, political, economic, structural, and systemic context of African youths’ lives into consideration—and, at times, challenges those—is the one I would like not only to endorse, but to operationalize. It is an approach that sees the wealth in people, not just one that sees the poverty created by their circumstances. It is also an approach that cultivates African youth leadership.

One of the most touching moments of my entire trip was when I met with the Minister of Youth and Sports, the Hon. Zeogar Wilson, along with a number of his deputies and the Honorary Consul General for Liberia, Hon. Cynthia Blandford, with whom I was traveling. During the meeting, I handed Minister Wilson a folder of information about the Wellesley Centers for Women. Inside the folder was a large bumper sticker emblazoned with WCW’s famous motto, “A World That Is Good for Women Is Good for Everyone.”™ As soon as our meeting was over, Minister Wilson said, “I’m putting this on my car immediately,” and we all walked together to his official vehicle, where he affixed the sticker for all to see.

Even though our meeting had focused on youth issues, the conversation had resonated with themes of equality and empowerment—for boys, for girls, for women, for all. Minister Wilson “recognized the connections,” as intersectionality theorists are perpetually encouraging us to do. His whole team was clear that youth issues encompass gender issues, and approaches to youth empowerment are enhanced by maintaining a gender lens. I left feeling good that the past had informed the future for Liberia’s youth.

People often ask me, as I scout the world for international partnership opportunities for WCW, why I pick particular countries over others. Isn’t China more important, they ask? Isn’t Europe easier? Why not just stick close to home, when there’s so much going on in the States? But my answer is always this: We go where the need is greatest and where the opportunities for practical, felt impact are most immediate. We look for the places that have been overlooked, and the places where the opportunity to widen the circle is greatest. We also go to the places where we have the greatest potential to be transformed by what we learn.

As an established, highly-successful, economically secure women- and gender-focused research institute in the global North, WCW must use the tools at our disposal to tip the scales in the direction of global equality—not only gender equality, but also equality with regard to the power of data to shape the fortunes of populations and nations. This is the kind of partnership we are wedded to, and the kind of partnership that comes from seeing the wealth in people where others only see poverty.

Layli Maparyan is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. An expert on Womanism, her scholar-activist work interweaves threads from the social sciences and the critical disciplines, incorporating basic and applied platforms around a common theme of integrating identities and communities in peaceable, ecologically sound, and self-actualizing ways.

Photo 1: Liberia's young women are in the forefront of change. L to R: Tina Wollie, Hon. Cynthia Blandford, Dr. Layli Maparyan, Mama Tormah of Traditional Women United for Peace. Photo credit: Tina Wollie.

Photo 2: Liberia's Minister of Youth & Sports, Hon. Zeogar Wilson, affixes a WCW bumper sticker to his official vehicle. Photo credit: Author.

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Reflections on Charlottesville

Why has it been so hard to eliminate racism in the United States, despite concerted and valiant efforts, ever-growing numbers of people of goodwill, lots of good thinking about the issue, and some clear-cut progress and gains over the years? As a researcher and director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, a research institute with a demonstrated commitment to gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing in all its forms, including ending racism, my mind turns more to questions than answers today, in the wake of what happened in Charlottesville this past Saturday, August 12.

Questions I am asking include things like: What are we doing that we think is working but which actually isn’t working? What do we need to do that we aren’t doing that would actually work? Which of the things we are actually doing do work and just need more time or more people involved? And, in what ways do we need to more deeply operationalize things we know to be true but tend to abandon to the realm of platitudes? How can we more effectively move from intellectual knowledge to concrete action to measurable social transformation?

Last week, I spent a week in retreat with members of my religious community, the Baha’í Faith. For two of those days, I led discussions addressing the elimination of racism, which Baha’ís refer to as “The Most Challenging Issue.” We gave thought to the inner (self-focused) and outer (public) actions and practices needed to truly eliminate racism, and we asked some hard questions about our own practices and the practices of others in the social change field. We reflected deeply on passages such as these, penned 1938 by Shoghi Effendi, who was charged with guarding the unity of our Faith as it grew from local to global:

“Freedom from racial prejudice, in any of its forms, should, at such a time as this when an increasingly large section of the human race is falling a victim to its devastating ferocity, be adopted as the watchword of the entire body of the American believers, in whichever state they reside, in whatever circles they move, whatever their age, traditions, tastes, and habits. It should be consistently demonstrated in every phase of their activity and life, whether in the Bahá’í community or outside it, in public or in private, formally as well as informally, individually as well as in their official capacity as organized groups, committees and Assemblies. It should be deliberately cultivated through the various and everyday opportunities, no matter how insignificant, that present themselves, whether in their homes, their business offices, their schools and colleges, their social parties and recreation grounds, their Bahá’í meetings, conferences, conventions, summer schools and Assemblies.”

“A tremendous effort is required by both races if their outlook, their manners, and conduct are to reflect, in this darkened age, the spirit and teachings of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh. Casting away once and for all the fallacious doctrine of racial superiority, with all its attendant evils, confusion, and miseries, and welcoming and encouraging the intermixture of races, and tearing down the barriers that now divide them, they should each endeavor, day and night, to fulfill their particular responsibilities in the common task which so urgently faces them. Let them, while each is attempting to contribute its share to the solution of this perplexing problem, call to mind the warnings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and visualize, while there is yet time, the dire consequences that must follow if this challenging and unhappy situation that faces the entire American nation is not definitely remedied.”

Our takeaways from these days of contemplation and discourse left us poignantly aware that inner and outer work must constantly run parallel, allowing us to transform into beings who actually desire and actively create justice, peace, and harmony, from the level of our deepest gut feelings to the level of our highest spiritual aspirations. To think all the “right” thoughts and hold all the “right” values is not enough, because the transformation of society requires so much more.

As a developmental psychologist who works from an ecological systems theory framework, I know that interventions on racism must take place at every level from the most interior to the most distal, in order to be successful and sustainable. Yet, as a lifelong scholar of both African American studies and women’s studies, I also know that we must perpetually refresh our understanding about what kinds of social movement methods work, and we must stay tuned in to when and where they need refinement. Sometimes, our assumptions about what kinds of methods work and why they work (or don’t work) need to be questioned.

As a developmental psychologist, I also can confirm that babies don’t enter the world knowing hate. Hate is learned by imitation, but it is also absorbed passively through language and imagery, and stimulated by deprivation, hardship, ridicule, and trauma. While unchecked power and privilege, often conferred by birth circumstances, also have the power to accelerate hate, these alone are not sufficient to create it. There is a complex calculus to how hate is created – which means there is also a complex calculus to how it can and must be uncreated. We are sophisticated enough now as a society to figure this out and execute on that knowledge.

A big part of my talk at the Baha’í retreat centered on the politics of invitation, the notion of inviting others to a better world, as differentiated from the politics of opposition, which rely on fighting and struggling our way to a better world. If unity is the goal, opposition cannot logically be the means to that end. And we now know that, psychologically, opposition to people and their views only entrenches them further in their views. So, what other methods might we consider if we want to eradicate racism and promote justice, peace, commonweal, and amity?

All of us can take small everyday actions to eradicate racism, and some of us can take sweeping, expansive actions to catalyze the eradication of racism on a broad scale. What’s stopping us? Please share your questions and thoughts about how we can genuinely eliminate racism from our country and the world!

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann '67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.

 

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Year-End Reflections: 2016

2016 was an intense year. The Wall Street Journal’s Year in Review captured the feeling quite well with this headline: “The World Order in Flux.” It has felt that way not only in the geopolitical sphere, but also in the ecological sphere and the psychological sphere. It has been a year of wild ups and downs, surprises both good and bad, and looming unknowns. I don’t really think that this year was an exception, however; rather, I think it is reflective of an accelerating trend. I don’t expect 2017 to be any less eventful or easier on the soul. Rather, I think this year has – and next year also will – require everything we have to steer the world aright. But steer we must! There’s no letting go of the wheel or the reins!

The year was dominated by election politics, the plight of refugees, the horrors of war and the toll of extremism, increasing intolerance around the world, and accelerating climate change. Quieter but equally important stories were about the suffering of the economically strained as well as the destitute, the worsening crisis of addiction and the medical and mental health struggles behind it, and the erosion of women’s rights and freedoms in the U.S. and around the world. Quieter still has been the story of the erosion of the boundaries of truth and reality, especially (but not only) in the media, as evidenced by the way the polls let us down and also the fake news explosion, leading up to the selection by the Oxford Dictionary of “post-truth” as the word of the year…

We are in many respects losing touch with the foundations of a world we thought we knew, but apparently did not. My guess is that this process will continue, exposing the illogic of a flawed logic that has governed world affairs for a very long time – a logic that fails to put gender equality, social justice, and, more plainly, human wellbeing at the center of how we do things. The current scenario will plague us until we recalibrate accordingly.

The other night I was thinking about how many people feel immobilized by impending changes in the U.S. government. I thought to myself, “If I was president, what would I do?” Then I realized that that is a question we all need to ask ourselves. And then, rather than following that thought with “I’m not president, so those things will never happen,” we should follow it with “OK, now how can I work for those things anyway, even though I’m not president?” I was reminded of the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the gay liberation movement, and other powerful social movements around the world, like the decolonial and independence movements of formerly colonized countries, the anti-apartheid movement, various labor movements, peace movements, land rights movements, and other human rights movements. These were all movements of people who worked for their agenda anyway, even though they were not president, not heads of state. They were not just partisan political movements, but they were cross-cutting movements by people of conscience for equality, social justice, and human wellbeing.

The bottom line is this: We can never forget that we ARE a super-power in our own right, if we choose to be. So, in 2017, let’s choose it!

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D. is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann '67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.

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